MLB 2019: American League Playoff Preview

The Tampa Bay Rays defeated the Oakland Athletics in the American League Wild Card game. The American League Division Series teams are now locked in. 

What is fascinating about these two series is how utterly different they figure to be, at least on paper. 

Baseball is known to not follow appearances on paper, however.

TAMPA BAY RAYS (AL Wild Card)
vs.
HOUSTON ASTROS (AL West Champion)

OVERVIEW

The Twins-Yankees series is a matchup of very similar ballclubs, as you will read below. This, on the other hand, is a matchup of opposites.

The Houston Astros have played deep into the playoffs the last two seasons. The Tampa Bay Rays, however, are new to the playoffs after several years away. This roster is completely unlike the last Tampa Bay team to make the postseason in 2013.

The Rays have developed the concept of “the opener,” the pitcher who merely starts a game and doesn’t go deep into a game. The Milwaukee Brewers followed a similar (though not exact) model in the National League, but the Rays are the industry leader in this regard.

The Astros, on the other hand, rely on elite starting pitchers to carry the team and pitch into the seventh or eighth inning.

St. Petersburg, Florida, is a sleepy baseball town which has not been able to consistently support the Rays, which prompted a weird midseason story in which rumours surfaced that the Rays might play some of their future regular-season games in Montreal.

Houston is a sports-mad town which is head-over-heels in love with the Astros, who won their first World Series just two years ago and have had a lot more postseason success in recent years than the NBA's Rockets or the NFL's Texans.

The contrasts in this series are numerous. The difference in styles creates a fascinating baseball laboratory.

HITTING

The Rays are 'The Little Engine That Could.' There are no stars in this lineup, but a lot of tough hitters on a team which maximizes its talent every year under likely 2019 American League Manager of the Year, Kevin Cash.

Cash watched Oakland Athletics manager Bob Melvin win the 2018 AL Manager of the Year Award, so it had to be sweet for Cash and the Rays to personally usher Melvin and the A’s out of the playoffs this season.

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The Wild Card win in Oakland was a classic Rays win. Yandy Diaz, acquired from the Cleveland Indians, had not gotten a base hit in a major league game since July 22. He hit two home runs to power the Rays past the A’s. Tommy Pham, another pesky hitter with legitimate but not overwhelming home run power, smacked another over the fence to help Tampa Bay. The only pure power hitter to hit a home run in the Wild Card game was Avisail Garcia, who was once mentored by future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera as a member of the Detroit Tigers. Garcia bounced to the Chicago White Sox before landing at the Rays.

Notice something about Rays players? 

They are usually acquired from other teams. ESPN reported Wednesday night during the game that 69% of the Rays’ current roster was acquired by trade, as opposed to being home-grown in the team’s minor-league system.

The Rays fit players together and make pieces work, making Cash’s performance as manager nothing short of extraordinary.

The Astros have the big names in this series. 

George Springer, Jose Altuve, MVP candidate Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, and Michael Brantley are all part of their batting order. Correa has been injured and Brantley has been in a slump, but both are expected to play in Game 1. When one discusses “holes in the lineup” – the places a pitcher can get comparatively easier outs – the Astros have fewer holes than the Rays do.

PITCHING

The Rays have only one pitcher – Charlie Morton, the winner of the wild card game against the Athletics – who averages at least 5 2/3 innings per appearance. Morton is the only pitcher who pitched more than 142 innings for the team, which magnifies the Rays’ reliance on multiple pitchers throwing for shorter stints each game. A handful of other pitchers on the Rays average between four and five innings per appearance.

A typical Rays game involves at least four pitchers - if not five or six. 

The 5-1 Wild Card win in Oakland was a classic illustration. Morton went five innings, giving up one run. The bullpen came in and pitched four shutout innings highlighted by zero walks against eight strikeouts.  

Diego Castillo, Nick Anderson, and closer Emilio Pagan formed the three-man pen which smothered the A’s lineup. This large supply of short-relief pitchers will give Astro hitters a different look each time they come to the plate. This is part of the philosophy of the “opener” and its cousin, the bullpen-by-committee: by using a lot of pitchers each game, hitters aren’t able to see various pitchers more than twice, if that. They will see a number of pitchers only once, so they can’t get comfortable in any individual plate appearance.

This is what the Rays will rely on against the Astros.

Houston, on the other hand, will rely on it's studs in the starting rotation.

Future Hall of Famer, Justin Verlander. Cy Young Award candidate, Gerrit Cole

This is the Astros’ 1-2 punch. In a five-game series, both men could pitch twice, with No. 3 starter Wade Miley (whose ERA was under 4.00, which would make him a legitimate No. 1 starter for the Minnesota Twins or New York Yankees) slated for Game 3 of this series in Florida.

Verlander and Cole have both been there and done that in the playoffs. Interestingly, Morton of the Rays (who won’t be able to pitch again until Game 3 since Tampa Bay had to play the Wild Card game) used to pitch for the Astros. None of the other Rays have extensive playoff experience.

This is the axis of power pitching the Rays will have to figure out if they want to win this series.

THE SERIES

The Rays are a very tough out. Tampa Bay has overachieved to a considerable degree in each of the last two seasons, so it would be foolish to count out the Rays in this series. If Correa and Brantley of the Astros remain sluggish (Correa due to injury, Brantley due to a prolonged hitting slump), the Rays will find more weak spots in the Houston order and the balance of this series becomes a lot more even.

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Nevertheless, it is very hard to bet against Verlander and Cole, two of the most dependable starters in the entire major leagues. This won’t be a cakewalk, but of the four playoff series, this is the least difficult one to pick.

Stats Insider World Series Probabilities:
Tampa Bay Rays: 5.4%
Houston Astros: 27.0%


MINNESOTA TWINS (AL Central Champion)
vs.
NEW YORK YANKEES (AL East Champion)

OVERVIEW

If Rays-Astros is all about pitching, Twins-Yankees is all about hitting. 

If you want to see a lot of runs scored in one of the four division series (two in the American League, two in the National League), this is clearly the series you want to watch.

Get this: the Minnesota Twins set a new Major League Baseball record for home runs in a season, with 307, this year.

The New York Yankees hit 306.

Yeah. That’s what this series promises: bombs, bombs and more bombs. 

Dingers. 

Round-trippers. 

Clouts. 

Jacks. 

Long balls. 

The book of baseball slang will be worn out in this series with all the homers likely to be hit.

What is also distinctive about this series is how many key players are either missing or coming off injuries and therefore impossible to evaluate.

Aaron Hicks is out for the Yankees. So is Domingo German (due to off-field problems, specifically a domestic violence allegation and subsequent investigation). German went 18-4 as a starter for the Yankees this year.

Minnesota starting pitcher Michael Pineda is out - suspended - due to use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Then consider the players coming back from injuries on both sides, and whose level of quality is a total mystery heading into this series: The Twins have Max Kepler and Marwin Gonzalez trying to regain form after injuries. The Yankees have a longer list: Giancarlo Stanton, Didi Gregorius, Gary Sanchez, and Edwin Encarnacion.

The Yankees and Twins also secured division titles well before the end of the regular season. They have had over a week to prepare their lineups and starting rotations, but they haven’t known how healthy or sharp many of their key players truly are.

This is a very mysterious series in terms of the individual players, but there is no mystery about the idea that this should be a home-run-happy series with lots of high-scoring games.

In the National League playoffs, five runs per game will probably win every game in a series, at least 80 percent. In this series, five runs per game might lead to one win at most.

HITTING

The Twins set a new Major League Baseball record in 2019 by generating at least 30 home runs from five separate players: Nelson Cruz – the team’s most proven postseason player – plus Kepler, Eddie Rosario, Mitch Garver, and Miguel Sano. Their other, less powerful hitters are still quality hitters. C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop both have serious home-run power.

The Yankees, based on pure talent, have the best 1-through-9 batting order in baseball, hands down. D.J. LeMahieu has been superb in his first season with the Yankees. He finished second in the American League batting race (.327 average) and knocked in over 100 runs. He joins Aaron Judge, Encarnacion, Stanton, Sanchez, Gleyber Torres, Gregorius, Gio Urshela, and Brett Gardner.

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LeMahieu, Judge, Encarnacion, Stanton, Sanchez, and Gregorius are proven and established big-league hitters who can easily swat the ball out of Yankee Stadium, especially down the lines to the short porches in left and right field. Torres and Urshela are exciting young players who have quickly demonstrated a high level of consistency as collectors of extra-base hits.

Yankee Stadium is a deep park in the alleys but a home run hitter’s paradise down the lines. The Yankees have a lineup which is tailored to their home ballpark.

Ultimately, neither team has more than one weak hitter, if that. 

Pitchers will not have the ability to pitch around elements of the batting order and hope to get to a different set of hitters. There is no escape for pitchers in this series.

Speaking of pitchers…

PITCHING

The Twins have very little postseason experience on their roster. They played the Yankees in the 2017 American League Wild Card game, but lost – they were not part of a playoff series in either of the last two seasons.

Sergio Romo, who nailed down the San Francisco Giants’ 2012 World Series win over the Detroit Tigers, is a veteran in the Twins’ bullpen who can teach his teammates some tricks of the October trade, but if you go through the Twins’ starting rotation and bullpen, very few of these names have carved out a distinct postseason identity.

The starting rotation is expected to be a combination of Jose Berrios, Jake Odorizzi, Randy Dobnak, and Martin Perez. The absence of Pineda is part of why the Minnesota rotation is expected to consist of those four pitchers.

The bullpen has been good for the Twins in the second half of the season. Using the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) figure, the Twins, at 4.8, lead the American League. The Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays are tied for second at 3.7. 

Nevertheless, October is a different beast, and no one knows how these relatively obscure Minnesota relief pitchers will react: Taylor Rogers, Tyler Duffey, Trevor May, Zack Littell, Cody Stashak, and Brusdar Graterol.

The Yankees have been in the postseason on a regular basis, so they have pitchers with postseason experience, such as Masahiro Tanaka (starter), C.C. Sabathia (middle relief), and Aroldis Chapman (closer). Yet, Tanaka and Sabathia have been ordinary at best this season. James Paxton is not an experienced postseason pitcher, given that he pitched for the Seattle Mariners prior to this season. He was decent for the Yankees this year, but hardly spectacular.

Luis Severino is hugely talented but was injured for nearly the whole season. He made just a handful of starts the entire year and had an abbreviated warm-up appearance late in the regular season. He walked four and struck out four in three innings, allowing two runs. That is encouraging, but was it was enough for Severino to work out the kinks?

The broader reality is that Severino is a total mystery entering this series.

The Yankees do have Zach Britton as a proven arm, but Britton – who never appeared in the 2016 American League Wild Card game for the Baltimore Orioles against the Toronto Blue Jays – has not yet registered a big October moment as a reliever.

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A key arm the Yankees won’t have in this series is reliever Dellin Betances. He suffered a late-season injury and won’t be available in the playoffs. Chapman is a pitcher the Yankees can trust, but it will be hard for New York to build a bridge in this series from a shaky starting pitcher in the fifth or sixth inning to Chapman in the ninth. Getting those nine outs in the sixth-through-eighth innings will be thorny for the Pinstripes.

SERIES

The Yankees have better players but have more question marks in their lineup. All the players who have recently returned from injury could regain top form, but could also be stone cold and lack the rhythm hitters need to be at their best. This is what will decide the series.

The Yankees’ lineup is better than the Twins’ bunch of mashers, but only if the returning players shake off their rust to perform at a high level.

It comes down to this: the Twins need to jump on the Yankees early in the series and take a 2-1 lead. They need to strike quickly before the Yankee veterans shake off the cobwebs.

Yet, do the Twins have a shutdown pitcher who will enable them to pull that off? I, for one, am not convinced.

If you look at the history of Twins-Yankees matchups in the postseason, the Yankees have an overwhelming edge. Minnesota could easily win this series, but the Yankees deserve the benefit of the doubt.

Stats Insider World Series Probabilities:
Minnesota Twins: 5.4%
New York Yankees: 16.2%

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Matt Zemek

Matt has written professionally about US College Football since 2000, and has blogged about professional Tennis since 2014. He wants the Australian Open to play Thursday night Women's Semi-Finals, and Friday evening Men's Semi-Finals. Contribute to his Patreon for exclusive content here.

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