Breaking down the 2019 playoffs


There will be a new world champion in a month because the Red Sox, last year’s world champion, didn’t make the postseason. That will make it 19 years since the last repeat world champion, which might underscore how good the Yankees of the late 1990s were, since they did twice what no one has done since.

Who will be the new champion? Here’s a breakdown of the 10 playoffs teams, in order of most likely to be the last wasting bad Champagne.

  1. Houston: Why they’ll win: They have starters who will be 1-2 in the Cy Young race, and Zack Greinke, who nearly threw a no-hitter his last time out, at No. 3. Ten Astros combined for a 5.50 ERA as fifth starter, and threw 47 homers in 242 innings. Fifth starters are extinct in the postseason. Why they won’t: Because Carlos Correa, who had ribs fractured by the world’s most careless masseuse, now has a bad back. Correa homered 21 times in 75 games this year, but he’s not sure to play. Just 25, Correa is already making Troy Tulowitzki look like a model of durability.  Unsung hero: If Correa can’t play, it might mean more at-bats for Kyle Tucker, who has only a .206 average in 144 plate appearances. Tucker is 22, but he’s a first-round draft pick who homered 34 times and stole 30 bases at AAA this year.
  2. N.Y. Yankees: Why they’ll win: Because they scored 943 runs, more than anyone in baseball, more than any team since the 2007 Yankees scored 968, and did so with Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez missing a third of the season, Didi Gregorius missing half of it, and Giancarlo Stanton and Miguel Andujar missing almost all of it. But for those injuries, the Yankees might have scored 1,000 runs, and everyone but Andujar will play in the playoffs. Why they won’t: Because midseason acquisition Edwin Encarnacion and prime offseason pitching acquisition James Paxton might not, the latest ailments of an injury-filled season. The Yankees’ 2019 uniform shouldn’t be pinstripes but a hospital gown. Paxton’s absence would hurt, especially with Domingo German out for the postseason because of an alleged domestic assault. The last seven starts were Paxton’s best stretch of the season — in 36.1 innings before being pulled from his last start, he allowed just 17 hits, five earned runs and one homer, and lowered his ERA from 4.53 to 3.73. From Paxton to J.A. Happ, last year’s postseason No. 1 starter, is a big gap. Unsung hero: If Encarnacion is limited, it might mean more at-bats for Mike Ford, who slugged .559 and hit 12 homers in 143 at-bats, 11 in August and September. You don’t have to have attended Princeton, as Ford did, to know those are good numbers.
  3. Los Angeles Dodgers: Why they’ll win: Because the Dodgers have the best pitching — their 3.37 ERA is more than a quarter of a run better than the No. 2 Rays — and they were fifth in runs scored, and first in the NL. Without a DH, the Dodgers scored just 57 runs fewer than the Yankees, and the Dodgers were better at run prevention than their old rivals by the length of the history that binds them. Why they won’t: Same reason as always: Kenley Jansen and the bullpen. Dodgers relievers had a 5.87 ERA in last year’s World Series, and Jansen blew leads in Games 3 and 4. This season was Jansen’s worst of his 10 in the majors: his 3.71 ERA was 1.36 above his career 2.35, and his .653 OPS was 116 points above his career .537. And Dave Roberts, who drew criticism from Dodgers fans and President Trump, is back to manage, or mis-manage, the bullpen. Unsung hero: Gavin Lux was playing shortstop in Class AA as recently as June. But then he was promoted to AAA, hit .392 there, and became a major leaguer with the bad break — a hairline fracture of Max Muncy’s wrist — the Dodgers’ depth turned into a good one. No team has done a better job integrating young talent like Lux and catcher Will Smith with an older nucleus, and it’s one big reason why the Dodgers are seeking a third straight pennant.
  4. Atlanta: Why they’ll win: Because no team has a greater concentration of talent. In Ronald Acuna, Josh Donaldson, Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies, the Braves’ first four hitters combined for 140 homers, 402 RBIs and 438 runs scored, and all four were in the top 18 NL position players in WAR. No other team had more than two. Why they won’t: Because the three pitchers they acquired at the trade deadline to help their bullpen — Mark Melancon, Shane Greene and Chris Martin — didn’t. They combined for a 3.98 ERA, and Melancon, the best of them at 3.86, is closing. Unsung hero: Mike Foltynewicz was the Braves’ ace last year, but had to be farmed in June with his ERA at 6.37. Since his return Foltynewicz has pitched as he did last year — a 2.65 ERA and just 5 earned runs in 24 September innings.
  5. Washington: Why they’ll win: Because except for the Dodgers, no team has better pitching. In Stephen Strasburg (6th with 251), Max Scherzer (8th with 243) and Patrick Corbin (tied for 10th with 238), the Nats have three of MLB’s top 10 in strikeouts, and Scherzer made only four starts in July and August. His 12.69 strikeouts per nine innings were second in MLB. Why they won’t: Like the Dodgers, the same reason they never do — the bullpen. Daniel Hudson is the closer, and though he closed the season with five hitless seasons and hasn’t allowed an earned run since Aug. 30, the only postseason closer to have a worse season was Melancon. The first seven innings of most games aren’t the ones likely to beat the Nats. The last two are. The only way the bullpen could be worse were if Redskins owner Daniel Snyder were in charge of it. Unsung hero: The bullpen has lost all four postseason games in which the Nats were eliminated and blown leads in two of them; in consecutive seasons Scherzer started and lost the lead in the seventh inning of one Game 5 (2016) and then relieved and lost another (2017). Enter Tanner Rainey. He was ninth in MLB in strikeouts per nine innings (13.78) and after walking 36 batters in his first 41 innings, he walked just two and allowed only three hits in his last 7.1 and fanned 13. A month ago he might not have made the Nats’ postseason roster; beginning Tuesday he might be pitching important innings, which tells you all you need to know about the instability that threatens the Nats when the starter is relieved.
  6. Minnesota: Why they’ll win: They hit home runs, more than anyone, and by more batters than any team. The Twins’ 307 home runs were the most in history, and one more than the Yankees. The Twins also had five 30-home run hitters (Nelson Cruz, Mitch Garver, Eddie Rosario, Miguel Sano and Max Kepler), another record, eight 20-home run hitters (add Jorge Polanco, Jonathon Schoop and C.J. Cron), and 11 who hit more than 10 (add Byron Buxton, Marwin Gonzalez and Jason Castro). Why they won’t: Because Luis Arraez was hurt in the final weekend. Arraez homered only four times, but he can play anywhere, hit .334 and has a .399 on-base percentage. Arraez doesn’t hit many home runs, but he’s often on base when someone does. Unsung hero: Sergio Romo wore a T-shirt to the Giants’ 2012 parade that said “I Just Look Illegal.” It’s worth rooting for the Twins just to see what Romo wears if he goes to the White House. He can still pitch, too, if his 3.43 ERA, 20 saves and 60 strikeouts in 60.1 innings are any indication.
  7. St. Louis: Why they’ll win: Because they have the best pitcher in the NL over the second half of 2019. After Jack Flaherty was knocked out in the fifth inning in Seattle on July 2 and his ERA spiked to 4.90, he had a Gibson like second half. And I don’t mean Kyle. Over his next 16 starts, Flaherty pitched 106.1 innings and allowed only 50 hits, 24 walks and 11 earned runs. That’s an 0.93 ERA and a .424 OPS over his final 15 starts. After throwing 19 home runs in his first 17 starts, he threw 6 in his final 16. That should concern the Braves, who, even with Flaherty having to pitch on Sunday, might see him twice in five games. Why they won’t: Because they have the worst offensive team in the playoffs. They were 20th in runs scored, 23rd in slugging percentage and 24th in home runs. Can a team which hit fewer home runs than the 108-loss Orioles win the World Series in the year of the home run? Unsung hero: The Cardinals made 133 errors last season — the most in baseball — and trimmed that to 66 this season — the fewest in MLB. That could be from adding Paul Goldschmidt at first, or subtracting Jose Martinez from the lineup more often or Matt Carpenter’s injury creating an opening for Tommy Edman (.304 average, .500 slugging, 1.1 defensive WAR). But the Cardinals’ improved run prevention — first in fielding, first in bullpen OPS against and Flaherty every fifth day — are why they’re in the playoffs and the Cubs are not.
  8. Oakland: Why they’ll win: Because they’re due. In this century the A’s are 15-24 in the postseason, but 0-8 in deciding games, including two wild-card losses. That’s like a batter leading the league in exit velocity but hitting .250 because their average on balls in play is so low. Nobody’s luck is that bad. Except, apparently, the A’s. Why they won’t: Because anything the A’s can do, multiple teams in the AL can do better. The A’s are eighth in MLB in runs scored. The Yankees, Twins and Astros score more. The A’s are sixth in MLB in team ERA. The Rays and Astros are better. The A’s won 97 games. Three teams in the AL won 100. Unsung hero: Jesus Luzardo pitched only 12 innings this season in the majors because of injuries, but he allowed only five hits, fanned 16 and had a 1.50 ERA. That’s no surprise given his 2.53 minor-league ERA as a starter, but he’s thrown only 55 innings this year with a strikeout walk ratio of 6.5:1. He gives the A’s a fresh reliever who can throw multiple innings and get lefties and righties out.
  9. Tampa Bay: Why they’ll win: Because the Rays have the best ERA in the AL (3.65), and with their frequent use of openers, Kevin Cash managed the regular season as if it were a best-of-five series. Relievers pitched 772 innings for the Rays this season, 10.1 more than the Angels, who had only one 100-inning pitcher (Trevor Cahill at 102.1), and more than 100 more than any other playoff team. They pitched them well, too: their 3.66 ERA was No. 1 in MLB. The style of the Rays’ play won’t change. Why they won’t: Because it seems no one in the Tampa Bay area cares if they do. It’s sad to think that even if sports fans in Montreal care more who the Canadiens’ third goalie is than they would about the Rays, that’s still more than fans in Tampa Bay do. The Rays were 29th in attendance this year, with just 1.178 million fans drawn, behind the 108-loss Orioles. That’s not all about the Trop. If the Rays played the Yankees in the ALCS, the teams could cut travel costs and play seven games at Yankee Stadium, and no one would notice much of a difference. Unsung hero: The Mets, who aren’t in the playoffs, released Travis d’Arnaud in May. The Dodgers signed him and d’Arnaud batted once for them before he was sold to the Rays. d’Arnaud had a pretty similar season with the Rays in 2019 as he had with the Mets in 2017, his last healthy one. That might not have helped the Mets, who have Wilson Ramos, as it much as it did the Rays, who improved by 228 points of OPS in d’Arnaud (.782) over feeble .165-hitting Mike Zunino.
  10. Milwaukee: Why they’ll win: Because with Christian Yelich out, no one expects them to. The Brewers went 13-2 after Yelich’s injury, threatening to win the NL Central before losing their last three at Milwaukee. As a former president/baseball owner can testify to, there’s something to be said for “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Why they won’t: Because without Yelich they’re not good enough; they weren’t even good enough with him. The 13-2 was the adrenaline rush of Yelich’s injury. The 0-3 in Colorado was the reality. They were 15th in MLB in runs scored with 130 games of Yelich, 16th in team ERA. Their +3 run differential is the worst of any playoff team, and worse than five teams that didn’t make the playoffs, including the Mets, who were 51 runs better, and the Diamondbacks, who were 67 runs better. Mid-season acquisition Jordan Lyles isn’t good enough to tilt those numbers. Unsung hero: Drew Pomeranz couldn’t make the Red Sox’s postseason roster last season after putting up a 6.08 ERA and he was equally bad for the Giants this season at 2-9 with a 5.68 ERA. But the Brewers traded for him and instead of starting him, as the Giants had, they used Pomeranz almost exclusively out of the bullpen. The result was 26.1 innings of the kind of left-handed relief Josh Hader provides: a 2.39 ERA, 45 strikeouts and a .570 OPS against. It wasn’t enough to save Pomeranz’s season — 4.33 ERA and an .804 OPS against — but it was enough to save the Brewers’.
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