Any writer who tried to cheat on their playoff preview was provided a dramatic reminder that baseball is defined by moments. Two nights after one of baseball’s most memorable days concluded by turning the baseball world on its head, the teams have to refocus and be ready for the short series.
Tampa Bay Rays (Wild Card) vs. Texas Rangers (AL West)
In the first game today at 5:07 Eastern, the Wild Card winning Rays will start the playoffs off against the defending American League champions, Texas Rangers. It took some kind of effort and a lot of luck for the Rays to be here. How much? Well, the odds of the Red Sox missing the playoffs were 278 million to one. Guys. 278 MILLION to ONE. By comparison, the odds of winning the state lottery are 18 million to one. That’s enough about that. Let’s take a look at the teams.
Pitching – With all the talk about the Rays pitching, they didn’t put up terribly impressive season advanced numbers. In terms of FIP, they were eighth in the AL while only 10th in fWAR but don’t let that fool you. When looking at ERA, though, they sit at 3.58, only 0.01 runs behind the leader, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. As strange as it might sound, the Yankees would probably have preferred to possibly see the Red Sox in the ALCS since the Rays staff boasts an unparalleled collective upside. David Price and James Shields have put in great years while Jeremy Hellickson, Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis have also pitched well. The Rays had to completely restock their bullpen after the exodus during the offseason and it looks like they made all the right moves. Significant contributions from Kyle Farnsworth and company have allowed manager, Joe Maddon, to feel secure late in the game. Particularly interesting, rookie Matt Moore will be making the Game 1 start. The kid’s ceiling is as high as anybody’s. He possesses incredible stuff that carved up the Yankees for 11 strikeouts in 5 innings. I guess Maddon believes that his stuff and the fact the Rangers haven’t seen him yet will result in a win.
Offense - Though they boast a top five offense in terms of wRC+, there’s an especially large gap between them and the fourth place team, the Detroit Tigers. They pretty much have the same offense as the Kansas City Royals, who sport a team wRC+ of 102. They don’t get on base much or hit for much power but can do some damage once they get on the bases thanks to a few stolen base threats. They have the talent to do real damage at the plate but we’ve seen that many of these guys haven’t played up to their abilities this year, namely, Evan Longoria. But, you can’t sleep on Longo simply because he can turn it on at any point as we saw two nights ago. Though Desmond Jennings was cruising for a while, it seems teams have started to figure him out as his contribution at the plate has hit an extended slide. I expect Ben Zobrist and Matt Joyce to keep doing what they’ve been doing all year.
Defense – Let me be clear. No team has been better on defense than the Rays. None. Perhaps that will help the pitchers out in terms of just concentrating on making the pitch but in any case, if a ball is in play, the defense will come up with it.
Pitching – The Rangers are third in team pitching fWAR, seventh in team FIP and fifth in ERA. Where they stand relative to the other teams in the league doesn’t surprise me as they play in a pretty weak division anyway. Rangers ace, CJ Wilson, showed great improvement in his walk rate which has aided his also improved FIP and fWAR. He’s also been able to limit the home runs despite pitching in a hitter’s park. Outside of Wilson, though, the Rangers simply do not match up well with the Rays staff. Both Derek Holland and Colby Lewis give up too many home runs and Alexi Ogando and Matt Harrison probably don’t strike out enough guys. I know Josh has given Ogando a hard time this season despite his success but I have to agree. He’s a two pitch pitcher who can get into trouble if he has to rely on his slider to get strikes. In the bullpen, Mike Adams, Darren Oliver and Neftali Feliz are going to be the go-to guys for manager Ron Washington. I’m a big Mike Adams fan and think he was a great pickup by the Rangers and is their best reliever. Oliver and Feliz do not induce a lot of groundballs which could end up being disastrous in the playoffs.
Offense - The Rangers boasted one of the best offenses this year as they placed second in wOBA and fWAR and tied for second in wRC+. Though they played against generally weaker teams in their division, they did what they were supposed to against them. Mike Napoli, Adrian Beltre, Josh Hamilton, Ian Kinsler and Michael Young all wRC+’d 127 or better. They can rake. If there is one knock against them, it’s that only Kinsler and Napoli posted above average walk rates while it could be argued that Elvis Andrus also did. They’re an aggressive team so a “pitching backwards” approach might be the key to keeping the lineup off balance.
Defense – According to Baseball Prospectus’ Defensive Efficiency rating, the Rangers are second in the majors on defense. Beltre, Andrus and Kinsler help comprise probably the best defensive infield in the majors. They get the job done.
Prediction: I’ll take the Rays pitching and hope for timely hitting. Rays in 4.
Detroit Tigers (AL Central) vs. New York Yankees (AL East)
In the second game today at 8:37 Eastern, the Tigers travel to Yankee Stadium to kick off the series. The first game is going to feature the top two AL Cy Young candidates in Justin Verlander and CC Sabathia. It should be beautiful.
Pitching – Really, there’s Justin Verlander and everyone else. The favorite to win the Cy Young has received little help from the rest of his starting rotation as evidenced by their middle-0f-the-pack results. Thanks to the mid-season pickup of Doug Fister, the Tigers rotation looks a bit more formidable and gives them a pitching advantage in the second game of the series. In the bullpen, strikeout machine Al Alburquerque will put out the fires while Joaquin Benoit continues his 8th inning duties before Jose Valverde comes in. Valverde has yet to blow a save this year but if he gets an opportunity, especially in Yankee Stadium, I’d say there’s a very good chance he blows one. He walks way too many, gives up too many flyballs and his FIP of 3.55 suggests he has to come back down to earth sometime.
Offense – The Tigers feature one of the best pure hitters in recent memory in Miguel Cabrera. His home run totals don’t reflect his true power in no thanks to playing in a massive park but the ability is absolutely there. He’s definitely the best hitter in the AL these playoffs. As a team, the Tigers finished in a tie for third in the AL in OBP which is exactly what you don’t want with Miggy in the lineup. Thanks to improvement pretty much across the board, Alex Avila emerged as the AL’s best catcher this year thanks to a .383 wOBA, 140 wRC+ and 5.5 fWAR, which is great production from a catcher. Though never a real power guy, Victor Martinez has stepped up to put in his fourth best season by wOBA and tied his best season by wRC+. Jhonny Peralta, Brennan Boesch and Wilson Betemit also provided average to above average contributions at the plate.
Defense – They rate out about the middle of the pack, maybe a little lower, according to Baseball Prospectus’ DE rating. Austin Jackson will track down balls in center but they collectively don’t offer much.
New York Yankees
Pitching - Kinda like the Tigers, there’s the ace (in this case, CC Sabathia) and everyone else. The Yanks could be in trouble without a true #2 but they wouldn’t be where they are now without overachieving. With Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia going after CC, the Yanks will have to rely on their defense to get outs since neither Nova nor Garcia possess the stuff to strike guys out consistently. I can’t blame Girardi for this move as AJ Burnett simply can’t be trusted and Bartolo Colon has shown diminished stuff for much of the second half. His hands are pretty much tied. In the bullpen, the guys are going to be Rafael Soriano, David Robertson and, of course, Mariano Rivera. Though I prefer that Robertson play the fireman role, I have no doubt that Girardi will keep him in the eighth inning. We know how good Mo is, especially in the playoffs. If they have a lead with his hand on the ball (whether it is in the 8th or 9th), game’s over.
Offense - They’ve consistently been one of the best offensive teams all year. One of the very, very few cyclical lineups, meaning anyone can hurt you at any time. It has to be frustrating for pitchers. Derek Jeter has enjoyed a second half renaissance few anticipated while Granderson might take home the team MVP. After a slow start, Cano’s been mashing at an MVP level. ARod, who’s been nursing a thumb injury, has yet to really kick it in gear since the injury. Yanks fans are hoping for a repeat of 2009 with him. Teixeira, for all his woes, is still hitting bombs as he finished with 39 this year. If a right hander leaves a pitch up at Yankee Stadium, chances are Teixeira will deposit into the right field seats. In a weird decision, Girardi is penciling in Jorge Posada at DH. I can’t say I agree here. He’s had trouble with the fastball all year (wFB of -1.3) and there are better options available, namely, Jesus Montero. Jesus proved he could hit anybody and this is how Girardi builds his lineup? On paper, I cannot justify this move. You’ll see some basestealing, especially with Brett Gardner, this series as well as maybe some pinch running steals when Eduardo Nunez comes in. There’s not much to say other than this is the best offense in the playoffs.
Defense – On paper, according to Baseball Prospectus’ DE, they’re worse than the Tigers. ARod, Cano, Gardner, Nick Swisher, Teixeira and Russell Martin all play good defense but Granderson’s had a down year and Jeter is playing his usual rangeless defense. I suppose BP is knocking the Yanks for not having premium defenders at premium positions but the other fielders are doing just fine.
Prediction: Yanks have proven all year long they can win with this rotation. No reason to stop thinking that now. Yanks in 4.
Let’s see your ALCS prediction! And be ready for our NLDS preview tomorrow!