Dissecting Each Shoe-in Playoff Team's Dream Matchup

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystSeptember 20, 2013

Dissecting Each Shoe-in Playoff Team's Dream Matchup

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    The Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox clinched the first berths into the 2013 MLB playoffs on Thursday afternoon, and it should only be another few days before the other four teams listed here join them.

    But who are these shoe-ins for the postseason hoping to draw as an opponent in October?

    Based on the strengths and weaknesses of each team and its potential counterparts, we've nominated one team in the thick of a playoff race that each projected division winner would possibly sweep right out of the playoffs.

    For whom would Detroit's potent offensive attack spell a complete disaster?

    Is there anyone that the Cardinals are likely to beat?

    Most intriguing of all: Is it possible that the Red Sox will be rooting for the Yankees for the next 10 days?

    Nah, that would never happen.

    *Unless otherwise cited, all statistics are courtesy of ESPN.com and Fangraphs.com and are accurate through the start of play on Thursday, September 19.

Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Ideal opponent: Washington Nationals

    If the Dodgers have any weakness whatsoever, it has been a recent inability to consistently put runs on the board.

    Since September 6, they're averaging just 3.5 runs per game, and have only twice scored more than four runs without the help of extra innings. As such, it seems they would be most comfortable facing the worst second-half ERA among the National League's six playoff hopefuls.

    Yes, the Nationals are 21-7 in their last 28 games, but those games were primarily against terrible teams. In fact, the Nationals are 14-28 this season against the five teams most likely to represent the National League in the playoffs.

    Pit them against a quality team, and the Nationals tend to crumble to pieces. And there's no higher quality National League team than the Dodgers as of late.

    Here are just a few examples of their over-arching dominance.

    Thanks to a league-leading 3.23 K/BB ratio in the second half of the season, the Dodgers' pitching staff also has a league-leading xFIP and SIERA. You'd have a hard time convincing anyone that there's a better one-two pitching punch than the knockout blows Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke have been delivering for the past two months.

    If you prefer offense, the Dodgers lead the NL in batting WAR since the All-Star break and also have the highest batting average. They just barely trail the Nationals in wRC+, even though the Nationals have them destroyed in the home run department.

    It bears noting that those numbers are that high despite only receiving 13 at-bats thus far in the second half from Matt Kempwho was the National League's 11th-most potent presence on offense over the previous four seasons.

Oakland Athletics

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    Ideal opponent: Kansas City Royals

    Oakland's once-great pitching staff is starting to come apart at the seams.

    Among the 15 teams still vying for a playoff spot, the A's have the third-worst walk rate, HR/9 rate, FIP and xFIP in the second half.

    As such, they aren't so much hoping for a specific team to destroy, but rather pining to face a team that won't destroy them.

    Drawing the Royals is probably about as good as it gets for Oakland.

    Kansas City's 6.9 percent walk rate is the worst among all American League teams in the second half. The Royals have also hit the fewest American League home runs since the All-Star break.

    If they can contain the Royals on the basepaths, this should be a match made in heaven for the A's.

    There is, of course, the problem of Kansas City having the best bullpen in all of baseball this seasonand proving to be particularly dominant in the second halfbut the A's aren't concerned with such trivial affairs. They'll simply mash their way through any pitching staff, just as they have been since the All-Star break, to lead the majors in home runs.

    Sure, they've had the luxury of playing 20 games in the second half against the particularly "mashable" Angels and Astros pitching staffs, but they also managed 34 runs and seven home runs during a four-game series in Detroit against arguably the best pitching staff in baseball.

    Yoenis Cespedes and his merry men don't much care who is on the pitching mound. They're going to swing for the fences and get there fairly often.

    So long as Jarrod Parker and Bartolo Colon are able to keep the Royals' bats as stifled as they have been for the past few months, the A's would comfortably advance beyond this series.

Detroit Tigers

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    Ideal opponent: Baltimore Orioles

    The Tigers have the best batting average since the All-Star break by a wide margin. The second-place Dodgers (.274 AVG) are closer to the 11th-place Giants (.259 AVG) than they are to the first-place Tigers (.291 AVG).

    They can hit against anyone, but they should really be able to hit against a struggling pitching staff.

    Enter Baltimore, which has a .748 OPS against for the season. 

    To help put that number in context, an average batter facing the Baltimore Orioles is going to look like Alex Riosminus the 37 stolen bases, because Matt Wieters is quite good. Rios has 16 home runs and 48 extra base hits on the season for a batting average of .277 and an OPS of .748.

    That's an average hitter against the Orioles, mind you, and Miguel Cabrera is no average hitter. Between the reigning AL MVP, the struggling-but-still-good Prince Fielder and the resurgent Alex Avila and Victor Martinez, the Tigers should have a couple of field days against Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez.

    Also, the Tigers are terrible at keeping opposing base runners under wraps. They have only caught 18 percent of the 147 runners attempting to steal against them. But fortunately, the Orioles barely even try to steal bases anymore.

    Nate McLouth ran like a madman in the first half of the season, compiling 24 stolen bases before the All-Star break. That's more bases than the entire team has stolen since then. Led by McLouth's six steals, the Orioles have stolen just 22 bases in the second half of the season, and have actually been caught stealing nine times.

    Not only will the Tigers prey on Baltimore's weaknesses, but it seems like the Orioles wouldn't even attempt to return the favor. A five- or seven-games series against Baltimore would almost be a free pass into the next round for Detroit.

    And before you go screaming that Baltimore is 4-2 against Detroit this season, allow me to point out that two of those wins were against Rick Porcello—who won't be starting in the playoffsand another was entirely thanks to Jose Valverde, who won't be pitching again in the majors.

    In two starts against the Orioles this season, Max Scherzer has a line of 14.0 IP, 10 H, 4 ER, 4 BB, 20 K. Both Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister are among the top 10 American League pitchers this season, and neither of them has faced the Orioles yet.

    Also, all six of those games were played prior to the 20th of June, back when the Orioles were arguably at their best. Sometimes head-to-head regular season records are useful, but this one is worthless.

Atlanta Braves

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    Ideal opponent: St. Louis Cardinals

    The fact that you are undoubtedly shocked by this assertion only further reiterates my stance that the Cardinals have quietly been struggling in the second half of the season.

    Their 35 home runs since the All-Star break are tied with the Marlins for least in the majors. Their .695 OPS is lowest among all playoff hopefuls, and nearly 100 points worse than the Red Sox. Also, St. Louis' pitching staff has walked considerably more batters than any of the other 14 teams remaining in the playoff picture.

    Frankly, I have no idea how the Cardinals have played five games over .500 since the All-Star break while putting up numbers like those against the schedule that they had.

    But as a team that both strikes out a lot at the plate and strikes out a lot of batters on the mound, the Braves need to take advantage of a team secretly sputtering to the finish line.

    Though the Cardinals pitching staff is pretty good about keeping the ball in the yard, Freddie Freeman, Evan Gattis, Brian McCann, Justin Upton and even Andrelton Simmons have been heating up as of late while depositing baseballs into outfield seats across the nation.

    Those five players have combined to hit 43 home runs since the All-Star break, and you just never know when Dan Uggla, B.J. Upton and Jason Heyward (if he's healthy enough to play) will join in on the fun.

    Meanwhile, Kris Medlen is starting to own the mound like it's 2012 all over again, and Mike Minor and Julio Teheran have been more than serviceable enough to hand over leads to what has been easily the most difficult bullpen in the NL to score against since the All-Star break.

    In the seven games these teams have played against each other during the regular season, neither team has scored more than six runs in any game. In what already figures to be low-scoring games, there's a pretty sizable advantage for the team that is much more likely to hit long balls and keep runs off the board in the late innings.

    (One intangible thing even further increasing Atlanta's likelihood of winning this series is the sheer desire for revenge from last year's infield fly ruling in the 2012 NL Wild Card Game.)

St. Louis Cardinals

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    Ideal opponent: Pittsburgh Pirates

    Much like the Oakland A's a few slides ago, the goal for St. Louis isn't so much to find the most favorable matchup as it is to find the least unfavorable one.

    Since the Cardinals are Atlanta's ideal opponent, that rules out the Braves as an option here. Certainly no one wants to face the Dodgers. And Washington will almost have to sweep the Cardinals next week if they're going to make the playoffs. Even if the Nationals seem like a favorable draw for the Cardinals today, it wouldn't feel like one on the heels of three consecutive losses to them.

    That leaves the Reds and Pirates as the only choicesneither of which the Cardinals have particularly dominated in 19 regular season pairings.

    However, St. Louis' poor K/BB ratioand especially its high walk ratemakes the high OBP numbers of Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo an evil to avoid at all costs.

    So, I suppose the Cardinals would be best suited to face the Pirates, who have one of the worst BB/K ratios on offense of any team in the majors.

    The good news for the Cardinals is that they have totally neutralized Pittsburgh's two biggest offensive threats all season. NL MVP favorite Andrew McCutchen has batted just .246 with two home runs against St. Louis, and Pedro Alvarez is batting .184 with two home runs and 23 strikeouts against the red birds.

    Also, it's highly unlikely that either McCutchen or Starling Marte would try to run against Yadier Molina, who has thrown out 20 of 43 baserunners attempting to steal against him.

    Though the home runs and slugging have been way below league average, the Cardinals have managed to score more runs than any other NL team since the All-Star break.

    If they can keep getting runners into scoring position and remain on fire in those situations while keeping Pittsburgh's three best batters in check, the Cardinals should win this series with room to sparedespite their 9-10 record against the Pirates during the regular season.

Boston Red Sox

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    Ideal opponent: New York Yankees

    On the surface, this is insanity. Why would any team ever want to square off against an opponent it has loathed for over a century?

    Dig down into the weeds a bit, and you'll see why a showdown with the Bronx Bombers would be Boston's best chance at a postseason sweep.

    First offand this will come as a surprise to precisely no one who has watched them play a game in the past decadethe Red Sox see more pitches per plate appearance than any other team in the league, which means they can get into their opponent's bullpen quicker than most teams.

    And though you could argue that C.C. Sabathia and Phil Hughes have barely been better than batting practice pitchers as of late, getting into the Yankees bullpen is the equivalent of giving the entire lineup an invulnerability star from Super Mario Bros.

    On the whole, their bullpen has a WAR of -0.1 and a FIP of 4.67 that puts them in 29th place, ahead of only the Houston Astros. Better yet, Yankees relievers are giving up more home runs in the second half of the season than any other teamand it's not even close.

    As luck would have it, the Red Sox are among the best home run hitting teams since the All-Star break.

    But wait, there's more.

    If the Red Sox have a weakness on offense, it's striking outwhich they do in more than 20 percent of their plate appearances. However, New York's 7.02 K/9 in the second half of the season is the worst among all pitching staffs with a playoff pulse.

    Also, perhaps Boston's biggest bugaboo on defense is gunning down base runners. With 127 stolen bases allowed and only a 23.5 percent success rate of stopping thefts, one could legitimately reason that the Red Sox are the easiest team to steal against.

    On the season, the Yankees have been better than average when it comes to stealing bases, but they just recently lost their top base stealer for what might be the remainder of the year.

    There's a reason the Red Sox are 13-6 against the Yankees this season, and there's more to it than simply an extra degree of hatred.