MLB playoffs provide new intrigue, old rivalries

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October is finally here. To me, fall—the best season—doesn’t really start until October, when the leaves begin changing colors, the temperature drops and most importantly, playoff baseball begins. Fans love the beginning of the season, with the smell of spring in the air and all 30 fanbases still harboring some kind of hope. But far more exciting is when that smell changes to fall, with the crisper air signalling that hope remains for only 10 teams. 

 

Postseason baseball is as much a staple of October as Halloween is. Who could forget Babe Ruth’s called shot, Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off home run in Game Seven of the World Series, the Red Sox clawing back from an 0-3 American League Championship Series (ALCS) deficit to topple the Yankees and break their curse, or Howie Kendrick’s 10th inning grand slam in Game Five of the National League Division Series (NLDS)? These legendary moments, and so many others, are what make playoff baseball great. After a grueling 162-game season, the stakes are incredibly high, with a team’s fate coming down to a best of seven, best of five or a single game. The significance of all 162 games can be wiped away by a single subpar pitching performance or a botched play on defense. The playoffs are great because they contain some of the crowning achievements of the best players in history, but because they also produce unexpected heroes, bench players and nobodies who get a chance in a big moment and seize it.

 

The next month will decide who gets to play in, and ultimately win, the 117th World Series. So let’s take a look at who is left standing. All stats are courtesy of Baseball Reference.

 

National League (NL):

 

  1. San Francisco Giants (107-55)

The Giants unexpectedly put up the best record in all of baseball this year. Led by a resurgent season from their 34-year-old, former-MVP Catcher (C) Buster Posey, who hit .304/.390/.889 with 18 home runs, and journeyman-turned-star Starting Pitcher (SP) Kevin Gausman who went 14-6 with a 2.81 ERA and 227 strikeouts, the Giants don’t have a ton of superstars on their team, but they are just plain good. All of their players do their jobs and exceed expectations. The other teams left in the NL may look better on paper, but when it came down to it, the Giants just kept winning. They are an obvious threat to win the whole thing and their organization has been here before: they won the World Series in 2010, 2012 and 2014. They will face the winner of the NL Wildcard game in the best-of-five NLDS.

 

  1. Milwaukee Brewers (95-67)

The Brewers are very similar to the Giants in that not a whole lot of names on their roster stand out, yet they just do a great job winning games. The number two seed in the National League (NL) has solid players up and down their lineup, headlined by former-MVP Outfielder (OF) Christian Yelich, who had a solid year (.248/.362/.736) but didn’t live up to the monster expectations he set in 2018 and 2019. The real story of the 2021 Brewers, though, is their pitching staff. They have five SPs with an ERA below 3.25, anchored by breakout star Corbin Burnes, who went 11-5 with a 2.43 ERA and 234 strikeouts this year. The Brew Crew also has one of the best relief aces in Josh Hader, who is 34 for 35 in save opportunities with a minuscule 1.23 ERA. The Milwaukee Brewers are built on pitching, and pitching wins games in October. They too are a real threat to run the table in the NL, but they don’t have quite the pedigree of the Giants; the Brewers have never won the Series and have lost their last three playoff series, in 2020, 2019 and 2018 respectively. The Brewers will play the Atlanta Braves in the NLDS.

 

  1. Atlanta Braves (88-73)

The Braves are NL East division champs for the fourth straight year, but have no World Series appearances in that time span. In fact, the Braves haven’t made the World Series since 1999, despite 12 playoff appearances since. The Braves just lose in October; it’s what they do. They did however, have a ray of hope last season, ending up one game away from the World Series after having lost their last nine playoff series. The Braves are a well-rounded team, with standout performances at the plate this season from First Baseman (1B) Freddie Freeman (.300/.393/.896 and 31 home runs) and Third Baseman (3B) Austin Riley (.303/.367/.898 and 33 home runs). They also got stellar seasons out of SPs Charlie Morton (14-6 with a 3.34 ERA) and Max Fried (14-7 with a 3.04). All hope seemed lost this summer when star OF Ronald Acuna Jr. tore his ACL, ending his season (ESPN, 2021) just over a month after OF Marcell Ozuna was arrested for domestic violence (Forbes, 2021). But the Braves made trade deadline moves and found themselves atop their division once again, ready to face the Brewers in the NLDS.

 

NL Wildcard Game (Wednesday):

 

  1. Los Angeles Dodgers (106-56)

The Dodgers have had some tough luck this year. They had the second-best record in all of baseball, but the best record just so happened to be their division rivals, the Giants. Thus, the Dodgers have a date in the winner-take-all Wildcard Game against the Cardinals before they can tackle their NL West foe in the NLDS. The Dodgers are weirdly a dark horse in these playoffs; though they have what many would call a “superteam,” filled with stars throughout their roster. Not only are the Dodgers defending World Series champions, but they added future hall of famers in bench player Albert Pujols (17 home runs) and SP Max Scherzer (15-4 with a 2.46 ERA and 236 strikeouts), as well as 2021 NL batting champ Trea Turner (.328/.375/.911 with 28 home runs). These additions have been piled onto a lineup that includes former-MVP OF Mookie Betts (.264/.367/.854 with 23 home runs), slugging 1B Max Muncy (.249/.368/.895 with 36 home runs, although he is injured and expected to miss the Wildcard Game), Shortstop (SS) Corey Seager (.306/.394/.915 with 16 home runs) and OF AJ Pollock (.297/.355/.892 with 27 home runs), among others. But despite the excellence of that batting order, the Dodgers’ real strength lies in their starting rotation, which includes Cy Young favorite Max Scherzer, All-Star Walker Buehler (16-4 with a 2.47 ERA and 212 strikeouts), young star Julio Urias (20-3 with a 2.96 ERA and 195 strikeouts) and future hall-of-famer Clayton Kershaw (10-8 with a 3.55 ERA and 144 strikeouts; currently dealing with an elbow issue). This is easily the best starting rotation in baseball, despite the loss of former Cy Young award winner Trevor Bauer (8-5 with a 2.59 ERA and 137 strikeouts) partway through the year due to a sexual assault allegation (ESPN, 2021). This rotation is bolstered by a strong bullpen featuring longtime Closer (CL) Kenley Jansen (38 for 43 in save opportunities with a 2.22 ERA) and setup man Blake Treinen (1.99 ERA). The Dodgers would easily be my World Series pick if they weren’t stuck in a perilous one-game-playoff series. Their 106 win season will mean nothing if they can’t beat the Cardinals on Wednesday. But if the Dodgers can win that one game, look out, because they are intimidating to every other team in the league.

 

  1. St. Louis Cardinals (90-72)

The Cardinals are, in a word, old. This team’s biggest strength is experience. Led by ace Adam Wainwright (17-7 with a 3.05 ERA and 174 strikeouts; 40 years old), future hall-of-famer C Yadier Molina (.252/.297/.667 with 11 home runs; 39), 1B Paul Goldschmidt (.294/.365/.879 with 31 home runs; 34) and six-time gold glove 3B Nolan Arenado (.255/.312/.807 with 34 home runs), the Cardinals came out of nowhere at the end of the season to swipe the final wildcard spot in the NL. No one expected the Cardinals to be here; they don’t necessarily have the star power of some of the heavyweights, but with all the experience on this roster and the franchise’s history in October (they have won 11 titles and are often considered the “Yankees” of the NL), they could be a real threat, especially considering all they have to do is beat the Dodgers in one game. I won’t pick them to win the NL, but they may just surprise us all again.

 

American League (AL):

  1. Tampa Bay Rays (100-62)

The defending AL Champs put together another excellent season, winning 100 games and taking the first seed in the playoffs. The Rays, who beat out the Yankees and Red Sox to win the AL East and will face whichever of those two wins the Wildcard Game, are in many ways an outlier. Other powerhouse teams like the Yankees and Dodgers have a ton of money to throw around, but the Rays’ payroll ranks 26th out of 30 MLB teams (Spotrac, 2021), forcing them to focus on building almost exclusively through the draft and shrewd trades. This strategy has worked out well for the Rays, who lost to the Dodgers last year in the World Series and are looking to get back there this October on the heels of standout offensive talents Second Baseman (2B) Brandon Lowe (.247/.340/.863 with 39 home runs), OF Randy Arozarena (.274/.356/.815 with 20 home runs) and young star SS Wander Franco (.288/.347/.810 with seven home runs). SP Shane McClanahan had a good year (10-6 with a 3.43 ERA and 141 strikeouts), but they lost their ace, Tyler Glasnow, to injuries. Luckily, rookie Drew Rassmussen has stepped up to fill the gap, going 4-0 with a 2.44 ERA since being traded to the Rays midseason. The Rays hope to shore up some of the holes in their starting rotation with a strong bullpen, anchored by relievers Andrew Kittredge and Colin McHugh owning 1.88 and 1.55 ERAs respectively. 

 

  1. Houston Astros (95-67)

Everybody hates the Houston Astros. They won the 2017 World Series, but in 2019 MLB revealed that the Astros had videotaped other teams so that they knew which pitches were coming. This is strictly against MLB rules, so many consider the Astros’ 2017 championship tainted, and most people want to see them fail (The Washington Post, 2020). They are the villains of the MLB. And yet, they have mostly recovered from that scandal, bouncing back to make a deep playoff run last season after losing to the Washington Nationals in the 2019 World Series and finishing this season as the number two seed in the AL. The Astros are led by the usual suspects: 2B Jose Altuve (.278/.350/.839 with 31 home runs), SS Carlos Correa (.279/.366/.850 with 26 home runs), future hall-of-famer Zack Greinke (11-6 with a 4.16 ERA and 120 strikeouts), ace Lance McCullers Jr. (13-5 with a 3.16 ERA with 185 strikeouts) and breakout OF Kyle Tucker (.294/.359/.917 with 30 home runs). CL Ryan Pressly had a great year too, going 26 for 28 in save opportunities with a 2.25 ERA. The ’Stros will play the Chicago White Sox in the American League Division Series (ALDS). The Astros are a real threat in the AL, and I think they will make it to the World Series. I just hope, along with almost every other fan in baseball, that I am incorrect.

 

  1. Chicago White Sox (93-69)

Since the White Sox won the World Series in 2005, they haven’t done a whole lot, only appearing in two playoff series and losing both of them. This year, however, they looked strong all season. Their lineup was headlined by 1B Jose Abreu (.261/.351/.831 with 30 home runs), SS Tim Anderson (.309/.338/.806 with 17 home runs), and young OF Luis Robert (.338/.378/.946 with 13 home runs). They have a very strong starting rotation, with Lance Lynn (11-6 with a 2.69 ERA and 176 strikeouts), Lucas Giolito (11-9 with a 3.53 ERA and 201 strikeouts) and Carlos Rodon (13-5 with a 2.37 ERA and 185 strikeouts). Their bullpen is led by CL Liam Hendriks (38 for 44 in save opportunities with a 2.54 ERA). The White Sox are a super well-rounded team that has the talent to go far, but I think they are going to struggle with the Astros in the ALDS.

 

AL Wildcard Game (Tuesday):

 

  1. Boston Red Sox (92-70)

Another chapter in one of sport’s most storied rivalries: Yankees vs. Red Sox. With this being a one-game series, the stakes and drama will be even greater than normal between these teams. Boston had a strong season led by SS Xander Bogaerts (.295/.370/.863 with 23 home runs), 3B Rafael Devers (.279/.352/.890 with 38 home runs) and Designated Hitter (DH) J.D. Martinez (.286/.349/.867 with 28 home runs; will miss Wildcard Game). Their pitching staff was headlined by Nathan Eovaldi (11-9 with a 3.75 ERA and 195 strikeouts) and the long-awaited return of Chris Sale (5-1 with a 3.16 ERA in just nine games). The Sox are one of the more recent world champions, winning the World Series back in 2018, but were also implicated in the cheating scandal through their manager Alex Cora, who was with the Astros in 2017 (CNN, 2020). Pair that with the fact that Boston sports fans are some of the most obnoxious in the country and you have a team that isn’t super popular around the league. I don’t expect them to win the AL–it has too many strong teams–but they should give us a great game against the Yankees.

 

  1. New York Yankees (92-70)

Finally, we have the Evil Empire. The Yankees, who have won more championships than any other team in all of sports with 27 titles, and who always have a massive payroll to keep them in contention, are still looking for their first World Series appearance in over a decade. Led by OF Aaron Judge (.287/.373/.916 with 39 home runs), DH Giancarlo Stanton (.273/.354/.870), midseason acquisition Anthony Rizzo (.248/.344/.783 with 22 home runs) at 1B, ace Gerrit Cole (16-8 with a 3.23 ERA and 243 strikeouts) and longtime CL Aroldis Chapman (30 for 34 in save opportunities with a 3.36 ERA), the Yankees are once again trying to make a deep postseason run. Like the Red Sox, I don’t think they have the stuff to beat some of the other teams in the AL, but I like the Yankees’ chances more than Boston’s. Either way, they are going to produce an exciting game against their longtime rivals to kick off an equally exciting postseason.

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