MLB Playoffs: How Each AL Contender Could Beat the Phillies in the World Series
Owners of the best record in baseball, the Philadelphia Phillies prepare to enter the 2011 MLB playoffs as the overwhelming favorite to win the World Series.
Built upon the foundation of a stellar starting rotation, Philadelphia has pitched their way to the forefront of the postseason picture, and many expect that their talented crop of arms will lead them to October glory.
The amazing rotation, comprised of co-aces Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and veteran Roy Oswalt, has also welcomed rookie Vance Worley into its ranks, and he has done nothing but go 11-2 with a 2.85 in 20 starts.
To say the Phillies are well-armed is a significant understatement, as they own the best starting ERA in the NL, the lowest WHIP, as well as 18 complete games, or more than double the total of the nearest competitors.
Overall, their 3.01 staff ERA leads all of baseball, as does their bullpen's 85 percent save percentage.
Not only are the Phillies faring well in the regular season, but their starting staff boasts significant playoff experience as well.
Cliff Lee enters the playoffs with a 7-2 record, 2.13 ERA and a 0.816 WHIP in 10 postseason starts over the last two years.
Halladay only owns three career playoff starts, but is 2-1 with a 2.45 ERA, a 0.773 WHIP, and tossed a no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds in his postseason debut last year.
Hamels' resume boasts a dominant 2008 postseason run, in which the lefty went 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA in five starts, and picked up the NLCS and World Series MVP awards.
Despite an intimidating arsenal of pitching talent and a mightily successful 2011 season almost in the books, the Phillies aren't unbeatable.
Their arms are undoubtedly impressive, but they certainly aren't the offensive juggernaut they have been in recent years. Down years from Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins, the loss of Jayson Werth, and an injury-plagued campaign from Chase Utley have combined to reduce the potency of the Phillies offensive attack.
Only seventh in runs scored, seventh in home runs, and eighth in team OPS, this is not the Philadelphia offense we had grown accustomed to in recent years. They had been among the Top 3 in runs scored in the National League during every season since 2004.
With that in mind, let's examine one potential reason that each remaining American League contender could defeat the Phillies in a playoff series and derail the championship aspirations in Philadelphia.
All Statistical information from Baseballreference.com
New York Yankees
They've Done It Before
While there are clearly differences in the two clubs that last met on the playoff stage in the 2009 World Series, enough has remained similar that the then-victorious Yankees can be confident enough to accomplish the feat again.
Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay have both been highly successful against New York, but the Yankees were able to overcome a Lee-led staff in 2009 and they have faced Halladay 38 times throughout his career, so while he is clearly an ace, he is not unknown to the Bronx Bombers.
The Yankees clearly have their own rotation issues, but they somehow overcame similar problems in 2009 to beat Philly with a three-man rotation. Of course, Andy Pettitte has since retired, but New York is hoping that Rookie of the Year candidate, Ivan Nova, can continue his amazing run of success into the postseason.
Whatever starting pitching issues the Yankees have, the problems do not extend to their relief corps, as they own the lowest bullpen ERA in the American League. Led by Mariano Rivera, bolstered by the amazing David Robertson as well as a rejuvenated Rafael Soriano, the Yankees possess a stellar late-game combination capable of shortening games and taking some of the burden off of their starters.
Not only that, but New York's offensive capabilities make them a threat to even the best pitching staff. Second in MLB in total runs, second in OPS and first in home runs, the Yankee lineup is loaded with patient hitters capable of wearing down a pitching staff with their plate discipline and devastating power.
With Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano leading the way with their potent bats, Mark Teixeira providing patience and immense power, Derek Jeter finding himself completely reborn in the second half after a dismal first few months, the Yankees offense appears primed to make another deep playoff run.
Gone are Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, heroes of 2009, but the Yankees still possess the weapons and veteran savvy to overcome those losses. Brett Gardner's speed offers another weapon for teams to contend with, and the bench has experience with Eric Chavez, Jorge Posada and Andruw Jones ready to provide a clutch moment or two off the pine. Posada just clinched the AL East title with his own pinch-hit single, proving he's not dead yet, and that he may still contribute to yet another World Series if the opportunities arise.
If they can somehow coax solid pitching out of their starting staff, the Yankees bullpen and offense stand a chance of overcoming Philadelphia's dominant rotation.
Left-handed Starting Pitching
Currently leading the American League West by five games, the Texas Rangers find themselves poised to return to the playoffs in hopes of improving upon last season's AL Championship.
Last year, they fell to the San Francisco Giants, just short of what would have been the first World Series championship in franchise history.
If they hope to return to the World Series, and potentially win it, they will have to do so with a revamped pitching staff that no longer includes ace Cliff Lee. He now pitches for the team that many favor to emerge from the NLDS and NLCS as the National League's World Series representative.
The Rangers new staff possesses a distinct advantage over several of the other AL contenders, if they are fortunate enough to qualify for a meeting with the Phillies in the fall classic.
Philadelphia may not be the offensive juggernaut they have been in recent seasons, in which they were a Top 3 NL club in runs scored during every year beginning in 2004. They are still capable of putting up crooked numbers though if they're not pitched too carefully.
They have fared better against right-handed pitching during 2011, with their two most dangerous hitters, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley struggling mightily against left-handed pitching this season. Utley has hit only .190 with a .606 OPS against southpaws, compared to .285 and .829 against righties. Howard too has struggled, hitting only .225 with a .633 OPS against lefties, while hitting .259 with a .921 OPS against righties.
The loss of Jayson Werth's prowess against left-handed pitching has robbed the Philly lineup of some of its balance. Overall, the team is hitting .246 against left-handed hurlers with a .701 OPS, in comparison to .254 and .723 against right-handed pitching. Sure, the overall difference is not massively significant, but the ability to subdue both Utley and Howard could prove advantageous.
Ron Washington could potentially load up his rotation with three talented lefties in C.J Wilson, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison.
Wilson, the new ace of the staff, is in the midst of another fine season in only his second full year as a starting pitcher. He is 16-7 with a 2.97 ERA, a 1.179 WHIP and a 150 ERA+. Perhaps most impressive is that he has lowered his walks per nine innings to 2.9, displaying fine command after leading the AL in free passes in 2010.
Holland, breaking into his own in his first full year as a regular starter, has had an uneven season, but has found his groove during the second half, in which he is 8-1 with a 2.92 ERA. Overall, he is 15-5 with a 3.92 ERA. Lefties have hit only .235 with a .599 OPS against him, so he could prove vital against a Phillies lineup that doesn't hit left-handed pitching well.
Harrison has also experienced a break-out year, in which he is 13-9 with a 3.42 ERA, 1.301 WHIP and a 130 ERA+.
Texas' ability to load up on left-handed pitching against the Phillies could potentially prove beneficial in a best-of-seven series. They will certainly appreciate the ability to shut down Utley and Howard over the course of a series, leaving the Philly supporting cast to attempt to pick up the slack.
The same reason that the Tigers are capable of beating anyone else in the playoffs is the potential catalyst behind their hopes of defeating the Phillies in the World Series.
Detroit's postseason hopes and dreams begin and end with one man, dominant right-hander, Justin Verlander.
If Verlander can continue his incredible form into the playoffs, the prospect of facing him two or three times in any short series is daunting to any team.
Being discussed as not only the likely AL Cy Young winner, Verlander has inserted himself into the MVP discussion as well, with his staggering 24-5 record, MLB-leading 0.91 WHIP and 244 strikeouts, as well as the second-lowest ERA in the game at 2.29.
Verlander's dominance is one of the prime reasons that Detroit overcame early-season leader Cleveland, and quickly bypassed them as they ascended to the top of the AL Central.
With his flame-throwing right arm leading the way, Detroit is still a formidable opponent in a short series, even if he is followed by Doug Fister and whomever else Jim Leyland can muster.
Boston Red Sox
This Team Is Far Too Talented to Go out with a Whimper
In the midst of a dramatic free fall, the Boston Red Sox are clinging to their playoff lives with a week of the 2011 regular season left to play. They've fallen six games behind the Yankees in the East, and are clutching their slim two-game lead in the Wild Card race tightly with both hands.
After their huge, offseason signings of stars Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, the Red Sox were viewed as an unstoppable force bound by destiny for a meeting with the Phillies in October.
Things haven't worked out according to plan, as Crawford has struggled, John Lackey has been horrid, and critical injuries to Crawford, Kevin Youkilis, Clay Buchholz, Marco Scutaro, Jed Lowire, Dice-K and Bobby Jenks have conspired to leave the Sox more vulnerable than anyone could have imagined.
However, despite the recent struggles, and the devastating spate of injuries they've endured, this is still a mightily talented team capable of catching fire and rattling off a string of wins over the course of a few weeks.
Led by the tremendous duo of Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, both of whom own impressive postseason resumes, the Sox starting staff could be strong in any potential matchup. Even John Lackey, the 12-12, 6.49 ERA hurler owns a 3.12 ERA in 14 playoff appearances.
Though remote, the possibility exists that Clay Buchholz could still return from injury in time for the playoffs.
Despite Crawford's struggles, and the injury to Youkilis, the top four hitters in Boston's lineup, Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Gonzalez and David Ortiz can mash with anyone. Ellsbury's amazing breakout season has him being mentioned in MVP conversations, as his .915 OPS in the leadoff spot, combined with 28 home runs, 98 RBI and 37 stolen bases make him as legitimate as a candidate as anyone.
Pedroia owns an .852 OPS in the No. 2 spot, while Gonzalez is having an MVP-caliber season of his own, hitting .340 with a .967 OPS and 116 RBI.
Big Papi, following a few years in which nearly everyone was willing to write him off as finished, looks like the feared slugger of years past, hitting .312 with a .969 OPS, 29 home runs and 96 RBI. His bat looks lethal again, and regardless of his perceived struggles of the past few years, he is still a player you'd hate to see stride to the plate with a playoff game on the line.
A dynamic core leading the top of their order, and the potential for very good players like Crawford, Scutaro or Josh Reddick to step up their game at any time still makes this Boston offense formidable. They aren't the top-scoring team in baseball by accident.
Late in games, the hard-throwing duo of Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard is still a massive threat, despite their own struggles as of late. Bard has had an awful September, seeing his ERA shoot up over a full run. Papelbon though, despite his blown save against Baltimore two days ago, had been on a phenomenal run, having allowed only seven base runners and no runs in 22 innings since July 17.
If confidence in Bard is down, they still have Alfredo Aceves, one of the most versatile pitchers in the game, waiting to offer support in whichever role Terry Francona needs him.
Clearly, the Red Sox are a wounded beast, limping toward the finish line. Losers of 16 of their last 21 games, they are locked in an intense struggle to overcome their troubles in order to fulfill the destiny predicted for them. However, with the incredible collection of talent assembled in that locker room, it could be a foolish mistake to underestimate them in the postseason.
Many predicted a face-off between the Red Sox and Phillies prior to Opening Day, and if Boston does gain entry into the postseason, they could pose a massive threat to any team, including Philadelphia.
Tampa Bay Rays
Tampa's Starting Rotation
Expected by many to regress significantly this season, following an offseason of player departures, the Tampa Bay Rays have persevered and have surprisingly stuck around in the playoff hunt, still sitting only two games back in the Wild Card race.
Despite losing marquee outfield star, Carl Crawford, slugging first baseman Carlos Pena, closer Rafael Soriano, as well as numerous other key players, Joe Maddon has nevertheless worked his magic in Tampa and gotten a stellar season out of his young ballclub.
With the lowest starters ERA in the American League, one can look at the Rays rotation as the primary impetus behind their perhaps unlikely success in 2011.
Led by the dominant trio of "Big Game" James Shields, lefty David Price and rookie phenom, Jeremy Hellickson, the Rays offer a potential challenge to anyone they might face in a best-of-five or seven game series.
Shields has rebounded from an abysmal 2010, to go 15-12 with a 2.84 ERA, as well as a league-leading 11 complete games and four shut outs.
Price, though only 12-12, owns a 3.36 ERA, a 1.115 WHIP and 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings. His powerful left arm is capable of shutting down any lineup.
Though Hellickson is only a 24-year-old rookie, he has performed wonderfully in his debut season, and the baptism he has received in the power-laden AL East should prove an apt training ground for October playoff baseball.
At 13-10, with a 2.90 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 128 ERA+ and 4.0 WAR (according to Baseball Reference), Hellickson has emerged as one of the leading candidates for the 2011 AL Rookie of the Year.
With a front three of that caliber, the Rays are capable of potentially matching up well with the vaunted rotation in Philadelphia.
If you pitch well in the postseason, almost anything can happen, as we've witnessed numerous times. The 2010 San Francisco Giants were a prime example of this baseball phenomenon.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
The Angels Front Three Starting Pitchers
The odds of the Angels making the playoffs looked nearly impossible a week ago. Their chance at the AL West has likely passed, but belief is growing that they have a legitimate shot at the Wild Card. They would have to overcome a five game deficit in the AL West to overtake the division-leading Rangers, but they could potentially bypass both the Red Sox and Rays in order to make up the 2.5 games that they trail in the Wild Card race.
Led by early-season Cy Young-favorite, Jered Weaver, the Angels boast a strong front three in their starting rotation that if hot at the right time, could cause trouble for any of the contending teams, even Philadelphia.
Weaver dominated the AL in the first half, before a second-half regression saw his chances in the Cy Young race recede significantly. Overall, he is 18-7 with a 2.41 ERA, a 1.021 WHIP and an ERA+ of 157.
Dan Haren, the secondary ace of the Angels staff, 16-9 with a 3.16 ERA, 1.016 WHIP and 120 ERA+, offers a formidable No. 2 starter for Mike Scioscia in any playoff series.
Slotted into the No. 3 spot, Ervin Santana has ridden a hot second half to turn around an uneven season and give the Angels hope that their front three can help them win in October. Only 11-12, he owns a 3.40 ERA, a 1.204 WHIP, and tossed his first career no-hitter against Cleveland in July.
If they can potentially sneak into the postseason with one last week of stellar baseball, and a little help from the teams playing the Red Sox and Rays, the Angels could be one of the teams that no one looks forward to facing in a short series. They may not have the offensive prowess of some of their fellow contenders, but with such a talented front three in their rotation, they remain a threat to anyone, even the Philadelphia Phillies.