ALDS Preview + Braves-Dodgers Synopsis

I was able to get through mid-terms and write on every Division Series matchup.  My brain is fried.  Anyways, enjoy.

Cleveland Indians vs. Houston Astros 

It’s not fair that this is a ALDS matchup.

But with all these AL series, that’s the way it is.  Every series feels like it should be the ALCS.  Every team here is a World Series caliber team.

At the same time, there are some underwhelming aspects to this series.  Cleveland has dealt with a lack of quality outfielders, a serious Jason Kipnis problem and a crappy bullpen all season.  Andrew Miller has not been Andrew Miller thanks to injuries, and the rest of the bullpen looks like the one that ran out of gas in the 2016 World Series.  Only Oliver Perez and Brad Hand have ERAs under four in this bullpen.

The Astros have kicked butt, winning 103 games thanks to their ridiculous rotation and superior lineup.  The only nit-pick we can make about Houston is that they should have probably won 110-115 games, and this “slide” to 103 can be explained by the classic World Series hangover most teams experience.

This series was between two of the AL’s juggernauts, but I think we can give that label to only one of these teams.  Dive deep into some of the Indians’ splits and you’ll find some ugly numbers that don’t favor them at all in this series.  Cleveland had a great year; they won 90 games and easily took the crown in the AL Central.  But that was one of the worst divisions in baseball this season.  Put Cleveland in the West and they don’t make the playoffs.  As much as I believe in their rotation, it’s hard to see Cleveland pulling this series out.

The bullpen in the No.1 concern.  The group finished 27th in WAR this season and has gotten zero contribution from mainstays like Cody Allen, Dan Otero and Miller. Allen’s fall has been stunning; his walks per nine innings is the highest it’s been since his first season (4.4 per nine) and his strikeouts per nine has declined two whole K’s.  Otero’s been a disaster after two years of dominance, and Miller’s injuries have risen his ERA to 4.24.  Miller, however, has kept the ERA+ slightly above 100 at 104.  Even with the struggles, he’s still Andrew Miller.  Maybe that beast can come out of hiding for the postseason.

It isn’t a total wash though.  Guys like Perez and Shane Beiber add some above average pitching to this group.  Perez has been great; Beiber not so much, but a reduced amount of innings might be help his cause.  Beiber gives up a lot of contact, but he doesn’t allow those runs to score and does a good job of not making too many mistakes (3.23 FIP).  His fly-ball percentage is one of the lowest in this pen, which is a very, very good thing considering how those numbers matchup with Houston.

With home runs so vitally important now, you need pitchers who can keep the ball on the ground.  Cleveland’s bullpen doesn’t do that.  Houston hit the 9th most home runs in the MLB this season (To be fair, Cleveland hit the 6th most).  The Indians bullpen finished with the highest home run to fly ball rate in the majors.  The combination of those two stats, mixed with the Indians overall lack of talent among their relievers, is a living hell for Cleveland.

They’re gonna need long outings out of their starters, who, unlike the bullpen, are actually trustworthy and are having good years.  Corey Kluber’s making yet another AL Cy Young case, and Carlos Carrasco is one of the most underrated “I’m completely dominating a game” guys in the league.  Mike Clevinger’s had an amazing breakout year with a 3.02 ERA and a 145 ERA+.  And there’s Trevor Bauer.

Yeah, and then there’s Trevor Bauer, who’s had his first good regular season ever this year, putting up a 2.26 ERA and a 193 ERA+.  I don’t know why I’ve always had a grudge against him; it’s probably some combo of the mediocre regular seasons, the trade from the Diamondbacks (Which Arizona definitely won), the bloody finger in the 2016 ALCS, his prior postseason meltdowns and his Twitter feed.  But even after this year, I just don’t feel great about him going on the mound.  In the postseason, you need stars and well above average pitchers.  Bauer is neither of those; he’s just good and that’s all.  Cleveland needs all they can get from their rotation in this series, and Bauer’s the weak-link, even if this season has been his best.

Despite Bauer, Cleveland’s rotation is the strongest part of this team.  They give up an above average percentage of fly-balls, but not nearly to the extent that the bullpen does.  The biggest key is they don’t give up home runs on those fly-balls; the Cleveland starters finished with the 23rd highest home run-to-fly ball rate this season.

Still, I’m not sure it’s enough.  That’s because this Houston rotation has essentially three No.1 starters in their rotation and a N0.3 as their No.4.  It’s an embarrassment of riches, and even though Cleveland scored the third most runs in baseball this year, it’s probably gonna show itself.

Facing Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander in probable back-to-back ALDS games is just unfair.  Both have been excellent this year, with ERA+’s in between 140-160.  Neither have any shadow of my doubt when it comes to a playoff start.

Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton are little bit more shaky though.  Keuchel certainly hasn’t been horrible, with a 3.74 ERA and his FIP actually falling a bit compared to past years, but ERA+ indicates that Keuchel’s been just slightly above average (108), and the sinker has suffered.  Brooks Baseball data shows a massive decline in the vertical movement of the Keuchel’s sinker.  Last year, the average vertical movement of the sinker was 6.26 inches.  This year, that average has declined to 4.31 inches.

It seems like this is a common trend with Keuchel though.  We’re always a little concerned about him coming into October, and he usually comes through and doesn’t screw things up.  Plus, you could make the case last year’s postseason wasn’t exactly great for him.  Regression, or in this case improvement, would say he comes back up to earth this postseason.

Charlie Morton, however, is the opposite case as Keuchel.  He was surprisingly amazing last postseason after I doubted him.  He’s been good yet again.  With some experience now, we can have more confidence in him than before.  I’m still not sure it’s enough though.

The Astros bullpen is loaded, so loaded that they had to leave three quality relievers off the ALDS roster.  Hector Rondon, Brad Peacock, Joe Smith and Chris Devinski are all at home for this series.  Peacock was massive part of last year’s World Series squad, but got overran by additions like Ryan Pressly and Roberto Osuna.

The Astros staff is unhittable all around.  Pressly’s turned into everything he wasn’t with the Twins, and Osuna, despite the off-the-field issues, is one of the league’s best.  The Astros bullpen also adds Lance McCullers Jr., who hasn’t been ridiculous this season, but worked nicely as a No.5 on this team.  He excelled last postseason, and that was as a starter.  McCullers Jr. has as much experience as a 24-year-old can get, and now the Astros are asking even less of him.

This series, unlike some of the others in this first round, is simple.  Houston’s pitching is untouchable, and Cleveland’s bullpen is a dumpster fire.  The Indians will probably get a good outing from Kluber or Carrasco and take that game, but it’s hard to see the bullpen having any of the starters’ backs, even with a conceivable long outing.

Prediction: Astros in 4

New York Yankees vs. Boston Red Sox 

Lets goooooooooooo.

There is nothing better than this.  Red Sox and Yankees in the first round?  Both teams over 100 wins?  Yeah, nothing better.

I wrote in my AL Wild Card preview that the Yankees didn’t strike me as a team that would go deep in these playoffs; I picked Oakland single-handily for that reason.  But now New York is here, which means an incredible challenge awaits them.

The concerns I had about New York were pretty simple:  Bad starting pitchers and a couple holes in their lineup.  The first base dilemma came to a head in the Wild Card Game, where Luke Voit made a couple of brutal defensive plays.  At the same time, Voit hit the bases clearing double that blew the game open, from 3-0 to 5-0, in the bottom of the 6th inning.

These are issues that might be escaped in the Wild Card Game, but not against the Red Sox.  Another hole is Gary Sanchez, who was never a good defensive catcher but also forgot how to hit this year.  The one thing that made up for the defense is now gone, but New York’s stuck with it for now.  The Red Sox got on base more than any team this year in baseball.  If those passed balls from Sanchez keep happening, every hit essentially puts a guy in scoring position.  No one’s capitalizing on that more than Boston will.

As addressed in the Wild Card Game preview as well, the Yankees starters are just not that great.  J.A. Happ would have worked against the A’s, but the Red Sox hitters are just a different animal.  Like the Rockies, they don’t have to hit the long-ball to score; Boston only hit the 9th most home runs in the league this year.  That would bode well for the Yankees if their starters didn’t have the 10th highest HR/FB  percentage in the league this season, which was also the highest percentage (13.3%) out of any playoff team.

Happ certainly has more of my trust than a Masahiro Tanaka or CC Sabathia for this series.  New York’s stuck with throwing both of them, but will have Luis Severino for Game 3.

Boston’s in a strangely similar situation to the Yankees when it comes to their starters.  The depth behind Chris Sale isn’t all that great, and has been a target of mine every postseason.  Rick Porcello has regressed to a 4.28 ERA this year, but he wasn’t someone I had faith in on the playoff mound anyways.  David Price has hung in there, which essentially means no numbers or outings jump off the page (Once again, the “no innings eaters” rule applies to starters too… you need above average dudes on your staff), and Nathan Eovaldi has made the heavy price the Red Sox paid to get him look worth it.  He’s been very good in 12 starts this year, and finished with a 132 ERA+.  Eovaldi keeps the ball on the ground too, which is ever important against the most prolific home run hitting team ever.

When it comes to the quality of the starters, each team kind of cancels out.  Like usual, it comes down to the bullpen.

It’s hard to beat this Yankees ‘pen.  The talent is overwhelming.  (Good) Dellin Betances, Chad Green, David Robertson, Aroldis Chapman and Zach Britton is just unfair.

Boston just doesn’t have the talent to match it, and it’s not like the Red Sox bullpen is bad either.  Craig Kimbrel and Matt Barnes are good relievers, and Boston is pulling Steven Wright and Eduardo Rodriguez from their rotation to give them some length after their starter exits.  Still, there is no way for the Red Sox to pull even in this department.

That may not matter though.  When things aren’t going Boston’s way, they’ve always had their offense bail them out.  That formula doesn’t usually work in the playoffs, but this Red Sox offense is a different beast.  It’s been their kryptonite all season.  Stacked with hitters, the runs Boston scores may not be due to bad Yankee pitching, but good Red Sox hitting.  The ability to not only hit homers but score through base hits and keep the momentum going is huge come October.  Every time the Red Sox score a run and have two men left on base, there’s a good chance one of those guys comes in as well.  They’ve been that impactful this season, and I think it’s the difference in this series.  The pitching is much closer than ever imagined, and it’s offense, clutch hits and bench players that get it done after pitching does its job.  The Boston offense has gotten this team to where it is now.  It will continue to push them forward.

Prediction: Red Sox in 5

On last night’s Game 1 between the Braves and Dodgers, and where this series goes…

Mike Foltynewicz’s lack of experience showed against Los Angeles last night.  He made it two innings and gave up four runs, including two home runs to Joc Pederson and Max Muncy, respectively.

The Pederson home run wouldn’t have been too big of a deal if not for the Muncy smash.  Pederson capitalized on a fastball that was left up in the zone and to the right, an area where Pederson has hit well from this season.  According to Brooks Baseball, Pederson’s hit .350 on balls throw in that area of the strike zone.  Foltynewicz threw his pitch (four-seam fastball), just not in the right spot.  He paid for it.

The Muncy home run had a similar set-up; another four-seamer from Foltynewicz that missed its spot, and ended up in an area perfect for the batter.  Muncy’s batted .326 on balls thrown in the spot of his home run, and he crushed it last night.  That ball was a moonshot, and it blew open the game to a point where the Braves had no shot to get back in it.

On the other side, Hyun-Jin Ryu pitched a gem.  Ryu, who has been excellent this year, went seven innings, gave up no runs and struck out eight.  Despite the zeros, the most important part of his start might be the innings count.  The Dodgers bullpen has good numbers, but I have some trust issues with it.  Kenley Jansen’s had serious struggles keeping the ball in the park since coming back, and Ryan Madson’s had a horrific year; the change of scenery didn’t benefit him whatsoever.  Guys like Scott Alexander, Dylan Floro and Caleb Ferguson just don’t have my confidence yet.  The Dodgers are so loaded though that they can defer to some of their left-over starters for bullpen help, like Kenta Maeda and Alex Wood.  Wood’s appearance last night seemed a little strange; it’s worth not bringing him in now when you could save him for a longer outing later in the series and/or playoffs.  No matter what, Ryu’s performance only made the Dodgers use four pitchers, an impressive number considering the amount of pitching changes we’ve seen this season, and especially so far this postseason.  As the Dodgers learned last year, the first one to encounter a burned bullpen loses the series.  Tonight’s Game 1 performance from Ryu was the first step in making sure that doesn’t happen.

It shouldn’t be hard for the Dodgers to get that the rest of this series.  We’re not to the point of the postseason where Clayton Kershaw breaks down for whatever reason and Walker Buehler is an absolute stud.  The game where the Dodgers might have to reach deep into their bullpen is the upcoming Rich Hill start.  At 38, he’s still chugging along, and actually put up decently good numbers this year!  The ERA was below 4.00, and the FIP was also below that mark.  Hill gave up 1.4 home runs per nine innings though, and his WHIP was pushing 1.6.  But again, this is one starter out of four for the Dodgers.

Where do the Braves go from here?  Anibal Sanchez is scheduled to go today; he’s been incredibly good for a 34-year-old, with a 2.83 ERA and 143 ERA+.  At the same time, this is the playoffs, and this is a frightening Dodgers lineup.  Sanchez certainly has the experience, and the Dodgers don’t hit his best pitches (Changeup, slider) that well, per FanGraphs data.

It’s Kevin Gausman’s job in Game 3, another surprise performer this year.  Look at what happens you get out of Baltimore!  Gausman’s got outs.  He hasn’t been anything special; he just does his job.  Like Sanchez, there’s a scary aspect to Gausman, and that’s it.  Hitters, especially the Dodgers’, are gonna figure that out.

The difference is that the Braves have one of the best bullpens in the playoffs to fall back on.  Almost no one has been bad this year for them; they took only a few risks (on young guys who have been good) with their roster.  In terms of rest, last night wasn’t exactly a great way to get the bullpen started; Atlanta cranked through five arms.  But if the Braves are going to make a run this postseason (Something I’ve been advocating for all year), that’s the way it is gonna have to be.  The gas tank better have a lot in it.

This series is tough.  The Braves youth and inexperience hurts against the super-star riddled Dodgers.  But Atlanta doesn’t have any history of melting down, and has the superior bullpen.

It’s the Dodgers starters and bats vs. the Atlanta bullpen.  The formula we’ve used to pick series is pitching first, then clutch bats next.  Los Angeles just has more; I mean, what team has Matt Kemp, Chris Taylor or Enrique Hernandez, and Brian Dozier on their bench and available whenever?  What team is able to re-add Ross Stripling for a series?  The Dodgers are deeper, and that’s the difference in this series.

Prediction: Dodgers in 5