If there’s one key point to take into the MLB playoffs, it’s this: the teams’ records don’t matter. The Cubs aren’t 95-68; they’re 0-0, a team with an average offense, thin bullpen, and a manager who has become Mike Matheny North. The Indians aren’t 91-71 in the weakest division in baseball history; they’re the team that can run four great starting pitchers at you, and back it up with two of the five best players in the American League in their infield, managed by a strong tactician unlikely to make the big mistake.
It’s not that you throw out what we learned over 162 games, but rather, you throw out what no longer matters. The Cubs’ great defense was keyed by the presence of plus defensive shortstop Addison Russell, who won’t play in the postseason as the league investigates accusations of domestic violence made by his ex-wife. Daniel Murphy gets those innings now, with Javier Baez moving to shortstop. It’s a huge defensive downgrade up the middle for a team whose defense, not its pitching, is how it keeps runs off the board.
The Dodgers had to play an extra game to win the NL West in part because they were ravaged by injuries and left shorthanded for most of the year. Now, Clayton Kershaw, Justin Turner, and Hyun-Jin Ryu are all healthy, and Corey Seager has been replaced by Manny Machado. The overall stats aren’t going to accurately reflect the team that takes the field in Chavez Ravine on Thursday night. With the Nationals missing the playoffs, the Dodgers have the most talent of any NL playoff team, and despite having to play that tiebreaking Game 163, are the clear favorites to get back to the World Series.
Among the biggest differences, when you look at playoff versus regular-season teams, are the Braves’ pitching, which will include Kevin Gausman in the playoff rotation, and Brad Brach and Jonny Venters in the bullpen. The Braves’ won an NL East in which no other team won 83 games, bolstered by the incredible health of their position players and rotation surprises like Anibal Sanchez and Sean Newcomb. Their midseason trade pickups were critical, however, combining for a 2.69 ERA in 103 innings. They’ll make up a quarter of the playoff staff and as many as 30% of the team’s October innings pitched.
The Indians, as they did during their World Series run two years ago, can reduce their postseason pitching staff to a small number of great pitchers. Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, and Mike Clevinger combined for a 2.92 ERA across more than half of the Indians’ total innings pitched. Look for Terry Francona to lean heavily on this group and lefty reliever Brad Hand (2.28 in 27 2/3 IP for Cleveland), and less on Cody Allen and Andrew Miller, both of whom saw their effectiveness hindered by high walk rates in 2018.
The Yankees and A’s square off in the AL Wild Card Game. Whichever team advances will become the playoff team most likely to use its bullpen for more than half its playoff innings. The A’s will start the postseason with a bullpen game, and given their rotation issues — their entire Opening Day rotation ended up on the disabled list — they’ll be looking to get their games to their deep pen as soon as possible. Bob Melvin will work backwards from Blake Treinen, who had the lowest ERA in baseball history, 0.78, for any pitcher with at least 75 innings pitcher, through Jeurys Familia, and Shawn Kelley, and Fernando Rodney, and Ryan Buchter, picking from an assortment of power relievers asked to get three outs at a time.
The Yankees have better starting pitching options, with Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, and J.A. Happ, but they too are loaded in the pen, especially with mid-season pickup Zach Britton throwing his power sinker as well as he did in 2016 with the Orioles. The AL Wild Card Game could be a slog, with both these teams racing to the bullpen and churning through as many as eight pitchers apiece in search of a single win that will advance them into the main bracket. It won’t be entertaining baseball, but it will be as 2018 as it gets.
For all the things that change, however, some will stay the same. The Astros, not the Red Sox, were the best team in baseball this season, and by some measures, one of the best teams ever. They backed up the best pitching staff in baseball with a top-five offense. The bullpen they’ll have when the playoffs begin includes midseason pickups Roberto Osuna and Ryan Pressly, plus 2017 postseason hero Lance McCullers Jr. No team in these playoffs has a greater upside, an ability to go 11-0 or 11-1 through this month. When all is said and done, the Astros will, for the second straight season, be the ones wearing champagne.
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