MLB: American League Playoff Preview

Cleveland Indians (102-60)

Do you remember that time earlier in the season when the Cleveland Indians seemed to be suffering from “World Series Hangover Syndrome”?   When they woke up on June 17, 2017, they were 33-31, one game behind the upstart Minnesota Twins for the division lead.    They swept a double-header that day in Minnesota, and never again lost control of the division.

Reasons for hope:  The Indians scored the fifth most runs in baseball, while pitching to the lowest ERA in the game.  This was the first time since the 2012 Tampa Bay Rays that an American League team led all of baseball in ERA.  They also led baseball in strikeouts, and least home runs allowed.   While many teams either have a great bullpen or a great rotation, the Indians were #2 behind the Dodgers in starter’s ERA and were the only team in baseball with a bullpen ERA under 3.00.   They boast a legitimate Cy Young Award contender in Corey Kluber (2.25 ERA in 203.2 innings), with Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer right behind.   All three of these starters struck out more than a batter per inning.   In the bullpen, Andrew Miller battled a few injuries this season, but is still one of the top relievers in baseball.   His ability to pitch in any role makes him dangerous, and with Cody Allen at the end of the game, the Indians can shorten any playoff game they feel is necessary with these two relievers alone.  The supporting cast has also been solid, if not widely known.

Offensively, they have a surprise MVP candidate (Jose Ramirez) plus one of the best all-around players in the game (Francisco Lindor).   Both young superstars were members of last year’s team, so the spotlight should not overwhelm them.  Veteran run producers Edwin Encarnacion and Jay Bruce keep the middle of the lineup balanced.  Bruce was one of the better late-season acquisitions (from the Mets), though he did slow down a bit towards the end of his Indians tenure.

Reasons to mope:   The underbelly of the bullpen was fantastic this season, but with names like Nick Goody, Tyler Olson, and Zach McAllister acting as main cogs underneath Allen and Miller, it could give the Indians some pause in the middle innings.   In the playoffs, this typically is not as big of a deal as you don’t rely as much on these types of pitchers in the biggest situations.   While the offense as a whole is good enough, they are ranked #7 in home runs among all the teams in the tournament,   While they rate very well in fielding percentage, they are more towards the bottom of baseball according to MLB.com’s Defensive Efficiency Ratio.

Bottom line:   As you can see, I am grasping at straws when it comes to the Indians.    Do they play tremendous defense?  Not really, but they don’t need to with their power arms and efficient offense.    They struggled to gain their footing throughout most of the first half, but once they figured it out, there was little to stop them.   The American League is top-heavy with strong teams, and the Indians won the most of them all.  They are the team most capable of winning both 7-5 contests and 2-1 contests.


Houston Astros (101-61)

Consistency.  The Astros had very few valleys throughout the regular season, seemingly coasting their way to 101 victories despite some injuries to the pitching staff.   There are a few division winners that didn’t feel threatened all season long, and the Astros are one of those teams.   When they beat Seattle 3-0 on Opening Day to start the season 1-0, they took over first place in the division.   They never relinquished that lead. The last time they were even tied for the division lead was after Game 5, when they lost to fall to 3-2.

Reasons for hope:   When their offense is clicking on all cylinders (which is most of the time), it can feel as if they are unstoppable.  They led baseball in runs scored (896) while accumulating the least amount of strikeouts in the game (the only team that averaged less than 7.0 K/9).    Let this sink in for a moment:  They had the most runs.  They were second in home runs (behind the Yankees), but still struck out less than every other team in the sport.   The Astros were first in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage.    You can’t speak about this offense without looking at what could be a historical up-the-middle combination with MVP candidate Jose Altuve at second base and would-have-been-MVP-candidate-if-not-for-his-injury Carlos Correa at shortstop.    Eight players had 400 or more plate appearances, and seven of them had an OPS above .800 (only Carlos Beltran, with a dismal .666 showing was under that mark).

On the hill, they are once again led by Dallas Keuchel, who put aside a poor 2016 campaign to compile a 2.90 ERA in 145.2 innings (injuries once again impacted his season).  The August 31st at 11:59.59 trade for Justin Verlander paid huge dividends, as he dominated down the stretch.    In the playoffs, having a solid 1-2 punch at the top is often all you need to put your hands on the trophy.

Reasons to mope:   The only quarrel about their offense is that they attempt to steal too often.  They steal bases at a bad rate, which makes you wonder why they try to do it much at all.    Offenses like this should never give away outs.  Low percentage plays are bad for any team.  They are inexcusable for a team like this.     Two of the five American League teams have ERAs over 4.00 this year, the Minnesota Twins and the Houston Astros.    Teams can manipulate their postseason rosters to keep most of the pitchers that contributed to the bad section of the ERA off the hill, but the Astros (in my opinion) lack a bit of depth and will not be able to afford clunkers from the top part of their rotation, or the end of their bullpen.   Their bullpen ERA ranked 17th in all of baseball, and in the new normal of baseball, that is becoming a tougher way to win.

Bottom line:  The most difficult lineup to deal with in these playoffs, given that they can do everything other than steal bases well.   We have seen less-than-stellar pitching staffs go on big postseason runs before, and if the Astros can do that, they could be an express train that nobody will be able to stop.   Those 101 wins should not be ignored, even if I think they are built better for 162 games than they are for the postseason.


Boston Red Sox (93-69)

The “cardiac kids” of the 2017 playoffs played a ton of extra-inning games this season, and won a vast majority of them.  They went 15-3 in games that are typically considered “toss-ups”, which is essentially what won them the division.

Reasons for hope:    Chris Sale and the bullpen.   With innings pitched by starting pitchers going down every year, it is remarkable that Sale put together a 300+ strikeout season in 2017.   Strikeouts are up across the game, but that is a number that seemed to be more out of reach than ever thanks to bullpen specialization.   The White Sox wanted Sale to get quicker outs in 2016, which didn’t kill his strikeout rate, but certainly impacted it.  With the Red Sox, he went into beast mode.   In an 8-start stretch in April and May, Sale struck out at least 10 batters in each game.    He did it 18 times overall in 32 starts.  His season was ridiculous (and yet still may not be enough for the Cy Young Award!)   As for the bullpen, the Sox were second in baseball to the Indians in best ERA out of the bullpen, led by a fantastic season by Craig Kimbrel, who fashioned a 1.43 ERA and 126 strikeouts in 69 innings.   The rest of the bullpen was solid, and was helped by a deadline trade for reliever Addison Reed.

Mookie Betts‘ numbers were down from his MVP-caliber 2016 campaign, but he was still able to score 100 runs, drive home 100 runs, and put up an .802 OPS while playing a solid right field.  He leads the way on an offense that was a bit down this season.   Christian Vazquez had a solid season (for a catcher), which helped alleviate the offensive problems a bit.

Reasons to mope:   Speaking of that offense, Betts was the only regular to post an OPS over .800.  Think about that:  The Boston Red Sox, who play in an as good of an offensive park as anyone, had only player with an OPS over .800, and no players who were able to hit .300.   Rafael Devers provided a temporary big boost in the middle of the season, but (like most rookies) settled down a bit as the season came to a close.  Xander Bogaerts was disappointing, Andrew Benintendi was solid for a rookie but hardly spectacular, and Mitch Moreland was unable to provide a big boost.   The Red Sox don’t have any bats that had terrible seasons – they just didn’t have any that put together fantastic seasons, which makes them one of the least feared offenses in the playoffs.  (It is the playoffs though, so any team can suddenly get hot)

On the hill, their starting staff after Sale and Drew Pomeranz is mostly blah, as they fashioned an ERA over 4.00 as a starting staff.   Rick Porcello went from a Cy Young Award winner to a pitcher with a 11-17 record and 4.65 ERA.

Bottom line:   The Sox weren’t particularly great in one-run games, but they did win their fair share of dramatic games.  Their offense stumbled through the season, but they don’t strike out much (by 2017 standards), which could help them in the playoffs.   Their key is winning will be to ride Chris Sale, hope the bullpen continues to pitch well, while squeaking in just enough runs to survive and advance.  It has worked for them for most of the season.  They are flawed, and not even close to being the favorite, but underestimate at your own risk.


New York Yankees (91-71)

Nobody ever associates the Yankees with being young and exciting, but here they are.    Their ace and top two offensive players are 25 years of age or younger.  When this team is “on”, they don’t just beat you – they bury you.   The Yankees were a remarkable 37-13 in blowout games (games decided by 5+ runs), meaning they were rarely out of an overwhelming majority of games that they played in.   Their 18-26 mark in one-run games is ultimately what cost this team a division crown.

Reasons for hope:   The young trio I mentioned above (Luis Severino, Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez) all have the ability to take a team on their shoulders and take them far into the playoffs.  Judge and Sanchez combined for 85 home runs, as nine Yankees’ players hit double digits in the home run department.   They led all of baseball in home runs, and all of the American League in walks.    They also led baseball in stolen base percentage, stealing 90-of-112 (80.4%).

On the hill, the Yankees compiled a team ERA under 4.00, led by young ace Luis Severino, who was so terrible in 2016 that he had to fight for a spot in the rotation in 2017.   I will always say that baseball is a funny game, and Severino is proof of that:  From hot shot rookie to completely dead as a sophomore to one of the best pitchers in baseball in Year #3.   Behind Severino is July acquisition Sonny Gray, and a formidable bullpen that features high-octane strikeout pitchers.  The bullpen struck out 653 batters in 538.1 innings, the second most strikeouts to the Houston Astros.    Opponents hit only .204 against the bullpen, the lowest in the majors, beating out the Dodgers by 18 points.  Their best weapon was a pitcher who didn’t seem to have a role when the season began:   Chad Green, who went from #5 starter contender to middle-inning shut down reliever as the season progressed.

Reasons to mope:   There is a lot of youth on this squad, and it makes you wonder how they will react to the playoff atmosphere.  Their three big guns have never played a playoff game before, and while the team is more than just the home run, there is no denying that it is a major part of their offense.    The Yankees lost a lot of games in crazy and heartbreaking style throughout the season, even with their vaunted bullpen.    Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman both had their share of tough stretches, and the Yankees didn’t have many stretches during the season where both were on their “A” game.    As for the starting pitchers, the Yankees will need to hope that Masahiro Tanaka, who was much better in the second half than the first half, can use his last start of the season as a springboard to the playoffs.

Bottom line:  The Yankees are dangerous, but they are also one game away from not even getting a chance to show how dangerous they can be.   Before we hear about how easy the Wild Card game will be, think about the worst team in either league in 2017.  Now think of the best team in either league in 2017.  Look up how those two teams matched up against each other.  I will bet you that the worst team beat the best team at least a few times.  That is the unpredictability of the Wild Card.  The Indians are likely hoping to see the Twins, because the Yankees have the ability to put a major scare into the team I consider the favorites to take the AL crown.


Minnesota Twins (85-77)

The Twins lost 100+ games in 2016.   Throughout 2017, everyone was waiting for them to fall into oblivion.  That includes the front office, who traded away their best relief pitcher and the just-acquired Jaime Garcia at the trade deadline.  The Twins were given up for dead by everyone….before jumping ahead in the 2nd Wild Card race, and never allowing anyone to get close enough to overtake them.   For a big part of the season, the Twins were winning while scoring less runs than they were giving up.   That changed as the season went along, as they were able to get their run differential into the positives.

Reasons for hope:    The Twins figure to be in most games started by veteran Ervin Santana (3.28 ERA in 211.1 innings) and youngster Jose Berrios (3.89 ERA in 145.2 innings).  Like Severino mentioned above, Berrios was terrible in 2016, but was able to put some of the pieces together during his solid 2017 campaign.  Santana is a workhorse veteran who is capable of going deep into games, allowing the Twins to stay away from the underbelly of their bullpen.

Offensively, the Twins can hit some home runs, which could suit them well in a 1-game scenario.  Led by Brian Dozier, who proved that his 2016 breakout wasn’t a fluke, the Twins hit 206 home runs in 2017, despite playing half their games in a park that is pitcher friendly.  They would have hit more if not for an injury to Miguel Sano.   Sano is back and will likely be on the playoff roster.   There may be some questions about whether he is fully back, but it only takes one swing to turn around a playoff game.    Let this sink in for anyone who thinks the Twins are incapable:  They ended the season scoring three fewer runs than the Cleveland Indians.

Reasons to mope:   While every team is dangerous in a short series (and especially in a 1-game scenario), the Twins’ overall depth still leaves a lot to be desired.  They don’t boast a dependable third starter behind Santana and Berrios, and Berrios is a rookie that didn’t even toss 150 innings this year.   Their staff ended with a 4.59 ERA, the worst of all the playoff teams, with only the Colorado Rockies in the vicinity.   The bullpen wasn’t very good (4.40), and they traded their best reliever at the deadline.   There isn’t many pitchers for this squad to turn to if things get dicey, which puts even more reliance on the arm of Santana on Tuesday.  In the tradition of most Twins’ teams throughout the years, this staff is more of a contact staff than a strikeout staff, which further limits their ability to avoid giving up runs when runners get on base.

Bottom line:  I didn’t paint a flattering picture, because it isn’t much of a flattering picture.   They can certainly beat the Yankees in one game -any team can do that.  If they were to advance, however, it is difficult to see how they will be able to match-up with the Indians in the ALDS.   They won a lot of games against the Indians when the team from Cleveland struggled a bit early on, but that is nowhere near where both of these franchises are today.   Of the 10 teams in the 2017 tournament, I would definitely put the longest odds on this squad, which does not in any way make their season less remarkable.   Neither the Yankees nor the Twins were supposed to be here, but the Twins are certainly the biggest Cinderella of them all.   Don’t expect a long stay, but leave the possibility that they will be flying non-stop to Cleveland instead of Minnesota early Wednesday morning.

Predicted Winner:  I am being boring, but no team can match the balance the Cleveland Indians possess.

World Series:   Indians finally get to the end, beating the Diamondbacks in 6 games.

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