After the wildest end to the regular season in recent memory, the baseball playoffs are here. Regardless of your team of choice, this is one of the best times of the year, when the difference between a great team and a legendary team could be an umpire’s interpretation of chalk jumping off a baseline or a fourth outfielder hitting a key home run. We’ve learned over and over that playoff results depend more on randomness than on any actual qualities of the teams playing, but we can still do our best to guess which teams will put themselves in position to catch one of those legendary breaks. Here are my 2011 playoff predictions:
National League Division Series: Phillies vs. Cardinals
Last year, the Phillies had the best pitching in baseball and looked like a lock to at least reach, if not win, the World Series. They cruised past the Reds and then ran into another team with excellent pitching. The Giants couldn’t hit, but they got hot at the right time and got the phenomenal starting and relief pitching it would take to beat the Phils.
In the offseason, the Phillies signed Cliff Lee, reaffirming their status as the best pitching team in the league, if not the best in the last decade. While fourth ace Roy Oswalt was injured and sometimes ineffective in 2011, rookie Vance Worley stepped in and went 11-3 with a 3.01 ERA. The offense is aging and suffered injuries throughout the year, but the addition of Hunter Pence added enough depth and balance that the starters don’t necessarily have to throw shutouts to win games. As random as the playoffs can be, it’s undeniable that the Phillies are the team to beat again in 2011.
The Cardinals hit more than the Phillies do, slashing .273/.341/.425, good for an NL-best 34.3 offensive WAR (per Fangraphs). Those numbers are similar (.265/.339/.429) against lefties, but when the lefties are Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, nobody slugs .429. Philly batted .253/.323/.395 this season (23.9 oWAR), with only a minor lift (to .257/.322/.401) after Pence’s acquisition.
Chris Carpenter’s complete game, 11-strikeout, two-hitter on the last day of the season gave the impression that the Cards bring a true ace into the playoffs, but he likely won’t be ready to pitch again until Game 3, leaving Jaime Garcia (3.56 ERA/3.23 FIP) and Kyle Lohse (3.39/3.67) to start games one and two against Halladay and Lee, respectively.
The Cardinals are fresh off a red-hot September, and Albert Pujols fears no pitcher, but the team won’t have a chance to bring out the bats if Halladay, Lee, and Hamels pitch like they did all season.
Phillies in four
Brewers vs. Diamondbacks
The second best pitching in the playoffs belongs to the Brewers. They’ll start the playoffs at home, where they went a major league-best 57-24 this season. They’ll open the series with Yovani Gallardo (3.52/3.59), then likely hand the ball to ace Zack Greinke (3.83/2.98), with Shaun Marcum, Randy Wolf, and Chris Narveson jockeying for the final two slots. After Ian Kennedy (2.88/3.22) and Daniel Hudson (3.49/3.28), the Diamondbacks will take their chances with rookie Josh Collmenter and Joe Saunders, neither of whom struck out as many as six batters per nine innings this year.
The Brewers have a top-heavy lineup, with MVP candidate Ryan Braun (.332/.397/.597) and Prince Fielder (.299/.415/.566) shouldering most of the load, while Yuniesky Betancourt (.252/.271/.381) and Casey McGehee (.223/.280/.346) keep their jobs only because thers’s no one better on the bench. The Diamondbacks are anchored by Justin Upton (.289/.369/.529), and get significant contributions from the whole lineup, with only shortstop Stephen Drew (.252/.317/.396) hitting below league-average this season.
Arizona will hope to ride Kennedy and Hudson the way it rode Randy Johnson and Curt Shilling ten years ago, but they may be asking too much. Kennedy had a phenomenal season, getting even stronger toward the end, but he made his last seven starts against San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Washington, so the Brewers may be a rude awakening for him (though he did shut them out for seven innings in late July). If Braun and Fielder don’t show up, Arizona may surprise, but I think Milwaukee’s pitching is too much for the young Diamondbacks.
Brewers in four
American League Division Series: Yankees vs. Tigers
I’d love to predict that karma haunts Joe Girardi in this one after actively managing to lose the season finale against Tampa. With a 7-0 lead in the 8th and a 7-6 lead in the 9th, he had David Robertson and Mariano Rivera rested and ready to go, with a day off today, yet chose to throw slop at the Rays, culminating with 3 1/3 innings of Scott Proctor, possibly the worst pitcher in a major league uniform yesterday. Sadly, I don’t think baseball works that way.
The Yankees don’t have great pitching, but they’ll bludgeon the Tigers with their bats (they hit .263/.343/.444 with an MLB-best 222 home runs). If they get enough runs to beat obvious AL Cy Young winner Justin Verlander (2.40/2.99), and I think they will, Detroit won’t have time to right the ship before the series is over. Doug Fister is a better pitcher than Ivan Nova, and Max Scherzer is better than Freddy Garcia, but that won’t be enough to make up for the offensive differences, as Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira will continue to abuse the short porch in right field.
Yankees in three
Rangers vs. Rays
This is probably the best of the four series. Both teams have a lot of good, young pitching. The Rangers have a deeper lineup, but the Rays come in hot and have the best player in the series in Evan Longoria.
James Shields*** (2.82/3.42) vs. CJ Wilson (2.94/3.24) is a matchup of underappreciated aces who pitch deep into games and strike out more than eight batters per nine. Derek Holland (3.95/3.94) will likely face Jeremy Hellickson (2.95/4.44) in Game 2, and the only sure thing for either team after that is that David Price will make a start for the Rays.
The Rangers have a scarier lineup one through nine (they hit .283/.340/.460 all year, good for 39.1 oWAR, second in the league behind Boston), but the Rays’ .244/.322/.402 line is misleading, as it came in an extreme pitchers’ park, with Evan Longoria injured or struggling for much of the early season. Speed is a big part of the Rays’ game, as their 155 stolen bases lead the American League, but the Rangers were the best team in baseball on the basepaths, according to fangraphs (23 runs above average). The Rays were the best defensive team in the AL, but the Rangers weren’t far behind.
All signs point to a great series. While the Rays come in on a magical three-game winning streak, the Rangers finished 9-1 against teams that were trying to beat them. Mike Napoli exposes the Rays’ biggest weakness with a homer off Kyle Farnsworth in the ninth.
Rangers in five
***Note- ESPN reported yesterday that James Shields would start Game 1 of the ALDS. Joe Maddon has since announced that rookie Matt Moore will make his second career start in Game 1, with Shields and Price going in the next two games. Moore struck out 11 Yankees in five innings in his first start. He may not be as sharp this time out, but Maddon’s unconventional (and typically brilliant) decisions like this one leave me tempted to change my pick in this series. Alas, I think the Rangers are a hair better, and if it comes down to the bullpens, I’m still picking Texas.
Last year, I predicted all four Division Series within one game, then bombed on my LCS predictions. We don’t know if these will be the actual matchups, so I’ll keep it brief:
National League Championship Series: Phillies vs. Brewers
This one could look a lot like last year’s NLCS, with lots of great pitching. Zack Greinke may prove to be the best pitcher in the National League playoffs, but he can’t win four games by himself, and Halladay, Lee, and Hamels will be too much.
Phillies in six
American League Championship Series: Yankees vs. Rangers
These two teams playing in these two stadiums might score 25 runs a game. That’s why I’m predicting that one game not pitched by CC Sabathia or CJ Wilson will be a 1-0 nailbiter. New York will want revenge from last season, while Texas will want to prove that it’s a legitimate superpower with its fourth consecutive series win over an AL East opponent.
Yankees in five
World Series: Phillies vs. Yankees
Pitching vs. hitting. The new dyansty vs. the old dynasty. Utley and Victorino vs. Cano and Granderson. The second-richest team in the game vs. the first. This is precisely the matchup Major League Baseball will be hoping for. And precisely the matchup that will keep me away from the TV.
They say pitching wins the playoffs. They also say pinstripes win in the playoffs. I say the team that was the laughingstock of the offseason, the Urkel to Cliff Lee’s Laura Winslow, gets the last laugh.
Yankees in seven
And I just threw up in my mouth.