Playing Pepper is a feature on BtB where members of the staff provide quick hit insight on the postseason. In this edition, four of the team size up the 2017 League Championship Series.
Sum up the Divisional Series in one sentence.
@khurramala: What an opening act (apologies to the splendid Wild Card Games) for the MLB Postseason.
@JPowellBtB: Cleveland blew a 2-0 lead?!
@BSirvioBtB: I hate everything, except the Astros, who managed to keep a portion of my digital face digital egg-free.
@realDanFederico: As a whole, the LDS for both leagues brought a ton of entertainment to a sport that needs it.
How’re your predictions?
@khurramala: I went 3-1 on winners which seems cool, but let’s pull the curtain back a little: in the smoky backroom where the BtB writers meet, we huddled around a dingy poker table underneath dim yellow lights while Jonathan Powell smacked an old jukebox repeatedly. It was deadline day, Division Series predictions were due, and I had my green visor pulled low while I studied a million different stats. The first team I penciled in to advance was Cleveland. I changed my pick some 15 minutes before we published for no real reason. I guess what I’m trying to say is don’t use me as your betting guide.
@JPowellBtB: Sometimes guts win over logic and sometimes sheer will can beat the odds. Sometimes you think you’re smart and straight whiff like Charlie Brown. And that’s pretty much what I did. I can’t say I wasn’t patting myself on the back after Cleveland started 2-0. I do know now that the Dodgers are real, Houston looks like an unstoppable force, the Yankees apparently have a rebuilding year of only six months or so and I wouldn’t be surprised if the mysterious burst of mold growth in the Windy City crawled straight out of Joe Maddon’s beard. I went 2-2 and I’m not proud of it.
@BSirvioBtB: Heh. Yeah.
@realDanFederico: .250 hitters aren’t too bad, right? The only prediction I got right was the Astros toppling the Boston Red Sox, which was a near-given. But the Yankees coming back after going down 0-2 surprised me. As for the NL, I’ll try to eliminate bold predictions, as the Dodgers ended up sweeping the Arizona Diamondbacks. The final LDS was a true toss-up and could’ve gone either way.
Who (or what) was the biggest surprise of the first round?
@khurramala: I didn’t expect the Dodgers to sweep the Diamondbacks. It’s not that Los Angeles wasn’t good enough to do it, it’s just that Arizona’s peripherals said they should have been a tougher out. Compared to the other matchups, the Dodgers cruised.
@JPowellBtB: It’s a toss-up between the boat race in Los Angeles and the sinking ship in Cleveland. I thought Arizona would put up more of a fight and I sure as hell thought the Indians had a lot more to prove and play for.
@BSirvioBtB: The Indians certainly didn’t look like a team peaking too soon in September, but this is tempered by the fact that, like some very young college basketball teams, by the time the postseason comes around, rookies aren’t rookies and youth aren’t young anymore. Doesn’t change the fact that the Tribe left us with a Cleveland Steamer, but it does lend a bit of perspective. The Yankees are for real, and that changes the complexion of this postseason.
Also, where were those world-beater Diamondbacks from the Wild Card Game? Way to show up, guys.
@realDanFederico: The biggest surprise has to be the Yankees. The Indians were arguably the best team in baseball in the second half of the season and had a commanding 2-0 lead in the ALDS. It looks like their playoff woes will haunt the organization for at least another year.
Who needs to step their game up?
@khurramala: The Chicago Cubs offense. Everyone’s offensive numbers trend down during the postseason, and Chicago was livelier in Game 5, but in the four games prior, they hit .159/.258./.257 as a team. That they got to Game 5—let alone the NLCS—was both impressive and a little lucky. Against Los Angeles, you don’t have to face Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, two of baseball’s best pitchers this season (Scherzer’s disastrous game 5 relief appearance notwithstanding), but it’s not going to be a breeze facing a Dodgers pitching staff that can rack up outs with the best of them. Chicago can’t wait until an elimination game to wake up this time around.
@JPowellBtB: Maybe this isn’t what we necessarily meant by asking this question since they’re already eliminated, but it desperately needs to be said: THE WASHINGTON NATIONALS. Can somebody please explain to me what this team needs to do to win? They have Scherzer, Bryce Harper, Trea Turner, Daniel Murphy, Anthony Rendon, killer years from both Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, plus the surprising return to prominence of Ryan Zimmerman, an impressive year from Adam Lind in his role and considerable young talent, all of whom combined to push the team to an early clinch and a convincing chair at the playoff table. Half that talent will be gone in the next few years and I can’t help but think that Nationals fans have been cheated out of a championship by their own club. Absolutely brutal.
@BSirvioBtB: This might be the weakest managerial crop we’ve seen in October in a long time. Dusty Baker did everything he could to lose that Game 5, and Joe Maddon said ‘hold my beer,’ nearly snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Someone’s arm is going to come flying off. Now, Maddon gets rewarded with a matchup of wits with Dave Roberts. These guys are going to make Maddon look like Kasparov at a toddlers chess tournament. Everything that needs to be said about Girardi already has been.
@realDanFederico: To stick with the Yankees theme, I believe Aaron Judge needs to step up in the ALCS. The Yankees were fortunate to overcome their best hitter’s woes but there’s no way they’ll be able to get past the dominant Astros if Judge continues his historic strikeout slide (16 strikeouts in 23 plate appearances).
Who ya got: Astros v. Yankees
@khurramala: In our Division Series predictions, I said the winner of Indians-Yankees was going to win the American League pennant. I’m sticking with that, though the Astros impressed with their performance against the Red Sox. Boston was considerably more flawed than Cleveland, but Houston steamrolled a deserving playoff team for two games, then broke out the kind of late-inning rally they were having done to them not too long ago.
Any route through the AL was going to be a veritable gauntlet, especially the route that went through Cleveland and Houston. But those teams also have to play the Yankees, legitimately one of the best teams in a loaded postseason (I’ve often ranked them second behind the team they just beat, and I don’t think you could go lower than top-four on the year). Against Cleveland, New York’s pitching put Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez on ice, something Boston’s pitching couldn’t do to Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa (and Yuli Gurriel and George Springer and Evan Gattis and Carlos Beltran and Josh Reddick—the Astros crushed it, clearly). New York will have to deliver in the same way again. They have the front-end and back-end arms to do it to the best offense of 2017. Yankees in 6.
@JPowellBtB: Oof. This is going to be a slugfest and I love it. It’s interesting watching the mold that both teams have filled over the course of the year take shape. The regular season left their offensive lines nearly identical in just about every category (and that’s no exaggeration) and both boast pitching staffs that were equally as predetermined as they were cobbled together.
Even though I think Houston has a more well-rounded team, I can’t quite jump ship on the idea that the Yankees will squeeze every last drop out of themselves in the final rounds. They’re playing at an extremely high level, which is saying a lot considering the competition, and I honestly have a hard time betting against them. Houston is hitting consistently but their pitching has done them few favors since hitting October, and that alone could be their undoing against an offense that stands a behemoth next to a gargantuan. The Yankees, on the other hand, have a team batting line that looks destined for an imminent collapse, but if anyone does connect, rest assured it will sail free and clear. Their pitching staff may be their lifeline, which could be rough against a top-to-bottom lineup that can get on base like the tick of a metronome. This is easily the toughest pick of the postseason for me. I think Houston’s pitching rebounds a little, New York’s offense hits a short lull just long enough for a tooth-grinding affair to end in Game 7. Astros in 7, with no confidence whatsoever.
@BSirvioBtB: The Astros are for real and the Yankees just showed up and earned their cred. It doesn’t look like the Yankees are going to run out of gas, but the bigger question related to their success against Cleveland is whether they solved the best rotation in baseball, or if said rotation was injured or just worn out. The Astros also had the benefit of facing down a troubled Red Sox rotation.
Good news in Houston: the Yankees’ rotation was not appreciably better than the Sox this year, with statistical pushes in almost every meaningful pitching metric, and they have Crawford boxes instead of a Green Monster and short porches in both stadia. It’ll be fun, but I think the Yankees’ Cinderella run (yes, that is awkward to type) ends here. Astros in 6.
@realDanFederico: Can the Yankees have another upset in two consecutive rounds? If anyone can do it, it’s them. But the lethal combination of a Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel one-two punch combined with their deep, powerful offense makes it hard to imagine the Yankees reaching the Fall Classic. Maybe down the line but not in 2017. Astros in 6
Who ya got: Dodgers v. Cubs
@khurramala: The Dodgers are the latest example of why you shouldn’t get too high or too low on a team—especially a playoff-bound team—during its streaks. Dan Federico pointed out the confusing stat cross-section that Los Angeles belongs to alone: won 16 of 17, lost 16 of 17, still won 100 games. Of those three things, they’re most like the third. You win a lot by being able to win a lot of different ways, and Los Angeles showed that in the Division Series. They took a couple of slugfests and iced the round on seven hits, great pitching and Cody Bellinger.
Chicago got a good sign from their offense in Game 5, but they still hit .180 for a series they won, and the bullpen is thin and struggling. Trust what the Dodgers are, not the worst they’ve shown. MLB gets a World Series they’ve been pining for in the process. Dodgers in 6.
@JPowellBtB: The Dodgers are out-pitching and out-hitting the Cubs in nearly every way, but the Cubs have somehow found a loophole in every postseason series to climb through between this year and last. I like to say it’s an easy pick just because of the stats, but the Cubs are never that simple for some god-awful reason. It won’t go to the wire, but it will still be a hell of a duel. Dodgers in 6 and hoping, for all that is good and holy about baseball that if I’m wrong, it’s only because the Dodgers close it sooner.
@BSirvioBtB: Stop me if you’ve seen this play before. The Dodgers are now tasked with the sacred and solemn duty of keeping the Cubs out of the World Series. I studied theology in grad school, and this is making me question the existence of a just and loving divine being. The history isn’t good.
I like this Dodgers team–reputation notwithstanding–and I think the rest they picked up while waiting on a Cubs team that just got out of an exhausting series only to fly cross-country before the champagne dried helps them this weekend. I think Clayton Kershaw settles down and rounds into form and the Dodgers survive a bruising series that is closer than the record will indicate in 5.
@realDanFederico: When the playoffs began, many expected a Dodgers/Cubs NLCS, and that’s exactly what they’re getting. Two big-market teams stockpiled with a ton of talent should make for a classic Championship Series. Although the Dodgers have been favorites for most of 2017, the Cubs have had some lingering magic from last year’s World Series victory. Expect that to continue. Cubs in 7.
Dan Federico, Jonathan Powell and Brent Sirvio are co-founders, and Khurram Kalim is a staff writer, of Bronx to Bushville.