MLB Playoffs 2018: Round-by-Round Picks and Predictions
Six months and 2,431 games later, Major League Baseball's 2018 regular season is over.
Now comes the postseason. And with it, a responsibility to pretend to know what will happen.
Starting with the National League (Tuesday) and American League (Wednesday) Wild Card Games and going all the way to the World Series, we went round by round to predict who will win each series.
That involved assessing matchups and reading what tea leaves were available. A crystal ball would have certainly been better. But in light of baseball's famed unpredictability, taking shots in the dark is the best anyone can do.
Let's get to it.
NL Wild Card Game: Colorado Rockies at Chicago Cubs
The Colorado Rockies and Chicago Cubs had shots to win their respective divisions, but each fell short in tiebreakers Monday.
As far as the Cubs are concerned, the NL Wild Card Game must be looking pretty good.
Jon Lester is set to get the starting nod Tuesday at Wrigley Field. He's one of the most accomplished postseason pitchers of his era, and he's fresh off finishing the regular season with a 1.71 ERA over his last eight starts.
The Cubs will also have a significant home-field advantage. They went 51-30 at the Friendly Confines, where they enjoyed elevated levels of offense.
On the flip side, the Rockies struggled mightily to hit whenever they had to descend from Denver's elevation. Their road OPS was 187 points lower than their home OPS. And in this case, having to travel twice in two days won't be any help to their bats.
With Kyle Freeland slated to start on only three days' rest, the Rockies' best hope of victory may lie with a bullpen that put up a 2.98 ERA in September. But since only Wade Davis, Scott Oberg and Chris Rusin were overpowering, it's a slim hope.
The Pick: Cubs
AL Wild Card Game: Oakland Athletics at New York Yankees
The AL Wild Card Game might be the ultimate display of "bullpenning."
This is the new-age practice of managers aggressively using relief pitchers to exploit matchups and generally keep offenses on the defensive. The Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees are well equipped for it, and there have been hints from both that a bullpen battle will indeed take place Wednesday at Yankee Stadium.
Oakland's excellent bullpen would have the edge against most in MLB, but not against New York. According to FanGraphs wins above replacement, this Yankees bullpen is the best in history. Not so coincidentally, it's also one of the hardest-throwing (95.0 mph average fastball) in history.
The A's might hope to outslug the Yankees. Or, if nothing else, outdefend them. They blasted 227 home runs in the regular season and also finished with easily MLB's most efficient defense.
New York, however, just set a single-season record with 267 long balls. And amid Yankee Stadium's bandbox dimensions, the Oakland defense may not count for much.
Besides which, the Yankees dominate at home (53-28) and against winning teams (41-30). They're just the team to stop the magical run the A's have been on since June 16 (63-29).
The Pick: Yankees
NLDS: Chicago Cubs vs. Milwaukee Brewers
The Milwaukee Brewers trailed the Cubs by a season-high six games Aug. 28. With help from an MVP-sized boost from Christian Yelich, they roared back and finally swiped the NL Central title in Game No. 163.
If the two teams meet again in the National League Division Series, the Brewers will get the chance to finish off the Cubs.
They would bring a hotter offense to the party. The Cubs rolled into October off a .670 OPS and 4.1 runs per game in September. While that was going on, the Brewers put up a .788 OPS and 5.5 runs per game.
With respect to the Yankees, the Brewers might also have baseball's best bullpen right now. Their relievers posted a 2.03 ERA in September. That's despite less-than-stellar work from Josh Hader, who was otherwise the most dominant reliever in the NL.
Throw in the significant edge the Brewers enjoyed at Miller Park this season (51-30), and even the venerable foursome of Lester, Cole Hamels, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana may not save the Cubs.
The Pick: Brewers in 4
NLDS: Atlanta Braves vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
Are the young, upstart Atlanta Braves ready to take down the high-paid, veteran-laden Los Angeles Dodgers?
If they are, they didn't show it in the home stretch of the regular season.
The Braves went 22-21 over their final 43 games. One issue was an offense that mustered only a .698 OPS and 4.1 runs per game. Their pitching staff was more reliable, yet it walked 4.2 batters per nine innings.
Wildness won't help against a Dodgers offense that walked at a higher rate than any other. Said offense is also coming in hot. Los Angeles hitters posted an .802 OPS in the second half and an .830 OPS in September.
Not to be outdone, Dodgers pitchers accumulated a 3.29 ERA in the second half. Kenley Jansen and Ross Stripling stumbled. But along with Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill, Walker Buehler and many others, they're still in good standing in Los Angeles' exceptionally deep pitching staff.
One more thing: Even though they barely won the NL West, the Dodgers played winning teams better than any NL club (50-38).
The Pick: Dodgers in 3
ALDS: New York Yankees vs. Boston Red Sox
Why doubt a 108-win team?
Start with the Boston Red Sox bullpen. Craig Kimbrel is one of the best closers around, but the Red Sox struggled to establish a bridge to him all season. The bridge looks especially weak now in light of the 4.84 ERA the pen posted in September.
Things don't look so great on the starting pitching front, either. Chris Sale hasn't been operating at peak capacity since he returned from a shoulder injury. Rick Porcello has been slumping. David Price has checkered histories in October and against the Yankees.
Of course, the Red Sox still have their Mookie Betts- and J.D. Martinez-led offense. In a matchup against the Yankees, it bodes well that this offense excels at hitting relievers and (in a related story) 95 mph-plus heat.
Boston, however, will need more offense than usual if its diminished pitching gets knocked around by New York's high-powered offense. Therein lies a potential snag: The Red Sox don't have as much depth around Betts and Martinez as the Yankees do around Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton.
The Pick: Yankees in 4
ALDS: Cleveland Indians vs. Houston Astros
Though they didn't win 100 games like the Red Sox, Yankees and Houston Astros, there are ways in which the Cleveland Indians look like the AL's team to beat.
For one thing, Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco and Mike Clevinger just became the first foursome to top 200 strikeouts apiece. For another, the Cleveland offense got hot (.790 OPS and 5.1 runs per game) after 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson made his Indians debut.
Ah, but how good were the Indians when they played teams from outside the historically terrible AL Central? In short, not very:
- vs. AL Central: 49-27, plus-167 run differential
- vs. Others: 42-44, plus-3 run differential
For their part, the reigning World Series champion Astros separated themselves from tough competition in the AL West.
Having Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole lead MLB's most valuable (30.7 fWAR) pitching staff sure helped. And though Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer haven't been themselves of late, the Houston offense still boasts the power and contact-hitting skills to spell trouble for pitchers.
The Pick: Astros in 3
NLCS: Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Milwaukee Brewers
Whereas the Brewers ought to be able to outhit the Cubs in the NLDS, doing so against the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series won't be as easy.
It goes beyond the Dodgers being the Brewers' equal in the late-season hotness department. Though the Milwaukee lineup isn't exactly shallow, its Los Angeles counterpart boasted more above-average regulars than any other in the regular season.
That helps explain why the Dodgers were also the NL's best at hitting relief pitchers (.779 OPS). That wouldn't necessarily negate Milwaukee's outstanding bullpen. It could, however, dull its edge and force Brewers starters to carry a larger load.
That will be possible for the rotation if it picks up where it left off in September (3.49 ERA). However, Milwaukee starters are uniformly finesse types who don't chase strikeouts. That's yet another group of pitchers the Dodgers teed off on this season (.828 OPS).
On the other side, even a lesser Kershaw still posted a 2.73 ERA over 26 starts. And in light of his starters' superb second-half work, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts can count on at least five good innings out of Hill, Buehler and Hyun-Jin Ryu.
The Pick: Dodgers in 6
ALCS: New York Yankees vs. Houston Astros
The Yankees led after the first five games of last year's American League Championship Series, but then the Astros outscored them 11-1 in the final two games.
The Houston lineup doesn't pose the same threat in 2018. It was nothing special at handling high velocity. And no thanks to the aforementioned struggles of Altuve and Correa, it was relatively weak (.732 OPS) in the second half.
Rather than outslug New York's mighty offense, the Astros may have to try to outpitch the Yankees. To that end, having Verlander and Cole atop their rotation and Collin McHugh and Roberto Osuna in a bullpen that finished with an MLB-best 3.03 ERA are reasons for confidence.
However, New York can see the Houston pen and raise it a better pen. It also has a couple of hot starters in J.A. Happ and Masahiro Tanaka, the latter of whom pitched circles around the Astros in the 2017 ALCS.
Lastly, there's this: In light of their modest 46-35 home record, the Astros' home-field advantage might not be much of an advantage.
The Pick: Yankees in 7
World Series: Los Angeles Dodgers vs. New York Yankees
A matchup between the two biggest teams in MLB's two biggest media markets sounds like just the fix for the World Series' declining TV ratings.
Moreover, viewers would be treated to a showdown between similar superteams. Both the Dodgers and Yankees are built on deep, patient and powerful offenses as well as deep pitching staffs.
The Dodgers would have at least two distinct advantages. They're a considerably more efficient defensive team than the Yankees. Like the Red Sox, they also have an offense that's been known to handle 95 mph-plus heat.
But by virtue of their 100 wins, the Yankees would have home-field advantage. As such, the Dodgers' defensive edge could fall prey to the same diminishing effect as the Athletics' amid Yankee Stadium's hitter-friendly dimensions.
The Yankees would also have an edge that could more than make up for the Dodgers' ability to hit heat. They'd be tasked with hitting three left-handed starters (Kershaw, Hill and Ryu), which would be plenty doable. Their righty-rich offense had an .832 OPS against lefty starters, easily the highest in MLB.
By the end of the postseason, the Yankees will have won World Series championship No. 28.
The Dodgers, meanwhile, will have extended their Fall Classic drought to 30 years.
The Pick: Yankees in 7