A wild, turbulent MLB season is finally set to end and bring clearance for the postseason to begin.
Rarely is a playoff schedule spread out with so many prominent contenders, but it's anyone's game this October. Including the five teams vying for two wild-card berths, the best teams (Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals at 97-65) are only ahead of the worst team (Cincinnati Reds) by seven games.
Every division winner holds at least 92 wins, and that low mark goes to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who are currently baseball's hottest squad after an abysmal start to the season.
Any team can win the World Series this year.
Some of the usual suspects are in the mix, while others and riding an unexpected high. Some teams opened the checkbook and spent their way to success, while other small-market clubs built contenders around shrewd moves and player development.
The following two stories in particular will be interesting to watch throughout the postseason. One team will look to green-light a sequel with its first championship in 24 years, while many relief aces will look to inherit the ninth-inning throne in a legend's absence.
Can Oakland Athletics Win It All?
Billy Beane became the public face of Moneyball by assembling Oakland Athletics squads that far exceeded expectations. Michael Lewis wrote a book that ushered in a baseball revolution, and does it really get better than Hollywood casting Brad Pitt to play out your life?
Yet despite getting the big-screen treatment, Beane and his A's have never achieved a true Hollywood ending.
Oakland made the playoffs four straight times from 2000 to 2003, averaging 98 regular-season wins during that stretch, but they never made it past the Division Series.
A front office can assemble the perfect roster, but it doesn't guarantee postseason success in such a small sample size. In an exclusive interview with Tyler Bleszinski of SB Nation, Beane himself said, "My [stuff] doesn't work in the playoffs."
Will it finally work this time around?
Without all the accolades of Moneyball, Oakland has won two consecutive AL West titles, despite opening the season with a team payroll just under $62 million, per Cot's Baseball Contracts. Seriously, just ask an ultra casual baseball fan to name one player on the squad, and you might be left with a blank stare.
Yet Oakland has a chance to finally deliver an appropriate epilogue. (Nobody else was depressed when the Moneyball movie ended with a line about how Oakland never actually won a title, but the Boston Red Sox took their techniques and combined them with deep pockets to win twice?)
He's no Miguel Cabrera, but third baseman Josh Donaldson actually finished with a higher WAR (7.7) than Miguel Cabrera (7.6) this season. He hit .301/.384/.499 with 24 homers and a potent glove. He fits the Oakland credo perfectly as an unknown name offering superstar numbers.
On the pitching side, Oakland will rely on unlikely 40-year-old ace Bartolo Colon and a batch of young starters to finally take the next step. It's not a common formula for success, but Oakland has never played by anybody else's rules before.
A New Wave of Premier Closers
The baseball community just finished saying goodbye to Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer since the concept's foundation. This marks just the second playoffs since 1996 that "Enter Sandman" won't have a chance to blast across Yankee Stadium's loudspeakers, as the legend has graced postseason baseball with his presence for the last time.
Luckily for us, a new breed of electric relievers are marching onto the field to continue Rivera's legacy of exquisite late-game pitching.
Craig Kimbrel's dominance should be well established by now, as he has recorded a 1.39 ERA, 0.90 WHIP and 13.16 K/9 ratio through 227.1 career innings for the Atlanta Braves. In his fourth season with the team this year, Kimbrel registered a 1.21 ERA, which actually represents a drop-off from last season, in which he notched a 1.01 ERA and 0.78 FIP.
Aroldis Chapman's control issues make him a bit of a question mark in the Cincinnati Reds' hunt for the NL Wild Card, but in the last two years, he has struck out 234 batters through 135.1 innings. Fans will want to watch him fire back and crack 100 mph on the radar gun without breaking a sweat.
The Los Angeles Dodgers' Kenley Jansen reminds some scouts of Rivera, but one who throws much harder. Jansen has quickly risen up the closer pantheon with a 1.88 ERA, 0.86 WHIP and 13.03 K/9 rate this year, propelled by an unhittable cutter.
While the National League sports the young guns, the American League features some veterans who are still mowing hitters down. In his first taste of the ninth inning, Koji Uehara has compiled a 1.09 ERA, 0.57 WHIP, 11.22 K/BB ratio and reliever-high 3.3 WAR. What a cruel twist it would be for New York Yankees fans if Rivera's last season was bookended by a dominant closer helping the Boston Red Sox win a championship.
And don't forget veteran Joe Nathan, who has always hidden in Rivera's shadow despite a prolific track record of his own. The 38-year-old has posted a 1.39 ERA and 10.16 K/9 ratio while hammering home 43 saves for the Texas Rangers this year.
Note: Advanced statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.com
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