The first point I make in this post will probably be the only worthwhile point in what’s sure to be a 3,000 word ramble about the playoffs. Playoff prognostication is a fool’s errand. Unless one has a Pete Rose-like ability to foresee how a game might play out, it’s hard to predict who will win a baseball game. No major league team won 60% of its games this season. The Phillies’ .599 winning percentage was the best in the game. Only the Mariners and Pirates lost more than 60% of their games.
In a best-of-five series, if a team has a 60% chance to win any given game against its opponent, it has a 68.25% chance to win the series. Those are good odds, but realistically, they’ll rarely, if ever, happen in the playoffs, as a .600 team has a roughly 60% chance to beat a .500 team, and a .500 team has no business being in the playoffs in the first place. Let’s say that the Phillies, roughly a .600 team, have a 55% chance on any given day, home or away, of beating a .562 team like the Reds. That gives them a 59.31% chance to win a best-of-five. Not so daunting for a team as inferior as the Reds are to the Phillies. In a toss-up series like the Giants and Braves, if we give San Francisco a generous 52% chance to win any game, they have a 53.74% chance of winning the series, which is like tossing a coin with a drop of water on the heads side and hoping for tails.
Extend the series to seven games and a team favored to win one game 55% of the time has a 60% chance to win the time, while 52% becomes less than 54%. It’s easy to see how the 1990 Reds could topple the mighty A’s (though a sweep was unlikely), or how the 2002 Angels could beat the Yankees on their way to a championship.
It is with this caveat that I present my belief that one of this year’s playoff teams is far better than the other seven. One team’s third best starter is two years removed from a dominant, World Series MVP performance. That same team has one of the best leadoff hitters in the playoffs and two of the game’s most powerful sluggers, and I haven’t even mentioned their best all-around player. So let’s say there’s a 60% chance the Phillies beat any given team in a playoff series this year. That gives them a 21.6% chance to win the World Series, which means there’s a 78.4% chance I have no idea what I’m talking about.
Now onto the match-ups:
Offensive edge goes to the Rangers, particularly if Josh Hamilton comes back healthy.
Starting pitching looked like Tampa’s strength all year, but after Price and Garza, the rotation is full of question marks. Cliff Lee and CJ Wilson match up well in the top two spots, and Colby Lewis and Tommy Hunter have been more reliable than James Shields and Jeff Niemann.
Both clubs are excellent on the basepaths, with the edge going to the run-run Rays.
Defense is not so close, with the Rays (28.4 fielding Wins Above Replacement per Fangraphs) solid all around the infield and swift in the outfield, while the Rangers (11 dWAR) are slow at several positions.
Tampa also has the better bullpen (3.33 ERA, 3.76 FIP), led by the practically unhittable Rafael Soriano and Joaquin Benoit. Texas, however, is surprisingly close (3.38 ERA, 3.99 FIP) despite the bandbox in which they play their home games.
The Rays most significant edge might be their mastery of lefties. If they can beat Lee and Wilson at the Trop, the defense and baserunning could steal one more 3-2 game before their weaknesses are exposed. I think it’s a lot to ask, though, considering the way the offense sleepwalked through September. Questions about MVP candidate Evan Longoria’s health loom larger when no one around him has swung the bats well of late.
Texas in 5
Offensive edge goes to the Yankees. Had Justin Morneau come back healthy, the offenses would have been surprisingly similar, bit without him, Mauer, Cuddyer, and Thome are no match for Rodriguez, Teixeira, and Cano.
The Yankees’ pitching, beyond CC Sabathia, has been suspect for the past two months, during which they finished the season with a 29-30 record. Still, if Francisco Liriano can’t outduel Sabathia in game one, can anyone picture Carl Pavano and Kevin Slowey winning playoff games in New York? Advantage: Yankees.
The Twins have the deeper bullpen, but the Yankees tend to overcome their bullpen deficiencies by only using starters and Mariano Rivera when it counts. Besides, Boone Logan and Kerry Wood have been good enough lately to avoid a seriously damaging bullpen meltdown.
For the past decade, the Twins have done all the little things- taking the extra base, avoiding double plays, keeping the running game in check- better than anyone, but this isn’t that same Twins team. This is a team built on power (.422 slugging percentage) and patience (their 559 walks trailed only the three AL East powerhouses). Sadly, they’re facing a more powerful (.436 SLG), more patient (662 walks) team that has owned them in the playoffs for years (9-2 in 3 ALDS since 2003).
New York in 4
The Reds have been a great story year, led by Joey Votto and their powerful offense, but they’re up against a team that scored just 18 fewer runs this year despite Ryan Howard missing 19 games, Chase Utley missing 47, and Jimmy Rollins missing 74. If these two offenses were facing the same batting practice pitcher, we’d be in for a serious slugfest, especially considering the two parks they’ll be playing in. Unfortunately for the Reds, their offense will do its work against Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels, possibly the best 1-2-3 since Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz, while the Phillies get to pick on Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto, and a recently-injured Edinson Volquez.
The only thing giving the Reds any hope in this one is the fickle nature of baseball games. Arroyo could be lights out and Brandon Phillips could hit two homers in game one and the Reds could never look back and cruise to a 1990esque sweep.
Or not. Philly in 3
This one is the hardest to decipher. Offensively, the Braves scored 41 more runs with an OPS 11 points higher, but much of that edge is neutralized by park factors. The Giants actually hit more home runs and slugged 7 percentage points higher, and teams with power tend to have better postseason results, at least in recent seasons, than teams who get on base more (as the Braves do, by a sizeable margin). Each team is led by a rookie phenom and an under-the radar veteran. While Buster Posey and Aubrey Huff have done more with the bats than Jason Heyward and Brian McCann of late, recent history also shows that there’s more of a correlation between season-long success and October success than there is between September and October.
The Giants have slightly better pitching numbers, both in the rotation and in the bullpen, but again, park factors have a lot to do with that. Tim Hudson gets by on a low BABiP (.250), while striking out less than 5.5 batters per nine. Tim Lincecum, in contrast, strikes out almost twice as many hitters, but gave up a .324 BABiP, resulting in an ERA (3.43) .60 points higher than Hudson’s. It’s easy to chalk Lincecum’s higher ERA up to poor luck, but some of the other factors (defense, ballpark dimensions, maybe even weather) that helped Hudson and hurt Lincecum will be in play in the DS as well. The Giants may have a small edge with Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez, but Derek Lowe and Tommy Hanson each had a better Fielding Independent Pitching than Cain or Sanchez. The Giants’ biggest pitching edge may come from their ability to use Lincecum and possibly Cain twice in five games, while Hudson who pitched on Sunday, won’t start until game three.
The Giants, led by centerfielder Andres Torres, had significantly better fielding this season (a majors-best 58.4 dWar to -29.4). This begs the question, if the Giants hit just as well, pitch better, and field better than the Braves, how did the two teams finish with roughly the same record and the same run differential, even with the Braves playing in the slightly stronger division? Well, they did have the services of Martin Prado and Chipper Jones, two of their six most valuable players per Fangraphs WAR for most of the season. Both are on the shelf for the DS. The Giants, on the other hand, are a better team now than they were early in the season, having added Buster Posey and Pat Burrell and revived Madison Bumgarner.
My gut says the Braves win one more series for Bobby Cox, but I can’t find any logical justification for the pick. Objectively, the Giants do everything a little better than the Braves, and that’s hard to ignore.
San Francisco in five
For the record, I’ll throw in LCS and World Series picks based on these match-ups, but I’ll update these at the end of each round.
New York over Texas in five
Philly over San Francisco in five
Philly over New York in four
I think the Phillies are too strong offensively and defensively to lose to any team in this field. The best teams all year (New York and Tampa) faded down the stretch, while the hot teams in August and September (Minnesota and San Francisco) have their weaknesses. The only thing that can stop the Phillies from winning the title would be their offense going cold again as it did during the middle of the season. Well, that or the random variation that makes baseball games unpredictable and suggests that my prediction will almost certainly be wrong.