Posted by Jonah Gardner on October 6, 2016
We all owe Buck Showalter a big round of gratitude. Showalter, known for his love and respect for baseball history, clearly felt the importance of this moment and realized it would be better for the game if the Blue Jays advanced to play another installment in what's presently the most heated rivalry in the sport. At least, that's the most plausible explanation I've thought of to explain why Showalter left Zach Britton, MLB's best reliever and a Cy Young candidate, in the bullpen while Ubaldo Jimenez gave up back-to-back-to-back game-deciding hits in the 12th inning of the American League Wild Card Game.
So thanks to Showalter, we may get another round of this
In last year's ALDS, the Rangers took a 2-0 lead in the series, before losing both home games and then, of course, falling in Toronto on that 3-run shot from Jose Bautista. Since Game 2 of the ALDS, the Blue Jays are 7-3 against the Rangers (although Bautista did take an extra L to Rougned Odor). If anything, that may undersell the Blue Jays' advantage in this matchup. They've outscored the Rangers in those 10 games 55-29 and hit 15 home runs against Texas' eight.
The Blue Jays have also, counterintuitively, been a better team in 2016 than the club with the best record in the American League. By run differential, Toronto was the third best team in the AL while the Rangers were eighth. By Simple Rating System, which adjusts run differential for strength of schedule, the Blue Jays were the second best team in the AL and the third best in all of Major League Baseball, while the Rangers were eighth and twelfth, respectively.
So how have the Rangers outperformed the record we'd expect from a team with their run differential by a whopping 13 games? By dominating opponents in close contests. In one-run games, the Rangers were 36-11; that's not just the best record this year, it's the best record in one-run games since at least 1901. Unfortunately for the Rangers, while good managing and a dominant bullpen can help, that kind of success in one-run games is mainly caused by luck.
We don't need to look too far back for an example of this. The team that the Rangers took the crown from was the 2012 Baltimore Orioles, who actually beat Texas in the Wild Card game that year. However, the Orioles lost in the ALDS to the New York Yankees (despite going 2-1 in one-run games that series). The next year they went 85-77, a respectable record but one that was eight games lower than their 2012 record and caused primarily by them going from a 29-9 record in one-run games in 2012 to 20-31 in 2013.
However, luck or not, the Rangers have home-field advantage, which ended up being one of the keys to the Blue Jays' eventual victory last year. Since going to the three-round postseason in 1995, the home team wins 52.4% of LDS games. However, the Blue Jays actually had the 10th best record in the majors at home (46-35), but were tied for fifth best on the road (43-38).
How can Texas win when Toronto has a decided advantage in both hitting and pitching (per OPS+ and ERA+). Well, as you might expect for a team with success in one-run games, Texas' best roadmap to victory is to keep it close and turn it into a matchup of bullpens. While the Rangers' bullpen was sub-par, coming in 17th in Wins Above Average (essentially Wins Above Replacement but with the higher baseline of an average player, instead of a replacement-level one) for relievers, the Blue Jays' one was even worse, finishing 23rd and a full win below the Rangers.
The Blue Jays may have the advantage in bullpen Earned Run Average (4.11 vs 4.40), but that's because the Rangers play in the fourth most hitter friendly ballpark in the majors. Anything can happen in the postseason, of course, but Texas' most reasonable path to the ALCS runs through their bullpen.
While Texas-Toronto is a new rivalry, the other ALDS matchup is more of a throwback. This is the fifth time these two clubs have met in the playoffs; after taking the first two series in 1995 and 1998, the Indians lost in 1999 and 2007, making things all square between them.
On paper, this one isn't much closer than the other ALDS series, but this time it's not because one team has dramatically over-performed their expected record. Instead, it's because the advanced numbers indicate that the Red Sox are a much stronger team than their record indicates. They had the run differential of a 98-64 team and their SRS of 1.3 has them tied with the Cubs as the best team in the majors (partially due to the fact that AL teams, on average, were better this year than NL teams, so Boston played the tougher schedule).
Boston owes their success primarily to their hitting; they led the league in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS+. How did they do it? Red Sox hitters didn't homer or take walks at an especially impressive rate (finishing eleventh and seventh in those categories). What they did do very well was avoid strikeouts. Only the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Angels struck out at a lower rate than Boston. Boston saw the highest rate of 3-0 counts in the league, 5.5%, thanks mainly to the fact that they swung and missed just 14% of the time, the lowest mark in the majors.
The other key to Boston's offensive success? Extra-base hits. The Red Sox got an extra-base hit in 9.1% of their plate appearances, tied for the most in the majors with a team that plays in a 5,000-foot high bandbox. You might expect a team that hit a lot of extra-base hits, but relatively fewer dingers, to be dominant on the basepaths. But while their baserunning was solid (hold that thought), they actually just have a lot of very good hitters. They were in the Top 30 since 1913 for doubles hit, and not even in the top 10 in stolen bases, so this isn't some kind of Royals-esque team using speed to stretch singles into doubles.
Instead, if you're looking for this year's Kansas City Royals, you might want to look to the other dugout. The Cleveland Indians were first in baserunning runs and second in taking the extra base (Boston was third and tied for fourth in those). They were also the only AL playoff team to hit fewer than the MLB average of 185 HRs this year.
They also have the pitching side of the Kansas City formula down. The Indians were fourth in WAA from their starters and second from their relievers (and, unlike the first place Orioles, you can trust Terry Francona to use Andrew Miller when prudent). Of course, that starting rotation has been hit pretty hard with injuries over the last month or so, with both Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazaar looking like they'll miss the ALDS, while Corey Kluber may have reduced effectiveness because of a quad strain of his own.
Fortunately, that may not be as big of an issue with the game tilting more towards relievers than before. As the Royals showed, a team with a dominant bullpen and an aggressive hook can overcome average play from their starting pitchers. Given that the Red Sox go from a league-leading OPS of .838 against starting pitchers to a third-ranked OPS of .766 against relievers, it seems like an edge that Cleveland might be able to exploit.
I've had to check this two or three times to make sure, but it turns out, shockingly, that one of these teams has to win this series. Fate has conspired to throw together two of the National League's most snake-bitten clubs; these teams have reached the postseason a combined five times since 2012 and have won just one series between them. Just over the last two postseasons, they've gone an abysmal 5-9, including the Nationals' traumatizing 18-inning loss to the Giants that's so far been their most memorable postseason moment since leaving Montreal.
But this Nationals team has the advantage of employing someone who inflicted trauma of his own on the Dodgers. If I travelled back in time 365 days and told you that in 2016, the Nationals' best position player would not be reigning MVP Bryce Harper, but instead Mets' utility fixture Daniel Murphy, you'd probably think that A.) I was wasting my time travel powers and B.) That I was messing with you. But it's true. Over the last 365 days, Daniel Murphy has hit .345/.391/.608, for a .999 on-base plus slugging, 32 home runs, and 115 runs batted in. Harper, in contrast, has hit .243/.373/.441 and currently ranks sixth among Nationals' position players in WAR.
Harper's struggles to actually hit the ball have been well-documented, but they've also gotten worse as the year went along. In his last 30 games, Harper has hit a troubling .212/.317/.375. If he's not even getting on-base at a solid clip, it's going to be a real problem for a Nationals team that has struggled to score of late. Since September 1, they've averaged 4.24 runs per game, well below their season-long mark of 4.71 and just 0.10 runs ahead of the famously weak-hitting New York Mets.
Of course, the Nats still went 17-12 in that stretch, thanks mainly to the fact that they have the best pitching staff in the majors, according to WAA. Their starters rank second, led by Cy Young Award frontrunner Max Scherzer, and their relievers rank third. Not having Stephen Strasburg around for the series hurts, but Tanner Roark has been excellent and A.J. Cole is promising, even if the results haven't been there this year.
The bigger question marks lie with the Dodgers and start with a simple one: is it legal to have Corey Seager hit for all nine positions? Seager, the presumptive National League Rookie of the Year, had a mind-expanding rookie season. He's the 10th infielder since 1901 to top 6 WAR as a rookie, and you may recognize some of the others on this list:
|1||Dick Allen (RoY-1st)||8.8||1964||22||PHI|
|2||Carlton Fisk (RoY-1st)||7.3||1972||24||BOS|
|3||Mike Piazza (RoY-1st)||7.0||1993||24||LAD|
|4||Troy Tulowitzki (RoY-2nd)||6.8||2007||22||COL|
|5||Albert Pujols (RoY-1st)||6.6||2001||21||STL|
|6||Nomar Garciaparra (RoY-1st)||6.6||1997||23||BOS|
Unfortunately for the Dodgers, they have to field eight more players, and that's where things get dicey. Clayton Kershaw has looked Kershaw-esque since his return from injury (1.29 ERA in 28 Innings Pitched), but doubts certainly remain when a pitcher faces an injury like his. The same goes for Rich Hill who posted a 214 ERA+ in his time in L.A. but has only managed six starts due to blisters.
If anything goes wrong with the pitching, the hitting won't necessarily be able to compensate. The Rangers were the only division winner with fewer 3-WAR position players than the Dodgers, and Los Angeles is 19th in OPS. However, the Dodgers have found ways to wring production out of their players. Despite having the second fewest 3-WAR position players among division winners, they actually finished 4th in WAA among position players, behind only Boston, Houston, and the Cubs.
Lastly, there's the question of Harper's comrade in Making Baseball Fun Again: Yasiel Puig. Since returning to the majors, Puig has hit .281/.338/.561, a marked improvement on his pre-demotion line of .260/.320/.386. If he can do enough Good Puig Things, while keeping the Bad Puig Things to a minimum, he could swing the series back towards LA.
Lastly, we've come to the best team in baseball. Incredibly, the Cubs, at 103-58, underperformed what we'd expect from a team with their run differential by four wins.
Any discussion of the Cubs has to begin with their amazing run prevention. The Cubs allowed 56 fewer runs than the next stingiest team, a gap that's largely explained by Chicago's elite defense. They saved 95 runs in the field, according to Defensive Runs Saved, and had five players who got credited with 10 or more runs from defense in their WAR, just the 17th team ever to have that many top-level fielders in one defense. Of course, their offense isn't too shabby either, with the Cubs finishing third in runs scored and OPS+. They lead the total WAA leaderboard by nearly 10 wins and ranked in the bottom half of the league at only one position.
So do the Giants have a shot? Well, as you may have heard, it's an even year. And, as you may have heard, this was the best team in baseball through the first half of the season. But things have taken a turn for the worse in the second half.
— Baseball Reference (@baseball_ref) September 30, 2016
Which Giants team is the real one? The answer is probably neither. On the day the All-Star Break started, the Giants were 57-33, but their run differential (+73) had them playing more like a 52 or 53 win team (the Cubs, in contrast, were 53-35 but had the run differential of a 58 win team). After the break, the Giants had the third worst record in NL: 30-42. But, despite that, they had a positive run differential (+11) and played more like 37-35 team.
In other words, the shift in on-field performance was real, but smaller than their win-loss record reflected. The Giants went from being a team that was well above .500 to one that was just slightly above it.
Still, there are some areas for concern. The Giants' offense was average enough to keep them afloat before the All-Star Break (.742 OPS, 15th in MLB), but sank to the bottom parts of the league after (.709 OPS, 25th in MLB). However, their pitching ranked 5th both before and after, and, as we learned last night, any time you can send Madison Bumgarner to the mound, your team is starting off with a huge advantage.
Of course, Bumgarner can't pitch every inning, but Giants' fans angst over the bullpen may be misplaced. While the Cubs had a better bullpen ERA, Giants' relievers as a group had a much better WAA (1.2 WAA, 12th in MLB) than Chicago's (-1.0, 19th in MLB). Neither team's bullpen is really a strength, but the Giants have the advantage if they can knock out Chicago's starters and stretch the game to extra innings or close, late situations.
But the bats are a problem. And if they can't breakthrough against one of the finest defenses in MLB history, then it won't matter how many shutout innings Bumgarner manages to spin.