October used to be baseball’s month. Now it gets modest second banana billing to the NFL and college football, which, between the two, dominate weekend TV for most couch-potato types. But after a fairly remarkable season for the former national pastime (and because some of us still consider it America’s sport), it isn’t entirely unreasonable to look at what the coming month in baseball looks like as the playoffs begin this week.
First, though, here’s a brief review of what made the regular season that has just concluded so remarkable. In no particular order of significance, these are the noteworthy occurrences and accomplishments:
Two teams had almost unimaginable runs of success. First it was the Dodgers, who dominated the game for much of the summer. At one point, the team had won 43 out of 50 games and was on pace to win around 120 (which easily would have been a record). That the team then went into a complete nosedive, losing 16 of 17 (including 11 in a row) seemed downright bizarre. The team finally got back on track, and ended the season with the most wins (104) in either league.
And then there was the team from Cleveland. The Indians played middling ball for most of the summer, sitting around .500 (give or take a few games) until mid-August. But seemingly against all logic, when star reliever Andrew Miller went down with an injury (he finally returned as the season ended), the team went on a tear, winning a record 22 games in a row and running away with its division (ending up with 102 wins, the most in the American League, although only one more than the Houston Astros, who were very hot for the first half of the year, and only mildly warm thereafter).
So the Dodgers, Indians and Astros all had great years (100 wins being a clear indicator of that fact). On the other end of remarkable, however, were the San Francisco Giants and the Detroit Tigers, both of whom were picked by many prognosticators to be playoff-bound at the start of the season. Things didn’t quite go as planned for either team, as they ended up tied with the worst records in the sport. Each finished 64-98, which means they were horrible, winning less than 4 of every 10 games played for the entire season.
The year also saw a big spike in home runs, almost to the level of the steroids era. Giancarlo Stanton of the Miami Marlins ended up with 59 long balls, and the Yankees’ Aaron Judge set a rookie record with 52. Home runs were the name of the game this year, which meant that strike outs were also up. (When you swing for the fences, you aren’t just trying to make contact; hence the spike in Ks.) So even as hitters were putting up big stats, so were some pitchers. Boston’s Chris Sale, for example, struck out over 300 hitters, and the Indians’ Corey Kluber and the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw both had ERAs below 2.33.
But now it’s on to the playoffs, where ten teams will start and two will survive to get to the Fall Classic. Here is one fan’s perspective on how it might play out:
Both leagues have a “play-in” game featuring the best non-division winners. In the A.L., the Yankees (91-71) will host the Minnesota Twins (85-77). The Yanks are the stronger team and should prevail in their home park. In the N.L., the Arizona Diamondbacks (93-69) will be at home against the Colorado Rockies (87-75). Again the better team is the home team; the Diamondbacks should win the do-or-die game.
If those forecasts hold up, the Yankees would then have the unenviable task of beating the Indians in a five game series (with Cleveland having the home field advantage). And in the senior circuit, the Diamondbacks would have a similarly difficult task in besting the Dodgers (who also have the home field edge). But I think both series are close to toss ups. The Yankees have power and a dominant bullpen, and the Diamondbacks are just plain scary (and beat the Dodgers 11 out of 19 times in the regular season).
The other Division series match-ups could be even more tightly drawn. The Astros would have home field against the Red Sox (93-69) in the A.L., and in the N.L., the defending World Series champion Cubs (92-70) would face the Washington Nationals (97-65). The Astros look stronger (on paper) in their series against Boston, but the Red Sox can be tough if they are playing well. And the Cubs were the best team in baseball over the last month of the season, while the Nationals have three of the best five starting pitchers (based on earned run average) in the National League.
So I have all four series as toss-ups, with a slight edge to the Astros, an even slighter edge to the Dodgers, and miniscule edges to the Indians and Nationals. Let’s go with those four teams in the League Championship Series. At that point the series extend to a possible seven games, which makes superior talent more likely to have real impact. (In any one game, any team can beat any other team: a pitcher has a great game while his opposing pitcher has an off day, or a critical play goes against one team or favors another.) But in a longer series, those errant factors should be more likely to balance out. Instead, those series are usually decided by the team with the better talent, or, to be more accurate, the team whose talent is playing to the fullest of its potential. (To be candid, there isn’t a whole lot of difference in terms of raw talent in any of the ten playoff teams. They all have some great players, some very good players and a fair number of players who fill out the roster.)
What really makes the difference in these relatively short series is which team is playing well at the time, and on that basis, you’d have to favor the Indians over the Astros in the A.L. The Indians, building from that win streak, ended the season by winning 33 of 37 games, while the Astros were a more “normal” 24 and 13 over the same stretch. And in the N.L., the Dodgers came out of their swoon to finish 8 and 2 over their last ten games, while Washington was 5 and 5 over the same stretch. Both teams are hungry: the Nationals (since moving to D.C. from Montreal, where they were the Expos, have never won a playoff series, let alone gotten to the World Series); and the Dodgers haven’t been to the big dance since they won it in 1988. I’ll go with my heart on this one, and pick L.A. in a tight seven games.
That will leave the teams with the two best regular season records to play for the championship. And if they have gotten that far, I’m going to admit I have no idea which team will be playing better (presumably they will both be playing real well) or which will have the better luck or have the hotter hitters. Suffice it to say that matching a team that won 104 games against a team that won 102 games would be all a true baseball fan could hope for, that and a seven-game, down to the last pitch, nail-biter.