The Major League Baseball regular season is reaching its final stages, and as we start to look at the playoff picture, it is clear that four teams have separated themselves from the rest of the league. The New York Yankees, Houston Astros, Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers all dominated for stretches of this year and boast rosters that intimidate any opponent. The World Series champion will likely emerge from the aforementioned pack, so let’s take a closer look at the respective strengths and weaknesses of these four teams.
The Yankees faced an almost unimaginable amount of injuries throughout the season, but they managed to run away with the American League East thanks to unexpected contributions. Offseason acquisition DJ LeMahieu turned into an MVP candidate, and Gio Urshela has a .326 batting average along with a .918 OPS. With Aaron Judge rounding into form, New York’s lineup is stabilizing just in time for the postseason. If Giancarlo Stanton can return to the lineup and contribute once the playoffs start, the Yankees will only grow more dangerous on offense.
But pitching has turned into a real issue for New York. Who can the Yankees trust to start a crucial playoff game? Domingo German has amassed 18 wins so far but has also posted a less impressive 4.09 ERA. James Paxton finally met expectations in the second half, but in sum has allowed too many runners on base. New York’s ace Luis Severino will make his first start of 2019 on Tuesday after missing the entire season due to injury. While fans should expect some rust, Severino’s performance might be the deciding factor for New York’s October fate.
If the Yankees reach the American League Championship Series, they will most likely meet the fearsome Houston Astros, who have no such pitching issues. Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke combine for the best starting rotation in the playoffs this season. Verlander gets better even as he ages, recording an extraordinary 0.78 WHIP and 275 strikeouts so far this year. Cole has a 0.91 WHIP and 292 strikeouts himself. Add in six-time All-Star Greinke, and teams will have difficulty in trying to garner any sort of offense against Houston.
And the lineup is overpowering as well. George Springer is enjoying a career-best season, and Michael Brantley has provided a major boost in his first year with the Astros. Alex Bregman has a .998 OPS and rookie Yordan Álvarez has taken the league by storm, hitting 25 home runs in only 76 games with a 1.091 OPS. José Altuve remains a force at second base. The list goes on — Houston doesn’t have any clear weak spots and will be the favorite to win the American League. Of course, the Astros looked terrific last year too, and then lost to the Red Sox in the ALCS, so the potential remains for another pre-World Series exit. But none of Houston’s competition will be as good as the 2018 Red Sox, so the Astros should return to the Fall Classic.
In the National League, meanwhile, the Atlanta Braves have been on a roll, catching fire at just the right time. Josh Donaldson has enjoyed a terrific comeback year, recording 37 home runs and a .924 OPS. Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuña Jr. continue to lead Atlanta on offense, with Ozzie Albies in support. Yet after those four players, there is a big drop off, with a lot of average or below-average hitting around the bottom of Atlanta’s order. In the postseason, it might become difficult for the Braves to score runs, especially against relief pitching. It’s hard to trust Atlanta’s offense when the team relies on just a few players to such a great degree.
However, the Braves do have solid pitching. Twenty-two-year-old Mike Soroka has looked dynamic in 2019, breaking out and making the All-Star Game. Dallas Keuchel has pitched in plenty of big games before and will provide important veteran savvy and leadership in the playoffs. Still, out of the four frontrunning MLB teams, Atlanta is the worst and at the greatest risk for early playoff elimination. The Braves don’t have the same range of stars as the other powerhouses and can’t dominate opposition in the same way.
The Dodgers, on the other hand, have plenty of stars. Cody Bellinger has blossomed into one of the best hitters in all of baseball with 44 home runs and a 1.037 OPS. Justin Turner, Max Muncy and Joc Pederson have each recorded at least 27 home runs and a .858 OPS. The starting rotation is the best area of Los Angeles’s roster: Hyun-Jin Ryu, Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler form an imposing group. For Kershaw, however, the question continues to linger whether he can at last turn around his postseason legacy. This might be his last chance to rewrite the narrative.
Los Angeles has two major issues. Firstly, the relief pitching will frighten fans during October games. Kenley Jansen’s 3.72 ERA is far higher than we’re used to seeing from him, and his troubles mean that the Dodgers don’t have a force waiting in the bullpen like they did in past playoff runs. The lineup also doesn’t stack up against the likes of the Yankees and the Astros — pitchers can have easy innings against the bottom of the Dodgers’ order. Los Angeles has lost in two consecutive World Series appearances, and this year might mark the team’s third straight Fall Classic defeat.
Prediction: Astros over Dodgers.
George Klein ’20 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.