Playoff Preview, Week Three

My Division Series picks- Red Sox in 5, Tigers in 4, Dodgers in 3, and Pirates in 5- were all off by exactly one game. Let’s see if I can do better in the Championship Series, despite not having gotten to bed at a reasonable hour since the playoffs started.

In the American League, the Red Sox and Tigers have looked like the two best teams in baseball all year (despite Oakland’s better record than Detroit’s). Four to seven head-to-head games won’t tell us which team is better, but they will tell us who has a chance to test their luck against a lesser team from the senior circuit.

Detroit will likely have the starting pitching advantage in every game. Jim Leyland has the enviable task of choosing a game one starter from between Doug Fister, who owned the Red Sox in a September start, or Anibal Sanchez, who owned the best ERA (2.57) and FIP (2.39) in the AL this year. The other will probably wait until game four, slotted in behind Cy Young favorite Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, who hasn’t allowed a run since mid-September. Boston will counter with a solid starter every night, as Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lester, and Jake Peavy all pitched well in vanquishing the pesky Rays.

These were the two best hitting teams in baseball by wRC+ (Boston held a 115-113 advantage), and even with Miguel Cabrera nursing various injuries, the Tigers can hit with the Sox. Boston is used to holding a huge offensive advantage over any opponent, but in this series, their advantages are on the field and in the bullpen. The Tigers’ fielders saved 43 runs less than average in the regular season, and while Jose Iglesias goes a long way toward fixing their gaping defensive holes, the return of Jhonny “Sic” Peralta has forced Leyland to play less-than-ideal defensive alignments in the postseason, with Peralta manning either shortstop or left field. Fister in particular will need Iglesias behind him to turn ground balls into outs, and that will weaken Detroit’s offensive attack.

Boston’s bullpen isn’t particularly deep, but Koji Uehara, Craig Breslow, and Junichi Tazawa were excellent in the Division Series. Detroit’s pen, on the other hand, is somewhat fragile, with Joaquin Benoit and Drew Smyly the only serviceable arms. Detroit is the better team if the starters can limit exposure to the bullpen, but Boston’s patient approach at the plate could wear out Detroit’s starters, giving the Sox the edge in the late innings. That could be the difference.

Red Sox in 6

It looks like the National League’s two best teams advanced this far as well. The Dodgers have been perhaps the best team in baseball since Hanley Ramirez returned, and while Hyun-Jin Ryu struggled in his NLDS start and Ricky Nolasco was so uninspiring that Mattingly chose Clayton Kershaw on short rest in game four despite leading the series, they still get to throw Kershaw and Zack Greinke four times in the first six games.

St. Louis, like the Red Sox, will put a competitive starter on the field every night, beginning with Joe Kelly tonight and Michael Wacha, who has flirted with no-hiters in consecutive starts, going in game two. Adam Wainwright, who seems to be developing into the next Cliff Lee, should pitch games three and seven (if necessary).

St. Louis has the edge at the plate, with Matt Carpenter finally coming around late in the Pittsburgh series after a .381 regular season wOBA, and Carlos Beltran continuing his Ruthian postseason run (two homers, three walks in the NLDS). If Matt Holliday (.383 regular-season wOBA) and Yadier Molina (.362) produce as well, the non-Kershaw Dodgers starters might have their hands full. Ramirez and Yasiel Puig pose a challenge for any pitcher as well, but LA doesn’t have St. Louis’s lineup depth, with Skip Schumaker and Mark Ellis likely to get important at-bats.

The Cardinals bullpen appears uncharacteristically spotty behind Trevor Rosenthal and LOOGY Kevin Siegrist, but it never cost them in the Division Series, with John Axford, Seth Maness, and Carlos Martinez making key contributions. LA’s bullpen is strong, anchored by Kenley Jansen and featuring the intimidating Paco Rodriguez and Brian Wilson.

This one may come down to strategy. While Don Mattingly bumbled through the NLDS, bunting and intentionally walking and seeking platoon advantages rather than matchup advantages, Mike Matheny tends to push all the right buttons. The Dodgers have all the talent the Cards have, but I can see Mattingly managing the Dodgers out of a win or two, and I don’t know how to pick against Wainwright in game 7.

Cardinals in 7

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