Ranking the Top 5 MLB Contenders Best Built for Playoff Baseball
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Excelling during the regular season is important for all MLB contenders, but with the ultimate goal of winning the 2013 World Series, they have tried to build rosters that suit postseason baseball.
Let's look at which five teams were most successful in doing so.
It all begins with the starting pitching.
Playoff scheduling eliminates the need for a fifth rotation option, although it's quite a luxury to have an adequate arm to make spot starts in case of a teammate's injury or ineffectiveness. That same individual would come in handy following a lengthy, early-evening rain delay. Ideally, a staff also includes at least one starter with elite swing-and-miss stuff who doesn't rely on the randomness of balls in play.
A team's bullpen ought to be deep. When the starting pitcher for an elimination game comes out flat, for example, his manager needs to have confidence in several relievers to keep the deficit manageable. A lefty specialist has enormous value in October, as does a closer who can retire opponents of either handedness (preferably via strikeout).
To ensure that there's some offensive production every night, a lineup should be able to work deep counts by laying off bad pitches and fouling off tough ones. Also, it should feature speedsters, contact hitters, power hitters and a star who combines each of those tools. The bench hopefully includes guys with situation-specific skills who can influence games in the later innings.
These position players better know how to field, too. A dangerous playoff team has plenty of range up the middle, arm strength/accuracy in the corners and a catcher with extensive game-calling experience.
Of all the remaining contenders, those mentioned in the following slides came closest to fulfilling this entire wish list.
*Stats gathered from Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. Updated through the games of Sept. 16, 2013.
5. Atlanta Braves
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Andrelton Simmons is establishing himself as this generation's best defensive shortstop, and he's not the only one on the Atlanta Braves who fields his position well. The team ranks among the National League's top five in terms of fielding percentage, defensive runs saved and ultimate zone rating.
Rookie right-hander Julio Teheran endured some early-season growing pains, but the 22-year-old is now blossoming into a legitimate strikeout artist. In 19 starts since Memorial Day, he boasts a 9.51 K/9 and an impressive 2.89 ERA.
Of course, the best swing-and-miss pitcher on the staff is Craig Kimbrel. He actually piles up strikeouts at a higher rate than anyone ever has (min. 200 career innings). Unlike typical flamethrowers, the All-Star closer doesn't have a tendency to walk batters, nor is he vulnerable to the long ball. With Kimbrel lurking in the bullpen, Braves opponents know that they're doomed whenever trailing after eight innings.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez can remain calm if ever his club falls behind on the scoreboard. Evan Gattis, Brian McCann and Justin Upton have the power to trim deficits with a single swing. Each is a top-50 player this season in terms of isolated power, according to FanGraphs. Atlanta has eight players with double-digit home runs this summer, including six with at least 15 bombs.
No, we didn't forget about Freddie Freeman. The 24-year-old first baseman is an aggressive hitter who expertly fouls off pitches until the right offering comes along. He's arguably baseball's top threat with runners in scoring position (.430/.529/.645 in 153 PA).
The Braves strike out more often than any other contender, according to FanGraphs. The worst offenders include Gattis, Dan Uggla and the Upton brothers.
More specifically, the problem is that whiffing becomes contagious with this lineup, leading to lots of humiliating group performances. Only the Miami Marlins have been shut out more times in 2013, and the Houston Astros are the only team that strikes out with greater frequency during scoreless games. Being associated with those cellar dwellers through any statistical comparison is obviously a bad sign.
Teheran, Kris Medlen and Mike Minor form a formidable one-two-three punch atop the playoff rotation, but there's a severe drop-off after that.
Southpaw Paul Maholm has taken a big step backward coming off one of his best campaigns. He owns a shaky 4.35 earned run average and hasn't pitched more than six innings in a start since late June. Tommy John survivor Brandon Beachy isn't quite ready to return from his latest health scare, and the 27-year-old was not particularly dominant prior to being shut down (4.50 ERA, 6.9 K/9 in 30.0 IP).
4. Pittsburgh Pirates
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Center fielder Andrew McCutchen is the sort of all-around superstar who should be universally coveted. He has mastered every offensive skill while helping the Pittsburgh Pirates with his glove and playing with the self control to avoid serious collisions and injuries.
Another homegrown everyday player, Pedro Alvarez, is more one-dimensional, but that one dimension has been very important for the Bucs. The 26-year-old is tied atop the National League in home runs and ranks second to McCutchen for the team lead in total extra-base hits.
Since the beginning of the season, Mark Melancon has done outstanding work at the back end of Pittsburgh's bullpen. His remarkable strikeout-to-walk ratio is holding steady in the closer's role, and it's been more than five months since he last surrendered a home run.
Former No. 1 overall draft pick Gerrit Cole is refreshingly dependable in the middle of the starting rotation. Nearly 71 percent of his outings have been quality starts, dwarfing the league average of 53 percent. Moreover, a 2.97 ERA and 8.06 K/9 since the All-Star break suggest that he's only getting better.
They aren't the only ones ensuring that batted balls stay playable. According to FanGraphs, the Pirates have allowed the fewest home runs per nine innings in 2013.
Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review explains how this club has embraced advanced defensive research, using it to determine how fielders should position themselves and which pitches will induce weak contact. It's no coincidence that the Pirates generate the most ground balls in the league and maintain a favorable BABIP (via FanGraphs). As Sawchik reports, they also rank highly in defensive runs saved and defensive efficiency.
None of Pittsburgh's starting pitchers would inspire much confidence in a must-win scenario.
As successful as Cole has been lately, he's already in unfamiliar territory in terms of both external pressure and workload. Francisco Liriano's bounce-back season includes two complete games and a sub-3.00 earned run average. However, his second-half implosions have been disturbing in terms of both frequency and severity, as his 2013 game log reveals.
That leaves A.J. Burnett as the least objectionable option due to his ample playoff experience and swing-and-miss ability. What's concerning about the right-hander is his fast-rising pitch count. According to MLB.com, Burnett is 29th among 43 qualified NL starters in pitches used per inning, and that has only gotten worse this September.
Meanwhile, although not quite to the same extent as the Atlanta Braves, Pittsburgh has been susceptible to striking out this summer. August additions Marlon Byrd and John Buck do nothing to remedy that issue.
3. Detroit Tigers
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Detroit Tiger pitchers lead the majors in strikeout rate by a wide margin, which is shocking to see from any American League staff that regularly faces designated hitters. Starters Anibal Sanchez (9.67 K/9 in 165.2 IP) and Max Scherzer (10.15 K/9 in 201.1 IP) have had a lot to do with that. With those two and veteran workhorse Justin Verlander, the Tigers seem perfectly suited for an elimination game, which is why they landed above the Pittsburgh Pirates in these rankings.
Should any member of Detroit's projected playoff rotation suffer an injury in the coming weeks, manager Jim Leyland can turn to Rick Porcello. The right-hander is enjoying his best season since 2009, and he participated in each of the past two postseason runs.
This team has stayed afloat in the absence of All-Star Jhonny Peralta thanks to the acquisition of Jose Iglesias. The 23-year-old's excellent range at shortstop compensates for his light bat. Center fielder Austin Jackson similarly has terrific fielding skills to solidify Detroit's defense up the middle, and as a leadoff hitter, he's constantly reaching base in front of this lineup's top sluggers.
Miguel Cabrera leads the majors in each of the triple-slash categories as well as runs batted in en route to locking up his second straight American League MVP award. Although Victor Martinez slumped during his first couple months following major knee surgery, he's been outstanding since the beginning of June. In that span, Martinez owns a near-identical batting average to Cabrera and one of baseball's highest contact rates. The 2013 season has been disappointing for Prince Fielder and Alex Avila on an individual level, but they finally seem to be locked in at the plate with a few weeks to spare.
Drew Smyly emerged as a trusty setup man this summer, especially against left-handed batters. Leyland has lightened his workload down the stretch—only 12.2 IP since the beginning of August—to ensure that he'll be sharp for October.
Smyly typically hands leads directly to right-hander Joaquin Benoit, who's enjoying one of the most dominant seasons of any reliever in Tigers history. The franchise's list of bullpen arms who posted a sub-2.00 earned run average with more than a strikeout per inning in a season of 50-plus appearances includes only two names: Benoit and Joel Zumaya (2006).
Detroit's middle relievers are not to be trusted.
Former postseason hero Phil Coke has lost five games this year, struggling enough to merit a midseason demotion to Triple-A. Al Alburquerque and Bruce Rondon have also spent time in the minors ironing out command issues.
Leyland will need to lean on them regardless while keeping his fingers crossed that Jose Alvarez or Luke Putkonen can make a positive impact.
Miggy and Fielder aren't just poor defenders—they're probably the poorest in the majors. To be fair, Detroit's star third baseman has been slowed by nagging injuries. Fielder's mediocrity, meanwhile, is largely attributable to his largeness.
Iglesias is special, but without the aid of teleportation, he won't prevent these corner guys from getting—and oftentimes, screwing up—fielding chances.
2. Los Angeles Dodgers
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No other active pitcher measures up to Clayton Kershaw when taking consistency, durability, command and pure stuff into account. He's the 2013 major league leader in both innings pitched and earned run average, and let's not forget about how well Kershaw keeps tabs on opposing baserunners (MLB-best 43 pick-offs since 2008 debut). As Bleacher Report's Zachary Rymer so eloquently phrased in the B/R MLB 500 series, "He's the best there is on the mound these days."
The highest-paid right-hander in the Senior Circuit, Zack Greinke has been in a two-month-long groove of consecutive quality starts. Considering his .340/.417/.377 batting line in 66 plate appearances, Greinke is probably regretting signing his contract without insisting on offensive-based performance bonuses.
Ricky Nolasco and Hyun-Jin Ryu, both of whom regularly pound the strike zone and pitch into the later innings, round out a fearsome projected playoff rotation for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
In Yasiel Puig and Hanley Ramirez, they have two of the most talented hitters in the world, and the results attest to that. Since the All-Star break, the Dodgers have only been shut out once. Judging by Ramirez's season splits, he's unaffected by a pitcher's handedness or a game's venue. The veteran shortstop boasts an OPS above 1.000 under virtually all circumstances.
Kenley Jansen isn't quite on par with the closer for the No. 1 most playoff-prepped team, but merely a tier below. Among all MLB relievers this season, only Jansen and Aroldis Chapman have recorded more than 100 strikeouts. Manager Don Mattingly has conditioned his massive right-hander for this grueling task ahead by finding opportunities to pitch him on three consecutive days (Jun. 10-12, Jun. 22-24 and Jul. 26-28).
L.A.'s supporting cast brings a ton of October experience. Third baseman Juan Uribe and reliever Brian Wilson both held prominent roles for the 2010 world-champion San Francisco Giants, while infielder Michael Young led the Texas Rangers to the Fall Classic that same year.
Jansen's primary setup men, Ronald Belisario and Paco Rodriguez, have slumped miserably in September. Both rank among the major league lead in appearances in 2013, so their struggles could be evidence of fatigue.
Although the Detroit Tigers are unrivaled when it comes to awful baserunning, the Dodgers also struggle in that facet of the game.
Puig, their top athlete, gets over-anxious, occasionally killing rallies with his legs by taking ill-advised risks. Carl Crawford's best days are behind him, while Ramirez and Matt Kemp appear to be too banged-up to steal bases like they've done in the past.
1. Boston Red Sox
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Assuming that leadoff man Jacoby Ellsbury returns from a foot injury in time for October, the Boston Red Sox will have the league's deepest lineup. From one through nine, there are no easy outs. According to FanGraphs, Boston's offense has not only led the majors in runs scored throughout 2013, but since the All-Star break and over the past 30 days.
Single-handedly, Ellsbury and Shane Victorino have nearly matched the entire Los Angeles Dodgers roster in stolen bases this summer. Moreover, the pair is astonishingly efficient (73-for-80, 91.3 percent success rate).
The most intimidating Red Sox batter, David Ortiz, has the fourth-best on-base percentage in the American League, with teammate Daniel Nava directly behind him. Also, Big Papi strikes out about 30 percent less than the MLB average.
Although his overall numbers aren't nearly as mind-boggling, first baseman Mike Napoli approaches the postseason as the hottest power hitter on the planet. He has contributed five home runs this September and a Jose Dariel Abreu-like .417/.553/.944 batting line.
Red Sox manager John Farrell has a menacing bench at his disposal. Potential substitutes include Mike Carp, who's rocking a .948 OPS against right-handed pitching, ultra-clutch outfielder Jonny Gomes and super-talented rookie infielder Xander Bogaerts.
FanGraphs shows us that southpaw Jon Lester's brilliant second half compares favorably to everybody else's. We can make the exact same statement about Boston closer Koji Uehara, and FanGraphs once again has the numbers to illustrate it.
Even with Andrew Bailey, Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Miller all lost to injuries, the bullpen is in better shape than those of the Dodgers or Detroit Tigers. Amazing how this team managed to rebuild it on the fly.
Each of Boston's left fielders suffer from below-average defensive range. This often goes unnoticed during games held at Fenway Park, but the Red Sox could find themselves at a major disadvantage when visiting more spacious venues like Comerica Park and Kauffman Stadium.
There's always something to nit-pick, but overall, no contending club has a better roster composition.