Contender or Pretender: MLB Playoff Edition

2015 postseason


The Major League Baseball postseason starts tonight (Tuesday, October 6), which marks the beginning of quest to hoist the World Series trophy for 10 different franchises.

Many people have already begun dissecting each individual franchise and their chances in the month of October.

For us at Better Live Than Dead, the postseason picture can be broken down into two simple categories: Contender or Pretender.

PRETENDERS

nyyNew York Yankees – Let me start by addressing the elephant in the room: the Yankees being in this category is not due to my inherent bias against the franchise. With that being said, lets get down to details.

The New York Yankees have not been hitting their stride as of late, which is not a good thing as the calendar turns from regular season to postseason.

Through the month of September, the New York Yankees registered a .233 batting average in 28 games. That average puts them last among all eligible playoff teams in the month.

The Yankees pitching staff also was not stellar in the month. After 28 games, their staff ranked 18th of 30 teams with a 4.23 ERA.

Looking ahead, if the Yankees were to win their Wild Card Play-In Game, they would instantly head to Kansas City to take on the AL Central division-winning Royals, who happen to boast the best record in the American League.

You’ll read shortly why the Royals are considered such a threat.

Houston Astros – If the playoffs began at the Trade Deadline, the Houston Astros would be a concrete lock in the “Contenders” category.hou

The Astros started off the season remarkably hot. On July 31st, the Astros, at 58-46, led the Angels by 2 games and the Rangers by 7 games. When the season wrapped up on Sunday, the Astros lost the division title to the Rangers by 2 games. What a swing over the final two months of the season.

Houston finds themselves headed to New York to take on the Yankees in a one-game playoff. If the Astros manage to pull out the victory in a very hostile enviroment, they’ll move on to take the Kansas City Royals. While the Astros took 4 of 6 from Kansas City in the regular season, Houston’s miserable road record of 33-48 certainly does not bode well with a potential deep playoff run.

They’ve got the depth in their farm system to be a good team for a long time, it just appears hard to imagine this year is their year.

ladLos Angeles Dodgers – This selection won’t be a popular choice, but it definitely makes sense when you look into who the Los Angeles Dodgers have become over the last 162 games.

Los Angeles has a roster filled to the brim with high priced talent. This season, they became the first Major League Baseball franchise to surpass a 300 million dollar payroll, when they acquired 2B Chase Utley from the Philadelphia Phillies.

The Dodgers strength absolutely has been their starting pitching. Their staff finished the season with a collective 3.44 ERA. That places them 6th overall out of all 30 teams.

Diving a little deeper into their staff, a few intriguing red flags start to appear.

Clayton Kershaw finished off 2015 with an impressive record of 16-7 and a 2.13 ERA. While that looks great on paper, things get very ugly when Kershaw transitions from regular season to postseason.

The Dodgers are 3-8 when Kershaw appears in a postseason game, and 3-5 when he starts. Furthermore, Kershaw currently owns a 5.12 ERA in 51 postseason innings.

Although Zack Greinke has been almost unhittable this regular season (19-3, 1.66 ERA) and has shown the ability to keep his cool in October with the Dodgers (1-1 with two no decisions in four starts), the potential issue is that the Dodgers’ offense gives pitchers little breathing room if they were to falter on any given night in October.

The slim margin of error could certainly put too much pressure on a Dodgers pitching staff that has already carried the load to this point.

If the rock solid pitching staff was to falter, it is hard to have a ton of confidence in the Dodgers’ bats. The franchise ranked 19th of 30 teams with 667 runs scored this season.

Texas Rangers – The Texas Rangers are a very interesting case study. On May 20, they saw themselves 9.5 games back in the AL West.tex

When the season wrapped up on Sunday, Texas closed out the AL West Division race with a 2 game lead. From the Trade Deadline through the remainder of the season, Texas was able to win 9 more games than division rival Houston.

It appears as if it took the Rangers a little while to warm up, but they finally realized their full potential.

Texas marched to a record of 38-22 in the final 2 months of baseball, but only played three playoff teams (Toronto, New York and Houston), while only managing a winning record against Houston (8-2).

While the Rangers have the 10th best average in all of baseball (.257), their 4.24 staff ERA puts them 23rd out of 30 teams, and last among playoff qualifiers.

When the lights get a little brighter in October and the games get a little more difficult, we have come to know that pitching is the key to a deep postseason run. It seems as if the Texas Rangers are just not built to survive.

pitPittsburgh Pirates – The Pittsburgh Pirates find themselves finishing the season with the 2nd-best record in the National League (98-64), only behind their division-rival, the St. Louis Cardinals.

Due to their inability to clinch the division over St. Louis, Pittsburgh finds themselves hosting a one-game playoff against the Chicago Cubs.

A small blemish against the Pirates is their record against the Chicago Cubs this season. The Pirates finished the season at 8-11 against the Cubs, after 19 head-to-head matchups.

It is honestly hard to find much more not to like about the Pirates. If this playoff scenario played out any other way, Pittsburgh would certainly find themselves in the “Contenders” category.

But why are the Pirates considered a “Pretender”, you ask? The answer is simple: Chicago Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta, who will be discussed a little later in this piece.

CONTENDERS

St. Louis Cardinals – They are the statistically the best team in all of baseball heading into postseason play.stl

St. Louis finished the regular season with a record of 100-62, while sporting a Major League best 2.94 staff ERA. That checks in at 0.27 points lower than 2nd-best (Pittsburgh Pirates – 3.21 ERA).

The Cardinals also spent 175 days in first place this season, and only ever went under .500 for one day the entire season (April 10).

They have been a dominant and somewhat model franchise throughout the past five seasons, and look to keep that hold on all of Major League Baseball with another deep run in October.

Although they’re contenders, pay very close attention to the historical statistic here: since the Wild Card Era began in 1995, only 2 of 21 teams who achieved 100+ regular season win ended up winning the World Series.

chcChicago Cubs –  Remember the 2004 Boston Red Sox and their “Why Not Us?” campaign among players throughout the postseason?

It is hard not to get that feeling with these Chicago Cubs, and not just because the Cubs employ a lot of former Red Sox staff. They certainly have that special feel to them.

So what, they haven’t been to the playoffs since 2008, won a playoff series since 2003, been to the World Series since 1945 or won the World Series since 1908.

This year’s edition of the Chicago Cubs was built not only to last, but to blow the doors off the place. Evident by their record since August 1st, where the Cubs boast an impressive record of 42-18.

The Chicago Cubs are led by manager Joe Maddon, who knows how to push all the right buttons from his days in Tampa Bay.

Their lineup is chock full of impressive, young talent. Anthony Rizzo leads the way with 31 HRs, 101 RBIs and a .278 average. If those numbers don’t satisfy you, Rizzo has a 6.3 WAR and an OPS of .899, which puts him 12th best in all of baseball.

Another big piece to the puzzle is dazzling rookie sensation Kris Bryant. What a season from this kid. Bryant finished the 2015 campaign with 26 HR, 99 RBIs and a .278 avg. Bryant’s WAR registers at 6.0 and he boasts an OPS of .858.

On the pitching side of things, the answer is simple: Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester.

Arrieta finished what appears to be a NL Cy Young award-worthy season with a 22-6 record, 1.77 ERA, a team-leading 8.9 WAR and an ERA+ of 219. For those keeping score at home, that means Arrieta’s ERA is 119% better than league average.

Jake Arrieta will be starting the Wild Card play-in game against the Pittsburgh Pirates later this week, which is why the Pirates find themselves in the “Pretender” category.  On the season, Arrieta boasts an incredible 13-1 record on the road, with a 1.60 ERA. Good luck, Pittsburgh. You’re going to need all of it.

As for Jon Lester, he’s in Chicago to be a postseason rock. In 84 innings pitched throughout his postseason career, Lester has posted a 2.57 ERA, which includes his most recent postseason stretch with the Boston Red Sox, where Lester anchored a staff and recorded a 4-1 record en route to a World Series Championship. Jon Lester lives for the pressure of postseason baseball.

You might be able to see why it is so easy to believe in these Cubs.

New York Mets – What a long and strange trip is has been for these New York Mets. At the Trade Deadline, the Mets sported a mediocre 53-50 record, and were en route to another playoff-less season in Flushing.nym

Days before the deadline, Mets’ GM Sandy Alderson pulled together deals to acquire Juan Uribe, Kelly Johnson and Tyler Clippard. As the deadline drew closer, Alderson saw an opportunity to seize the moment and potentially put his team in a very good spot moving forward by acquiring a big fish.

What happened next is the thing movies are made out of.

The Mets reportedly agreed in principle to acquire OF Carlos Gomez from the Milwaukee Brewers on July 30. We all saw one of the trade centerpieces, Wilmer Flores, crying on the field after learning of the potential trade.

For a myriad of reasons, the deal fell apart.

For the record, Flores responded to the failed deal by hitting a walk-off home run on the day after the failed trade. (The movie script continues.)

Instead of sitting on his hands and accepting defeat, Alderson made a last ditch effort a day later to better his Mets, who only sat 2 games behind the then East-leading Nationals.

Roughly 15 minutes before the clock struck zero on the deadline, Alderson completed a deal for OF Yoenis Cespedes.

To put this into perspective: Carlos Gomez did end up being dealt, to Houston. In 41 games, Gomez hit .242 with 4 HR, 13 RBI and a .670 SLG%. Gomez has also dealt with injuries on and off.

In 57 games with the Mets, Cespedes has hit .287 with 17 HR, 44 RBI and a .942 SLG%.

While some will say comparing Gomez to Cespedes is apples to oranges, we know that sometimes the best deals are the ones you don’t make.

After the Cespedes deal, the Mets were off to the races. New York finished the next 58 games with a 36-22 record. They not only made up the 2 game deficit, but put 7 games between themselves and the 2nd place Nationals.

Young starting pitching (Harvey, de Grom, Syndergaard) paired with a very good bullpen (Familia, Gilmartin, Clippard) anchored by a strong lineup (Cespedes, Granderson, Murphy, Wright) seems like a very arduous task for any opposing team.

torToronto Blue Jays – When you think of this year’s Toronto Blue Jays, you should think of a franchise that heaved up a hail mary and seized an opportunity.

A General Manager who had seen his moves (or lack there of) criticized as his team was toiling away in 4th place with a record of 50-51. With a bevy of prospects in the minors sitting around as currency, Alex Anthopoulos decided the time was now to make a run for the postseason.

The day that Toronto acquired SS Troy Tulowitzki and P LaTroy Hawkins from the Colorado Rockies (July 28), the Yankees held an 8 game lead over the Jays.

Surely, this moves was seen as over reactionary by some. A last ditch effort to save a sinking ship. If only they knew what was next.

Anthopoulos doubled down on his first move, when he sent more prospects to Detroit for P David Price, just before the Trade Deadline expired.

Following those shrewd moves, Toronto tore the cover off the ball like a well oiled machine. The Blue Jays recorded a 40-18 record from the deadline on out.

Not only did Toronto close the gap and overtake the Yankees, Toronto ended up putting 6 games between them.

David Price finished the season being nearly untouchable for the Jays. He recorded a 9-1 record in 11 starts, with a 2.30 ERA.

Troy Tulowitzki cracked his shoulder blade in mid-September, and has missed time but when he was on the field, the Jays were absolutely a much better team defensively. If Tulowitzki can get back on the field for the playoffs, the Jays will be even more difficult to beat.

LaTroy Hawkins has been no slouch either. Hawkins posted a 2.76 ERA in 18 appearances, all the young age of 42 years old.

Another Anthopoulos deal, which came last November, may be the real reason Toronto is a favorite in the postseason.

3B Josh Donaldson, acquired from Oakland, has had a career year. Hands down, Donaldson is the American League’s Most Valuable Player.

Donaldson finished the season with a .297 average, 41 HR, 123 RBI, a .939 OPS and a WAR of 8.8. Donaldson has shown the whole baseball world that he is indeed one hell of a ball player.

Toronto’s power bats (Donaldson, Bautista, Encarnacion) will be difficult to cool. If you can manage that, good luck getting through the Jays’ pitchers (Price, Estrada, Dickey). Oh and if you manage to get the ball into play, the defense (Pillar, Goins, Donaldson) will be able to track the ball down pretty well.

It seems pretty easy to figure out see why Toronto is considered to be one of the favorites in the American League, heading into the postseason.

Kansas City Royals – The other favorite in the American League? The Kansas City Royals.kc

The answer here seems pretty simple. Kansas City made it to the World Series last year, for the first time since 1985, and fell just short.

How does a team that lost the World Series by a game improve their chances for the following season? Attempt to make very smart signings that could greatly improve the prospects of their club.

Royals’ GM Dayton Moore did just that. Moore had a strong offseason signing P Edison Volquez to anchor the rotation after the departure of James Shields. He also gambled and signed P Ryan Madson to a Minor League deal.

Volquez finished the season off with a 13-9 record, 3.55 ERA and a 117 ERA+.

Madson, pitching in the Major Leagues for the first time since 2011, finished with a 2.13 ERA in 68 appearances.

Dayton Moore wouldn’t stop there.

Days before the Trade Deadline, Moore pulled the trigger on a blockbuster and grabbed P Johnny Cueto from the Cincinnati Reds. While Cueto has underwhelmed (4-7, 4.76 ERA in 13 starts), he still has helped stabilize the rotation heading into the postseason.

The Royals offense has improved, but that just comes from players making adjustments over two different seasons.

Mike Moustakas raised his average from .212 (2014) to .284 (2015), and added 6 more home runs to the mix. Lorenzo Cain has also tallied 11 more home runs in 2015.

One of the biggest moves of the offseason that has set Kansas City up for a deep postseason run was a decision to not re-sign a franchise favorite.

When the Royals passed on re-signing Billy Butler and instead signing Kendrys Morales, they set themselves up very well for the approaching season.

Billy Butler went for a .271 average and 9 home runs in 2014. Kendrys Morales went for a .290 average and 22 home runs. Morales presence gave the Royals line up extra depth, which some might argue was much needed.

While Toronto appears to currently be the red-hot cream of the crop in the American League, the playoffs will absolutely have to go through Kansas City if anyone wants a shot at the World Series Championship.

Written by Ryan Wolfe

Ryan Wolfe is the founder and editor-in-chief of BLTD Sports. He can be heard on the BLTD Podcast. Ryan's writing is also featured over at TheHockeyWriters.com.

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