The road to a title — or not — for every Division Series team
Kansas City has waited a long time for this month; as has Baltimore … and Detroit … and Washington … and Los Angeles … Five baseball cities that haven’t celebrated a World Series championship in at least a quarter of a century have a shot at seeing those droughts end. While Anaheim, St. Louis and San Francisco have been home to championship teams in the past dozen years, the majority of hopes this postseason belong to fans of the long-suffering variety.
Who will win? If you want the city with the longest drought, you go with Washington (last champion in that city: 1924). If you want the most deserving ballpark to host a champion you go Baltimore (1983); for old-school tradition you go Detroit (1984); for the biggest surprise you go Kansas City (1985); and for a Hollywood ending you go Los Angeles (1988). If you want more prosaic reasons why your team will win the World Series (or not), read on for a preview of the eight teams still standing, presented in alphabetical order.
The common complaint about Baltimore is that it lacks an ace. Just imagine if the Orioles had someone who was nearly as tough to hit as Stephen Strasburg and who went 8-4 with a 2.24 ERA in his past 21 starts. Of course, they do, and it’s Chris Tillman, whose .671 OPS against was a fraction better than Strasburg's mark (.672). Even if he's not an eight-inning pitcher (he reached that mark just five times this year), he need not labor much more than six because of a tremendously deep bullpen. Under pitching coach Dave Wallace and bullpen coach Dom Chiti, the Orioles are at the cutting edge of the game; no team throws more fastballs, and those fastballs are always sinking, cutting and running. And the defense is rock solid; no team still playing has a lower batting average against on balls in play (.282).
The offense is heavily home-run dependent — Baltimore led the majors in percentage of runs scored via the long ball — but that’s not a complaint this time of year. Even though home runs grow scarcer in postseason play, the quickest way to come back is with one swing, and with Nelson Cruz, Adam Jones and Steve Pearce, the Orioles have more bats to change a game quickly than anybody.
How they win the World Series: Defense, bullpen and home runs — that's a reliable recipe to navigate October.
How they get eliminated: Righthanded power pitching shuts down their righthanded power bats of Jones, Cruz, Pearce and J.J. Hardy.
No team has more truly great players than the Tigers: three Cy Young Award winners (David Price, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander), a two-time MVP (Miguel Cabrera), and one of the best switch-hitters in baseball (Victor Martinez). But does Detroit have enough complementary players to make this star system work? Its aggressive lineup can wear down even the best of pitching, and its offense passes the most important test these days: Can it hit relief pitching when the heat gets turned up and managers play matchups? The Tigers batted .270 against relievers, the best in baseball.
But there are enormous questions in two key areas of October baseball: the bullpen and defense. Only the White Sox, Rockies and Astros posted a worse bullpen ERA than Detroit (4.29). And when it comes to defensive efficiency — how often a team turns batted balls into outs — only the Twins were worse than the Tigers. The other nine playoff entrants all ranked above the major league average in defensive efficiency.
How they win the World Series: With three aces and the reliable Rick Porcello, the Tigers have a chance to win every game they play on the strength of a well-pitched start. And for a team to get through Cabrera and Martinez in the late innings with the game on the line is the toughest assignment in playoff baseball.
Kansas City Royals
OK, this makes no sense, but it sure is fun, right? The only team ever to finish last in the league in home runs and walks and still make the playoffs just knocked out Oakland by coming from behind three times to win the Wild-Card Game. The Royals used 14 position players for that night and half of them stole a base — the seven thieves set an all-time postseason record, displacing the 1907 Cubs. Kansas City made Oakland — the erstwhile state-of-the-art wonks — look like it was playing an outdated brand of baseball. The Athletics' roster of patient, swing-and-miss flyball hitters with poor defensive range fell (okay, barely) to a hacktastic bunch of athletic speedsters. The Royals are the most athletic team in baseball and also the best two-strike hitting team in baseball.
Kansas City may be this year’s version of last year's Pirates — it was fantastic to see the postseason back in a great baseball town, and the team seems to ride community enthusiasm to survive a razor-thin margin of error. Enthusiasm only takes you so far; Pittsburgh didn’t have enough offense to get through the NLDS last year. But if the Royals can scratch out a lead by the end of six innings, their bullpen will make them, at that moment, the toughest team to beat in baseball.
How they win the World Series: Smoke, mirrors and a bullpen. The offense is challenged. No team hits the ball on the ground more than Kansas City. The Royals need to stitch together groundball singles, bunts and stolen bases. But putting the ball in play has tremendous value in today's strikeout-prone game.
How they get eliminated: The offense just isn't deep enough. And the game management of Ned Yost (use a rookie starter in the middle of a jam while asking him to work on one day’s rest after 73 pitches? Really?) always seems a story waiting to happen.
Los Angeles Angels
The Angels' bullpen ranked 24th in ERA halfway through the season (3.89). But thanks to changes made on the fly by general manager Jerry DiPoto (who traded for Huston Street and Jason Grilli), in the second half the upgraded 'pen ranked ninth (3.12). Sadly for Los Angeles, though, its best starting pitcher, Garrett Richards, blew out his knee, following lefthander Tyler Skaggs to the done-for-the-year list. The Angels can still run out Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson and Matt Shoemaker, but none of them ranks among the top-40 qualified pitchers as ranked by OPS. That is, they’re not going to out-stuff anybody.
The offense is what makes this team special. At 4.77 runs per game, it's the best in the majors. Not only do the Angels have the best player in baseball in Mike Trout, but they also take the extra base more often than any team in the league (46 percent). Erick Aybar and Howie Kendrick — all-fields hitters who are tough outs — are more important than the banged-up Josh Hamilton.
How they win the World Series: The Angels flip the script on what baseball has become and ride offense to a title. Trout, in his first postseason, begins his October highlight reel in his opportunity to succeed Derek Jeter as the game's national ambassador.
How they get eliminated: Shortened rotations, rested bullpens and even more in-depth scouting reports thwart L.A.'s offense, and the pitching isn't good enough to win low-scoring games.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Will manager Don Mattingly push ace Clayton Kershaw on short rest again? He did it in NLDS Game 4 last year — when he was ahead in the series, two games to one, and when Kershaw never had pitched on three days rest — and it may have contributed to the NL Cy Young winner's empty tank when the Cardinals waxed him in the NLCS Game 6 clincher. It may be tough for Mattingly to resist again. When he gives the ball to Kershaw or Zack Greinke, his team wins 71 percent of the time (42-17). When he gives it to anybody else, his team is mediocre (52-51). (Greinke, by the way, has only two career starts on short rest.)
The Dodgers' offense was the best in the league in September as Matt Kemp's bat sprung to life — and right on time, as the power disappeared from the bat of Yasiel Puig (five home runs in his last 100 games). They posted the best average in the league with runners in scoring position (.286) and the best OBP from the top two spots in the batting order (.354). This is a team that hits good pitching and is an impressive rally team.
How they win the World Series: A quick LDS sets up enough rest for Kershaw and Greinke to give a reasonable facsimile of Arizona's Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling from 2001.
How they get eliminated: The defense is at best average and is problematic in key spots (shortstop, centerfield), and the bullpen in front of closer Kenley Jansen is an issue.
St. Louis Cardinals
The idea that St. Louis should "save" Adam Wainwright rather than "waste" him in a Kershaw game is absurd, and nothing you would ever hear from an actual baseball person. Wainwright can flip the entire NLDS by beating Kershaw in Friday's Game 1, and he has the stuff to do it. Lance Lynn bullies hitters with his fastball and Shelby Miller (past six starts: 1.69 ERA and .185 batting average against) deservedly gets the ball over a still-rusty Michael Wacha. John Lackey has lost a tick or two of velocity late in the year.
St. Louis' problem is an offense that has been inconsistent at best and poor at worst. The Cardinals have neither power (last in the league in homers) nor speed (next-to-last in steals) and often become too passive. Their .369 slugging percentage would be the worst by any world champion since the 1988 Dodgers.
How they win the World Series: Relying on their quantity of quality arms and Yadier Molina behind the plate, they turn every game into a pitcher's duel. St. Louis and Baltimore had the best record in one-run games this year of any team still playing (32-23). The Cardinals allowed three runs or less more times than they didn't, going 70-20 in those games.
How they get eliminated: The inconsistent offense falls flat for a week.
San Francisco Giants
Now let’s see: The Giants' rotation ranks 10th in the league in ERA; they blew a 10-game lead in the NL West and finished six games out; their rightfielder finished in a 3-for-54 slump; their starting leftfielder, in a win-or-go-home game, was starting there for only the fourth time in his career; and they have a losing record in one-run games (18-22) and games against teams .500 or better (27-31). So it makes perfect sense that they are playing in the postseason.
What San Francisco has is a tough-minded team with a sage of a manager, Bruce Bochy, who knows how to deploy bullpen pieces about as well as anybody in the game. The Giants allowed the second fewest runs in the seventh through ninth innings. (Only San Diego permitted fewer.) They have a big game pitcher in Madison Bumgarner, whose career road ERA in the best among active starters in the non-Kershaw division. And they have plenty of experience — and success — when it comes to playing must-win games.
How they win the World Series: The same way they did in 2010 and 2012: with a different star of the game every night from one of the most resourceful rosters in the playoffs.
How they get eliminated: The starting pitching isn't deep enough to keep them in every game.
Imagine you are a rookie manager — with little to no managing experience whatsoever — and your toughest decision involves how to line up a bunch of starters who all could be number ones on another staff. That's the job description of not just Matt Williams in Washington but also Brad Ausmus in Detroit, two of the most fortunate first-year managers in recent memory.
Williams has the best team in the postseason because it has balance on offense, defense and in the pitching staff. Starters Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez are a quartet reminiscent of the staffs of the late '90s Yankees: The Nationals can line up their number four against your number one and still feel good about the pitching matchup. Even the bullpen, with Drew Storen taking over the closer’s role, has been solid (3.00 ERA, second-best in the league.) The Nats this year allowed two runs or fewer in almost half their games (72, winning 65 of them), the most by any team in the past 12 years.
Strasburg is pitching his best ball of the year and could be the biggest star this October. One trouble spot to watch: He's been much worse in his career with runners on (.251 batting average against) than with the bases empty (.212), a trend that held again this year (.267-.234) and forebodes difficulty in a key spot.
How they win the World Series: The staff with the greatest strikeout-to-walk rate in baseball history (3.7 strikeouts for every walk) provides a fitting cap to the Year of the Pitchers.
How they get eliminated: The offense, populated with strikeouts, goes cold.