The regular season was a wild ride with some of the craziest individual and team performances we’ve seen in a long time. Sure, the playoff races fizzled a bit down the stretch, but part of that was because the teams at the top were just that good this year, which means we’re headed for an exciting postseason. Before the unmatched fun that is October baseball begins, here’s my what-you-need-to-know preview.
Droughts, drama and dominance
This should be one of the most anticipated postseasons in a long time. For starters, we have three 100-win teams for the first time since 2003 and just the sixth time in history. The collective win total of the 10 teams is the most since the second wild card was added in 2012, and that’s despite the Twins barely finishing over .500. So we have powerhouse teams, but also every team with the exception of the Red Sox (who have won three World Series in the past 13 seasons) has a compelling postseason storyline:
Cleveland Indians: They haven’t won a World Series since 1948, including a heartbreaking Game 7 loss at home to the Cubs in one of the greatest games ever played. They reeled off an American League-record 22-game winning streak while closing the season on a remarkable 41-7 run.
Houston Astros: They’ve never won a World Series in 10 postseason appearances and now have a city recovering from the ravaging effects of Hurricane Harvey rooting for them.
Los Angeles Dodgers: It has been 29 years since their most recent World Series appearance, a stretch that now includes five consecutive division titles and the first time they finished with baseball’s best record in 43 years. How they got there defied all sanity: They went 56-11 from June 7 through Aug. 25 only to follow that up by losing 16 of 17.
Washington Nationals: Born in 1969 as the Montreal Expos, the Nationals are in the playoffs for the fourth time in six years, but have yet to advance past the division series as they seek the first championship in franchise history.
Minnesota Twins: They went 59-103 last year, the worst record in baseball. The 1991 Twins went from last place to World Series champs, but no team has ever gone from worst to champs.
Colorado Rockies: They have reached the playoffs for just the fourth time in franchise history and first time since 2009 after averaging 92 losses the past six seasons.
New York Yankees: A new generation of Bronx Bombers featuring youngsters Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Luis Severino makes this a different kind of Yankees team. … Well, sort of. They still had the second-highest payroll behind the Dodgers.
Arizona Diamondbacks: They lost 93 games last year, but allowed nearly 250 fewer runs to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
Chicago Cubs: Umm, hello, a repeat would be pretty awesome.
Legacies at stake
Aside from team narratives, there are some compelling individual narratives to follow. My top six:
1. Clayton Kershaw. The greatest pitcher of his generation has yet to have that postseason — or even game — to remember. Watch him in the seventh inning: He has allowed 14 runs over five innings in the seventh since 2013. Can he avoid a seventh-inning meltdown? Will Dave Roberts even let him pitch in the seventh?
2. Dusty Baker. He’s 14th on the all-time managerial win list. All those ahead of him, except Gene Mauch, are in the Hall of Fame. Baker, however, is missing one thing needed to make the Hall: a World Series ring as a manager.
3. Justin Verlander. The Astros acquired him on Aug. 31 to make him eligible for the postseason and all he did was go 5-0 with a 1.05 ERA in five starts for Houston, helping right the ship for an Astros team that had struggled in August. Oh, he’ll likely face off against Chris Sale in a division series opener that is juicier than those orange slices you’d get at halftime of your soccer games in second grade. And while he has pitched in two World Series, he’s 0-3 in three starts and doesn’t have a ring.
4. Bryzzo. Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are too early in their careers to start talking about the Hall of Fame, but it won’t hurt if they’re remembered as the straws that stirred the drink of a dynasty. They have one ring. Can they get a second?
5. Aaron Judge. Sure, he’s only a rookie, but he has been the most compelling player in the game in 2017. While he struggled for a long stretch after the All-Star break, he has been terrorizing pitchers again in September.
6. Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. They were the first overall picks in 2009 and 2010, but they have yet to win a postseason series despite all the hype since they were drafted. Strasburg has actually pitched in just one postseason game in his career and Harper is a free agent after 2018. They might not have a better chance than this year.
Who will be this year’s Andrew Miller?
Miller had a dominant postseason run for the Indians last year, allowing three runs in 19 innings — although two of those came in Game 7 of the World Series when he may finally have tired after throwing at least two innings in seven of his appearances.
Last postseason, the starter made it through seven innings just 11 times out of 70 starts and was pulled before completing five innings 29 times. With managers going to the bullpen earlier and earlier in these playoff games, it’s important they have a reliever who can help bridge the gap to the closer by going multiple innings. Some candidates to replicate Miller’s performance:
• David Price, Red Sox. Price has looked terrific since returning from the disabled list and pitching out of the bullpen. In five appearances, he has allowed three hits in 8⅔ innings with 13 strikeouts. His fastball hit 95 mph on Saturday as he pitched for the second day in a row for the first time.
• Chad Green, Yankees. Green has been one of the most dominant relievers all season, riding a high-spin fastball to 103 strikeouts in 69 innings while allowing a .147 average. He has pitched at least two innings in 17 of his 40 appearances, although he pitched just once all season on zero days of rest.
• Chris Devenski, Astros. He’s fourth in innings pitched among all relievers, relying on one of the best changeups in the game. A.J. Hinch has been more conservative in his usage in the second half as he has gone more than four outs just four times since the All-Star break, but he’s a guy who could enter at any time.
• Archie Bradley, Diamondbacks. A starter as a rookie last season, Bradley could eventually end up back in the rotation, but he has been the anchor out of the pen with a 1.38 ERA and serving up just three home runs in more than 70 innings. As a reliever, he’s basically a two-pitch guy: a fastball that averages 96 mph and curveball that opponents hit just one extra-base hit off all season.
• Andrew Miller, Indians. The best bet to be the Andrew Miller of the 2017 postseason may be Andrew Miller! The only potential issue is he did miss time in August and September with tendinitis in his right knee.
Home runs and strikeouts will matter
There were more home runs than ever hit this season. There also were more strikeouts than ever. We’re going to see a lot of home runs and strikeouts in the postseason. Who does that favor? I don’t know. You can’t predict the postseason. But a few notes in this area:
• When the Giants and Royals had success in the postseason, many attributed it to their ability to put the ball in play as low-strikeout teams. If you like that theory, then you should like the Astros and Indians, who rank 1-2 in lowest strikeout rate in the majors. The Astros’ turnaround in this regard has been a big turnaround from 2015, when they made the playoffs with the second-highest strikeout rate in the majors. On the other hand, the Cubs had the second-highest strikeout rate of all playoff teams last year and won the World Series.
• Eight of the playoff teams have more than 200 home runs, with the Yankees (241), Astros (238), Cubs (223) and Dodgers (221) leading the way. Just the Rockies and Red Sox failed to hit 200, but the Red Sox are way under with 168, out-homering just the Braves, Pirates and Braves.
• On the pitching side, the Indians led the majors in strikeout rate at 27.4 percent. Not surprisingly, that’s an all-time record. But this year’s Dodgers, Astros, Yankees and Red Sox rank second, third, fourth and fifth on the all-time list. The Diamondbacks and Nationals rank eighth and 10th. Did we mention there were more strikeouts than ever this year? The top eight teams in strikeout rate all made the playoffs. The Rockies and Twins — the two playoff teams with the worst records — ranked 18th and 29th.
• As if you need another reason to pick the Indians, among pitchers with at least 100 innings, they have five of the top 24 guys in K rate — Corey Kluber (third), Danny Salazar (fourth), Carlos Carrasco (14th), Mike Clevinger (16th) and Trevor Bauer (24th), although it appears Salazar and Clevinger will be in the bullpen with lower-strikeout guy Josh Tomlin the fourth starter.
The ninth inning … and the eighth inning
Of course, we can analyze all this a hundred different ways and it might come down to a more simple equation: Who pitches best in the ninth inning? Maybe the Giants beat the Cubs in the division series last year if their bullpen doesn’t melt down in Game 4. Maybe the Nationals beat the Dodgers if Baker uses his closer in the eighth inning of Game 4 of their series. In fact, last postseason there were eight successful saves of more than three outs, including four by the Indians (three by Cody Allen, one by Miller). In the 2014 postseason there was just one — and that was Madison Bumgarner’s five-inning outing in Game 7 of the World Series.
Here’s how I’d rank the closers, factoring in their ability to go more than three outs:
1. Kenley Jansen, Dodgers. He tied with Raisel Iglesias of the Reds for the most saves of more than three outs with 12 (nobody else had more than six). He also pitched three shutout innings in Game 6 of the NLCS last year. Given the rest of the Dodgers’ bullpen other than Brandon Morrow was shaky down the stretch, Jansen will undoubtedly be called on for some extended saves. Note that Jansen wasn’t as dominant in the second half (.587 OPS allowed) as the first half (.380).
2. Craig Kimbrel, Red Sox. Kimbrel struck out nearly 50 percent of the batters he faced, the third-best single-season rate ever. Still, he had just three saves of more than three outs in the regular season.
3. Cody Allen, Indians. It will be interesting how Terry Francona manages the bullpen this postseason, as it’s a lot deeper with Clevinger and Salazar available along with Allen, Miller, Bryan Shaw, Dan Otero and LOOGY Tyler Olson (the Indians led the majors in bullpen ERA).
4. Aroldis Chapman, Yankees. Joe Maddon used him for more than one inning in five appearances last postseason, but he also was gassed by Game 7 after appearing in his third straight game. He’s back on track after getting hit in August (allowing no runs in September) and Joe Girardi used him for four- and five-out saves the final month. The Yankees have lots of bullpen depth, but don’t be surprised to see Chapman in the eighth.
5. Ken Giles, Astros. He has been terrific in the second half with a 1.19 ERA and a 44-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 30⅓ innings. The rest of the pen has been inconsistent in the second half, so look for A.J. Hinch to use Giles before the ninth.
6. Wade Davis, Cubs. He has blown only one save all season, but that was last week against the Brewers when he gave up a home run in the ninth and another in the 10th. His walk rate is up and he gave up six home runs after allowing just three the previous three seasons.
8. Greg Holland, Rockies. He was dominant in the first half, had a terrible August (14 runs allowed in 9⅓ innings), and then better again in September.
9. Fernando Rodney, Diamondbacks. Do you trust Fernando Rodney? I don’t trust Fernando Rodney.
10. Matt Belisle, Twins. Brandon Kintzler was their closer most of the season, but he’s now on the Nationals. Belisle had been in the majors 14 years and had five saves before taking over as closer down the stretch.
Players to watch
Ten players to keep in mind as key guys to keep an eye on:
• Max Scherzer, Nationals. He left his final start on Saturday with a hamstring cramp. Will he be 100 percent?
• Bryce Harper, Nationals. He has had minimal at-bats since returning from his knee injury. How healthy is he?
• Jason Kipnis, Indians. The Indians are happy with Jose Ramirez at second and Yandy Diaz at third, so once Kipnis returned from the DL, they tried him in center field, his college position. With Bradley Zimmer out, will they extend the Kipnis experiment to October?
• Francisco Lindor, Indians. He was a breakout star last postseason with his enthusiasm and performance, and now he has turned into a 33-homer leadoff hitter. He hit 17 home runs the final two months.
• George Springer, Astros. I have a feeling he’s going to have a big postseason.
• Brad Peacock, Astros. The unheralded member of the Houston staff, he’s 13-2 with a 3.00 ERA and 161 K’s in 132 innings. He could start, he could pitch in relief or he could do both.
• Rick Porcello, Red Sox. He led the AL in home runs and hits allowed as he didn’t get the same movement on his two-seamer this year. Batters had an .809 OPS against his fastball compared to .450 in his Cy Young season of 2016.
• Cody Bellinger, Dodgers. The other rookie slugger slowed down a bit in September and if they face the Diamondbacks, note that he has hit just .179 against them with one home run in 11 games (small sample size alert).
• Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies. If the Rockies get past the wild-card game, it may be because Gonzalez does something. He struggled all season before having a monster September.
Can the Cubs repeat?
It won’t be easy. Heck, just getting back to the playoffs was an accomplishment to be appreciated. The previous four World Series champs were all sitting at home in October. No team has repeated since the 1998-2000 Yankees won three in a row and no National League team has repeated since the 1975-76 Reds.
The Cubs’ overall record may not compare to those of the Dodgers, Indians, Astros and Nationals, but remember that they were 43-45 at the All-Star break. Since then, only the Indians have a better record and no team scored more runs in the second half. Six regulars are slugging over .500 in the second half, led by Kyle Schwarber, who returned from his demotion to the minors to hit 17 home runs in 186 at-bats after the break. Joe Maddon has the most versatility and depth in his position players of any manager.
If there’s a key guy, however, it may be Jon Lester. With a 2.63 postseason ERA over 133⅔ innings, he has been a clutch October performer and the Cubs won four of his five postseason starts last year. He has had some strange outings this year, including a 10-run game in July in which he got just two outs, a nine-run outing in August after which he landed on the DL with shoulder fatigue, and then a seven-run outing in September. His final two starts were more promising as he allowed just one run in 11 innings. If Lester finds his stuff at the right time, the Cubs just might make history once again.