Playoff Power Rankings: Blue Jays are No. 1, Pirates No. 10 (with a catch)
One of the many great stories to come out of the Royals' run to Game 7 of the World Series last October was how stores in the metro Kansas City area scrambled to stock their shelves with long-sleeve Royals gear—sweatshirts, hoodies, jackets and the like. An entire generation of their fans had grown up without needing cold weather gear to their favorite baseball team.
October is the best time of year, but it’s never better than when a team wins the World Series for the first time in a generation. It’s not just excitement of a fresh kind. It’s also a merchandising bonanza.
When you think about the playoff field this year, your first thought might not be of championship sweatshirts. Still, use that idea as a way to appreciate how long it’s been since fans of eight playoff entrants could wear one—if they ever have. Unless the Yankees (most recent title: 2009) or Cardinals ('11) win the World Series, the championship this year will be the first in a generation for some franchise.
The field is so rich with droughts that the Blue Jays, who just ended the longest North American streak without even reaching the postseason, won the third-most recent title among the 10 playoff teams. In ascending order of longest waits, after the Blue Jays (22 years since their last title) you have the Dodgers (27), Mets (29), Royals (30), Pirates (36), Astros (54), Rangers (55) and Cubs (107).
One reason for such droughts is the unpredictability of October. Increased parity and increased rounds of the postseason have added to the surprises. For instance, if you had seeded the eight playoff teams before the 2006 postseason, I would have put the 83-win Cardinals a no-doubt-about-it-eighth. Of course, they won it all—with light-hitting shortstop David Eckstein as the MVP, Jeff Weaver (5.18 ERA during the regular season) as the winning pitcher of the clincher and Tigers pitchers throwing the baseball around like it was a wet bar of soap. How do you predict that?
With that caveat in mind, I give you my seeds for this year’s tournament. This is based not just the strength of the teams, but also on the matchups they face—which translates to the most likely to win the World Series, from 1 through 10, commemorative hoodie not included.
1. Toronto Blue Jays
Teams that play Toronto in Rogers Centre are defending air space: The Blue Jays swing for the fences, and clear them often. Toronto is 46–15 at home this year when it hits a home run. This is a throwback offense to the days when there was no PED testing in baseball. The Jays are the first team to score double digits in 26 games since testing started, the first team since the 1997 Rockies with three players with 39 home runs or more and the team with the best run differential since 2001.
Since the trade deadline, the Blue Jays have been playing in the biggest madhouse in baseball. Home field is an advantage in Toronto like nowhere else: The Jays are 25–8 at home since July 29. For a team to knock out Toronto, it better jump on the Jays early in the series, because this team is playing with tremendous confidence.
That makes the Game 1 start by David Price against Texas a huge one. Price is one of 14 pitchers to make at least five postseason starts and never get a win (though he did deliver a complete game victory in a Game 163 tiebreaker for the Rays back in 2013)—and the only one of that bunch to lose his first five (0–5, 4.98). He will be pitching on 11 days of rest. The last pitcher to open a postseason series with that much rest: Red Ruffing of the Yankees in the 1939 World Series. How’d that work out? Ruffing, who rested an ailing elbow at the end of the regular season, beat the Reds, 2–1, with a complete-game four-hitter.
2. Kansas City Royals
Kansas City has an ace, and it is not deadline acquisition Johnny Cueto. It’s 24-year-old Yordano Ventura, whom pitching coach Dave Eiland said is “throwing the best baseball of his career”—and that was before Ventura struck out 11 against Minnesota last Saturday. Ventura has thrown his curveball more often over the past six starts, and it has become such a put-away pitch for him that batters are hitting .111 against it on two-strike counts.
With designated hitter Kendrys Morales and second baseman Ben Zobrist having been added since Kansas City's season ended with a loss to San Francisco in the 2014 World Series, the Royals also bring a better offense than last year. And don’t forget manager Ned Yost’s lucky rabbit foot, Alcides Escobar. Despite a .293 on-base percentage in the leadoff spot, the Royals are 102–59 the past two seasons when Yost writes Escobar's name atop the lineup card. “I don’t know why it works, but it works,” Yost said.
Jed Jacobsohn for Sports Illustrated/Getty Images
3. Los Angeles Dodgers
It makes no sense that three-time NL Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw is on the list of most playoff starts with just one win:
What makes more sense is that Kershaw and Zack Greinke will carry this team the way Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling did Arizona in 2001. (The Diamondbacks were 9–2 that postseason when Johnson and Schilling started and 2–4 with anybody else.) The Dodgers are 25–8 at home this year when Kershaw and Greinke pitch, including 12–1 since the All-Star break.
There is nothing in his pitch selection the previous two years (as show by percentages) to suggest that Kershaw is different in the postseason:
|2013–14 regular season||58.4||26.4||13.3|
|2013–14 postseason losses||57.1||26.2||16.8|
But his career numbers show he doesn’t miss as many bats in the playoffs, which may be a function of the approach of the Cardinals have used against him in October, including series-clinching wins in the 2013 NLCS and 2014 NLDS.
|Time Frame||BAA||BABIP||Strikes Swinging||Strike%|
Bottom line: Kershaw is fine, and we shouldn’t be surprised when a guy with a career ERA of 2.43 (compared to his postseason ERA of 5.12) throws a gem.
4. St. Louis Cardinals
St. Louis posted a 2.94 ERA this season, the lowest by any team since the 1988 Mets. The ERA was 2.79 when Yadier Molina was behind the plate and 3.49 with anyone else; Molina caught 78% of the innings. He is the most indispensable player on a team that has been hit hard with injuries. This week, Molina will test out a splint to protect the torn ligament in his left thumb. The Cardinals are optimistic he will make their postseason roster, but their odds of running through three postseason rounds with even a compromised Molina are drastically reduced.
Otherwise, St. Louis plays a style of baseball similar to what the Giants used to win three of the past five World Series: They put the ball in play to all fields, they play clean baseball defensively and they have multiple looks and pieces in the bullpen to gain matchup advantages.
5. New York Mets
Teams that win the World Series in this era of run prevention and bullpen specialization have bullpen-savvy managers who get the most out of deep bullpens, from Bruce Bochy (his Giants bullpen was 13–2 in championship runs of 2010, '12 and '14) to Tony La Russa (he made a postseason record 75 pitching changes with the 2011 Cardinals) to John Farrell, who also had been a pitching coach with Boston (his 'pen pitched to a 1.37 ERA in the '13 postseason). New York's Terry Collins is managing his first postseason and with a bullpen that is not necessarily deep.
His task is complicated by dealing with young starting pitchers who are pitching beyond their previous workloads. How far does he push Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey and, if healthy, Steven Matz? The best scenario for the Mets to win it all is to keep the NLDS and NLCS short, buying more rest.
6. Chicago Cubs
The versatility of Chicago's offense will be tested. The Cubs are one of three postseason teams with a below-average OPS against relief pitchers this year (the Rangers and Mets are the others). They struck out 1,518 times, or 16% more often than any team that went on to win the World Series. (The 2013 Red Sox fanned 1,308 times.) They had the most strikeouts with runners on than any team in baseball. All of that sounds ominous in a postseason environment.
But somehow Chicago’s bullpen piled up 37 wins, tying the franchise record set in 1978. It's also the most by any team in baseball since 2009, and just four fewer than the record of the 1953 Dodgers. The Cubs do have an edge with fearless Joe Maddon in the dugout, though at times he can get carried away with being unconventional, such as when his Rays did not play no-doubles outfield defense in Game 5 of the 2008 ALCS and blew a seven-run lead at Fenway Park.
7. Texas Rangers
The best chance for Texas against Toronto is getting two wins from Cole Hamels. Toronto—by a mile—is the best fastball hitting team in the majors; you can’t throw too hard to its hitters. But Blue Jays manager John Gibbons told me the one type of pitcher his home-run happy team can struggle against is a lefthander who stays away with soft pitches. Adam Morgan of Philadelphia beat the Jays twice this year despite hardly cracking 90 mph. Hamels’s changeup can be a weapon.
The Rangers allowed more runs in the seventh through ninth innings than any postseason team, though the addition of reliever Jake Diekman has helped. Texas is a tough out in tournament play. It is loaded with veteran hitters who grind out at-bats and is one of the best and most aggressive base running teams in baseball.
8. Houston Astros
This is a fun club to watch: They rely on home runs, concede bushels of strikeouts and run aggressively. The Astros won 35 times at home this year with more than one home run, eclipsing the 2000 Cardinals and 2008 Cubs (34) for the most such wins. Youth isn’t a problem; Houston plays with as much fervor as the inexperienced 2014 Royals.
More troubling are these trends: Starter Scott Kazmir (0–2, 6.52 in September) and the bullpen (the most losses, 10, and worst ERA, 5.63, in the majors in September) seem to have hit a wall, and the Astros’ style hasn’t translated well on the road (33–48), which is where they'll be when they play the Yankees in Tuesday's AL wild-card game.
9. New York Yankees
This seed is mostly about the wild-card game; it’s a bad matchup for the Yankees, even with Dallas Keuchel pitching on short rest for Houston. New York is 8–12 when it sees a lefthanded starter over the past two months, and Keuchel is not just another lefthanded starter. Only one pitcher in the past 105 years has thrown more shutout innings against the Yankees in one season than Keuchel has done this year:
|Pitcher, team||Year||Innings PItched|
|Joel Horlen, White Sox||1965||18|
|Dallas Keuchel, Astros||2015||16|
|Bob Stanley, Red Sox||1983||15 2/3|
Two other potential oil slicks for New York in this game: the length it gets from starter Masahiro Tanaka and Houston's running game. Most Yankees games turn in the sixth inning, that troublesome gap between the tiring starting pitcher and the Justin Wilson-Dellin Betances-Andrew Miller trio of relievers. New York allowed more runs in the sixth inning than any postseason team—and more than any non-playoff team except the Rockies and Angels
When manager Joe Girardi does rush Betances into the game, keep an eye on the bases. Betances threw nine wild pitches and allowed 17 stolen bases; no other reliever in baseball allowed more than 10.
10. Pittsburgh Pirates
This is not the knock on the Pirates that it looks like. I believe Pittsburgh can win the World Series and may have the best 25-man roster in the postseason. But here’s the problem: To do that, the Bucs have to beat not only the hottest pitcher on the planet, but also the toughest starting pitcher the franchise has ever faced.
The Pirates have faced the Cubs' Jake Arrieta five times this year and are batting .151 against him with three extra-base hits (no homers) in 36 innings. Nobody has allowed the Pirates so few extra-base hits over that many innings since Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal in 1968.
It gets worse for Pittsburgh. There are 700 pitchers who have started five games in a season against the Pirates (thanks to the indispensable Baseball Reference). Arrieta just displaced two guys who were born in 1887 and '88—before the radio or basketball were invented—as the most difficult for Pittsburgh to reach base against in a single season, as measured first by on-base percentage and then by WHIP.
|Jake Arrieta, Cubs||2015||.192|
|Jeff Tereseau, Giants||1914||.210|
|Johnny Cueto, Reds||2010||.211|
|Jake Arrieta, Cubs||2015||0.639|
|Pete Alexander, Phillies||1916||0.750|
|Johnny Cueto, Reds||2010||0.758|
Now let’s broaden the search and consider the thousands of pitchers who made five starts in any season against any team. And now you’ll see that Arrieta’s domination of the Pirates is historic:
|Dean Chance, Angels||1964||Yankees||0.460|
|Derek Lowe, Red Sox||2002||Devil Rays||0.595|
|Jim Bunning, Phillies||1964||Mets||0.600|
|Mort Cooper, Cardinals||1942||Reds||0.608|
|Jake Arrieta, Cubs||2015||Pirates||0.639|
That ownership is why Pittsburgh gets the 10 seed, even with the game at home, even with ace Gerrit Cole on the mound and even with a smart, sound, thorough club. If the Pirates manage to beat Arrieta—and hey, they did beat him back on May 17, a game Arrieta left after seven innings down 1–0 thanks to a bloop double and soft single—they get re-seeded to No. 2.