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 Divisional Series.
Sum up the 2017 MLB Playoffs in one sentence.
Khurram Kalim (@khurramala): A chalk regular season (five returning division winners, the most since 1999) and a couple teams a year or two ahead of schedule make for an intriguing tournament of should-happens and could-happens.
Jonathan Powell (@JPowellBtB): Although most division winners look like a straight repeat of last season, the power and the seeding have both been shuffled in equal proportions, leaving the door open for upset baseball by all parties involved — including wild cards.
Brent Sirvio (@BSirvioBtB): The more things change (Twins), that much more they stay the same (everybody else.)
Dan Federico (@realDanFederico): It’s the most wonderful time of the year. (Christmas included.)
What’s the most intriguing storyline this postseason?
@khurramala: To my knowledge, there’s no consensus on whether pitching or hitting is more important to October baseball. This year won’t answer the question definitively, but with top flight offenses and rotations scattered throughout, there will be a lot of strength against strength tilts this postseason, and cases for and/or against what’s more important will have some fresh talking points.
@JPowellBtB: It’s the decade of the runner-up, follow-up-year showdown and the Cleveland Indians have made an epic montage of 25-4 September baseball that should have them coming out swinging like Rocky Balboa in the final fight.
@realDanFederico: I want to see how both the New York Yankees and Arizona Diamondbacks do in the ALDS and NLDS, respectively. There have been varying levels of success from teams that make it out of the one-game Wild Card round. But both the Yankees and D-backs match up very well against the Cleveland Indians and Los Angeles Dodgers, which could make for an entertaining — and potential upsets — in the divisional rounds.
What—if anything—is missing from these playoffs?
@JPowellBtB: Ugh, the Brewers (sorry, not sorry for the homerism). Although it’s safe to say they don’t have the firepower to compete late into October, they did take 2-of-3 from the Dodgers in late August, 3-of-4 from the Nats and sweep the Cubs at home then take them to extra innings in the final 3-of-4 (but also lost 3-of-4) in one of the best series of the year, making for great all-around baseball. It also would have been the perfect end cap to an inspiring season that boasted an unexpectedly early turnaround and give both Craig Counsell and David Stearns some much-deserved recognition.
@BSirvioBtB: There isn’t a true underdog in this field, and there shouldn’t be. Prizefights all around. Both leagues, this is a built-for-October tournament.
@realDanFederico: I’m going to be honest: I don’t think anything is missing from the 2017 postseason. Both the AL (New York, Boston) and NL (Los Angeles, Chicago) are represented by big market teams. Although a superstar talent like Trout won’t be playing, MLB won’t be short of star power, as Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw, Kris Bryant, Aaron Judge and Carlos Correa, amongst others, are all involved. Mix in the magic of October baseball and it’s safe to say the playoffs will be must-watch.
Who ya got: Indians v. Yankees
@khurramala: To be clear: both wild card winners are the second-best teams in their respective leagues this year. And the Yankees might be the second-best team in baseball this season. The best, however, is the Indians. Still, this is a close one: both Cleveland and New York can pitch in virtually any inning of a baseball game (extras included), and both hit exceptionally well. Cleveland pitches better, New York hits better, New York has the better bullpen, but Cleveland is close. Assuming Kluber pitches twice, they Yankees have to win the other three games, which won’t be easy, and/or steal one of Kluber’s starts, which sounds even harder.
And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that if any team can handle Cleveland, it’s this Yankees squad. A short series is the place to pull off an upset, so I’m saying Yankees in 5 with no confidence in the prediction except that whomever comes out of this series, as long as they’re healthy, will represent the AL in the World Series.
@JPowellBtB: The Yankees may be playing nearly as hot as the Indians going into the postseason but if Cleveland had any more chips on their shoulders they could package them as a new Lay’s flavor and call it “216 Elbow Grease.” Indians in 4
@BSirvioBtB: The Yankees are talented, well-developed and returning to the form with which we’re all familiar. It’s a great team and, for the first time in a long time, for the outsider, they’re likeable. Give Cashman credit: he’s reinvented himself in real-time and built a next-generation Yankees team that, save for pitching, is reminiscent of those teams that started the last dynasty.
The Indians come in rested, strong and healthy (save for Bradley Zimmer.) Their rotation is as good as it’s been all season (which is to say, the best in baseball.) Their offense hits for power and average and Edwin Encarnacion is showing some signs of life at the plate. More importantly, anything they get from Encarnacion is gravy and added protection for Francona.
Where the Yankees expended a lot of energy and emotion staving off the Minnesota Twins in a game that stole Jon Heyman’s evening nap, Cleveland has the luxury of having been here before from top to bottom. Should be a great series, but I think Indians in 4.
@realDanFederico: Out of all the divisional matchups, the Yankees/Indians series may be the best of the bunch. Both teams boast deep lineups, top-of-the-line starting pitching, and dominant bullpens. Fortunately for the Tribe, I think their experience will propel them into the ALDS. It won’t be for a lack of effort but the Yankees will have to wait another year before a future dynasty begins. Indians in 5
Who ya got: Astros v. Red Sox
@khurramala: This one also feels like a toss-up, but it’s not as close as the other ALDS matchup. Both the Red Sox and Astros had very good years, but the Astros’ performance is a little more reflective of their actual ability. Although they don’t have a starter of Chris Sale’s value, they can get quality innings out of quality arms. More importantly, they might be the best offense in the playoffs. Mookie Betts is wonderful, but Altuve-Correa-Springer is a trio that can hit just about anyone. Astros in 4
@JPowellBtB: Although the Red Sox have been a talented young team for a few years now, the Astros have an exceptionally versatile core and made some key acquisitions on their way to falling just short of the number one seed. Boston might have Sale, who leads the league in innings pitched and has ridiculous strikeout numbers, but it also may be catching up with him, as indicated by his 4.09 ERA in August and September. And that could be their undoing, especially when starting pitching was already neck and neck between the two clubs this season. But then again, their bullpen could save them. That is, if they can hold off the AL’s strongest offense. Astros in 5
@BSirvioBtB: I love this pairing. These teams are built similarly offensively, and there’s going to be bad blood from the late season beatdown Houston delivered unto the Sox. The Astros have hit the Red Sox hard this season (in a small sample size, still a more-than-respectable .864 OPS) and have locked the Red Sox down from the bump (HOU pitching has yielded a slash line vs. BOS: .204/.265/.336. Pretty, pretty good, with apologies to Larry David.)
If the last 15 years have taught us anything, though, it’s to never count Boston out.
First, Rafael Devers has ignited this team. Since being called up on July 25, the Sox have gone 36-22, with Devers providing evidence of his ML-ready bat, slashing .289/.334/.482. Is the postseason stage going to be too much for a guy who tailed a little as the season wound down? Zooming out, this is a team that as a whole struggled to hit and get on base over the last month, particularly in the last two weeks (don’t let the scoreboards fool you. Last 14 days for BOS: .226/.299/.385.)
Second, Sale is still getting his Ks. In the postseason, punchouts are more important than nearly any other pitching stat. Flukes can’t happen if guys are blazing trails from the dish to the dugout and, despite this series taking place in two parks that are band boxes down the right field line, his HR count isn’t anything out of what we’ve known from Sale.
It’s the rest of the staff that should worry New England faithful. Houston has teed off on Boston pitching this season, anecdotally and statistically.
We can’t count Boston out, but if Houston comes out laying wood as they did in the late-season series, not much can save them. Boston’s salvation will be in pulling a Royals: grinding the game down and wearing out the Astros with small ball. I think they’ll make this interesting, but not enough to push them into late October. Astros in 5
@realDanFederico: Despite coming in first place, the Boston Red Sox and their young core didn’t take the leap that many projected them to. Similarly, the Houston Astros leveled off after being arguably the best team in all of baseball. Like the other ALDS matchup, this, too, will be closely contested. But the combination of Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander atop the Astros’ pitching staff will be too much to overcome for the Red Sox. Astros in 4
Who ya got: Dodgers v. Diamondbacks
@khurramala: The Diamondbacks have all the makings of a World Series team: they pitch well, they tear the cover off the ball, and all their underlying numbers back up their production. Zach Greinke and Robbie Ray is a short-series winning combo. They’ve also beaten the Dodgers 11 out of 19 times this year, and on run differential, were even better against them than that.
Which doesn’t matter a ton.
For everything they do well, the Dodgers do better, and their depth is unprecedented for a baseball team. Los Angeles is in year five of their NL West title streak, and this is the strongest team they’ve brought to October in that time. This was, at one point, a team in the “best regular season ever” conversation, and while they didn’t end the year as the best team in 2017 (except record-wise), I think this year, they’ll at least get back to the NLCS. Dodgers in 5
@JPowellBtB: If you guessed the Nationals had the second best pitching staff behind the Dodgers in the NL this season, no one would think you were crazy. But you would, in fact, be wrong. The Diamondbacks, the actual No. 2, have an incredibly talented and significantly underrated pitching staff and an offense that outranks the Dodgers in nearly every offensive category. Arizona also outplayed Los Angeles down the stretch with a run differential gap of 51 (LA w/ -22, ARI w/ +29) in September and don’t look any more likely to slow down after besting the Rockies in a high-scoring Wild Card play-in. The Dodgers might have one of the best arms of the century and a second straight ROY in Cody Bellinger, but big names and big money be damned, the Diamondbacks are taking this one to the wire and walking out with their ticket punched to the NLCS in the upset of the 2017 postseason. Diamondbacks in 5
@BSirvioBtB: The Diamondbacks showed last night that they belong here, and they’re not afraid of anyone. They held off a potent Colorado team and used their park to its strengths (gaps and power alleys), which should negate the vaunted Dodger Stadium effect. Look at what happened last night against Colorado and you’ll see all the reasons why the DBacks are here. Further, the Dodgers just don’t play well in October, and haven’t played convincingly good baseball since dropping their series to the Brewers in late August.
As a team, the Dodgers strike out too much, don’t draw walks and are relying on young guys as part of the engine of this team. The BB/K ratio for the Dodgers is a constant from a overview to split-level, as well, which bodes well for Arizona. The difference between this blend of youth and experience and, say, the Yankees, is the difference between Dave Roberts and Joe Girardi as managers. Both make questionable decisions, but Girardi has won here, whereas Roberts’ October highlight remains his legendary steal in 2004.
For all the reasons I picked against the Yankees, I’m picking for the Diamondbacks. Because baseball. Diamondbacks in 4
@realDanFederico: Never has a team in baseball won 16 out of 17 games and lost 16 out of 17 games and still had 100 wins in the season. That’s exactly what the Dodgers did in 2017. At one point, they were the odds-on favorite to win the World Series but a massive slump at the end of the year slightly derailed those plans. Similar to the Yankees, the Diamondbacks have a special feel to them after winning the Wild Card. I’m going with the upset. Diamondbacks in 5
Who ya got: Nats v. Cubs
@khurramala: On April 18th, the Nationals were a half-game up in the NL East. They’d stay in first place the rest of the season.
That kind of dominance—double digits by June, finishing the year 20 games up—has caused Washington to fly under the radar a little bit. Once Bryce Harper got hurt, no one really paid close attention to the Nats: their highest-profile player was gone, and they were in a non-race, save for a moment during the Dodgers’ epic late-season losing streak where Washington made the pursuit of home field in the NL playoffs a discussion.
It’s somewhat unfortunate because the Nats have had a tremendous season, led by their starting pitching trio of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Gio Gonzalez. Scherzer put together an MVP-caliber campaign, Strasburg has been a top-five pitcher all season, and though Gonzalez has been helped by an uncharacteristically low (for him) BABIP, the Nats have all games covered by their rotation. The offense isn’t too bad either, and with Harper back, they’re in good position for a deep run. Sure, their bullpen is the worst in the playoffs, but it’s not that far off from the Cubs. Chicago had a good season in their own right, and after a slow start, once they righted the ship, they too became a “see you in October” kind of team. Two NLCS trips and a World Series win is a two-year run any team would take. The Cubs won’t add to it in 2017. Nationals in 4
@JPowellBtB: If you think that I have any bias against the Cubs from my admittance to being a die-hard Brewers fan, you’re right. But that also has little bearing on my analysis of this series matchup. The Cubs may have played 19-9 baseball in September but by their own standards still limped into the postseason, not clinching until the final week of the season after playing mostly mediocre clubs post All-Star break. Don’t get me wrong, they still have an insanely powerful offense that can turn on like a light switch and a similarly lights-out bullpen, but matched up against the likes of Scherzer, Strasburg and Gonzalez and a similarly effective offense — plus the raging belligerence of team snubbed out of playoff contention in one way, shape, or form for the last five years — when their starting staff has largely underperformed, it will be much more of a battle than dispatching sub-.500 clubs, which comprised a majority of their schedule, in the second half. The Cubs will still play fiercely despite their entitlement issues but will come up short against Washington in the last game. Nationals in 5
@BSirvioBtB: Never Forget 2016. #NeverCubs. Nationals in 4, begrudgingly.
@realDanFederico: The Washington Nationals didn’t face much competition within their division in 2017. But even if they did, it was clear that they were the top team in the NL East from day one. Contributions from all over their lineup combined with a strong starting staff and upgraded bullpen has done wonders for the Nats. While the Chicago Cubs looked like the 2016 World Series Champions in the second have of the year, I think the hangover will have them eliminated early. Nationals in 5
Dan Federico, Jonathan Powell and Brent Sirvio are co-founders, and Khurram Kalim is a staff writer, of Bronx to Bushville.