I’m not in love with the new playoff format, but I’ll admit that three consecutive nights of winner-take-all games makes for an exciting week of baseball. My early picks went 1-2. Let’s see if I can improve on that in the ALDS.
Red Sox vs. Rays looks like a classic series, and to me, it comes down to one guy: Koji Uehara. People may play up the contrasts between these two teams, but there are similarities. The Rays (108 wRC+) weren’t too far behind the Red Sox (115) offensively. The Red Sox rotation (3.84 ERA, 3.96 FIP) wasn’t much worse than the Rays (3.81, 3.89). You may argue that park adjustments make Boston’s numbers above more impressive, and I’d agree, but the Rays with David Price and Alex Cobb are a little more imposing than the Sox with a questionable Clay Buchholz.
Looking at the pitching matchups, Joe Maddon’s apparent intention to pitch David Price on short rest gives the Rays a few notable edges: Price vs. John Lackey in Game 2 and Cobb likely taking on Jake Peavy in Game 4. But a Rays fan can’t be excited about walk-happy Matt Moore pitching at Fenway in Game 1, then possibly taking the hill again next week with the series on the line. Boston sees a lot of pitches, and will try to get to Tampa’s bullpen early in every game. This is where the Red Sox’s advantage lies. While the Rays’ Alex Torres may be the best middle reliever on either side, Maddon will have to give the ball to a shaky Jake McGee or Joel Peralta a few more times than he’d like to, and Fernando Rodney is no guarantee at the back of the bullpen.
The Rays will like their chances against Boston’s middle relief as well, but they don’t get on base quite as much as the Red Sox, which means John Farrell may be able to skip from his starters to Koji Uehara, who’s been unhittable for most of this season and can be used for more than one inning in October.
Red Sox in 5
The other AL series pits the team with the best pitching and hitting in baseball against a team that boasts very little star power, but managed to win more games this year than the team of superstars. Detroit has to be the favorite with Scherzer, Verlander, Sanchez, and Fister on the mound, but the A’s tend to have an answer for any pitcher.
Oakland had 11 different batters finish the season with 100 or more plate appearances and a wRC+ of at least 102. That excludes key cogs Josh Reddick, Eric Sogard, and Stephen Vogt, as well as past October masher Chris Young. If the Tigers’ starters can’t pitch deep into games, Bob Melvin would love matching up his bench players with the struggling Detroit relievers. That’s why I’m not predicting a sweep.
Tigers in 4
In the National League, three teams have the feel of playoff teams right now. The fourth is the Braves. Atlanta played so well early that they ran away with the NL East, a division many expected to be very competitive. One of their key strengths is pitching depth. They avoided long losing streaks by giving multiple starts to nine pitchers, each of whom held his own. In the playoffs, though, they’ll need strong outings from three to four starters, and none of their front four- presumably Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, and Alex Wood- had an ERA as low as 3.00, which happened to be the mark posted by the Dodgers’ number three starter, Hyun-Jin Ryu.
On top of the Kershaw/Greinke/Ryu murderer’s row, the Dodgers have more hitting than Altanta, led by Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig. This isn’t likely to impact this series, but only one Braves hitter- Freddie Freeman- posted a wRC+ as good as Zack Greinke’s 132. Atlanta’s bullpen is great, and Andrelton Simmons will turn every grounder into an out, but I’m not sure that’s enough to bridge the talent gap between these teams.
Dodgers in 3
The final series may be the most intriguing to the average fan, with perennial contender St. Louis facing perennial doormat Pittsbugh. The Pirates looked like paper tigers for much of the season, but they won 94 games, including 10 of 19 against St. Louis, and they bring a balanced offensive attack, solid defense, and good pitching into this series.
St. Louis succeeded all year with dominant pitching from Adam Wainwright, the occasional gem from Shelby Miller or Michael Wacha, and timely hitting. With Allen Craig, the timeliest of those hitters, injured at the moment, St. Louis will need production from young Matt Carpenter and old Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran. Any statistical analysis of this series will miss the undeniable intangibles that Yadier Molina brings behind the plate for St. Louis (in addition to his many tangibles), but there’s something intangible going on in Pittsburgh right now too. This team doesn’t seem to want to lose to anyone, and no opponent will get them more fired up than the Cardinals.
I see a great series ahead, one that will come down to some October magic. And I’m sick of doubting the Pirates.
Pirates in 5