Archive for the ‘Baseball’ Category

Throughout baseball’s history, the American League and National League have been treated as different entities. Unlike in basketball, football, or hockey, where teams from the two conferences play by the same rules and play interconference games regularly, both leagues have developed their own identities over time. They play by different rules — the AL plays with a designated hitter while the NL still forces its pitchers to hit. Until 1997, the two leagues met only in the World Series. And even then, they played each other only over a designated span of a few weeks in the middle of the summer. That’s no longer true now, as teams play a smattering of interleague games throughout the year. But with the different rules and the fact that teams still play a vast majority of their games against other teams in their own leagues, there remains a clear divide between the leagues. Whether that adds to the charm of baseball or is impractical and a relic of the past is up for debate. But that tired argument is not the subject of this post. I’m writing about the fact that this year, for whatever reason (probably luck), the differences between the leagues is as striking as ever.

The National League is the league of parity. The Cubs have the best record in the league at 54-38, marginally ahead of their divisional rival Brewers. Their +111 run differential indicates that they’re actually probably stronger than their record indicates, but they’ve had an up-and-down year and until this weekend were behind (and at times well behind) the Brewers. After Chicago, no team in the NL has a run differential than the Dodgers’ +80. And Los Angeles started the season poorly and sit at 52-43, a half-game behind the Diamondbacks in the NL West. Some of the best teams in the league so far — the Phillies (53-41), Braves (51-42), and Rockies (50-45) — weren’t supposed to get anywhere near the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Nationals and Cardinals, both favorites to make the playoffs, have slumped to records a game below and a game above .500 respectively, with St. Louis firing manager Mike Matheny last night. 10 NL teams are within nine games of the Cubs, leaving just four teams with records more than two games under .500. And even those four aren’t terrible. The Padres have the worst record in the league at 40-58, which puts them 17 games behind the Cubs. As you’ll see soon, there are AL teams in far worse shape. The Marlins have actually outpaced expectations, while the Reds seemed on their way to a horrific season (they started 8-27) before quickly turning things around (35-25 since). The result is an uber-competitive playoff race. Per Fangraphs’ projections, 10 teams in the league have at least an 18% chance to make the playoffs. Two, the Cubs and Dodgers, are meaningfully better than coin flips to do so.

The weird thing is that the NL wasn’t supposed to be this way. Heading into the season, the Nationals, Cubs, and Dodgers were all heavy favorites to win their respective divisions. They were all predicted to win at least 92 games, far more than any other team in the league. At the other end of the spectrum, the Marlins were predicted to be an utter train wreck, with the Padres not given much better odds at a successful season.

The AL, meanwhile, is the league of the haves and the have-nots. That’s true at a team-wide level but also on a player level. Among hitters, the eight WAR leaders — and 12 of the top 15 — all play in the American League. No NL hitter has been worth more than 3.8 WAR. Mike Trout, Jose Ramirez, and Mookie Betts have been worth 6+ apiece, and Francisco Lindor isn’t far behind. To a lesser extent, this is true of pitchers, too. The top three in WAR are Chris Sale, Trevor Bauer, and Justin Verlander, all of whom play in the American League. The flip-side, of course, is that the AL is also home to the worst of the worst. Just two qualified pitchers have been worth negative WAR: Lucas Giolito (-0.8, 6.59 ERA and 6.35 FIP in 18 starts) and Jakob Junis (-0.3, 5.13 ERA and 5.49 FIP in 17 starts). They both call the AL home. And three hitters have been far worse than anyone else: Alcides Escobar (-1.1 WAR), Victor Martinez (-1.8), and historically-bad Chris Davis (-2.3). Guess which league all three of those players call home?

I can’t remember a season in which there’s been less to play for after the All-Star break for so many teams than there is this year in the AL. The three best teams in baseball are the Yankees, Red Sox, and Astros. That’s inarguable at this point. They’re all at least five games ahead of everyone else in baseball, with the Red Sox on top at 67-30 and the Astros third at 64-34. They also all gulf the league in roster talent and run differential. The Astros’ run differential is an enormous +191, which gives them an expected record of 71-27. The Red Sox are +160 (expected record: 65-32) and the Yankees are +134 (61-33). So not only have the three won by far the most games, but they also haven’t really benefitted from luck (and in the Astros case have actually been unlucky). Following the big three are the Seattle Mariners, who at 58-38 have a better record than any NL team. Unlike Boston/New York/Houston, the Mariners have gotten lucky. They’re 26-11 in one run games and 8-0 in extra innings thanks to the combination of a terrific closer (Edwin Diaz has 36 saves, seven more than anyone else, and leads relievers with 2.4 WAR) and easily the best clutch hitting in baseball. According to Fangraphs’ “Clutch”, which measures how much better or worse a player does in high leverage situations than he does in other situations, the Mariners have a 4.63 “Clutch” rating. The Red Sox are second at 2.79. If you’re interested in seeing that whole list, I’ve attached it here. So the combination of Diaz and situational hitting has allowed the Mariners to excel despite a -1 run differential. Until recently, they, too, seemed like a playoff lock. But the Athletics have made things interesting recently, adding at least a little intrigue to the playoff picture. They’ve won 20 of their last 26 games, drawing within four games of the Mariners. Per Fangraphs, they now have a 24.4% chance to make the playoffs, while the Mariners are still at 70.5%. But that second wild card spot is likely the only remaining playoff question mark, as the Indians, despite underperforming and getting unlucky (their +79 run differential indicates they should be four games better than their 51-43 record), should still cruise to the AL Central title simply because they’re in the worst division in baseball. Besides the six teams I’ve mentioned, only the Rays and Angels have slight chances to make the playoffs, and they’re both probably in the 1-3% (aka, only if they get super hot and something happens to a playoff team) range.

At the other end of the AL standings, there’s utter carnage. Remember how I said that the Padres, the worst team in the NL, are 40-58 and 17 games behind the Cubs? Well, in the AL there are three teams who are far worse than the Padres. They haven’t been getting much grief because of the two teams below them, but the 32-62 White Sox are dreadful. They have a -135 run differential and are likely to try to trade away the few helpful players they still have at the deadline. The Royals and Orioles, meanwhile, look set to post two of the three worst records since 1962, joining the 2003 Tigers (43-119) in rarified air. They’re 27-67 and 27-69 with -184 and -160 run differentials respectively. And they’re a whopping 38.5 and 39.5 games behind the Red Sox, which at this point in the season can’t be that common. The Orioles’ hitters as a team have actually been worth negative WAR, and that’s even before trading Manny Machado, their only productive all-around player. To put that in perspective, the Padres had the worst stable of position players in baseball last year, and they were worth a combined 7.6 WAR. The last team to put together a position player-wide negative WAR season was the Diamondbacks in 2004. Pitching-wise, it’s the Royals who’ve been worth negative WAR, albeit just barely (-0.1). They have a 5.34 team ERA, which in this day in age is really quite incredible. I bet you’re now starting to see another reason that the teams at the top of the league have managed to rack up so many wins and such a strong run differential.

Given the lack of competition for playoff spots, you would think that the rest of the season is going to be a snooze in the AL. But that’s not quite true. It’s still going to be very interesting to see which teams secures homefield advantage and, particularly, who wins the AL East. I kind of hate that we’re back to the Red Sox and Yankees being dominant, but on the other hand baseball is more intense and interesting when that rivalry is strong. And with 10 games still to come between the two rivals (including three in Boston the last weekend of the season), there are sure to be more fireworks coming there. The AL MVP race is also a fun one simply because of the amount of firepower there is. Can Mike Trout, who tops the leaderboards in WAR yet again, win an MVP despite again being on a non-playoff team? Or will Betts, Ramirez, Lindor, or even Aaron Judge take home the award? Unlike in some years, it’s not likely to be an easy answer this time around.

So what should be the takeaways from the differences between the leagues? Here are a few:

  • There are going to be a lot of sellers in the AL (teams that know they have no chance to make the playoffs) and buyers in the NL (teams that think they do) at the trade deadline.
  • One of the two best teams in baseball — Yankees or Red Sox — is going to be forced into a one game wildcard playoff. What will the backlash be to the wildcard system if that team loses?
  • The AL representative in the World Series is almost certainly going to be the favorite.

Finally, it’s interesting to think about which league’s situation is more fun/alluring for neutral fans. I think conventional wisdom would be that of course the league with more teams in the running — the NL — is the answer, but I’m not sure I agree. In fact, while league offices generally profess their desire for parity, I think interest actually goes up when there’s dominance (see: Warriors, Golden State). That’s true for a few reasons. First of all, it’s fun to root against great teams. That’s especially true this year, given that two of the great teams are the Yankees and Red Sox, but I think it’s always the case that it’s a lot easier to form a rooting interest against a dominant team than it is against a meh team like, say, this year’s Brewers or Braves or Phillies. Second of all, it’s fun to watch sports being played at the highest level. That level of awe or appreciation that you may feel towards the Astros or Warriors would be impossible in a league with more equality. And finally, it’s nice to know that it’s not random. It’s nice to benefit from good luck when it happens to your team, but otherwise I think it’s icky to know that a team’s success is largely due to good luck. I like looking at a team before the season and thinking it’s likely to be really good and then seeing that play out over the course of the season. Of course, there are also downsides to the 2018 AL, especially if you’re a fan of the Rays or Angels or Tigers (etc.). But while I’d like there to be a little bit more drama in the American League down the stretch, I can’t complain too much, because I know that the playoffs themselves will be great for the same reason that the regular season is a bit of a snooze fest.

Advertisements

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the fact that the most dominant pitchers in baseball are surprisingly old. I think there’s a clear top echelon of starting pitchers based on recent performance, and that list includes Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Corey Kluber, Clayton Kershaw, and Chris Sale. All five have been dominant basically throughout their careers and especially recently. And all have been around for a while at this point. Scherzer is 33 and is on pace for his sixth straight 200+ inning season. Verlander is 35 and is up to 2626.1 career innings. Only Bartolo Colon, C.C. Sabathia, and John Lackey (who may or may not pitch again) have thrown more innings among active pitchers. Kluber is 32, although he has way fewer MLB innings under his belt because he didn’t become a full-time starter until he was 27. Sale is 29 but has a small frame and has already thrown a ton of innings (1405.1, well over a full season’s worth more than Kluber). And Kershaw, the best of them all, is 30 and has a back problem that seems to be chronic. He’s avoided the DL in just one of the past five seasons now and has made just eight starts this year and is back on the disabled list. So unlike the other four, all of whom rank in the top-10 of Fangraphs WAR this year (with Scherzer and Verlander 1-2), he hasn’t been performing at a high level this year, but I thought his track record was enough to elevate him into the top echelon anyway.

The success of these aging pitchers has come at the same time as the ascendance of young, absurdly good hitters. There’s just one 30+-year-old hitter in the top-12 of WAR, and that’s Brandon Belt, who’s all of 30 and one month. This line of thinking led me to another: who would be the players I’d most like to build around for the next 10 years, and how far down would I have to go to get to the first pitcher? The answer is pretty far, and it’s not just because the best pitchers are on the older side. It’s also because pitchers are more susceptible to injuries and thus far more risky and less likely to be available and good 10 years down the road regardless of how good they are now.

I’m valuing each of the next 10 years at 10% each and am obviously disregarding contracts in order to most simply answer the question: which players are the best building blocks thanks to some combination of ability, versatility, and consistency? Here’s my list:

1. Mike Trout (26-years-old): At 26, Trout is older than a lot of players on this list, but he’s still impossible to beat. He’s the best player in baseball by a wide margin, and he may not even have peaked yet. He’s on pace to have the best season of his career. Combine that with his durability (barring last year, of course) and the fact that he should still be in his prime for most of this 10 year window and you have a clear #1 pick.

2. Francisco Lindor (24): Lindor is the second or third best defensive shortstop in baseball (behind the incomparable Andrelton Simmons). He’s also a great hitter who will probably be worth 8+ WAR in his best seasons, which are sure to come in the next 10 years. It’s hard to do much better than a 24-year-old shortstop who has been durable and was worth 4+ WAR in each of his first three seasons (before likely blowing that number out of the water this year).

3. Mookie Betts (25): This is pretty bad timing for Mookie, as he was just put on the DL with an abdominal strain, but 10 days off is but a blip for Betts. He fell in the draft and was overlooked because of his height (5’9″) but like Dustin Pedroia before him has become a star in Boston anyway. His 2016 season was MVP-worthy, and after an offensive setback last year he’s on his way to blowing past those 2016 numbers. He’s also a great defender and barely strikes out, which makes him the complete package. The fact that he plays corner outfield is all that keeps him from jumping Lindor.

4. Carlos Correa (23): Had Correa not gotten injured last year and missed roughly 50 games, he might be ahead of Lindor. Because like his counterpart on the Indians, he’s a tremendous young two-way shortstop who’s already proven himself. He’s at least as gifted as a hitter as Lindor but lags slightly behind defensively. His size (6’4″, 215 pounds) makes it at least plausible that he’ll move away from shortstop at some point, while Lindor was born to play short. But I’m nitpicking, because you can’t go wrong with a shortstop who’s amassed more than 15 WAR before his 24th birthday.

5. Manny Machado (25): Machado’s stock has taken a slight hit since the start of 2017. He had a really bad (.259/.310/.471) offensive season last year, and has rebounded this year. But his long-awaited move to shortstop has also come this year, and he hasn’t been the plus defender at short that he was at third base. It’ll be interesting to see where he plays with his next team, because Machado at third base is a true two-way difference maker. But even if he’s an average defensive shortstop, his age and offensive profile make him a tremendous building block.

6. Aaron Judge (26): Judge can’t fall past here simply because he rakes and is as close to a sure thing as can be. I know he’s an average defender who plays corner outfield, and that’s obviously what put the other five ahead of him. But he hits for average, walks, and hits a ton of homers. Pretty lethal combination! He’s the best bet to lead MLB in OPS over the next 10 years. And I’m pretty confident that he’ll be productive through his mid-30s.

7. Corey Seager (24): Seager will likely miss the rest of the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery to repair his elbow. Otherwise, he’d be right up there with fellow young shortstops Lindor and Correa. He actually topped both of them in WAR in 2016-17, with better offensive output than Lindor and better defense than Correa. He takes a hit because of the injury and because we can’t be 100% certain that he’ll be as good as he was before, but besides that he’s the complete package.

8. Kris Bryant (26): It seems like the Kris Bryant hype has died down of late. Maybe that’s because we all got Kris Bryant overload the year the Cubs rampaged through the league and won the World Series. It certainly isn’t because Kris Bryant’s stock has depreciated, because it hasn’t. He may not quite have the homer potential that he was advertised to have coming up, but he’s more than made up for it by hitting .288 with a career .390 OBP and .527 SLG. If anything, those numbers undersell how good Bryant is as a hitter and will be going forward. He’s also a solid defensive third baseman, although I’m skeptical about whether someone of his size (6’5″) can stay that way when he’s on the wrong side of 30.

9. Jose Ramirez (25): There’s a case to be made that Ramirez, the Indians’ third baseman, only fell this far because he doesn’t have the pedigree of any of the flashier names above his. Here are his stats since the beginning of 2016: .313/.372/.541, 120 doubles, 58 homers, 46 steals, 127 walks, 156 strikeouts. Pretty good. He’s also a good defensive third baseman who should be in his prime or thereabouts for most of this 10-year window. Maybe I should have had him higher.

10. Bryce Harper (25): Harper falls this far because he’s not as well-rounded nor as consistent as most of the players above him. After his unbelievable 2015 MVP season, he hasn’t quite lived up to expectations, and his poor defense means that he has a smaller margin for error. But there’s still no doubt that he’s an exceptional hitter who has many great years ahead of him. There’s something to be said for plugging in a no-doubt offensive stud in your lineup until he’s 35.

11. Ozzie Albies (21): The first 10 players on this list are established stars between the ages of 23 and 26. I value them highly because I’m very confident in their output for the first five-seven years of the 10-year window. But I recognize that most of them will not return the same value at the end. That’s not true of Albies. I was tempted to move him higher up the list because he’s vastly outperformed expectations, especially power-wise. He’s also a very strong defender at second base and will likely remain one for the duration of this window. But the error bars are a lot bigger offensively than they are for everyone above (and most below) him on the list, so I chose to be somewhat cautious.

12. Andrew Benintendi (23): Benintendi isn’t much more experienced than Albies, but he’s far more of a sure thing. He was a great hitter in college, was drafted seventh overall in the 2015 draft because he was thought to be close to a lock to be a good Major League hitter, and quickly climbed to the big leagues for just that reason. He’s not terrible defensively, and it’s been interesting to see him play center field for the Red Sox, who have chosen to rest the struggling Jackie Bradley Jr. liberally. But most of his value comes with his bat, and I feel confident in saying that he’s going to be a very good hitter for the next 10 years. Can he reach the heights of a Judge or Harper? That’s still to be determined. P.S., look out for his sneaky speed. He stole 20 bags last year and is on pace for 20+ more steals this year.

13. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (19): I know, he’s never played a game above AA. But I think this is about right anyway, and it has nothing to do with the identity of his father. Guerrero is such a skilled hitter that it’s impossible for me to imagine him not making multiple All-Star games. He’s hitting .414/.464/.691 in AA this year, boosting his career MiLB numbers to .329/.416/.522. He has more career walks than strikeouts, and there’s no reason to believe that his power numbers won’t go way up as he matures. It remains to be seen what position he plays in MLB, but he’s a good enough hitter that it won’t really matter. I acknowledge that this could look spectacularly wrong in five years (let alone 10).

14. Trea Turner (24): Turner, the Nationals’ shortstop, hasn’t quite put together a great all-around year yet, but he clearly has all the tools. He’s a great base stealer, with 97 career steals in 255 games. He’s a solid defensive shortstop. He probably doesn’t have 30-homer power (even in this ball-inflated era), and he’s been susceptible to injuries, but if he stays healthy there’s no reason that he can’t average 5+ WAR over a five-seven year period.

15. Shohei Ohtani (23): You won’t have to wait long for the first pitcher-only, but here’s the first pitcher. Two months into his career, Ohtani has proven that he is skilled enough to do the impossible: hit and pitch and provide strong value with both. He’s hitting .292/.380/.557 through 121 plate appearances and has a 3.18 ERA and 3.24 FIP through eight starts. Couple that with his NPB stats and his age and there’s no reason to think he can’t keep this up. The one thing that keeps him from being higher on this list is my concern that he’ll be more susceptible to injuries than most for, well, the obvious reason. But even if he becomes exclusively a pitcher, I think he’s good enough that he’ll be able to return good value.

16. Luis Severino (24): Severino’s an established ace with great stuff, and he’s young enough that it’s conceivable that he’ll remain great throughout the 10-year period. What more can I ask for? Besides for him to be on a team other than the Yankees, absolutely nothing. The only reason he ranks this low is the fact that he’s a pitcher, and as I mentioned above I’m inherently nervous about pitchers.

17. Aaron Nola (24): Like Severino, Nola is already an ace and likely has at least one Cy Young award in his future. Unlike Severino, he’s never lasted a full season. Fingers crossed that that ends this year.

18. Gleyber Torres (21): Am I jumping the gun a little bit? Probably. But Torres produced at ever stop in the minors and has produced so far in the big leagues through 130 plate appearances. The Yankees’ infielder is a talented hitter, and I’ll get him for his entire prime. Plus, I want to be sure that I’m not paying for past performance, so guys like Nolan Arenado and Jose Altuve, who are excellent players and likely have had/will have higher peaks than Torres continue to fall because of their age. I’m a bit concerned by his K:BB rate thus far and think he will continue to strike out a lot, but he should make up for it with plus power and solid defense at second or short.

19. Jose Altuve (28): It may seem a bit weird to have one of the best players in baseball this low, but that’s just a function of his age. He’s probably already at the tail end of his prime, although I’d expect him to continue playing at a pretty high level for most of this window. He seems set to hit well over .300 for a fifth straight season while providing speed on the basepaths and decent defense at second base.

20. Nolan Arenado (27): The main reason that I’ve dropped Arenado to #20 is that a whole lot of his offensive success is due to the fact that he plays home games at Coors Field. His career home OPS is .972, nearly 200 points higher than his .795 road mark. With that being said, he’s an excellent defensive third baseman who’s been a consistent 4+ WAR player for four years (and remember, that takes his home park into account). I’m comfortable ranking him here.

21. Ronald Acuna (20): Acuna is basically the definition of a can’t-miss prospect. He showed no flaws in the minor leagues, where he showcased his bat, legs, and glove. And his MLB career started brightly before he was shelved with a knee injury. I’m not as confident in his bat than I am in Vlad’s, but he fully deserves to be on this list.

22. Cody Bellinger (22): Bellinger has had a poor start to his sophomore season, which combined with the fact that he came out of nowhere last year makes me worry that his excellent performance last year was a fluke. But I’m putting him here because he’s so young and was so good last year. I think he’ll turn it around.

23. Freddie Freeman (28): Freddie Freeman is 28 and injury prone. He also plays first base. But he’s so darn good that he’s making this list anyway. He has the type of swing that lets players flourish well into their 30s, and he’s young enough that he could theoretically maintain a high level of play throughout the 10-year window.

24. Christian Yelich (26): Yelich is a very under-appreciated hitter, largely because he’s a corner outfielder who doesn’t hit for much power. But his OBP has been .360+ every season of his career, and his career OPS is north of .800. He’s also still young and I think is a pretty good bet to be a great two-hole hitter for the next 10 years.

25. Gerrit Cole (27): Cole has exploded in his first season with the Astros, posting a 2.20 ERA and striking out 12.78 batters per nine innings thus far. A former top prospects, Cole had never really delivered on his promise, although he’s been a lot better than people have given him credit for. He has a career 3.38 ERA and a 3.20 FIP, with the stuff to suggest that he’ll be a force for a long time. The lack of year-to-year consistency is the only reason he doesn’t rank higher.

Just missed:
Noah Syndergaard — a great pitcher who’s still just 25, Syndergaard missed most of last season due to injury and is hurt again this season.
Jacob DeGrom and Stephen Strasburg — both have extensive injury histories and are 29.
Austin Meadows and Juan Soto — they’re both top prospects who have flashed at the beginning of their MLB careers, but I need to see more before elevating them into the top-25.
Andrelton Simmons, George Springer, Alex Bregman, and Anthony Rendon were all close to making the list, but none of them are quite good enough offensively.
The pitchers mentioned at the beginning, Giancarlo Stanton, Joey Votto, and Paul Goldschmidt have all been among the best players in baseball for years, but all are too close to the twilight of their careers for me to put them on this list.
I really wanted to include Brewers sensation Josh Hader, who has been remarkable in a relief role this season, posting a 1.05 ERA, 1.00 FIP, and 69 strikeouts in 34.1 innings. That’s one of the most dominant starts to the season I can remember, and if he can keep that up for a full season (~90 innings of relief) I’ll be very impressed. But for now I’ll refrain from putting a reliever on the list of most impactful players for the next decade.

The Tampa Bay Rays Are Experimenting Again

Posted: 05/22/2018 by levcohen in Baseball

The Tampa Bay Rays rank 28th in baseball in team payroll at $80,074,591. That’s almost $60 million below the league average of a shade over $139M. They have some good young talent under team control but nowhere near the top-level talent they had in the days of Evan Longoria, David Price, James Shields, and B.J. Upton. Like other small market teams, their ability to compete will hinge on whether they can find competitive advantages that gives them an edge. The most commonly referenced example here is obviously what became Moneyball — the Oakland Athletics’ capitalization on a market that didn’t adequately value on base percentage. But there are other obvious examples — Kansas City’s reliance on heavy innings from their bullpen in their World Series seasons and Tampa’s early embrace of defensive shifts come to mind. As time goes on (and as stats get better and are more widely available), it becomes harder and harder to find those competitive advantages. It seems that there are fewer and fewer unadventurous teams, and baseball’s strategic norms (i.e., the things to take advantage of) are falling by the wayside.

One norm that remains, though, is the five man starting rotation. It was once a four man rotation and now some teams (notably the Angels, who are looking to preserve the arm of ace and slugger Shohei Ohtani) going with six starters, but most teams still pick what they think are their five best starters at the beginning of the season and give them the ball game after game until something goes wrong. Not the Rays. Due both to injuries — potential starters Nathan Eovaldi and Yonny Chirinos are on the DL — and lack of resources, Tampa Bay seems to have just three starters they’re willing to roll out there on a consistent basis. Two of those starters have ERAs north of 5.00, but that’s another story. Outside of those three starters, no other Rays pitcher has started more than five games (Chirinos), and no healthy pitcher has more than three starts. So when a weekend series with the solid Los Angeles Angels (26-21, sixth in baseball in payroll) came around, the Rays had Blake Snell — the best of their three starters — going Friday and then empty slots on Saturday and Sunday.

Most teams would have called up pitchers from the minors to start those games or at the very worst thrown long relievers out for four-ish innings. Not the Rays. Instead, Sergio Romo, a guy who’s thrown 514 career innings in 590 games, started both games. He became the first pitcher to start consecutive games since Zack Greinke started three straight in 2012 in very different circumstances (he was ejected early in the first game, started the second, and was able to start the third because the All-Star break was in between). The goal was not to stretch Romo out but simply for him to get out the top of the Angels’ order, which is full of good righty hitters. Throughout his career, Romo has had very strong numbers against righties, and the thought was that it would be helpful to give the Angels’ top hitters less exposure to the next pitcher, who would be expected to throw the brunt of the innings. It worked both times. On Saturday, Romo struck out Zack Cozart, Mike Trout, and Justin Upton in a perfect first inning en route to a 5-3 Rays win. On Sunday, Romo went 1.1 innings, leaving with a runner on first and one out in the second. He again struck out both Upton and Trout and also retired Andrelton Simmons. Ohtani and the Angels eventually overpowered Tampa, but it wasn’t because of the decision to start Romo for the second straight day.

Does this strategy have a future? I think it might. The Rays’ goal was obvious: get the best possible matchups against LA’s best hitters. If the thought is that you’re going to have to go through the order four times, you obviously have to plan on getting Trout, Upton, and the other righties at the top of the lineup out four times. If you think Romo is the toughest matchup for those guys — and Trout, Cozart, Simmons, and Upton are a combined 2-for-32 against him with just two singles — why not ensure that he’ll get to face them by starting him in the first? You can even do this if you have a “starting pitcher” you want to throw out there for a normal number of innings. In fact, it makes a lot of sense to ensure that the guy going through the order multiple times has to show his stuff to the opponent’s best hitters one fewer time. It’s a widely accepted fact that it becomes tougher to get outs when you’ve already faced the opposing hitters a few times. That’s borne out by the stats: pitchers have a .705 OPS against the first time through the order, .725 the second, and .805 the third. And the hitters most likely to take advantage of seeing your “starter” a third time are obviously the Trouts and Uptons of the world. So starting a tough reliever like Romo would serve to protect the real “starter,” who could then avoid facing the stars until the third or fourth inning — and would thus likely be limited to two showdowns against them.

In the most predictable development of all-time, the experiment was met with resistance. Cozart, who faced Romo both days, said: “It was weird…it’s bad for baseball, in my opinion…It’s spring training. That’s the best way to explain it.” I’m sure that was the commonly held belief among most players and managers in baseball. But the analytically-minded, forward-thinking baseball strategists often disagree with the Cozart’s of the world, whom I like to call the scions of conventional baseball. The bottom line is that while Tampa Bay did this out of necessity, I think this idea could have staying power.

It’s the second week of March. Spring training is well under way. At this point most years, the top free agents would have been acclimated to their new teams by now after signing well before the beginning of spring training. This is not most years. It took J.D. Martinez weeks of flirting with the Red Sox to eventually ink his five year deal with Boston on February 19th, and that was barely a week after Yu Darvish, the top starting pitcher on the market, signed for the Cubs. And even now, two and a half weeks after the Martinez deal and just three weeks before Opening Day, Mike Moustakas and Carlos Gonzalez  just re-signed with the Royals and Rockies respectively while a handful of quality free agents remain unsigned, including Greg Holland, Jonathan Lucroy, and three quality starting pitchers. It’s a much bigger deal for the pitchers, because while most hitters can get themselves ready for real action within a week or so of swings, it generally takes pitchers a lot more time to ramp up their preparations. And while we can assume that Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn, and Alex Cobb are throwing regularly and keeping themselves in shape, it would obviously be better for them to be settled in with their new teams by now. So why the hold-up?

Of the three, it’s least surprising that Arrieta is still a free agent. That’s because his agent is Scott Boras, and Scott Boras is notorious for holding his players out for as long as possible. A few years ago, Boras clients Kendrys Morales and Stephen Drew were out until about halfway through the season. J.D. Martinez is a Boras client. So is Holland, who’s also still a free agent, and both Moustakas and Gonzalez. Boras’s strategy works when demand for quality free agents exceeds supply. But the exact opposite has been the case this year, which is why Martinez settled for a deal that was well below his expectations. That also explains why these starters remain unsigned after all three turned down $17.4 million qualifying offers. Clearly, the market for starting pitching isn’t what they expected it to be going in.

That’s not to say that there aren’t teams that need starting pitching. In fact, there are a bunch of teams that do. The Phillies, Orioles, Brewers, Twins, Yankees, and Nationals have all been rumored to be interested in one or more of the three starters, and they aren’t the only teams who could use another quality starter in their rotations. The problem is that, now more than ever, teams are rightfully wary of signing aging pitchers to long-term deals. Lynn and Cobb are both 30-years-old and sat out recent years due to Tommy John surgeries, while Arrieta is 32. If teams are snakebitten about signing 30+ aged pitchers to big deals, I can understand why. Baseball is getting younger and younger, as studies show that players now actually reach their primes around 24-years-old, rather than the late-20s number that was often bandied about during the steroid era. Teams want youth, especially in their rotations. And they certainly don’t want to be saddled with albatross contracts attached to ineffective players. That’s why it’s probably more likely that Arrieta, Lynn, and Cobb will be stuck signing shorter term deals.

I think the pitchers and their agents are probably shocked by the quality of the offers they’re getting. The Twins reportedly offered Cobb a two-year, $20 million deal, which seems like a shockingly low offer for a guy who has added between 2 and 3 WAR in each of his last four full seasons (per Fangraphs). Now, it’s worth being concerned about the fact that Cobb’s strikeout rate went way down after his Tommy John surgery, but his fastball velocity is back up, and he is still coming off of a very solid season. A few years ago, that would have been enough to net him something like a four-year, $70 million deal. No longer, it seems. Lynn, meanwhile, has a career 3.38 ERA and has never had an ERA higher than 3.97. His struggle finding a suitable deal could have to do with teams focusing more on underlying stats. While his 3.43 ERA and 11-8 record in 33 starts coming off of his injury last year seem right in line with his career numbers, his FIP was 4.82, miles higher than his previous career high of 3.49. That could indicate that some ERA regression is in store, which could be scaring teams off. Lynn, like Cobb, has a much lower strikeout rate after surgery than he did before. Arrieta’s different. He has a much higher ceiling than Lynn or Cobb — he had a 1.77 ERA and won a Cy Young just three years ago. He hasn’t fallen off a cliff since, but he’s gone through obvious mechanical issues and suffered through an uneven season last year. Like Lynn, his surface numbers — 14-10, 3.53 ERA — look fine, but his FIP was 4.16, and he forced way fewer ground balls than in his superb 2014-15 stretch. His unorthodox mechanics and the fact that he’s 32 are also surely red flags for the teams who are balking at Boras’s asking price.

Gone are the days when 30+-year-old non-superstars got 5+ years and $100+ million in free agency. Teams are wary of those guys now, as they seem to recognize that baseball’s a (very) young man’s game. But it’s unclear whether the players and agents have realized it yet, and the fact that these three starters (as well as the other guys I mentioned above) remain unsigned would indicate that they haven’t. Why are Cobb, Arrieta, and Lynn still free agents? It’s a perfect storm: they’re all at least 30, all three are coming off years during which they didn’t pitch as well as their surface numbers indicated, and there a injury or mechanics related question marks attached to all three. It just so happens that teams are paying more attention to all three of those factors than they ever had before. To make matters worse, all three players are comparing themselves to previous free agent pitchers who got big deals in years that were much more generous to aging free agents. The Twins’ offer for Cobb is still a low-ball, but it now seems more likely than ever that Cobb, Arrieta, and Lynn will have to take a deal far below what they were looking for (both in terms of years and average annual value) if they want to get back on the mound by the start of the season. Otherwise, we could be looking at a Morales or Drew type situation, which is really a shame because all three of these starting pitchers are easily good enough to improve MLB rotations this season.

In the last week, Derek Jeter and the Miami Marlins’ new ownership group have fully announced their arrival by doing what everyone thought they’d do: cleaning house. First, they traded Giancarlo Stanton to the Yankees. Then, they moved Marcell Ozuna to the Cardinals. Obviously, these were two big trades. Stanton won the NL MVP this year, while Ozuna hit .312 with 37 homers and a .924 OPS. These two were the best players on the Marlins last season, worth a combined 11.7 WAR. They’re both in their primes, having turned 28 and 27 last month. They combined to hit 96 homers, etc. You get the point. So it’s no surprise that, when the Marlins failed to recoup that much value for either player, their front office got lambasted. Remember, this was the franchise — different ownership group, but still — that became known for being too cheap to hold onto its talent. The biggest example of this came after 2012, when the Marlins sold Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Emilio Bonafacio, and John Buck (and their $186 million in future salaries) to the Blue Jays. That trade didn’t end up looking terrible for them, but it sure did at the time. The biggest name Miami received back this time was Starlin Castro, and they also got several mid-tier prospects from the Yankees for Stanton and from the Cardinals for Ozuna. It certainly wasn’t a win-now move, and it probably isn’t fair value for either player. But here’s why I won’t rag on the Marlins for making either move. Everyone in the world knew that Miami was going to trade Stanton. And the Marlins didn’t have much leverage for a few reasons. I wrote about those reasons in August, and came to the conclusion that they shouldn’t move Stanton because they were unlikely to recoup much value for him because of his contract (he’s due $77 million over the next three years, then $210 million for seven more years if he opts in after 2020) and because he had a no-trade clause that he refused to waive for all but four teams. In fact, the Marlins had deals agreed to with the Cardinals and Giants, then told Stanton that he would have to waive his no-trade clause or risk being stuck in Miami. Stanton called the bluff, keeping the list at four: the Dodgers, the Cubs, the Yankees, and the Astros. Given all of that and given the contract, it would have been hard to imagine the Marlins getting much more from one of those four teams for Stanton. Castro’s an everyday player, and the two prospects are both B-level. Should they have traded him? That’s still debatable, but I can understand why they did it.

I agree that Miami did not get enough for Ozuna. But is it really that egregious? Here are the facts: before last year, he had a career slash line of .265/.314/.427. He’s no sure thing. He’s also arbitration-eligible for two more years before becoming an unrestricted free agent. That seems like a long time now, but that’s precisely what makes now the perfect time to trade Ozuna, especially if the two parties were far apart on extension talks. I don’t think it would have made sense to trade Stanton but not Ozuna, and I have to think that Miami got about as much as it could have for Ozuna. Christian Yelich, the Marlins’ third valuable outfield piece — probably the most valuable of all because of his defensive ability and contract — is a different story, because he’s under team control through 2022 at absurdly low rates. Yelich is 26, a perfect, cheap cornerstone to build around. I get why the Marlins are intent on keeping him. Did Jeter and Co. handle this perfectly? No. But they were also given an unplayable hand, and I’m going to reserve judgement rather than writing off this ownership group after one offseason.

Here are some takeaways from NFL’s Week 14:

  • It always amuses me to see the cycles of NFL stories over the course of a week. Last Sunday’s biggest news, obviously, was Carson Wentz’s season-ending injury. The first wave of stories were about how devastating the injury was for Wentz and for the NFL. Next came the postmortems about the Eagles, who are sitting at 11-2 and are odds-on favorites to win the #1 seed in the NFC. And then came the predictable next wave of “are the Eagles really done, or can they still win the Super Bowl?” articles. Here are my thoughts: nobody in their right minds will ever mistake Nick Foles for Carson Wentz. It is a huge, gut-wrenching loss for the Eagles. There are no silver linings. And the Eagles still have a good chance to win the NFC. It’s important not to underestimate the advantage of having the #1 seed. It means a first round BYE, and it means only home games until the Super Bowl. The Eagles aren’t guaranteed to win the #1 seed, but they’ll lock it up if they win any two of their last three games. Those games come against the Giants, Oakland, and Dallas. They’ll be substantial favorites in all three games. There’s also this: there are no dominant teams in the NFL. The Eagles were the closest thing to one. Are you telling me the Eagles wouldn’t have a great chance of beating the Vikings, Saints, Rams, Falcons, etc. at home? They would. I’m not sure they’re favorites in the NFC anymore, although Football Outsiders does, giving them a 29% chance to make the Super Bowl and a 14.3% chance to win it. But teams that go 11-2 have more going right for them than just their quarterback. Don’t count them out.
  • In this era of divisiveness outside of and more importantly inside of sports, I think we can all agree on one thing: snow football is great. I don’t mean flurry football. I mean blizzard-foot of snow on the ground-impossible to throw football. That’s what we got with Bills-Colts last week. The two quarterbacks completed a combined four passes in the first half. Frank Gore and LeSean McCoy combined to tote the ball 68 times. Speaking of LeSean McCoy, that guy is the king of blizzard football. He ran for 156 yards (4.9 yards per carry) and the game-winning touchdown in overtime last week. His first blizzard game came with the Eagles against the Lions in 2013. His stats in that game: 29 carries, 217 yards, two touchdowns. He’s good at snow football.
  • This week’s obvious quitters were the Bengals and the Jets. The Bengals, playing at home against the crappy Bears just six days after their brutal loss to the Steelers, gave up 27 straight points to end the game and lost 33-7. And the Jets were blanked by the Broncos, who had lost eight games in a row. Sometimes, teams come back from big deficits in football. You could have given the Jets and Bengals 20 quarters each and neither of them would have put many more points on the board. It looked like they didn’t want to.
  • The Steelers missed Ryan Shazier last week. A lot. Alex Collins gashed them for 120 yards on the ground and 46 more in the air, and the Ravens and their bland offense put up 38 points. The Steelers managed to win by a field goal or less for the third straight game, coming back from sizable deficits in the last two. Big Ben and their offense is getting better, and Antonio Brown is rightfully getting MVP buzz. Maybe the offense can keep this up and offset the defensive regression. But the team isn’t the same on the field without Shazier, and you get the feeling that it’s not the same off it, either. This week, cornerback Artie Burns said:

    I definitely know I have [CTE]. I’m going to [test positive for] CTE. I don’t need a test. Is it going to tell me how much I have? We play a physical sport, man. Humans are not made to run into each other.

    His last line (and all of it, probably) is true, of course, but it’s striking — and really sad — coming from him.

10-6 straight up… 131-77 on the season
9-7 against the spread… 109-92-7
11-5 on over/unders… 110-94-4

It could have been much better. I got burned by both overtime games, and by Alvin Kamara’s early injury and Drew Brees’s game-ending interception.

4-2 on upset picks… 22-29 on the season

Denver Broncos (4-9, 3-9-1 against the spread) at Indianapolis Colts (3-10, 6-7):
Spread: Broncos favored by 3
Over/under: 40.5
My prediction: The less said about this game the better. The Broncos are still winless on the road, and the Colts beat the other two terrible teams they played at home — Cleveland and San Francisco. But Denver showed some life last week, and I still trust the Broncos more than I do the Colts. The Colts go as T.Y. Hilton goes, it seems. They’re 3-0 when he goes off (150+ yards in each game) and 0-10 when he’s quiet (30.6 yards per game in those 10). I’ll take the Broncos to win 20-14, but I’m not at all confident in that pick.
Broncos cover
Under

Before I get to the NFL stuff, I wanted to touch on the World Series, for obvious reasons. Heading into the series, I must say I had no idea what to expect. On the one hand, I believed that the Dodgers were the better all-around team without the clear weakness that Houston had in its bullpen. But on the other hand, I had been confident in the Astros all season long, and Houston had just outlasted a really good Yankees team. My lack of a feel is one of the reasons I didn’t make a prediction before the series — the main reason being a lack of time, of course. But the World Series obviously wildly exceeded my expectations, which were high coming in. There were two games that became instant classics — back-and-forth extra innings affairs in Games 2 and 5 that, unsurprisingly, featured a ton of homers. This was a series between two titans duking it out, which is how it should be. In the end, the difference was that Houston’s stars contributed more than LA’s did in a series that outside of the aforementioned crazy games had very little offense. Game 7 wasn’t the barnburner that previous games in the series had been, but the Astros played mistake-free baseball and fully deserved to win. What more can you ask for in a Game 7 than a clean, well-played game?

NFL Week 8 was neither clean nor particularly well-played. There were very few good games, and even most of the closer ones were sloppy and sometimes hard to watch. There was one big exception, of course, to a week without much in the way of exciting football. That was the Texans-Seahawks game, which takes a commanding league in the “Game of the Season” sweepstakes. The final score — 41-38 Seahawks — indicates that it was a terrific game, but I don’t even think that does it justice. What made this game remarkable was the quarterback play. We’ve seen jaw-dropping performances from Russell Wilson before, but this may have been his best one yet. Time and time again, he transcends a leaky offensive line and dominates defenses. It’s long past time to consider Wilson an elite quarterback. Who’s better than he is? With Aaron Rodgers injured and Drew Brees beginning to slow down, I think Wilson may be second-best to Tom Brady. But the real story is Deshaun Watson. I picked the Seahawks to win but not cover, and the biggest reason I picked against the Texans was that I didn’t think Watson would play well against a tough Seattle defense on the road. I was right about the outcome but dead wrong about Watson, who threw for 402 yards and four scores and added 67 rushing yards. I’m fully sold on Watson — he can do everything. He’ll still make the inevitable mistakes that come from trying to do too much sometimes, but I think we can forgive him for that. By the way, the Texans should have won this game. The pivotal moment came late, when the Texans, up 38-34, had a third-and-short and could have ended the game with a conversion. Instead of trusting their quarterback, the Texans simply handed the ball to Lamar Miller, who was stopped short of the line to gain. Houston had to punt back to Seattle, and Russell Wilson took over. If you’re the Texans, you have to put the ball in Watson’s hands there. As I write this, news has come out of Houston practice that Watson has torn his ACL in practice today. That’s obviously huge and devastating news for Watson and the Texans (obviously) and for fans of the league. I guess Houston can’t have all the nice sports things.

Here are my other big takeaways from Week 8 (and the trades that followed it):

  • Everyone was thrilled about all the big deals that were completed at the deadline: Kelvin Benjamin to Buffalo, Duane Brown to Seattle, Jay Ajayi to Philadelphia, Jimmy Garoppolo to San Francisco. I was also happy that teams were actually trading good players, but I also think it’s worth tempering expectations about the instant impact those said players will have on their new teams. Benjamin joins a team that has consistently won without utilizing receivers. I doubt he’ll transcend a run-heavy scheme and become a stud in Buffalo. Brown’s immediately the best lineman on the Seahawks, but line play is so chemistry-oriented that plugging in an All-Pro at left tackle won’t necessarily solve that much. Let’s just say I don’t expect the run game to become existent overnight. Ajayi’s a good running back, but he’s not going to get 20+ carries per game on a team that has four other running backs. And the Garoppolo move should be put in a different category altogether. It’s probably the biggest one, but will also have little to no impact this season.
  • After another bad game from Ben Roethlisberger, I think it’s fair to call the Steelers a rich man’s Jacksonville Jaguars. That’s not a bad thing. Both teams have excellent defenses and are probably favorites to win their respective traditions. And Pittsburgh especially has a real chance to make a deep playoff run simply because there isn’t much in the way of scary competition in the AFC. The Patriots are worse than they’ve been in recent years, and the Steelers have had the Chiefs’ number. Neither Pittsburgh nor Jacksonville is getting consistent quarterback play, and that’s often a death knell, but it may not be this season.
  • How quickly things change. At the beginning of the season, and even a few weeks ago, the AFC West looked like a strong division that would certainly get at least two teams into the playoffs. Now? Denver’s offense has fallen apart to the point that the Broncos are starting Brock Osweiler this week. Oakland looks like one of the biggest disappointments in football, and the Chargers still can’t get over the hump. Not only is it KC’s division to lose, but it seems unlikely that there will be a wild card team in the division.
  • Speaking of AFC wild cards, who the heck is going to win them? It seems like the Bills are heavy favorites to take one home, especially since they’ve already banked five wins. But the Bills have a tough remaining schedule, and the other wild card spot in completely up for grabs. The Watson injury figures to remove the Texans from the conversation, but Tennessee and Jacksonville (whichever finishes second in the division) will be in the mix, along with… who, exactly? The Ravens? The Dolphins? Both of those teams have records that would indicate they’d be in the mix, but both have been really bad this season. I may have to recant my previous statement that the AFC West is unlikely to get a wild card team. I could easily see any of the three struggling AFC West teams putting things together and rallying to 9-7 and a wild card.
  • In my mind, there’s a clear favorite to win six of the eight divisions. The two exceptions are the South divisions. The Saints, Falcons, and Panthers all have a chance to finish on top and have played just one out of six games against each other. In the AFC, it should come down to Tennessee and Jacksonville. They have matching records and the Titans already have a head-to-head win, but the Jags have an easier remaining schedule and have looked better. Should be interesting.

I went 11-2 straight up, although the two losses were two of my three upset picks. By my math, that means there was only one upset last week! I’m 74-45 straight up on the year.
8-5 against the spread.. 60-56-3
7-5-1 on over/unders… 61-55-3

1-2 on upset picks, moving to 15-15.

Buffalo Bills (5-2, 6-1) at New York Jets (3-5, 5-2-1):
Spread: Bills favored by 3
Over/under: 42.5
My prediction: There are good reasons to be worried about Buffalo’s offense on the road. They’ve averaged just 14 points per game in three road games, and both of their losses have come away from home against teams that shut down their run game and thus their offense. That’s the key for the Jets here. If they can slow down LeSean McCoy and make Tyrod Taylor a pocket passer, they have a good chance to win this game. In past years, this would have been a good matchup for their defense. Not so this season. The Jets have given up 1,026 yards on the ground, fifth-most in the league. They’re also in the bottom third of the league in yards per carry allowed (4.3) and are 18th in DVOA against the run after finishing in first by a decent margin last season. The losses of Sheldon Richardson and David Harris, among others, have hurt the run defense. To make matters worse, Muhammad Wilkerson, perhaps the best player left on the defense, is banged up and may miss this game. Top cornerback, Morris Claiborne, will also miss this game, which means Kelvin Benjamin may have a good chance to make an impact in his debut. But the Jets have been good at home this year, going 4-0 against the spread after keeping it close against the Patriots and Falcons. This is a tough game to pick, but I definitely expect it to be close. I’m going to do something that I rarely do, which is to pick a field goal underdog to lose but cover. Gives me a very low chance at a sweep of straight up/spread/total, but I’m genuinely torn about the pick here, because the Jets have been feisty at home but the Bills have the talent advantage. Bills win 21-20.
Jets cover
Under

As Always, the MLB Playoffs Are Wide Open

Posted: 10/04/2017 by levcohen in Baseball

Sometimes, over the course of Major League Baseball’s six-month long regular season, we forget some things about the playoffs. Number one on that list, I think, is the fact that anybody who makes the playoffs has a legitimate shot to win it. When teams are on unprecedented winning streaks (see: Indians, Cleveland) or start the year with 121 games of .719 baseball (see: Dodgers, Los Angeles), it’s human nature to gravitate towards those teams, to think they are odds-on favorites to win their respective leagues. And it’s easy to overlook teams that go 43-45 before the All-Star break (see: Cubs, Chicago) or play inconsistently throughout the year. But now that the playoffs have started, none of that matters. After the Diamondbacks and Rockies face off in the Wild Card game tonight, there will be eight teams still standing, and I won’t be shocked if any of those eight teams win it all. That’s not to say that some teams aren’t better set up to win it all than others; on the contrary, I think it’s pretty clear that the Indians have the best overall roster talent and the best chance to win the World Series. But the differences in talent between teams don’t always shine through in short, five or seven game series’. A seven game series in baseball is not like a seven game series in basketball. In the NBA, the better team usually ends up winning most seven game sets, no matter how poorly they play in any given game. In MLB, where the talent difference is much less vast, that’s far from the case. Every playoff team has gone through a stretch this season that’s been bad enough that it would cost them a series against any other playoff team. Baseball’s a game of hot streaks and cold streaks, and the team that wins it all isn’t always the best team in baseball (last year’s Cubs are an example of a team that was the best team in baseball AND won it all). What’s each playoff team’s recipe for success in October? I’m going to run through all nine remaining teams in order of how bullish I am on their World Series chances.

Cleveland Indians: This one’s easy, because the answer is simple: the Indians just have to keep playing the way they’ve played over their last 50 games, a span in which they’ve notched 42 victories. They have one of the best pitching staffs of all-time. Their pitchers racked up 31.7 WAR, which is not only easily the best in baseball but also easily best in baseball history. The staff doesn’t have Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz firepower, but it does have certain AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, and it has Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, and Josh Tomlin filling out the playoff rotation. This is a much healthier rotation than the cobbled-together one that nearly won the World Series last year. If Kluber (1.77 ERA post-ASB; .84 in September), Carrasco (3.12, 1.48), Tomlin (3.19, 3.52), and Bauer (3.01, 2.90) keep pitching the way they’ve been pitching, the Indians will win the World Series. That’s especially true given the fact that they also have the best relief pitcher in baseball in Andrew Miller. I’m not going to write about the lineup, because I don’t think they need big offensive numbers to win it all. But guess what? They also have one of the best lineups in baseball, which is why they had a +254 run differential. The bad news: they drew the Yankees, who had the second-best run differential in baseball at +198. That’s a tough ALDS draw for the Indians, but it doesn’t change the bottom line. If the Indians just keep playing the way they’ve been playing, they’ll win it all.

Houston Astros: I may have foreshadowed this in my post about the Astros about three weeks ago, but I’m very bullish on this team. Now that they’re healthy, I think they have the best lineup in baseball by a decent margin. They’ll only win the World Series, though, if they get good outings from Justin Verlander, Brad Peacock, and Dallas Keuchel. I don’t think any of those guys need to be lights out for Houston to win it all. Verlander’s been unbelievable as an Astro (five starts, 34 innings, four runs allowed, five wins), but the bullpen is deep enough that those three starters are only going to be asked to pitch, say, five or six innings. I think everyone has confidence in Verlander at this point, but both Peacock and Keuchel have also been very good down the stretch, especially early in outings. Peacock, who’s the biggest unknown of the three, has a .92 ERA this season in his first time through the order, and hitters are slashing just .145/.222/.198 against him. That ERA rises to 3.35 the second time around and 8.84 the third time. That’s a good sign that he’ll be able to consistently give five-ish really effective innings. To me, Keuchel is the biggest X-factor. Houston’s #2 starter was dominant to start the season and then got hurt and struggled for a number of starts before closing the season strong. Which Dallas Keuchel does Houston get? If it’s the dominant, Cy Young-award-winning one, I think we’ll be crowning the Astros World Series champions in a few weeks.

Los Angeles Dodgers: LA’s slump to end the season took the shine off their roster, but this team is still plenty good enough to win the World Series. The “Clayton Kershaw can’t pitch in the playoffs” argument is obviously moronic, but it would be cheap and insufficient to put “a dominant Kershaw” as LA’s recipe for postseason success. Sure, the Dodgers need a dominant Kershaw, but they need more than that. I feel pretty good about Kershaw, Rich Hill, and Yu Darvish atop the playoff rotation, although I think it’s worth noting that among those three (and Alex Wood, who should be #4), only Darvish is a righty. That could come back to haunt LA against a righty-heavy team like the Diamondbacks, a potential first round opponent. But for the most part, I think Kershaw and Hill are good enough to shut down lefties and righties. What the Dodgers really need is a return to form from the left side of their infield, also known as two-hole and three-hole hitters Corey Seager and Justin Turner. It’s really nice for the Dodgers to get contributions from guys like Chris Taylor and Yasiel Puig, but none of it matters unless both Seager and Turner improve on their second-half splits. Turner slashed .266/.357/.476 after the All-Star break while Seager slashed .292/.348/.450. They were both fine, but neither was the stud that the Dodgers had become accustomed to having at the heart of their lineup. For what it’s worth, the pair went in opposite directions in September. Turner hit .291/.394/.519, while Seager slumped to .179/.261/.321. The good news — and the reason I still consider the Dodgers to be a slight NL favorite — is that Seager’s struggles may be attributed to lingering injuries he had. I say had, because in his last five games he was 6-for-17 with a couple of homers. The Dodgers need both Seager and Turner to be hot, because I think it’s fair to expect a drop-off in play from the Taylor’s and Puig’s of the world.

Chicago Cubs: The Cubs just need their rotation to get its mojo back. Everything is in place for a return to the World Series. The lineup is deep and has studs Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo as its linchpins. This is probably the best defensive team in baseball and certainly has the edge over the Nationals, their NLDS opponent. The bullpen is probably slightly better than it was last year. The only thing that’s missing is the dominant starting pitching Chicago got last season. Kyle Hendricks is back to the guy he was last year — he has a 2.19 ERA in 13 starts since coming off the DL in July. He’ll start Game 1. And Jake Arrieta, assuming his hamstring is healthy, is back to his former dominant self. He had a 1.69 ERA in July and August. I’m not worried about either of those guys. But Jon Lester, one of the best playoff pitchers in recent memory, had easily his worst regular season since 2012. Can he flip a switch in October and become the guy who has a 2.63 career playoff ERA and a 1.03 WHIP? If so, the Cubs will be right back in the catbird seat. Then there’s Jose Quintana, who has flashed moments of brilliance since being acquired from the White Sox (three scoreless starts out of 14) but has also had some shaky outings (two with six runs allowed). I put the Cubs ahead of the Nationals because I think they have a higher ceiling thanks to the versatility and depth of their lineup. But Washington was the better team all year long, so it’s going to take a transformation from Lester and consistency from Quintana for the Cubs to get out of the first round, let alone win it all.

Washington Nationals: The second-best team in the NL all season long, is this the year the Nats finally get over their postseason bugaboos? It could be, but they’re going to need more than dominant Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer performances. First of all, it’s unbelievable how good Strasburg has been since coming off the DL in August. In eight starts, he’s thrown 53.2 innings and given up 32 hits and five earned runs (.84 ERA). He’s struck out 63 and walked 10. It’s the best stretch of his career, and that’s saying something. But again, the Nats are going to need more than Strasburg and Scherzer, especially since Scherzer is nursing a hamstring injury and probably will only start one game in the NLDS. I know people are going to point to Gio Gonzalez, because he has a shiny sub-3 ERA, but that’s a mirage. He out-pitched his peripheral stats all year, and the walks and lack of strikeouts started to come back to haunt him late in the season (5.85 ERA in his last six starts). Gonzalez isn’t Washington’s X-factor; Trea Turner and Ryan Zimmerman are. I think we all know who Daniel Murphy is at this point — a very good hitter who gives back a lot of his value on the field. Same goes for Bryce Harper (a total stud, and if he’s not fully recovered from his injury, the Nats are screwed) and Anthony Rendon (all-around star). But for the Nationals to be successful this postseason, they’re going to need strong performances from their fourth and fifth most important offensive players. The bottom of their lineup is fairly weak, which means that prolonged slumps from Turner and Zimmerman would likely be fatal. I’m not saying that either the shortstop or the first baseman needs to repeat the numbers they put up in September (.284/.354/.500 for Turner, .329/.368/.659 for Zimmerman), just that both need to avoid the slumps they’ve been known to struggle through, because in the end, the offense is going to need to be good enough to lift the team in games not started by either Scherzer or Strasburg.

New York Yankees: In recent years, relief pitchers have become more and more important in the playoffs. The Yankees have the best and deepest bullpen in baseball this year, and I don’t think it’s particularly close. You saw what happened last night against the Twins. Starter Luis Severino, who was one of the best starters in the AL this year, struggled mightily, giving up two homers and leaving the game with runners on second and third with one out down 3-0 in the top of the first. Most teams wouldn’t have been able to overcome that start, but the Yanks overcame it with ease. Chad Green, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, and Aroldis Chapman combined for 8.2 innings of five hit, one run ball, striking out 13. In addition to those four, who have all been tremendous, the Yankees also have Dellin Betances and Adam Warren, who had 2.87 and 2.35 ERAs respectively this season. That’s five guys with sub-3 ERAs and Chapman, who has been dominant since being reinstated as the closer. Given the number of rest days there are between games, the Yankees can count on a lot of innings from those six, which means they don’t have to rely heavily upon their rotation. New York’s recipe for success, then, is this: get five serviceable innings from the starter (Severino, Sonny Gray, Masahiro Tanaka, or C.C. Sabathia), hit a few bombs (they led the league in homers with 241), and hand it over to the bullpen. It’s pretty compelling, and I’d have ranked the Yankees much higher if they weren’t playing the Indians in round one.

Boston Red Sox: I’m not high on the Red Sox. Their offense has been very disappointing, the bullpen is good but not great, and I don’t trust a single starter other than Chris Sale. But to discount the Sox would be to undermine the entire premise of this post, so here goes… The formula is simple: Boston’s four 25-and-under stars — or at least three of them — need to play to their potential. Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, and Rafael Devers were all once top prospects and all may end up being superstars. But they haven’t played like superstars this year, which is why the Sox have been a bit of a disappointment. They all hit between .264 and .284 and had an OPS between .746 and .819. That’s fine, but unless some of those guys break out in the playoffs, it’s going to end in a first round loss to the Astros.

Arizona Diamondbacks: For the Diamondbacks, who’ve been a better team than the Red Sox by run differential (and identical by record), the recipe is simple: the rotation has to outperform expectations, because the bullpen has one reliable arm, and that’s Archie Bradley, who has a 1.73 ERA but who is a clear candidate to wear down over the course of a playoff series. The rotation was one of baseball’s biggest surprises, finishing second in WAR. Zack Greinke has returned to form after a down 2016, but that’s not the surprise. The surprises are Zack Godley (3.37 ERA, 3.41 FIP in 155 innings this year; 6.39, 4.97 in 74.2 innings last year) and Robbie Ray (2.89 ERA, 3.72 FIP in 162 innings this year; 4.90 ERA, 3.76 FIP in 174.1 innings last year). I’m not convinced that either performance is for real, but if they are, the Diamondbacks have a real chance to get past the Rockies tonight and then the Dodgers, especially now that they have J.D. Martinez (.302/.366/.741 with 29 homers in 232 ABs with the Diamondbacks) hitting in the middle of the order. Paul Goldschmidt, Martinez, and Jake Lamb form a potent 3-4-5 combination, and all they need is to be supported by tremendous starting pitching.

Colorado Rockies: The Rockies have two MVP candidates in Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon and one of the best pitching staffs in franchise history (led by Jon Gray, who has the potential to be the best pitcher in franchise history). Ironically, it’s really the offense that has let them down, as they scored “just” 824 runs this year, which ranks third in baseball but is significantly worse than they did last year, when they went 75-87. Everyone’s numbers look better at Coors Field, and the fact is that, when adjusted for ballpark, nobody other than Arenado and Blackmon has been all that great. The Rockies need their supporting cast to explode. I’m talking about Carlos Gonzalez, DJ LeMahieu, Gerardo Parra, Trevor Story, etc. After hitting .377/.484/.766 in September, CarGo may be all the way back. The Rockies need the others to be back, too.