Every year, predicting the winners of several short postseason series is a fool’s errand. The team that gets hot at the right time and catches a few lucky breaks is more likely to win the title than the team that proved to be the best over 162 games.
Two recent developments further complicate the task. The addition of a one-game play-in between the two Wild Card teams in each league adds a further element of randomness. Throw in the emergence of the Athletics and Orioles as teams of destiny, seemingly capable of overperforming what appears to be their true talent level on a nightly basis, and it’s nearly impossible to predict which team will be raising the trophy at the end of this month. Consider this not an analysis-based prediction, but a document of a series of hunches I felt on October 4, immediately after one of the wildest, most unpredictable baseball seasons I’ve ever lived through.
In the AL Wild Card game, I’ll take the Orioles. Baltimore, by some measures, is probably the worst team to make the playoffs in my lifetime. By weighted runs created, their offense ranked 11th of 14 teams in the AL this year. By fielding runs above average, their defense was 12th. They ranked 10th in baserunning runs above average. Their starting pitchers ranked ninth in ERA and FIP. The bullpen, which ranked 3rd in ERA and 5th in FIP, was the team’s only real strength. Yet they won 93 games and very nearly topped the uber-competitive AL East. The Rangers are better in every facet of the game and have a similarly strong bullpen, and will start Yu Darvish, a better pitcher than anyone on the Orioles’ roster, tomorrow night. But in one game, Buck Showalter will be able to go to his bullpen early, and Chris Davis or Mark Reynolds or Adam Jones is bound to come up with a critical late-inning home run, as they have all season long for Baltimore.
In the NL Wild Card game, I’ll go with the Cardinals, for no other reason than that I’ve seen this movie before. The Braves come in with the better regular season record and a loaded pitching staff fronted by the recently-unhittable Kris Medlen and finishing with the always-unhittable Craig Kimbrel. But the Cardinals have the bats, a passable pitching staff, and a postseason aura that’s beginning to feel like the late-90s Yankees. They enter the postseason with the fewest wins of any playoff team, as they did in 2006 and 2011, when they won their last two championships. I see a close game, but the Cards will find a way.
In the division series, the Orioles will finally meet their match when they play the Yankees, a team with far better hitting and pitching, and another bullpen that can go toe-to-toe with the O’s. It won’t be a sweep, since Baltimore probably has some magic left, but I see at least one double-digit offensive performance from the Yankees and a 3-1 series win.
The Tigers looked like a better team than the A’s in the preseason, but they won fewer games against a far weaker schedule. Detroit has the star power, with perhaps the four best players in the series in Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, and Austin Jackson, but Oakland has endless platoons, capable players from the top of their roster to the bottom, and a swagger unmatched by anyone in the game. This one could go five, and Verlander may get a chance to build on his underwhelming postseason reputation, but I see the A’s coming up with some magic in game five.
The Cardinals-Nationals series looks a lot like last year’s Cardinals-Phillies series, with a well-rounded powerhouse of a team facing a team that was lucky to make the playoffs, and it could certainly go either way, but I’ll take the Nationals this time. This Cardinals team may be better than last year’s team, but they don’t have the same bullpen that carried them to last year’s title. Washington can hit and has rotation depth even without Stephen Strasburg. Nationals in four.
The Reds of recent vintage have been an offensive-minded unit, typically making up for their pitching shortcomings with a strong lineup. This year’s team can pitch, with Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, and Homer Bailey leading them to the best starters’ ERA in the NL and a bullpen to match. I worry, though, about Joey Votto, whose power has been missing since he returned from a midseason injury, and Dusty Baker potentially asking for more out of veterans like Bronson Arroyo and Scott Rolen than out of the young core that could lead the Reds to a title. Bruce Bochy tends to be guilty of the same blind spot, but he’s got an equally great rotation headlined by Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner, and an offense that, while slightly below average, was better than the Reds’ offense in 2012. Buster Posey may be the best player in the National League and if Pablo Sandoval and Angel Pagan can continue their offensive success, this could be a scary team in San Francisco. Giants in five.
Given the unpredictability of the first two rounds, picking the winners of the League Championship Series right now is like picking the winner of the 2017 Kentucky Derby. I’ve got the Yankees and A’s playing for the AL pennant, and as prone as the Yankees are to slumps (Robinson Cano is the only consistently great hitter in a lineup full of past stars), I can’t see an all-rookie Oakland rotation holding them down. Conversely, it’s hard to imagine the A’s doing too much damage against CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and the New York bullpen. As middling as this year’s Yankees team can seem at times, I’m picking them in six games.
In the NL, Washington hits better than San Francisco, and the rotations are similar, but this year’s Giants feel a lot like the 2010 team that wasn’t supposed to knock off the Braves, Phillies, or Rangers and beat them all. The Nationals have a lot of October games in their near future, but I think their 2012 ends in a game seven against the Giants.
Finally, the one lesson I’ve learned from the last several World Series is that the better team rarely wins. For that reason only, I’m picking the Giants, who won fewer games than New York in a far weaker division, to win the World Series in six games.
There you have it. Now go bet on the Rangers and Braves.