Sports

Breaking down the impending MLB playoff stretch

By
Sports Columnist
Thursday, September 14, 2017

As the Major League Baseball season enters its last month of regular season play, the landscape of the league is clear. There are a few contenders at the top, some teams scrapping for wild card spots in the middle and more awful teams playing the year out with only pride at stake. While arguing the merits of teams such as the San Francisco Giants or Philadelphia Phillies can be entertaining, far more important is the question of which contender will actually take home the championship. I have decided to include in that conversation the following teams: Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians, Houston Astros, Washington Nationals, Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers. While the Arizona Diamondbacks, St. Louis Cardinals, Colorado Rockies and Minnesota Twins all may have a shot at the crown, these teams seem destined to battle in wild card games.

Beginning in the American League East, we have the two historical favorites contending for the lead divisional spot once again: Boston and New York. The Red Sox have not come together as smoothly as expected this season, and several key players — outfielder Mookie Betts, shortstop Xander Bogaerts and designated hitter Hanley Ramirez — have significantly underperformed. Pitcher Chris Sale has been fantastic for the majority of the season, but as currently constituted, the Red Sox do not have a great chance at winning the World Series.

The Yankees may be 3.5 games behind the Red Sox, but they are better built for a lengthy playoff run than Boston so long as the Yankees win the division and avoid the wild card game. Outfielder Aaron Judge has drawn most of the headlines for his first-half dominance and second-half collapse, but New York’s supporting cast is what really stands out. Catcher Gary Sanchez is a star, and players such as shortstop Didi Gregorius, second baseman Starlin Castro and outfielder Brett Gardner protect him in the lineup. The midseason addition of Sonny Gray bolstered a starting rotation already filled with talent. Make no mistake, the Yankees are back and dangerous.

The Houston Astros started the year on fire but have since cooled off. Their .826 team OPS is the best in baseball by a wide margin, propped up by MVP candidate second baseman Jose Altuve, shortstop Carlos Correa and outfielder George Springer. But pitching will be a major concern for Houston in the postseason. The staff ranks 12th in the league with a 4.26 ERA, a mark that pales in comparison to the other contenders. Justin Verlander, recently acquired from the Detroit Tigers, and Dallas Keuchel lead the rotation, but Houston’s bullpen is shaky at best. In postseason games — where scoring is decreased due to the quality of starting pitching — late-inning bullpen work is all the more important. It will be hard for the Astros to advance far in the postseason with their relief pitching’s penchant for blowing games.

Even though there are genuine threats in the American League, the Cleveland Indians are the most impressive squad in the league by far. With a current 21-game winning streak as of Wednesday night, the Indians boast a roster of star power that crosses all facets of the game. Pitcher Corey Kluber might be the best in baseball, with a ridiculous 2.44 ERA and 0.87 WHIP in the year of the home run. The lineup is loaded from top to bottom: third baseman Jose Ramirez, shortstop Francisco Lindor, first baseman Carlos Santana, designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion, outfielder Jay Bruce — the list of names goes on and on. Looking at the American League as of now, it would be an upset if the Indians were not back in the World Series again.

Heading over to the National League, it is the same old story for the Washington Nationals. They have put together another dominant regular season, but Washington has been unable to carry that success over to the playoffs in the past few years. There is little reason to believe, especially with outfielder Bryce Harper’s knee injury, that this year will be any different. Second baseman Daniel Murphy, third baseman Anthony Rendon and first baseman Ryan Zimmerman will continue to try to make up for Harper’s absence. Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez form baseball’s best 1-2-3 pitching punch, creating a postseason rotation no one wants to face. But it is hard to trust this team after so many years of playoff failures.

The Chicago Cubs may have won the World Series last season, but they have not shown enough this year to be considered favorites by any stretch of the imagination. The team started slowly out of the gates and only got hot after the All-Star break. First baseman Anthony Rizzo and third baseman Kris Bryant remain the club’s best players, and catcher Willson Contreras has enjoyed a breakout season, but several key members of the team have underperformed. Outfielder Kyle Schwarber was even sent down to the minors for a stretch to find his swing again. His batting average has hovered around the Mendoza line all year. Second baseman and World Series MVP Ben Zobrist and pitchers Jon Lester and John Lackey have struggled as well. Though the Cubs obviously have the talent to win it all, they will enter the postseason as underdogs. But in a year when the Los Angeles Dodgers were a heavy favorite for the vast majority of the season and  then lost 16 out of 17 recent games, it is hard to know who the real favorites are. 

Though it is easy to reject the Dodgers’ chances after such an awful stretch, it is important to keep in mind the talent Los Angeles still possesses. First baseman Cody Bellinger, third baseman Justin Turner and shortstop Corey Seager make up the heart of a dangerous lineup. Pitchers Clayton Kershaw, Alex Wood and Rich Hill form a fearsome starting rotation. If Yu Darvish can return to his usual performance, that rotation becomes even stronger. Closer Kenley Jansen’s numbers — a 1.29 ERA and 0.75 WHIP — speak for themselves. Los Angeles may not be one of the best teams in the history of baseball, but they can still win a World Series. One would be wise not to bet against the Dodgers come October. They are too good to continue playing at their current level.

World Series Pick: Cleveland Indians over Los Angeles Dodgers.

George Klein’19 can be reached at george_klein@brown.edu