Half the baseball playoff field, all division winners, has remained the same for two years: Red Sox, Indians, Nationals, Cubs and Dodgers. No reason to expect any of them not to back in the postseason this year. Nor is there any reason to expect the two best teams in baseball, the Yankees and Astros, not to join them again. That leaves 23 teams to compete for three spots.
Welcome to Bifurcated Baseball. When it comes to winning the World Series, you have The Big Seven and Everybody Else. It’s a bit like college football: if you’re not in a Power Five conference, you have no shot at winning it all. Teams like the Twins make for a nice Central Florida story, but they don’t get to hang with the big boys at the end.
Las Vegas has The Big Seven no worse than 10:1 to win the World Series. The next best among Everybody Else is 20:1, which, depending on your source, is either Minnesota or St. Louis.
The top of baseball is so elite that it has discouraged the bottom teams from competing. Last year there were 18 losing teams, tying 1999 (Year 2 of the most recent expansion) for the most losers in a season.
So where is the mystery any more in baseball? Book this: there will be one or two surprise teams this season. Maybe they won’t win the World Series, but one or two of those 18 losers from last year will be in the playoffs this year, which at least gives them the unlikely shot of becoming the next 2006 Cardinals—a second-tier team that gets hot in the postseason.
I’m here to tell you who those surprise teams will be.
How am I so sure one or two surprise teams will crack the playoff field? It’s one of the surest trends in baseball. Every year for 12 straight years, and for 22 of the 23 seasons since the adoption of the Wild Card, the playoffs have included at least one of these teams I call Turnaround Teams: losers one year to playoffs the next. There have been 50 such teams in 23 years, so this is no fluke.
This is the fifth year I’ve gone out on a secure limb at the start of the season to pick the most likely surprise teams. Among my top two losers-to-playoffs picks each year, five of eight in fact made the playoffs. That’s a .625 batting average with a four-year hitting streak, including both of my top two selections last year.
My number one surprise team last year was the Colorado Rockies. I said at the start of the season I liked their young starting pitchers and “if the Rockies can manage a bullpen that is mediocre, they can make the playoffs.” The bullpen improved from 30th to tied for 20th.
“The Rockies are loaded with players at the right age and with athleticism, and with the experienced [Bud] Black replacing the inexperienced Walt Weiss, they have the right ingredients to be this year’s sleeper team.”
Bingo. The Rockies improved from 75 wins to 87 wins and the playoffs.
My second pick required a bigger leap of faith: the Arizona Diamondbacks, coming off a 93-loss season. I believed in their run prevention improvement.
“Arizona has a high-ceiling pitching staff, and I love what GM Mike Hazen has done to get the most out of it: emphasized catching defense (Jeff Mathis and Chris Iannetta over bat-first Welington Castillo), hired Dan Haren as a game-planning strategist, and hired analytics whiz Mike Fitzgerald. With A.J. Pollack back in centerfield, the Diamondbacks just may post the biggest improvement on the run prevention side. This team is probably a year away from the playoffs, but with their own new manager, Torey Lovullo, the Diamondbacks are developing a strong culture that may accelerate the timetable.”
Bingo. Arizona did lead the majors in run prevention improvement (-231) and Lovullo was the NL Manager of the Year.
The Twins made for a third Turnaround Team last year—a turnaround nobody saw coming because no team before them ever jumped from 103 losses one year to the playoffs the next.
Over the years I’ve found two recurring themes to look for when picking surprise teams:
1. A new manager: Forty percent of Turnaround Teams in the wild card era (20 of 50) changed managers before or during the season. The trend has been even stronger lately: 11 of the past 19, or 58%.
2. Run prevention improvement: Getting better at preventing runs is far more important when it comes to rapid improvement than getting better at scoring them.
The Rockies and Diamondbacks fit those trends perfectly. Both made excellent managerial hires, and both emphasized better run prevention over offense. Colorado actually scored fewer runs (-21) but cut their runs allowed by 103. Arizona’s huge gain in run prevention dwarfed their improvement in runs scored (+60).
So which of the 18 losers from last year will be the surprise playoff teams of this year? Here I’ve ranked the five teams with the best chance of pulling off the turnaround. With 50 such teams in 23 years, I’m putting the top two on this list in the playoffs.
1. New York Mets
They fit right in the wheelhouse of the prototypical Turnaround Team: a club with a dynamic new manager (Mickey Callaway) that will post an enormous improvement in run prevention. Last year the Mets were the worst team in baseball by defensive efficiency (.667) and the worst team on batting average on balls in play (.322) while allowing more runs (863) than any team in franchise history except the infamous 1962 Mets. They have to be better.
New York’s position players are still too unathletic and range-challenged for my tastes, so where is the huge step forward? The health of Mets pitchers.
(This is where I pause this column to allow you your laughing fit. Done? … Not yet? … How about now? Good. Now let’s continue.)
I get it. Counting on the Mets’ returning starting pitchers to stay healthy is like expecting Lucy to keep the ball on the ground, laces away, for Charlie. But look at the objective evidence: Noah Syndergaard (a Cy Young waiting to happen), Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey and Steven Matz are still in their 20s and threw the ball well in spring training.
There has been only one season in which Syndergaard, deGrom and Harvey made half the team’s starts. When it happened, in 2015, the Mets went to the World Series.
Here’s the math. The Mets were 103-79 (.565) in games started by Syndergaard, deGrom, Harvey and Matz in their playoff years of 2015–16. Give those pitchers 100 starts among them this year, and at that rate, and with the Mets playing .500 ball in games started by anybody else, New York wins 88 games.
Jason Vargas will help. He hit a post-Tommy John wall last year in August and his finesse stuff will play better in the NL. Sixty starts alone from Syndergaard and deGrom, two elite pitchers, will do wonders. And Harvey looks like he can contribute decent innings.
Harvey’s best fastball is gone and it’s not coming back. The metrics show a pitch in decline—in velocity, in spin rate, and in how hitters square it up. But it’s still good enough to get big league hitters out.
The key is going to be his changeup. For as much as people have fixated on his velocity, Harvey lost the feel for his changeup. Now that he’s throwing 94—barely a tick above average—instead of 97, Harvey needs that changeup even more.
For all of his power, in his best year, 2013, Harvey’s best pitch was his changeup. He allowed a miniscule .210 slugging percentage on the pitch while getting a 20 percent whiff rate. By 2016, after Tommy John surgery and headed for thoracic outlet surgery, he allowed a .532 slugging percentage on the change and was getting only a 13% whiff rate. The pitch improved last year and, by every indication, including his self-proclaimed “feel” after the thoracic outlet surgery, looks even better this spring.
This team will hit a ton of homers, though the offense lacks balance. No team in the Statcast era (2015–17) has averaged a higher launch angle than the flyball-happy Mets. And their age and lack of athleticism puts them at greater risk of injuries. But with decent health from their starting pitchers and with Callaway, an inspired pick, helping to bring out the best in them, the Mets will be in the playoff hunt.
2. Los Angeles Angels
They have the best player in baseball (Mike Trout), one of the best defensive players in baseball (Andrelton Simmons), one of the best leftfielders in baseball (Justin Upton) and a starting pitcher with Cy Young-quality stuff (Garrett Richards). They also have addressed three holes in their 82-loss team from last year: leftfield (Upton was acquired last August), second base (Ian Kinsler, via trade) and third base (Zack Cozart, via free agency).
Tied for fourth in defensive efficiency last year, this team may be the best defensive team in baseball this year, helping the run prevention improvement.
The X Factor for the Angels is Shohei Ohtani. They can make the postseason if Ohtani doesn’t hit much, but they can’t if he’s a bust on the mound. I wouldn’t worry too much about his spring training results on the mound, as he is getting used to a new baseball, new training norms and the challenges of day baseball in Arizona for pitchers. He throws 97 with clean mechanics and a wipeout split. The stuff is there.
Like Masahiro Tanaka, who has become a breaking ball pitcher, Ohtani probably will have to throw his fastball less. Major league hitters are too good against straight velocity. He will have to throw more splits and sliders, but that shouldn’t be a problem.
The biggest problem I see for Ohtani is his offensive game. His swing needs a lot of work. I’ve seen him get beat easily with 2-and-0 fastballs. He doesn’t get his back side through the ball, doesn’t get started early enough to make adjustments and slides forward too much. Pitchers should be able to exploit him with fastballs up (he’s a dead low-ball hitter) and hard stuff on his hands, the way they exploit the mechanics of Jason Heyward’s swing.
I believe Ohtani can make the necessary adjustments to hit major league pitching, but it’s going to be very difficult as a part-time hitter. Taking care of his arm is the Angels’ top priority with Ohtani. He won’t have the time and energy to fully commit to hitting, so his swing is going to make part-time success unlikely.
Before games started, Trout came up to me and excitedly asked me, “Have you seen Ohtani yet?”
“No,” I said, and thought he was going to rave about his arm.
“He has sick power,” Trout said. “He hits balls that are just crazy far. I would put his raw power right up there with Mark Trumbo’s.”
That’s high praise—but that was based on BP hitting, when he got full extension through the ball. The spring games, in which he often was facing minor-league pitchers, exposed the flaws in his game.
3. Philadelphia Phillies
I’m sold on Rhys Hoskins as an impact player, and so is manager Gabe Kapler.
“Really, really unique makeup,” Kapler said. “Unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Very slow heartbeat, Very intellectually curious. Very aware. Very grown up. Very man-to-man conversations. Very engaging. Never gets super high in a conversation but you can see him processing, analyzing, and not in a way that makes him lose control, but in a very controlled way.
“This guy is a leader, and not like getting up in front of a room and directing traffic. It’s more like very managerial. He notices everything that’s going on around him. He’s special.”
The Jake Arrieta signing made perfect sense for a three-year guarantee, though they are paying more for his competitiveness than the Cy Young pitcher he used to be. The Phillies’ analytics people saw red flags on Arrieta, so they stayed away until the price made sense. Their worry? The slow and steady three-year drip of the decline in Arrieta’s sinker, both in terms of velocity (95.3, 94.5, 92.2) and whiff percentage (7.75, 8.96, 6.15), as well as the decline in how often he goes to his slider/cutter (30%, 19%, 14%) and the increase in how often hitters take it for balls (30%, 35%, 40%).
Philadelphia has potential breakout stars in Aaron Altherr, Nick Pivetta and Scott Kingery (“Our best player this spring,” said one Phillie.) But the season is likely to tilt on what the Phillies get from third baseman Maikel Franco and pitcher Vince Velasquez, both 25 and on the cusp of being either All-Stars or disappointments.
The Phillies had rotten luck in one-run games last year: 21–36, the most such losses in baseball. That’s bound to turn around, if only by the randomness of one-lost records. I envision Philadelphia being this year’s version of the 2017 Brewers: getting out of the gate well and with enthusiasm to surprise people, bidding for the postseason, but succumbing in the final two months to a lack of depth.
“I think we can win a lot of games this year,” Kapler said. “I know we can win a lot of games this year, and it’s not that I don’t know what happened here last year. I’m very well aware that last year’s club won 66 games. I also think that we have potential impact players at every position on the diamond. I think we have a young pitching staff. This is the concept: if every player takes a small step forward—no individual has to take a huge leap to carry the team—if everybody gets a tiny bit better, this club will win a lot of games.”
4. Seattle Mariners
Your classic middle-of-the-road team, which is the worst place to be these days when your position on the win curve drives everything. Seattle is the only team in baseball that has neither won nor lost 90 games for four straight years: too good to rebuild but too bad to be in the playoff mix. GM Jerry Dipoto has frantically burned through 61 pitchers the past two seasons, by far the most in baseball. The Mariners appear headed for more upheaval on the mound this year. They do, however, have a dynamic offense, with speed and power and good balance between left- and righthanded hitting.
James Paxton is 29 years old and still has never thrown more than 145 2/3 innings in any professional season. Maybe he makes 30 starts, which is the kind of career year Seattle will need to be a playoff team.
5. Toronto Blue Jays
Similar to the Mets, they need 60 starts from blister-prone Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman. But the offense, which was the worst in the league last year, looks too thin to run with the Yankees and Red Sox.