This year's playoffs, which begin tonight, feature 10 teams that all won at least 90 games and finished the regular season within seven wins of each other. Over the past 22 postseasons only three teams with the most regular season wins went on to win the World Series (the 1998 Yankees, the '07 Red Sox and the '09 Yankees). So if someone tries to tell you who the "favorite" is to win the World Series, you should have just one response: laugh.
The playoffs have never been this unpredictable, with the Wild Card games layered upon the already expanded postseason, and with commissioner Bud Selig's grand plan to create competitive balance having worked amazingly well. Throw in the fact that runs per game is at its lowest level since 1992 and all the ingredients are on hand for tight, coin-flip games. October could belong to anyone.
To help you through this month of madness, what follows is a look at some of the many directions in which this postseason can go. What I've done is seeded all the teams from one through 10 (keeping in mind that any seed is capable of winning it all) and then provided not just a way for that team to get through to a world championship, but also a way for that same team to get bounced out of the tournament. All the possibilities are in play. Selig -- who is presiding over a game in which Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Oakland are still playing and New York (both teams), Chicago (both teams), Los Angeles (one team) and Philadelphia are not -- should be smiling about this new world he helped create.
One recent trend to keep in mind: The teams that put the ball in play have been winning in October. Here is how the past eight teams to reach the World Series ranked in their league in offensive strikeouts: 15, 9, 16, 14, 12, 11, 13, 9. Teams in the top five in strikeouts are 2-9 in postseason series over the same span, and 16-28 (.364) in postseason games. Based on that tendency, I would favor the Cardinals or the Dodgers against the Tigers or the Rays in the World Series. But you know what to do with that information: laugh.
The Way Through: The Red Sox have homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, a meaningful perk for a team with the best home record in the AL (53-28, including 40-17 since May 24). Their offense is a grinding one filled with veteran hitters who take and foul off lots of pitches. Boston saw the most pitches in baseball this year -- 1,167 more than any other team still playing. Ace Jon Lester was sharp down the stretch (5-1, 2.22, one home run allowed in his last eight starts).
The Way Out: Red Sox hitters were fourth in the league in strikeouts. Power pitchers who pound the strike zone can slow them down. Boston ranked ninth MLB in batting against power pitchers. Detroit would be a difficult ALCS draw for the Red Sox.
The Way Through: With the return to the full complement of off-days in the October calendar (NL Division winners have 28 days to win 11 playoff games), the Dodgers can ride Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. The two aces started back-to-back games this year 23 times and Los Angeles was 30-16 in those 46 games. Only once did the Dodgers lose consecutive games started by Kershaw and Greinke: a pair of one-run defeats in Cincinnati early last month.
The Way Out: The team's offense has been sporadic. Los Angeles scored three or fewer runs in more than half its games -- 85, the most of any team still playing.
The Way Through: Power hitting and power pitching. The pitching staff set a record with 1,428 strikeouts, while the offense, which led the league in hits and batting average, struck out the third fewest times in the league. The Tigers had a strikeout differential of +355. Justin Verlander is the key: his strikeout stuff is back, but oddly Detroit is 1-9 in his last 10 starts.
The Way Out: The defense is the worst of any playoff team. The bullpen was 17-25 with a 4.01 ERA, the seventh worst in baseball and the worst among playoff teams.
The Way Through: Balance is the key for the Athletics. They may have more ways, from more players, to win games than any team in the postseason, including from an underrated defense that led the league in defensive efficiency and which held opponents to the lowest batting average on balls put in play. Oakland also has a decided advantage at home, where it went 52-29 and had the lowest ERA in the league.
The Way Out: The A's best starter is 40-year-old Bartolo Colon, who threw more innings (190 1/3) this season than at any time since he was 32. Oakland's starters ranked 10th in the league in strikeouts per nine innings. The Athletics' offense lives and dies with home runs even more than the Braves: Oakland is 80-28 when it hits at least one homer, and 16-38 when it doesn't.
5. St. Louis Cardinals
The Way Through: Nobody in the tournament is better at hitting with runners on base than the Cardinals. St. Louis hit a ridiculous .330 with runners in scoring position -- 76 points better than the Reds, the next best team in the league. The Cardinals also struck out fewer times than any NL team except the Giants. St. Louis' starting pitchers have the most wins in baseball and the second-best ERA.
The Way Out: The bullpen can be spotty. The Cardinals ranked ninth in the NL in runs allowed from the seventh through the ninth innings, worst among the NL playoff teams. Their defense is below average. Lefthanded pitching stops St. Louis (19-23).
The Way Through: The Braves need to get the game to their relievers. Atlanta's bullpen had the best ERA in baseball (2.46) and the fewest losses in the league (15). Closer Craig Kimbrel saved 24 games in which he did not allow a baserunner, the most such saves in baseball. The Braves have the best home record in the majors.
The Way Out: Winning on the road is a problem (40-41). Strikeouts on offense are also an issue, but less so if Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton are not in the lineup. And Atlanta has better situational hitters than you might expect from a team that tied the Mets for the most strikeouts; the Braves ranked fourth in OBP with runners in scoring position.
The Way Through: The Rays have their hottest pitcher, Alex Cobb, lined up for the Wild Card Game against the Indians. Tampa Bay's defense is second best in the league in defensive efficiency, making its strike-throwing pitching staff all the more effective. Evan Longoria and Wil Myers are impact hitters, and both are swinging the bat well.
The Way Out: The Rays were 7-12 against Boston this season, including 3-6 at Fenway Park, and will open the Division Series there if they beat Cleveland on Wednesday.
The Way Through: They live dangerously. No team won more games by one or two runs than the Pirates (54), which is by design. They have the toughest starters to hit in baseball (.243 batting average against) and the best bullpen this side of Atlanta (2.89 ERA, the best in Pittsburgh since 1968). And if you believe venue matters -- not that you should after home teams went 18-19 in the playoffs last year -- the Pirates will also have the excitement of playing their first postseason game in 21 years at home.
The Way Out: Offense is a major problem. Pittsburgh hit .229 with runners in scoring position -- next to last in the NL -- and struck out the third most times in the league.
The Way Through: Last weekend's home series loss to the Pirates was costly. Now the Reds must face Pittsburgh's Francisco Liriano on the road. Good luck with that. Liriano has the lowest ERA in PNC Park history (1.55; minimum 10 starts) and shuts down Cincinnati lefties Shin-Soo Choo, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce (.154 batting average, zero extra-base hits) -- just as he has done to lefties throughout his career (.212, just six home runs in 954 plate appearances). If the Reds can slip through the Wild Card Game with Johnny Cueto as a stopper, Cincinnati has the best defense in the league.
The Way Out: The matchup against Liriano is troubling enough. Also, the Reds are a losing team against opponents .500 or better (35-42).
The Way Through: The Indians have the hottest pitcher in baseball. Cleveland has won the past six games started by Ubaldo Jimenez, who is 4-0 with a 1.09 ERA, seven walks and 51 strikeouts over that span. If you believe in momentum, the Indians closed out the season on a 15-2 run, lost back-to-back games once in September and are only the fourth team (the first since the 1971 Orioles) to take a winning streak of 10 or more games into the postseason. Manager Terry Francona is crazy if he doesn't mothball Chris Perez and use Justin Masterson as his closer.
The Way Out: The bullpen is shaky. In the AL, only the Mariners and the Astros gave up more runs from the seventh through the ninth innings. The defense is below average. And as for that momentum? Well, there are no more cupcakes on the schedule. Cleveland has won one series against a winning team since the end of July. Overall they are 36-52 (.409) against winning teams, including 14-32 (.304) against playoff teams.