Keys to victory for bluebloods in loaded ALCS, NLCS
Cinderella did not get invited to the ball. After all the talk of parity and small payroll teams hanging with the big boys, we wind up with two League Championship Series in which none of the four teams qualifies as a surprise. The four teams left standing rank among the 11th highest payrolls in the game: Dodgers (2), Red Sox (4), Tigers (5) and Cardinals (11).
Such are the pedigrees of the final four teams that none of them should be allowed to dish out that championship cliché about "nobody thought we would be here." Since 2003 the four teams have combined to make 18 LCS appearances. The longest LCS "drought" among any of them belonged to Boston, which went all of four years without reaching getting this far.
Uniforms? Tradition? No surprises here, either. The Red Sox and Tigers were original American League teams while the Dodgers have been playing baseball since 1884 (under one nickname or another) and the Cardinals since 1882. All four teams use classic uniforms that have not changed much over the years. It's a final four of baseball bluebloods.
Two trends stand out that have helped create these LCS heavyweight matchups. The first one, a subtle one, is the confirmation that experience continues to get devalued as a requisite for managing. Three of the four LCS managers never managed on any level before their first big league job: Don Mattingly of the Dodgers, Mike Matheny of the Cardinals and John Farrell of the Red Sox. No wonder you are hearing names such as Bryan Price, Barry Larkin, Paul O'Neill, Brad Ausmus and Cal Ripken tossed around as candidates for managerial openings. Experience in running a game is almost worthless as clubs place more of an emphasis on communication skills and emboldened general managers want middle managers to implement franchise "systems" and cultures.
The more obvious trend is that in an age when strikeouts have hit a record rate six years running, power pitching wins in October. Be it Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Adam Wainwright, Max Scherzer, Michael Wacha, Zack Greinke, Jon Lester or Clay Buchholz, not to mention one arm after the other coming out of bullpens to throw in the upper 90s, power pitching will continue to rule the playoffs.
"If you are a general manager and don't see it now that the way through the playoffs is power pitching, you must be dumb," said Pedro Martinez, my colleague as part of the TBS coverage of the postseason.
It's not just payrolls; the final four teams all ranked in the top six in their league in strikeouts per nine innings. The Dodgers and Tigers led their leagues, the Cardinals were fifth and the Red Sox were sixth. Detroit set a major league record for most strikeouts in the regular season, and followed it with a record for most strikeouts in a Division Series. Detroit, Boston, Los Angeles and St. Louis combined for 172 strikeouts in 158 2/3 innings in the Division Series, a strikeout rate (9.76 per nine innings) that was 28 percent greater than the major league regular season average.
If you want offensive might, you have that, too. The Red Sox, Tigers and Cardinals ranked 1-2-3 in the major leagues in runs per game. The Dodgers ranked 16th. The two series match up such strong teams that you should not be surprised if we get two Game 7s for the first time since 2004. Here is what else to expect:
NLCS: Dodgers vs. Cardinals
Season series: Dodgers led, 4-3, though the two teams haven't met since Aug. 8
The overview: Los Angeles has Greinke and Kershaw lined up for the first two games while Wainwright is not available until Game 3. Advantage: Dodgers. But the Los Angeles rotation falls apart after the two aces. Hyun-Jin Ryu, looking tired, lacks finish on his pitches, and Ricky Nolasco has been slumping badly enough for the Dodgers to force Kershaw to pitch on short rest for the first time in his career -- and for a non-elimination game in the NLDS. Advantage: Cardinals. Overall St. Louis has more power arms in the rotation and bullpen than does Los Angeles.
Ramirez, protected by Adrian Gonzalez, is an impact hitter at the top of his game. The Cardinals will have to be careful with Ramirez and take their chances with Gonzalez, a very good two-out hitter, and Yasiel Puig, the Los Angeles catalyst.
Wacha is coming off two near no-hitters and is matched up against Kershaw in Game 2. The only way to beat Kershaw is to outpitch him. Teams that beat him this year received a 1.92 ERA from their own starter in those games. If Wacha beats Kershaw in Game 2, the series swings in St. Louis' favor.
Key matchup: Matt Carpenter against Greinke
The Cardinals need their leadoff hitter to get untracked. Carpenter was 1-for-19 in the LDS as Pittsburgh pitchers regularly beat him with fastballs. Carpenter is 3-for-7 in his small sample against Greinke. Game 1 will set the tone. It's important for St. Louis to get production from a guy who was first in the league in doubles, third in total bases and fourth in times on base.
X-Factor: Yasiel Puig
He reached base in half his plate appearances in the LDS and scored a run five of the nine times he got on. He is the team catalyst and his energy on defense, at bat and on the bases buoys L.A. Puig hit .400/.526/.600 in four games against the Cardinals this season. They had better take another look at their scouting report on him.
ALCS: Tigers vs. Red Sox
Season series: Tigers led, 4-3
The overview: The greatest strikeout staff in baseball history faces an offense that scored more runs and sees more pitches than any other team in baseball. The series comes down to whether the Tigers can attack the Boston hitters with pure stuff in the strike zone and not worry about Boston "grinding out" at-bats.
The Red Sox hit good pitching. Tampa Bay's pitchers, for instance, had the second-lowest OBP against in the AL (.305), but Boston wore them down in the LDS. The Red Sox posted a .390 OBP in the four games.
Fielder doesn't have the same aggressive approach at the plate that made him such a big-time run producer. He hasn't had an RBI or extra-base hit since Sept. 22. Since then he is hitting .206. He is due for some damage.
Ellsbury reached base 10 times against Tampa Bay in four games and is the best base stealer in the game. Detroit allowed the highest stolen base success rate in the league (82%) and the third most stolen bases (128).
Breslow has become the most valuable commodity in a bullpen this time of year: a platoon-neutral reliever who throws strikes. Farrell can drop the lefthanded Breslow into a game in just about any trouble spot and not have to worry about taking him out when a righthander comes up. Breslow has a 0.31 ERA since July 22, including the postseason (one earned run in 29 1/3 innings). Farrell is most likely to fetch him when Fielder is due, though he can use him for more than one batter. Fielder is 1-for-4 against Breslow and Victor Martinez is 2-for-9.
X-Factor: Miguel Cabrera
The big guy looked like an opposite field singles hitter for a month while fighting abdominal and groin injuries. But he seems to be getting better with the days of rest in the postseason. Entering ALCS Game 1, Cabrera will have had nine days off in the previous 14 days. The swing he took to hit a two-run homer in the fourth inning of ALDS Game 4 off Oakland's Sonny Gray was something of a shock because of its ferocity.
The A's attacked a diminished Cabrera all series with fastballs, knowing he could only turn on breaking pitches and the heaters he did connect with were dying harmlessly in the rightfield alley. When Gray threw a 1-0 fastball to Cabrera, it was the 58th pitch Oakland pitchers threw him in the series; 51 of those 58 pitches were fastballs. You cannot get a great hitter out one way all the time, and yet Oakland had been neutralizing Cabrera with fastballs thrown 88 percent of the time.
One swing changed the Boston scouting report. Cabrera showed he is healthy enough now to turn on a 94-mph fastball and do damage. He had not had an extra base hit since Sept. 17. The home run was the first one he pulled to leftfield since Aug. 25. The Tigers are a different team if Cabrera is a longball threat.