MLB Playoffs 2020: Lessons Learned Thus Far in Historic Postseason
The 2020 MLB playoffs might be unprecedented in nature, but the drama of October baseball is still evident.
That drama began in the Wild Card Round, which saw the San Diego Padres slam their way past the St. Louis Cardinals and the Miami Marlins continue their Cinderella run by sweeping past the Chicago Cubs.
Meanwhile, the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians engaged in multiple thrillers, and Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa had plenty to say after the 'Stros swept the Minnesota Twins.
Speaking of the Astros, they are in their fourth consecutive American League Championship Series after winning a slugfest of a series with the Oakland Athletics. The Tampa Bay Rays got the last laugh in their rivalry with the Yankees, capped off by Mike Brosseau's poetic home run off Aroldis Chapman in Game 5.
Miami stood no chance against a deep and powerful Braves lineup. While the Padres took the early lead in each of their three games against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the National League's top seed showed its resiliency by rallying to win each time.
Now, four teams are battling for a spot in the Fall Classic. With just a couple of weeks to go until a new champion is crowned, what have we learned from these playoffs so far?
The American League Teams Are Slugging to Success
American League teams are clubbing home runs left and right.
The Houston Astros and Oakland Athletics combined for a whopping 24 homers in four games during the ALDS, with both teams mashing 12 round-trippers at Dodger Stadium.
But the ball was also flying out of the yard in Petco Park. The Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees combined for 21 homers, with hitters using pull power to exploit friendly dimensions down the line.
This is a pretty stark contrast to the National League matchups. In fact, the four NL teams hit just nine homers combined. Granted, the NL side also had three fewer games with the Dodgers and Braves both sweeping, but the power surge from teams like the Astros and Rays seems notable.
Indeed, this trend has continued into the ALCS. Jose Altuve and Randy Arozarena hit homers in Game 1. The long ball then accounted for nearly all the scoring in Game 2 as Manuel Margot and Mike Zunino homered for the Rays while Carlos Correa launched one for the Astros.
The Atlanta Braves hit three homers in Game 1 of the NLCS on Monday night, but the dimensions at Globe Life Field prevented a few others from leaving the yard.
Petco seems to be the friendlier run-scoring environment, and the AL clubs have consistently relied on the home run to win games.
Randy Arozarena Is a Star in the Making
Baseball fans might not even remember how Randy Arozarena came to Tampa.
The Cuban youngster was part of the trade that sent top Rays pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore to the Cardinals. But Jose Martinez was supposed to be Tampa Bay's headliner, and the trade became especially notable given the speculation that the Redbirds could try to flip Liberatore for a star.
However, Arozarena's star is beginning to shine bright.
Juan Toribio of MLB.com reported he did 300 pushups per day and ate a steady diet of chicken and rice while in quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19, and he put on 15 pounds of muscle.
The gains have seemingly made a huge difference.
Arozarena returned to the lineup at the end of August, hitting seven home runs and stealing four bases in 23 games. He had a 179 OPS+, which was seemingly indicative of his tremendous power potential.
Indeed, Arozarena has put baseball fans on notice with his performance this postseason. He had four hits in eight at-bats during the Wild Card Round. But the 25-year-old was just getting started. He hit .421 with three homers against the Yankees in the ALDS and followed that up with a homer in Game 1 and two singles in Game 2 against the Astros.
Arozarena's growth as a power bat in the Rays lineup is a major development. They ranked seventh in the AL in homers, but he gives them a legitimate run-producer in the middle of the lineup and also complements the team's left-handed sluggers.
It remains to be seen what the rest of this season has in store for Rays fans, but they might have another young star in Arozarena.
Houston's Bats Are Back...Right?
Before looking at the first two games of the ALCS, we should address what happened against Oakland.
Houston's stars went off.
The offensive success started with Correa. The 26-year-old had an underwhelming .709 OPS during the regular season, but he hit .500 with three homers and 11 RBI against the Athletics, seemingly coming up with the biggest hits in all of Houston's wins. Correa talked the talk and subsequently became intent on walking the walk.
Jose Altuve has not had many reasons to be confident this season. The former AL MVP had hit at least .298 in every year since 2014 prior to this season, during which he hit just .219 with a .629 OPS. But he roared back to form against Oakland, hitting a pair of homers and posting a 1.326 OPS.
Meanwhile, Alex Bregman seemed to be feeling better after a right hamstring injury had halted his progress. He hit a homer and had a 1.167 OPS against the A's.
In fact, Correa, Altuve, Bregman, Michael Brantley and George Springer all posted OPS marks above 1.000 in the ALDS.
So, how is it the Astros have only managed three runs in a pair of losses to the Rays? Make no mistake about it, Houston has had some pretty horrific luck, especially in Game 2.
Consider this: All five of Bregman's batted balls in Game 2 had an exit velocity of at least 98.4 mph, per Baseball Savant, yet he was 0-for-5 on the day.
Bregman faced Rays right-hander Nick Anderson with the bases loaded and the Astros trailing 4-2 in the ninth Monday. He lined a ball into the gap in right-center, a ball that had a respectable expected batting average (xBA) of .430, per Baseball Savant. Yet it was gloved for the final out.
Kyle Tucker had a pair of flyouts with xBA marks over .500, and George Springer's double-play ball in the ninth (which sort of killed Houston's momentum) had a .540 xBA.
Yes, the Astros have not been hitting well in the clutch. They left 10 men on base in Game 1 and 11 more Monday. However, it seems like a matter of time—given the contact they are making—before things start swinging in their favor.
The Dodgers Are Still Top Dogs, but the Braves Are Tough
The Dodgers entered the postseason with the best record in baseball, and they were the presumptive favorite to win the World Series.
Los Angeles showed why it is the most well-rounded team in the series against the Padres. Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw still anchor the rotation, but the depth of L.A.'s staff is more notable.
Dustin May can be used in multiple ways. So, too, can Julio Urias, who threw five innings of one-run ball in Game 3 of the series. Kenley Jansen's struggles might have given cause for concern, but Dave Roberts can turn to Brusdar Graterol and a number of other options to close games.
Moreover, some of L.A.'s stars looked to be starting to heat up after mediocre regular seasons. Cody Bellinger had a 1.179 OPS against the Friars, and Max Muncy posted an .830 OPS. Mookie Betts, Corey Seager and Will Smith have both continued their success into October, and things can only get scarier if Justin Turner also gets going.
It is also especially telling that the Dodgers were easily able to overcome early deficits with big innings.
Los Angeles gets quality starts on the bump, quality innings from the bullpen and quality at-bats up and down the lineup. Plus, as Bellinger showed in Game 2 of the NLDS, the Dodgers can flash the leather.
But the Braves looked more than up to the challenge in Game 1 of the NLCS.
The Dodgers lineup ran into a buzzsaw in Max Fried, who struck out nine in six innings of work. After failing to bring runners home throughout the contest, the Braves erupted for four runs in the top of the ninth to grab the opener.
This was a huge win for Atlanta, especially given the way young starters Ian Anderson and Kyle Wright are throwing the ball. Plus, its bullpen is every bit as strong and varied as the Dodgers' relief corps.
Los Angeles is still the favorite, but the Braves are going to be tough to beat if the bats stay silent and late-inning arms like Blake Treinen and Jake McGee struggle to get big outs.
Ian Anderson Is the Real Deal
Speaking of Anderson, he has continued to show just how vital he is to this Atlanta club.
Anderson has long been hailed as one of the top prospects in the Braves farm system. Atlanta drafted Anderson out of high school in 2016, making him the third overall pick in that June's amateur draft. He was consistently ranked among the top 100 prospects in baseball, with Baseball America ranking the right-hander as high as No. 24 ahead of the 2019 season.
Injuries in the Braves rotation forced them to turn to Anderson late in the 2020 season, and he has delivered. The 22-year-old had a 1.95 ERA in six regular-season starts, striking out 11.4 opponents per nine innings and allowing just one homer in 32.1 innings.
The success has carried over into October. Anderson threw six scoreless innings while striking out nine in a win over the Cincinnati Reds to help Atlanta move on to the NLDS. He then became the first rookie in franchise history to make two postseason starts when he took the bump for Game 2 against the Marlins, tossing 5.2 scoreless innings while allowing three hits and striking out eight.
The advanced metrics are also outstanding. Anderson ranked in the 95th percentile in xwOBA and xERA during the regular season, and he was in the 99th percentile in xSLG and barrel percentage, per Baseball Savant.
Anderson's ability to be a legitimate No. 2 option is huge for the Braves. Atlanta faced questions about its rotation all season, but it stands a much better chance of competing with Anderson using his outstanding fastball-changeup combination to keep hitters in check.
Granted, L.A.'s lineup will pose a much tougher test than the Reds and Marlins. However, Anderson will have the opportunity to make a major statement with a quality start on Tuesday.
The Padres Are Here to Stay
San Diego's sweep at the hands of the Dodgers does not tell the whole story.
As previously mentioned, the Friars actually held an early lead in all three games against L.A, but they had a hard time building momentum without a real starting staff.
Dinelson Lamet was San Diego's ace all year, posting a 2.09 ERA in 12 regular-season starts. But he was left off the postseason roster due to biceps tightness.
It was in doubt whether Mike Clevinger would be able to throw in October since he had also been dealing with biceps tightness at the end of the regular season. He did return to start Game 1, but he got through just one inning before the issue resurfaced.
Despite those issues, the complexion of the series might have changed had Bellinger not robbed Fernando Tatis Jr. of a go-ahead home run in the seventh inning of Game 2.
But Bellinger's catch was followed by a two-run inning for the Dodgers in the bottom of the seventh, and San Diego's final rally came up short. The Friars then had to ask Adrian Morejon to take the bump in an elimination game with just 27.1 career innings under his belt, and L.A. cruised in Game 3.
Still, the future is incredibly bright in San Diego. Tatis and Manny Machado can be perennial MVP candidates, and the additions of Trent Grisham and Jake Cronenworth make the Padres lineup all the more dangerous.
Essentially all of San Diego's key players are under contract for the foreseeable future, and it will get a full season from Clevinger. The rotation will be even better if Chris Paddack can bounce back, not to mention the fact top prospects Luis Patino and MacKenzie Gore will be vital contributors going forward.
The Padres might have to find a new closer with Kirby Yates headed to free agency, but the bullpen will also stay mostly intact.
Needless to say, the Friars are no longer just upstarts. They should be contenders in the NL for years to come.
Bullpen Management Is a Struggle
Bullpen management always looms large in October. But it is going to be hard for managers to pick and choose when to deploy their top arms as the playoffs continue to progress.
The expanded postseason will likely lead to more bullpen usage than most guys are accustomed to this time of year.
Granted, teams played far fewer games during the regular season, but they have also been asked to play out each of these series without a travel day or any sort of break between games. That is an uphill slog, and it also prioritizes quality starting pitching.
Consider the Houston-Oakland series. The Athletics had the best bullpen ERA in baseball during the regular season, but Bob Melvin had to expend a number of arms in a three-game series with the Chicago White Sox in the Wild Card Round, and the A's struggled to get innings out of their starting rotation.
As a result, A's relievers were hit hard against the Astros.
Jake Diekman gave up one earned run during the regular season. He gave up two earned runs in three innings of work against the Astros. Yusmeiro Petit gave up four earned runs in just two innings, and Joakim Soria gave up a pair of earned runs in two innings.
The Rays always rely on their bullpen arms to shoulder a heavy load, and Kevin Cash has seemingly made winning moves in the first two games of the ALCS. But can Tampa Bay's bullpen stay fresh, especially after a hard-fought battle with the Yankees?
Incidentally, the Dodgers and Braves were the two teams that got the best results out of their starters—or openers paired with spot starters—and subsequently made quick work of their NLDS opponents. But bullpen issues resurfaced for the Dodgers on Monday.
Jansen might have otherwise been in for the ninth inning of a tie game if not for his struggles against San Diego. Instead, Dave Roberts turned to Treinen, who gave up the go-ahead home run to Austin Riley. Things spiraled from there.
This is all to say the bullpens will loom extremely large when playing up to seven games in seven days. Starting pitchers will be under a lot of stress trying to throw high-leverage innings, and there will also be a lot of pressure on managers to pull the right strings.
All stats obtained via Baseball Reference, unless otherwise noted.