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Monday, October 04, 2010

My Broke-Ass Ouija Board Says...Rangers v. Rays Is Better Than You Think ('10 Division Series Preview)

On the one hand, I will miss the drama of the play-in game.  Such games have provided arguably the finest competition of the season in each of the past two Octobers.  However, wins from the Braves and Giants on Sunday eliminated the cinderella Padres, and in so doing, assured the best possible matchups in the NLDS.

Let's face it, the Padres played over their heads in the first half, and although they made a valiant effort to hold off the Giants in the waning days, their 30-30 record in the last two months is probably an accurate reflection of the quality of their team.  With a beleaguered young rotation, an overworked bullpen, and an empty lineup, it was a forgone conclusion that they would've gotten pummeled by whomever their opponent was in the NLDS, if they had managed to squeak in.  So, R.I.P. 2010 Padres...

I promise to get you your last two Narrative Likability Factors, for the Giants and Braves, before their series begins on Thursday, but for now, let's focus not on what we'd like to happen, but what's likely to happen.  Here's how I'd handicap the 2010 postseason...

ALDS: Texas Rangers v. Tampa Bay Rays

By beating the Royals on the final day of the regular season, the Rays wrapped up the AL East title and the best record in the American League.  As a reward, they'll get a first-round pairing with a Rangers team that has been coasting for most of the last two months and features the top starting pitcher on the AL side of the bracket, Cliff Lee, and the likely AL MVP, Josh Hamilton.

Although Tampa Bay sports the best rotational ERA among AL playoff teams (3.99), in a short series, Texas poses quite a challenge.  For starters, here are the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) numbers for each teams anticipated starters:

Texas: Tampa:
Cliff Lee 7.0 David Price 4.3
C. J. Wilson 4.4 Matt Garza 2.0
Colby Lewis 4.4 Wade Davis 0.9
Tommy Hunter 0.7 James Shields 2.2

As you can see, when you adjust for park factors and competition (as WAR does), Texas appears to have three starters who are, at the very least, the equal of Tampa's best.  Of course, this doesn't tell the whole story, either, as Matt Garza and Wade Davis were both much better in the second half.  Both teams have rotations replete with pitchers capable of dominating on any given night.  What these numbers suggest, however, is that those who are quick to cite the Rays pitching advantage have not really done their homework.  Cliff Lee went 4-0 last October.  If the Rays plan on advancing, they're going to need to find a way to get David Price at least one victory.

On offense, the Rays and Rangers ranked third and fourth in the AL in scoring.  However, while Texas was 2nd only to the Yankees in scoring at home, the Rays were tops in the AL on the road.  Perhaps we should expect pitching duels at Tropicana Field and slugfests when we move to Arlington.

Tampa definitely has the deeper roster, as Joe Maddon mixes and matches with Matt Joyce, Dan Johnson, Sean Rodriguez, Reid Brignac, and Willy Aybar at RF, DH, and 2B.  All posses considerable power and are game-tested options off the bench when they don't start.  However, on both sides of the ball, the Rays are a better team for 162 than for 5 or 7.  As a unit, they hit for a very low average (.249) and are extremely susceptible to the strikeout, with 108 more Ks than any other team in the AL.  This could present a major problem when facing pitchers like Lee and Lewis, who have both overpowering stuff and excellent control.  Lee, Lewis, and Wilson all ranked in the top 25 in the AL in K/9, HR/9, and K/BB.  This could be a lethal combination of pitchers against a team that depends heavily on walks and homers.

The Rangers, on the other hand, led the American League in batting average (.276) behind free-swinging all-fields hitters like Josh Hamilton and Vladimir Guerrero.  They struck out infrequently (4th fewest in the AL) and still, like Tampa, hit plenty of homers.

I believe this will be the most evenly-matched series in the opening round and would be surprised if it didn't go to five games.  Both teams possess balanced attacks.  They've got deep bullpens, solid defenses, speed and power.  In the end, however, I think the Rangers approach on both sides of the ball will be more successful in a short series.

Texas in 5.

ALDS: New York Yankees v. Minnesota Twins

The Twins have never beat the Yankees in a postseason series and have lost three Division matchups to them in the last seven seasons, so the "law of averages" is working in their favor, whatever that means.  Also working in their favor is their new ballpark, which boasted the biggest home-field advantage in the AL this season (53-28, .654), and where they are slated to host three ALDS games.

This is not the same Twins team which lost to the Yanks last October.  The lineup is deeper and perfectly balanced (4 lefties, 4 righties, 1 switch-hitter).  They have a legitimate Ace in the form of Francisco Liriano, who has a 3.12 career ERA against New York.  And, the pitching staff as a whole is back to being among the best in the league (4th in ERA, 3rd in WHIP, 3rd in WAR) after an uncharacteristically bad showing in '09.

Also, this is not the same Yankee team that stomped through Minnesota on the way to their 27th Championship in 2009.  They won fewer games, scored fewer runs, and slumped down the stretch, winning only nine of their final 26 games (.346).  They've got question marks in the rotation and in the bullpen.  They have an atrocious infield defense.  They have struggled to hit southpaws.  In the lineup, only Robinson Cano, Nick Swisher, and Brett Gardner have had "good" years, according to their own standards, while Derek Jeter and Lance Berkman have been downright bad.  Similarly, the rotation relies heavily on C. C. Sabathia and Andy Pettitte, who made only four starts in the second half.

An abundance of chinks have been exposed in their armor, especially in the final two months of the regular season, yet they are still the defending champs.  The lineup is, as usual, loaded and experienced, and Sabathia will pitch twice, if given the chance.

In general, first-games have been crucial to Division Series victory.  Game 1 winners have advanced 73.3% of the time.  Last year they went 4-for-4.  In this series, Game 1 is even more critical, as both teams will lean heavily on their Aces.  If Liriano can neutralize Sabathia, the Twins become heavy favorites, as Hughes has struggled down the stretch, Burnett has been terrible all season, and Pettitte has yet to prove he's fully healthy.

Twins in 4.

NLDS: Cincinnati Reds v. Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies are clearly this year's runaway favorite in the NL.  They are a battle-tested veteran team which has been to each of the last two World Series and has an All-Star at every position (except catcher, though there was a good argument for Carlos Ruiz this year).  There is no indication that they've peaked, as they improved throughout the last four months, playing .500 ball in June, .536 in July, .643 in August, and a ridiculous .768 in September.  The lineup is deep as ever, and, as a silver lining to their pervasive midseason health problems, they're well-rested.  They have the best pitcher in baseball, and two others which ain't that shabby.  And, thanks to an NL All-Star victory, they've got home-field advantage throughout the postseason.

The Reds, on the other hand, depend heavily on young players, many of whom have never played baseball in October.  They've got no dominant starting pitchers, a slightly suspect closer, and an outfield corp that combined for over 500 strikeouts.

With the Phillies able to throw Halladay, Hamels, and Oswalt exclusively, thanks to the eight-day schedule granted to the #1-seeded team, this has all the makings of a bloodbath.  That trio has a career record of 30-4 against the Reds, with an ERA well under 3.00.  I am very fond of what Walt Jocketty and Dusty Baker have done in Cincinnati, but I can't find any matchup in which they're the favorite.  They managed only two wins in seven tries against the Phillies during the regular season, getting swept when they journeyed to Citizens Bank Park.  It wasn't just Padres fans who were rooting against the Braves and Giants yesterday.  Those wins put a dagger in the Reds resurgent season by punching their ticket to Philadelphia.

Phillies in 3.

NLDS: Atlanta Braves v. San Francisco Giants

On the surface, these would appear to be two very similar teams.  They've got nearly identical records.  They both clinched on the last day of the season.  They both outscored their opponents by exactly 115 runs.  Both depended heavily upon dominant starting pitching, deep bullpens, and experienced managers who cobbled together mediocre lineups.   They both played significantly better at home.

Upon further review, however, they are not that evenly matched.  These are two ballclubs headed in opposite directions.  The Braves peaked in May, when they won 20 games and scored 163 runs.  Since then, their offensive production has taken a dive, due in part to a flurry of injuries, especially to Chipper Jones and Martin Prado, both finished for the season.  In September they scored just 105 runs on route to a 14-16 record.  Their pitching also faltered.  While Tommy Hanson and Derek Lowe were excellent down the stretch, the Braves lost Jair Jurrjens to another injury and Tim Hudson, who was a Cy Young candidate as late as September 1st, posted a 5.32 ERA and four losses in his final month.

The Giants picked up their pace dramatically following the All-Star Break, and won 19 games in September.  Scoring improved following the promotions of Andres Torres and Buster Posey, and the acquisition of Pat Burrell.  And the Giants pitching, good throughout the season, became unhittable down the stretch, with a 1.91 ERA in the final month.

By winning on Sunday, the Giants assured that Tim Lincecum could be slated for a pair of starts.  The Freak went 5-1 with a 1.94 ERA and 52 K in 42 September innings.  Jonathan Sanchez was even better, going 4-1 with a 1.03 ERA and 48 K in 44 innings over his last seven outings.  Even with Bobby Cox's good karma, I don't see how the Braves survive.

Giants in 4.

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