Picture credit to www.mw32.com
So, after that masterpiece on Wednesday night, we have to sit down and look at what lies ahead: October baseball. I'm already stocking up on extra nails to bite off over the next four weeks. Overall, this might be the best field we've had in the playoffs in years. For the second straight year, the fewest wins of any playoff team is 90, and this year we have more good teams then ever. The top three in the AL won 97, 96 and 95 games, and the top three in the NFL won 102, 96 and 94 games. These are all good teams, and other than Arizona, all teams that are not surprises in a way. The AL returns three teams from last years' playoffs, with the Verlanders replacing the Twins. The NL has the Phillies, which was kind of obvious, and the Cardinals, who while a surprise, have been playoff staples over the last decade. The Brewers were my pet team, so I'm not surprised in any way. The D'Backs are a huge surprise, but they were good from the beginning of the season, and then after that 11 game win streak took over the NL West lead and never really came close to blowing it. This is a deep playoff slate, and I'll be surprised if we get any sweeps.
Detroit Tigers (95-67) vs New York (97-65)
The Yankees were the best team in the AL, but the talent difference between these two teams are not that huge. On offense, the Yankees got less than years from A-Rod, Teixeira, and Jeter (who did quietly build his batting average to .297 but didn't even reach 100 on OPS+), but got great years from Granderson and Cano. This might be the changing of the guard, but I'm not sure if that is a good thing. As for the Tigers, Miggy had a quietly great year, again with a .344/.448/.586. Alex Avila went from unknown to very good offensive catcher. V-Mart batted .330, which begs the question why the Red Sox ever got rid of him. Overall offense, the Tigers scored 80 fewer runs, but also played 81 games in an extreme pitchers park. The Yankees team OPS+ was 106, while the Tigers were 110+. They aren't just Verlander and a bunch of nothing.
On pitching, they really are pretty much Verlander and a bunch of nothing. Doug Fister has been brilliant since coming over from Seattle, but didn't really pitch great against any good teams in Detroit. Scherzer really fell off in the second half. The bullpen is good, especially in the back end with Valverde, but I've never had too much confidence in him. As much as the hitting is far closer than most people think, the Yankees have a surprising edge in pitching, The Yankees gave up just 657 runs (3rd fewest in the AL) and the Tigers gave up 711 (8th in the AL) despite having a great pitcher park. Verlander is great, but Sabathia is really 98% as good. A lot of the Tigers perceived edge in pitching is just the way Verlander has been mythologized this season.
Yes, Justin Verlander has been the most exciting pitcher in baseball this year. Yes, he is probably the best pitcher in the AL, but those two things are not the same (Clayton Kershaw had just as good of a year. Kershaw is in the NL, but plays in a good offensive division with Colorado and Arizona, and had better stats in most categories). Verlander's biggest draw is that 24-5 record, but if 2009 and 2010 thought us anything, it is that wins are meaningless. Three of the four Cy Young winners in that period had 13 (F. Hernandez), 15 (Z. Greinke) and 16 (T. Lincecum) wins. Verlander won 24, but really, that doesn't mean much. The rest of his stats are great, and are in all ways better than CC, but would I be surprised if the Yankees win one of the two possible Verlander starts? No, I won't. The Yankees are probably deeper at pitchers #3 and #4 (and Jim Leyland is promising he won't start Verlander Game 4). The Yankees have the far deeper bullpen. The Yankees are the better team.
Odd Stat That Doesn't Mean Much but is Interesting: The Yankees haven't beaten a team in the ALDS other than the Twins since 2001. They beat the Twins in 2003, 2004, 2009 and 2010, and were knocked out in the ALDS in 2002, 2005, 2006 and 2007.
Pick: Yankees in 5.
Tampa Bay Rays (91-71) vs Texas Rangers (96-66)
They met a year ago in the ALDS, in what was a series totally opposite to this one. In 2010, the Rangers were the surprise, winning the AL West for the first time since the 90's with a 91-71 record, and the Rays were already making their 2nd playoff appearance in two years at 96-66. The records are opposite, and so are the teams. The Rangers don't have the offense they did back when it was Tex, Kinsler, Young and Blalock along the infield, but their offense is simply better than that of the Rays. The Rangers were 1st in batting, 2nd in SLG and 2nd in OPS. They are deep, with 9 starters and their top 2 backups having OPSes above .700 and OPS+es ranging from 84 to 171. Josh Hamilton had another great year despite missing six weeks. Their biggest strength might be that they had the fewest strikeouts of any team in the AL.
The Rays aren't built to put up big offensive numbers, and even in 2008 in their apex, they weren't. BJ Upton had a really nice second half, and has shown he can go on power surges. What they all collectively do is draw walks and a lot of them (3rd most in the AL). They also play in a pitchers park that depresses some of their stats. All of them are solid, with their top 11 having seven players with an OPS+ above 115. That all said, it is clear that, and for the 2nd year in a row in this matchup, the Rangers have the hitting edge.
Ironically, the Rangers have the sizable pitching edge as well. It isn't that the Rays are bad, but that the Rangers quietly were really, really good in 2011. They had the 3rd best run differential (+178) in baseball behind the Yankees (+210) and the Phillies (+184), and a lot of that is pitching. Unless the Rays want to pitch Matt Moore as a starter, the Rays will have to pitch either someone on short rest, or pitch Wade Davis or Jeff Neimann, neither of whom are that great. Hellickson, Price and Shields are all good, but Price did not have a great end to his season. On the surface, the Rangers don't look to be better, but they play in an extreme hitter's park. All five starters have an ERA+ over 100. CJ Wilson put up great numbers all year long. Matt Harrison and Ariel Ogando have been solid all year. What makes it better for them is that they have the better bullpen too. The Rangers just have a better team on offense and defense.
Odd Stat That Doesn't Mean Anything but is Interesting: 6 times two teams have met in back-to-back ALDSes since 2001 (The Angels and Red Sox met three straight times, but in this excercise, that counts as two different back-to-backs), and the winner of the first meeting is 4-2 against the other team. The two times it switches was the 2002 Cardinals beat Arizona after losing in 2001, and the 2009 Angels beat the Red Sox after losing in 2008. The 2003-04 Yankees beat the Twins, the 2009-10 Yankees beat the Twins, the 2005-06 Cardinals beat the Padres, and the 2007-08 Red Sox beat the Angels.
Pick: Rangers in 4.
NL Coming Tomorrow