MLB Playoffs

Separating the World Series Contenders from the Pretenders

Kerry MillerCollege Basketball National AnalystSeptember 24, 2013

Separating the World Series Contenders from the Pretenders

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    Congratulations to the 11 MLB teams that entered play on Monday with at least a 25 percent chance of making the playoffs, but only five of them are actually contenders to win the 2013 World Series.

    Not all World Series champions are created equal, but recent winners have a handful of things in common that suggest a possible formula for identifying the true candidates to win it all.

    If you're a fan of one of the teams identified as a pretender, feel free to convince yourself that the criteria lain out on the next slide are purely coincidental, and that your team is destined to break those trends.

    While you're doing that, the rest of us will be taking a look at why Yadier Molina and the St. Louis Cardinals might be the favorites to win their third World Series championship in a span of eight years.

     

    *Unless otherwise cited, all statistics on the following slides are courtesy of Fangraphs.com and Baseball-Reference.com and are accurate through the start of play on Monday, September 23.

Criteria Considered

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    After looking through the rosters of the last nine World Series champions, there were four common themes that emerged.

    1) At least one starting pitcher that has pitched 200 or more innings with an ERA of 3.45 or lower.

    2) At least one member of the team who finishes in the top seven of the MVP voting.

    3) At least one batter that has 99 or more RBI and a batting average of .283 or better. (Exception: 2010 Giants)

    4) A catcher that is widely regarded as one of the most important members of the team. (Exception: 2008 Phillies)

    The first three criteria are pretty cut and dry. Though we won't know the results of the MVP voting until long after the World Series is finished, we can at least make an educated guess on the top seven vote-getters in each league.

    The catcher criterion is at least debatable for a couple of teams, but eight of the last nine World Series rings have been handed out to teams anchored by Buster Posey, Yadier Molina, Jason Varitek, Jorge Posada and A.J. Pierzysnki. Suffice it to say, you're not confusing Derek Norris or Devin Mesoraco with any of those names.

    The teams meeting at least three of these four criteria are considered contenders to win the 2013 World Series.

Atlanta Braves

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    1) Starting pitcher with 200-plus innings pitched and an ERA below 3.45?

    Probably. Mike Minor enters Monday night's start against the Brewers with a 3.18 ERA and 191.2 innings pitched. If he doesn't make it 8.1 innings tonight, he's currently scheduled to start on Saturday against the Phillies, though, it wouldn't be a surprise if Fredi Gonzalez elected to skip that start to make Minor the starter for Game 1 of their NLDS pairing.

     

    2) Candidate for a top seven finish in NL MVP?

    Definitely. Whether it's Craig Kimbrel or Freddie Freeman, you better believe that some member of the Braves will finish near the top of the voting.

     

    3) Batter with at least 99 RBI and an average of .283 or better?

    Yes. Freeman enters play on Monday batting .314 with 105 RBIidentical numbers to Robinson Cano in 14 fewer games, for whatever that's worth.

     

    4) Catcher widely regarded as a crucial member of the team?

    Take your pick! Brian McCann has been a staple behind the plate in Atlanta for the past eight seasons. Both he and Evan Gattis have hit 20 home runs this season while appearing in fewer than 100 games each. Not only do they have excellent options, but they're both pretty fresh heading into October.

     

    Verdict: Strong contender.

    Even if Minor doesn't reach the 200-inning plateau, the Braves meet each of the other criteria and will likely finish the regular season with the best record in the National League. I have my doubts about the strength of the starting rotation in a playoff series, but Atlanta has a better shot than most to win it all.

Boston Red Sox

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    1) Starting pitcher with 200-plus innings pitched and an ERA below 3.45?

    Despite a strong second half from Jon Lester, he would need to pitch 13.2 scoreless innings in his final start of the season to get his ERA down to 3.45. If he doesn't pull off that slightly unlikely feat and if John Lackey fails to go 17 innings in his next start to reach the 200-inning plateau, the Red Sox will not meet this criterion.

     

    2) Candidate for a top seven finish in AL MVP?

    Koji Uehara, Shane Victorino, David Ortiz and Jacoby Ellsbury all have an outside chance of finishing shortly behind Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout and Chris Davis in the AL MVP race. Let's just assume that one of them makes it, and chalk this one up as a win on Boston's docket.

     

    3) Batter with at least 99 RBI and an average of .283 or better?

    Ortiz is currently batting .307 with 98 RBI, so as longs as he drives in one more run in the final week of the season, this is another win for the Red Sox.

     

    4) Catcher widely regarded as a crucial member of the team?

    This one is extremely debatable, but I'm saying yes. Jarrod Saltalamacchia is batting above .235 for the first time in five seasons and is setting career highs in plate appearances, runs, RBI and WAR.

    He's not going to receive a single vote for AL MVP, but I sincerely doubt that the Red Sox would be on the verge of winning 100 games without Salty in the lineup on a regular basis.

     

    Verdict: Contender.

    They definitely aren't reaching the pitching criterion, and the MVP and catcher arguments are questionable at best. Still, the Red Sox will have home-field advantage for as long as they last in the playoffs and might just now be the healthiest that they have been all year.

Cincinnati Reds

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    1) Starting pitcher with 200-plus innings pitched and an ERA below 3.45?

    Would you believe they might have three such pitchers? Mat Latos will definitely pass the test, and Homer Bailey just needs to keep his 3.40 ERA in check for one more start.

    Mike Leake also has an outside chance at making the list. He has a 3.21 ERA and is sitting at 190.2 IP. Leake is currently only scheduled for one more start on Tuesday, but they very well could shake up the rotation and start him on short rest in the final game of the season in order to set themselves up for the postseason run.

     

    2) Candidate for a top seven finish in NL MVP?

    Joey Votto is pretty unlikely to win the award, but he'll definitely finish in the top seven.

     

    3) Batter with at least 99 RBI and an average of .283 or better?

    Surprisingly, the Reds don't have anyone who fits this bill. Votto is batting .308 with 24 home runs, but only has 72 RBI because of Dusty Baker's insistence on batting someone with a terrible on-base percentage in front of his best hitter. Both Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips have more than 100 RBI, but neither is even batting .270.

     

    4) Catcher widely regarded as a crucial member of the team?

    Not even close. The Reds have spent the entire season oscillating between Devin Mesoraco and Ryan Hanigan while simultaneously trying to hide them in the batting order. Both catchers have a WAR of less than 1.0.

     

    Verdict: Pretender.

    If any of the four wild card teams is going to win the World Series, my money is on the Reds. I certainly wouldn't put much money on that, though.

Cleveland Indians

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    1) Starting pitcher with 200-plus innings pitched and an ERA below 3.45?

    If not for an oblique injury suffered on September 2, Justin Masterson definitely would have reached 200 innings pitched, and probably would have been able to lower his ERA from 3.52 to below 3.45 against the absurdly easy September schedule that the Indians were given. But alas, they have no one with 200 innings and might not even have a starter finish below 3.45 if Ubaldo Jimenez (3.39 ERA) struggles at all in his final two starts of the year.

     

    2) Candidate for a top seven finish in AL MVP?

    Assuming they make the playoffs, Jason Kipnis might get a little bit of love in the MVP balloting, but I don't foresee him finishing in the top seven. He had a terrible month of April and isn't doing much better in September. Unless he hits three home runs and steals two bases in their final six games to get to 20 home runs and 30 stolen bases, he would be lucky to crack the top 10.

     

    3) Batter with at least 99 RBI and an average of .283 or better?

    Not only do the Indians fall short in this category, but they're nowhere close. Kipnis leads the team with 80 RBI and Yan Gomes (.294 AVG in 297 plate appearances) is the only member of the team batting above .280.

     

    4) Catcher widely regarded as a crucial member of the team?

    Well, at least the Indians meet one of the criteria. Carlos Santana is arguably the lifeblood of this team.

     

    Verdict: Pretender.

    Great run through the month of September to presumably get in, but the Indians will almost certainly have the worst championship odds of any of the 10 teams to make the playoffs.

Detroit Tigers

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    1) Starting pitcher with 200-plus innings pitched and an ERA below 3.45?

    Max Scherzer (207.1 IP, 3.00 ERA) is the only official member of the list, but Anibal Sanchez (177.0 IP, 2.64 ERA) would be there if he hadn't missed a month of the season, and both Justin Verlander (206.1 IP, 3.66 ERA) and Doug Fister (201.1 IP, 3.71 ERA) would qualify as well if just a couple of balls had bounced their way.

    Even after recognizing that this has been a down year for Verlander, you can't possibly convince me there's a better four-man rotation for the playoffs than what the Tigers will have in October.

     

    2) Candidate for a top seven finish in AL MVP?

    Have you heard of Miguel Cabrera?

     

    3) Batter with at least 99 RBI and an average of .283 or better?

    Not only is Cabrera (.349 AVG with 136 RBI) light years ahead of both of those cutoffs, but Prince Fielder (.283 AVG with 106 RBI) has a chance to join that club if he can maintain or raise his average down the stretch.

     

    4) Catcher widely regarded as a crucial member of the team?

    Victor Martinez has only appeared behind the plate three times this season, so it's hard to argue that he still qualifies as a catcher. However, both he and Alex Avila have been great in the second half of the season, and are arguably the most critical pieces of Detroit's lineup after Cabrera.

     

    Verdict: Top contender.

    Feel free to argue for the Braves, Cardinals, Dodgers and Red Sox, but the Tigers are my favorite to win it all.

Los Angeles Dodgers

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    1) Starting pitcher with 200-plus innings pitched and an ERA below 3.45?

    Clayton Kershaw leads the majors in both ERA and innings pitched, so the Dodgers definitely meet this criterion. Hyun-Jin Ryu (181.0 IP, 3.03 ERA) and Zack Greinke (171.2 IP, 2.67 ERA) are relatively close as well.

     

    2) Candidate for a top seven finish in NL MVP?

    As great as both Yasiel Puig and Hanley Ramirez have been, it's tough to imagine either finishing in the top seven for NL MVP having each missed at least 55 games this season. Kershaw will definitely finish near the top, though.

     

    3) Batter with at least 99 RBI and an average of .283 or better?

    I was worried Los Angeles might not have one of these players given all the injuries it dealt with all year, but Adrian Gonzalez enters play on Monday with a .295 average and 98 RBI. Though he's the only player on the team with more than 57 RBI, it only takes one to qualify here.

     

    4) Catcher widely regarded as a crucial member of the team?

    As was the case with Boston, this one is quite debatable and I'm landing on a yes for A.J. Ellis. Aside from the pitcher's spot, Ellis' .241 batting average is arguably the weakest link in the lineup, but his incredible arm behind the plateEllis has thrown out 44 percent of would-be base stealers this seasonis quite the asset.

    The Dodgers don't officially have a team captain and haven't had one in several decades, but one would think Ellis to be a strong candidate for the job.

     

    Verdict: Strong contender.

    When Ricky Nolasco is your fourth-best pitcher and Matt Kemp is your fourth-best outfielder, there's a pretty good chance you'll go far in the playoffs.

Oakland Athletics

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    1) Starting pitcher with 200-plus innings pitched and an ERA below 3.45?

    Bartolo Colon (184.1 IP, 2.64 ERA) is close, but his time on the disabled list kept the A's from passing this test. This one is worth re-visiting next season, though, because they might have three qualified pitchers between Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin and Sonny Gray.

     

    2) Candidate for a top seven finish in AL MVP?

    If MVP voting is based on Fangraphs WAR, Josh Donaldson would be a no-brainer to finish in the top seven. Donaldson should also qualify as a top seven candidate based solely on the fact that he is easily the most valuable player on a division winner. We'll see in a few months whether that actually comes to fruition, though.

     

    3) Batter with at least 99 RBI and an average of .283 or better?

    Donaldson (.306 AVG with 92 RBI) is the only one close, but he's going to need to average better than an RBI per game the rest of the way to get there.

     

    4) Catcher widely regarded as a crucial member of the team?

    Whether you consider Derek Norris or John Jaso to be Oakland's primary catcher, you're getting a player slugging below .400 and averaging less than two plate appearances per team game. Each has a respectable WAR for a player used sparingly, but you would never put either of them in the top 20 of a "most valuable catchers" debate.

     

    Verdict: Pretender.

    Apologies to Oakland for being the only division winner to receive a "pretender" designation, but the team could be 0-for-4 on the World Series criteria depending on how well Donaldson finishes the season and how much the MVP voters decide to respect him.

Pittsburgh Pirates

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    1) Starting pitcher with 200-plus innings pitched and an ERA below 3.45?

    The Pirates have clearly had some great pitching this season to rank third in the majors in team ERA, but no one is going to reach 200 innings pitched. A.J. Burnett is the closest at 183.0 IP with a 3.39 ERA.

     

    2) Candidate for a top seven finish in NL MVP?

    Depending on who you ask, Andrew McCutchen is the favorite to win the NL MVP. At any rate, there's a 100 percent chance that he'll finish in the top seven.

     

    3) Batter with at least 99 RBI and an average of .283 or better?

    With only 82 RBI, McCutchen is nowhere close. Pedro Alvarez leads the team in RBI with 94 of them, but his .229 batting average is going to keep Pittsburgh from having anyone meet this criterion.

     

    4) Catcher widely regarded as a crucial member of the team?

    If Russell Martin doesn't fit the bill, it's only because people aren't noticing how valuable he has been.

    That .229 batting average is hardly attractive, but Martin has the fifth-highest WAR among catchers and the highest defensive rating. That's rightMartin has been even more valuable on defense than Yadier Molina.

     

    Verdict: Pretender.

    It's been a great season for the Pirates, but they'll have to be content with simply making it to the playoffs for the first time in more than two decades, as they're the least likely National League team to win the World Series.

St. Louis Cardinals

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    1) Starting pitcher with 200-plus innings pitched and an ERA below 3.45?

    Adam Wainwright (229.1 IP, 2.98 ERA) not only qualifies, but will likely finish second to Clayton Kershaw for the NL Cy Young Award. As far as aces of staffs are concerned, he has been one of the best.

     

    2) Candidate for a top seven finish in NL MVP?

    I'm on record with a prediction for Yadier Molina to finish second in the NL MVP voting, and could even see Matt Carpenter cracking into the top seven.

     

    3) Batter with at least 99 RBI and an average of .283 or better?

    Allen Craig (.315 AVG, 97 RBI) enters play on Monday just two RBI away from reaching those plateaus. Matt Holliday (.298 AVG, 91 RBI) could get there as well with a couple of big games against the Nationals and/or Cubs.

     

    4) Catcher widely regarded as a crucial member of the team?

    With the possible (but unlikely) exception of Joe Mauer and Buster Posey, Molina is the most highly respected catcher in the game today.

     

    Verdict: Contender.

    St. Louis is the only team that unquestionably meets all four criteria, but many sites have them listed as the fifth-most likely to win the World Series. I'm neither condoning gambling nor suggesting that the Cardinals should win it all, but they ought to be receiving better than 8.5-to-1 odds.

Tampa Bay Rays

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    1) Starting pitcher with 200-plus innings pitched and an ERA below 3.45?

    Despite spending six weeks on the disabled list, David Price leads Tampa Bay in innings pitched with only 170.2 of them. No one on the team is even remotely close to this milestone.

     

    2) Candidate for a top seven finish in AL MVP?

    One could maybe make a case for Evan Longoria's glove and 29 home runs to finish in the top seven. However, 1993 (Darren Daulton) was the last time a position player finished in the top seven of the MVP voting while batting below .270 and hitting fewer than 35 home runs. And Daulton had his season for a team that finished with the third-best record in all of baseball as opposed to one that's barely hanging on to a playoff spot.

     

    3) Batter with at least 99 RBI and an average of .283 or better?

    Longoria is leading the team with 77 RBI, and has a .263 batting average to go with it. James Loney (.294) and Wil Myers (.291) are the only regulars batting better than .275, and neither has more than 70 RBI.

     

    4) Catcher widely regarded as a crucial member of the team?

    Neither Jose Lobaton nor Jose Molina entered play on Monday with 300 plate appearances, a .260 batting average or more than 30 RBI. The Rays could sign 45-year-old Mike Piazza out of retirement without suffering a dropoff in production at catcher.

     

    Verdict: Pretender.

    Unless I'm proven wrong on Longoria, the Rays are going to go 0-for-4 on these criteria, joining the Indians at the bottom of the list of World Series candidates.

Texas Rangers

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    1) Starting pitcher with 200-plus innings pitched and an ERA below 3.45?

    Yu Darvish (198.2 IP, 2.81 ERA) will get there as long as he lasts 1.1 innings on Tuesday night against the Astros. Derek Holland (199.1 IP, 3.48 ERA) could get there as well if he can lower his ERA ever so slightly in his remaining starts against the Astros and Angels.

     

    2) Candidate for a top seven finish in AL MVP?

    I personally believe both Darvish and Adrian Beltre deserve to finish in the top 10, but I doubt either will actually place in the top seven. We'll put this one down as a maybe, at best.

     

    3) Batter with at least 99 RBI and an average of .283 or better?

    Unless Adrian Beltre (.318 AVG, 88 RBI) catches fire and single-handedly propels the Rangers into the playoffs, no one is going to make the cut.

     

    4) Catcher widely regarded as a crucial member of the team?

    He may be 36 years old, but A.J. Pierzynski is still a valuable asset to his team. Aside from Beltre and perhaps Elvis Andrus, I'd say he has been the most important piece of the Rangers offense.

     

    Verdict: Pretender.

    The Rangers are a bit of a long shot to even make the playoffs at this point, but I wouldn't expect too much from them if they ended up getting there. They would likely fare better than either the Rays or the Indians, but they're still a far cry from being a real contender.

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