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By Jay Jaffe
October 02, 2017

The 2017 postseason is about to begin, and despite the extremes we witnessed in September, from the Indians’ 22-game winning streak to the Dodgers’ 1–16 skid, the slate is now clear. For all we think we know about how the next month will unfold, predictions are more darts than art, and at least half the fun of October is the way it defies our expectations. The 10 teams that qualified for the postseason all have their strengths, some of which matter more than others but all of which provide a reason to believe that they can win it all, or at least playing deep into the postseason.

With the addition of Justin Verlander, the late-season rebounds of Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh and the development of Brad Peacock, the Astros' postseason rotation can get by without Lance McCullers Jr., who last made a quality start on June 8. What stands out more is their offense, which led the league in runs per game (5.54), batting average (.282), on-base percentage (.346) and slugging percentage (.479).The team's slugging percentage is MLB’s highest since 2003, and their 128 OPS+—OPS adjusted for ballpark and league scoring environments—is a post-1900 record, bettering the 1927 Yankees’ 127. Only two postwar teams, the 1976 Reds and 1982 Brewers even reached 120, which is to say 20% more productive than average.

The Astros' lineup gives opposing pitchers very few places to hide. They're capable of fielding an entire lineup full of players with an OPS+ of at least 100, with Marwin Gonzalez in left (instead of rookie Derek Fisher) and Evan Gattis at DH (instead of Carlos Beltran). They narrowly missed becoming the first team since the 1953 Brooklyn Dodgers with five batting title-qualified players with a 130 OPS+ or better: second baseman and MVP favorite Jose Altuve (165), superutilityman Gonzalez (150), centerfielder George Springer (145) and rightfielder Josh Reddick (135) all made the cut, while third baseman Alex Bregman (129) fell just short. Shortstop Carlos Correa (160) missed qualifying by 21 plate appearances due to the thumb injury that sidelined him for 42 games.

Remarkably, the Astros do their bashing while striking out less than any other team. In a year of record-setting strikeouts, 137 players had whiffed at least 100 times through Friday, but only two, Springer and Beltran, are Astros. The team's 17.2% strikeout rate is four points below the AL average, and only about a point ahead of the 2014 and '15 Royals squads whose contract-centric ways charmed so many pundits.

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Forget the 22-game winning streak, as none of the other three teams to peel off at least 20 straight—the 2002 A's, 1935 Cubs, and 1916 Giants—won the World Series. Forget the 26–4 final month of the season, as none of the 24 wild card-era teams to play .700 ball or better after August 31 won the World Series, and only two (the 2011 Rangers and 2013 Cardinals) even made it that far. Judged by their full body of work, these Indians are pretty special, particularly when it comes to run prevention. Their 3.51 runs per game allowed isn't just the best in the league by more than half a run, they're one of just seven wild card era teams to allow at least one run per game less than the league average; in that span, their 1.17 differential is second only to the 2001 Mariners' 1.41.

The Indians' rotation is in better shape than this time last year, when they came within one hop of winning their first championship since 1948, Corey Kluber owns the league's lowest ERA (2.25), highest WAR (8.0) and second-highest strikeout rate (11.7 per nine). He's been even better since missing four weeks in May due to a lower back strain (1.62 ERA, 12.1 K/9), holding opposing batters to a .495 OPS in that span. Carlos Carrasco, who missed last year's postseason run due to a fractured metacarpal, ranks sixth in ERA (3.29), fifth in WAR (5.4) and strikeout rate (10.2 per nine) and fourth in FIP (3.10). Trevor Bauer’s been on a roll (2.57 ERA, 4.4 K/BB in his last 11 starts and one relief appearance) and presumably he's learned his lesson about the dangers of drones.

While manager Terry Francona hasn't decided between Danny Salazar and Josh Tomlin for the fourth starter spot, but the choice means that Mike Clevinger, who's enjoyed a breakout season (3.11 ERA, 10.1 K/9 in 121 1/3 innings) will serve as a multi-inning weapon for a bullpen that leads the AL in ERA (3.34) and strikeout rate (10.1 per nine). Last October's weapon, Andrew Miller, hasn't allowed a run in 10 appearances (eight innings, 16 K) since returning from the disabled list, and fellow lefty Tyler Olsen has yet to allow a single run in 20 innings since joining the team. 

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This is not the wall-banging Red Sox bunch of yesteryear, the one that led the AL in slugging percentage (.461) as well as batting average (.282) and on-base percentage (.348) in 2016. In the wake of David Ortiz's retirement, this year's bunch ranked 14th in slugging (.407) and dead last in home runs (167), though four player—Mookie Betts (24 HR), Hanley Ramirez (23), Mitch Moreland (22) and Andrew Benintendi (20) — still hit at least 20. According to Tom Verducci, none of the last seven champions finished among the majors' top five in homers.

The Sox do get on base enough (.330 OBP) to rank sixth in the league in scoring (4.86 runs per game), but they're a better team when it comes to run prevention. In Chris Sale and Drew Pomeranz, they have an excellent one-two punch in the rotation, albeit not the one that they anticipated on a roster that included 2012 AL Cy Young winner David Price and 2016 winner Rick Porcello. Price's elbow issues limited him to just 11 starts and  have consigned him to the bullpen for September and October, but the early returns are excellent: four appearances, 7 2/3 innings, 11 strikeouts and just four baserunners. He'll augment a bullpen that ranks second in  the AL in ERA (3.10) and features the league's top closer in Craig Kimbrel, owner of a 1.43 ERA, 16.4 strikeouts per nine, and a 9.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio. In his last 23 games, he's whiffed 45 of 89 batters while allowing just three runs.

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From 2016 rebuilders to 2017 wild card qualifiers, the Yankees have gotten dramatically younger, but they're still a viable contender for the AL pennant. The lineup lacks standouts besides Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez—six of the seven other regulars has an OPS+ between 98 and 106 [through Friday]—but the key to their advancement is pitching. Twenty-three-year-old staff ace Luis Severino (2.98 ERA, 3.07 FIP, 10.7 K/9) and midseason acquisition Sonny Gray form a solid 1–2 punch even if Gray struggled with walks and home runs allowed in September. CC Sabathia has remade himself after abandoning his four-seam fastball in favor of a sinker and cutter. Masahiro Tanaka, though erratic, can flat-out dominate on his best day, as his attested by his games of 13, 14, and 15 strikeouts this year, each without a walk. 

The real key is a bullpen designed for October. With Chad Green, Tommy Kahnle, David Robertson, Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman, manager Joe Girardi has a veritable clown car of effective relievers who can miss bats. The four besides Chapman are among the 10 relievers who whiffed at least 37% of batters faced, and all have ERAs below 3.00. Chapman’s strong September (12 IP, 17 K, 5 baserunners) suggests he’s past the shoulder and hamstring injuries that cut into his effectiveness earlier in the year. The group will shorten games to the point that it won't be a surprise if any starter is pulled before five innings, even with a lead.

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By becoming the first team ever to reach the postseason after losing at least 100 games the year before, the 2017 Twins have already made history. If they can get past the Yankees in the AL wild card game—and no, their four series losses to the Bronx Bombers from 2003–10 aren't relevant here—it's difficult to see how manager Paul Molitor can steer them past the Indians given a shaky rotation that will be limited to one start from staff ace Ervin Santana.

Still, this is a different team than the one that had just a 5% chance of reaching the playoffs as of August 1, right after dealing closer Brandon Kintzler to the Nationals and starter Jaime Garcia to the Yankees. They were 50–53 at the time, averaging 4.55 runs per game in scoring but yielding 5.25. They've gone 35–24 since, bashing out 5.86 runs per game while riding the hot bats of Brian Dozier (.309/.407/.600, 17 HR in that span), Eddie Rosario .293/.326/.566, 16 HR), Joe Mauer (.340/.404/.459), Jorge Polanco (.316/.377/.553, 10 HR) and Byron Buxton (.298/.342/.541, 11 HR), the last of whom has emerged as a star on both sides of the ball. Meanwhile, they've cut their runs allowed to 4.29 per game in that span, with Jose Berrios and Kyle Gibson stabilizing the rotation and Matt Belisle handling closing duties.

But the Twins didn't get this far by listening to anybody spouting stats. They're about the magic, and if Buxton and company can channel the spirit of Kirby (Puckett), Herbie (Kent Hrbek) and Wrench (Dan Gladden), they just might produce another Minnesota miracle to go with their 1987 and '91 championships.

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