Outside of a very businesslike sweep the Dodgers executed on their Snakey division rivals, the 2017 Division Series set was possibly the best opening playoff round I’ve ever watched. That Yankees-Indians series alone was enough drama for a five season HBO series. The Cubs escaping Washington was like Jon Snow clawing his way out of the icy lake. The revolutionary pitcher usage and massive swings in Sawx-Stros made the series feel closer than it was. Overall, one hell of a round. I’m sad to see the Indians eliminated, because they are probably 2017’s best team – and because they possess two of the most likable players, like, ever in Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor – but c’est la vie. On to the next one.
We’re down to four objectively loaded teams, any one of which would be a worthy World Series champion. Two different 100-win squads, the defending champs, and the next generation of the Evil Empire make for an Avengers-level cast of characters. Let’s get it on.
ALCS – New York Yankees vs. Houston Astros
Yankees: It’s hard to know how much credit to give the Yankees’ staff for the Indians bats going silent in Games 3-5 of the Division Series. Obviously the Tribe missed Edwin Encarnacion’s boomstick, but New York’s starters turned in 18.1 dominant innings over those final three games, allowing just 5 runs. It’s especially heartening for the Bombers that Luis Severino righted the ship after his disastrous Wild Card Game start. Masahiro Tanaka looks to be throwing as good as he ever has, and CC Sabathia and Sonny Gray appear capable of turning in three or four capable innings. But the Astros are a different animal. It will be crucial for Girardi to get good starts from at least two of his four starters, because there really are limits to how far this bullpen can be stretched. New York would be wise to align their rotation so the starters most liable to get shelled don’t start back-to-back. In my opinion those guys are Gray and Sabathia, but you could make a case for Severino being a high ceiling/low floor guy. It will be crucial to get a split of the first two games in Houston, and luckily for the Yanks, Tanaka will be coming into Game 1 on full rest.
Astros: It’s truly incredible the way Justin Verlander has reinvented himself in his 30s. He had a really bad (if somewhat unlucky) 2014 in which he yielded a 4.54 ERA and 1.40 WHIP. Ever since then, he’s been back to dominant Verlander, which is why the Astros gave up a healthy prospect package to get him. He proved his worth versus Boston, tossing a very solid Game 1. Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton held down the fort, while Brad Peacock got knocked around by the Sox. I have a lot of faith in the top two guys in this rotation; Verlander and Keuchel have a clear advantage over the Yanks’ top two to me. But I do worry about Peacock and Morton (no shit, Captain Obvious). They are both guys who rely on strikeouts, but are prone to walks. The Yankees are a patient team, so nibbling for strikes might not work. And they’ll want to nibble, given that they’ll be pitching in the Bronx Bandbox.
Yankees: We are watching one of the great bullpens in Major League history in the 2017 Yankees. It’s pretty cool to see. Brian Cashman delivered his manager such a good group, that Girardi doesn’t even need to send a starter to the pen. Despite the fact that he seems like a garbage human, Aroldis Chapman has pitched brilliantly, rediscovering his pre-slump form and breathing fire from both flared nostrils and his left hand. The wild card here is of course Dellin Betances, who had two shaky outings out of three in the DS. If the rotation routinely hands off the game in the 5th or 6th inning, Girardi will be able to deploy his top four guys regularly – Chapman, Robertson, Kahnle, Green. But if he has to deal with a disaster start, this group will be tested and Betances might get thrown into the fire in a big moment.
Astros: Houston’s bullpen was fairly middling against Boston, only throwing up a clean sheet in one of four outings (three scoreless innings in Game 1). It was concerning to see Ken Giles allow runs in both his appearances. I still believe he’s a very good closer, but he’s clearly not invincible. My boy Chris Devenski was mostly good, but got knocked around in Game 3 like the rest of his pen mates (not pen pals). Astros manager A.J. Hinch proved that he doesn’t really trust Will Harris, and Lance McCullers was pretty bad in his lone relief appearance. The more I look at this group, the more shocked I am that
baseball’s Sam Hinkie Jeff Luhnow didn’t acquire another reliable arm at the deadline.
Advantage: Yankees. Duh.
Yankees: Didi Gregorius has three HRs so far this postseason after breaking the all-time Yankees record for homers by a shortstop this season. It’s kind of amazing that the kid New York acquired for reliever Shane Green in 2014 is hitting cleanup in the postseason. Despite a low batting average, he’s been awesome, reaching seven times via the walk. But here’s the problem: only two other Yankees had a .700+ OPS in the Division Series – Greg Bird (.919) and Aaron Hicks (.876). Aaron Judge has been positively awful, going 1-for-20 against Cleveland pitching with 16 STRIKEOUTS! Are you F****** KIDDING? Sure he can crush a mistake, but if pitchers simply throw a breaking ball out of the zone, he is an automatic out. The Yanks will be able to play some smallball if they wish against the poor-throwing Houston catchers, but that’s a very minimal advantage.
Astros: So you know how I used the arbitrary endpoint of a .700 OPS to demonstrate how bad Yankee hitters were in the ALDS? Well, arbitrary can also be relevant. My evidence? Eight different Astros were above that bar during their series win. Eight. This might be the best lineup ever (seriously, Google it), and it’s damn cool to see them continue their barrage in the postseason. It was also damn cool to see Carlos Beltran come up with a huge pinch hit in his Astros encore. Expect to see him come to the plate for some very high leverage at bats during the ALCS. But better than all of that is the fact that Jose Altuve is finally setting himself up for the sort of national recognition he’s been deserving of for years. Little man can ball. He’s my AL MVP, and I predict that he’ll continue his October barrage against Yankee pitching.
Advantage: Astros. We really need a nickname for this lineup, something that can be part of Robot Ken Burns’s future documentary.
Prediction: Astros in 6
This all boils down to how good Houston’s offense is. They are relentless and balanced, seemingly incapable of going cold. And while New York’s pen is the best position group in the entire playoffs, they won’t get to protect many leads if the Astros treat Yankees starters as rudely as they treated the Red Sox’s. Aaron Judge is going to hit a couple home runs, but don’t be surprised if he sets the all-time playoff strikeouts record. In fact, I guarantee it.
NLCS – Chicago Cubs vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
Cubs: I don’t feel any different about this rotation when I previewed the NLDS last week. Back then I said, “On paper these guys might look great, but there’s not a single consistent performer in the bunch. High ceiling but low floor.” Arrieta and Hendricks both proved capable of truly sloppy starts. Lester managed to tightrope his way to a quality start, while Quintana threw a brilliant 5.2 innings. Joe Maddon will continue to have a super quick hook, so the bar is not super high for a positive start from this rotation – five innings of two-run ball is pretty good. Still, it feels like they need to get at least one great start (meaning not just effective, but deep) to win this series, and it would help if that came in Game 3 or 4, because of the three games on consecutive days in the middle of the series.
Dodgers: The acquisition and handling of Yu Darvish certainly looks brilliant right about now. Talking heads were questioning LA’s trade after Darvish struggled in August and September, but a well-placed DL stint helped him get right for October, it appears. His NLDS start was sublime for four innings, and then over when he lost command in the sixth. Still, you’ll take five great innings, especially if he can give you that twice. Clayton Kershaw certainly didn’t dispel any of the questions about his playoff hiccups when he allowed four home runs to the D-backs. At least the Cubs don’t have the familiarity with this rotation that Arizona did, that should work in the Dodgers’ favor. I want to like these starters more than I do, possibly because the blowup potential feels high.
Advantage: Dodgers, but not by much.
Cubs: We just watched Wade Davis throw 44 pitches en route to a pretty insane save. He gave up a run over 2.1 innings, but managed to cling to a narrow lead, striking out Bryce Harper to send the Nats packing. Game 5 wasn’t the most impressive showing for the Chicago pen – they allowed five hits and eight walks which led to four runs – but they got the job done.
Dodgers: While this group largely held the line in the NLDS, I’m not buying it. I immensely distrust every Dodger reliever outside of Kenley Jansen. There’s no reason he can’t throw 10 innings in a seven game series, but at some point LA will need to get innings elsewhere. Roberts has been good at putting relievers in position to succeed all year long, and he’ll need to play the matchups right to maximize the utility of guys like Brandon Morrow, Tony Watson, Tony Cingrani, and the glacial Pedro Baez.
Advantage: Cubs. I’ll take the depth over a single star, no matter how bright.
Cubs: Ben Zobrist has been showing some signs of life. Addison Russell was a double-whackin’ hero in Game 5 against the Nats. That’s all well and good, but the heart of the Cubbies order has been pretty much silent, with the Bryzzo duo combining for just three doubles over the entire series. They’re going to need to contribute a heck of a lot more than that if Chicago stands a chance to outscore LA. Scoring nine runs in the decisive final game has to be a big morale boost, and something resident rah-rah man Eric Hinske will use to fire them up for the NLCS.
Dodgers: Boy was I wrong about this lineup. It turns out this group was primed and ready for the playoffs, despite the fact that they alternated between Bad News Bears and Monstars in the second half. The talent has never been in doubt, and now that their mojo is turned up to 11, they deserve to be feared. One thing I didn’t count on was Yaisel Puig reemerging as LA’s emotional leader and batting fifth. That’s a fun development, and maybe the formerly old school Dodgers of A-Gon and Utley are now the millennial Dodgers of Bellinger and Puig. Another aspect of this hit squad I like is the plethora of veteran bats that in theory give them some nice late-inning options for Dave Roberts to mix and match. Situational hitting is obviously key in October, and LA has some old hosses ready to deliver clutch at-bats.
Advantage: Dodgers. Good hitting snowballs, and LA is riding high from their drubbing of Arizona pitching.
Prediction: Cubs in 7
My head says Dodgers, but my heart knows that Jason Heyward has another great speech in him. I’m betting on Chicago’s big bats waking up, and the lack of bullpen studs catching up to LA.
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