2014 Major League Baseball Postseason Primer

The National League

 

Bringing the Heat

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Stars by WAR

  • Anthony Rendon, 3B – 6.6 WAR: Maybe Kevin Frandsen was right
  • Jordan Zimmerman, SP – 5.2 WAR: Big positive developments in his strikeout rate, walk rate, and home run suppression turned Zimmerman into the ace of this absurd staff
  • Jayson Werth, OF – 4.8 WAR: Two seasons into his mega-contract, he was all but dead and buried; now he is coming off one of the best age-35 seasons of the past decade
  • Stephen Strasburg SP – 4.3 WAR: Welcome to the October lights – they’ve been calling for you
  • Ian Desmond, SS – 4.1 WAR: A catastrophic strikeout rate is all that keeps Desmond from going nuclear
  • The Nationals have five 4.0+ WAR players – fear them.

The Nationals are a traditionalist dream.  A pitching powerhouse with a league-leading team ERA of 3.02, the Nationals also have some juice for advanced statheads willing to do a little digging.  Washington leads the majors in baserunning proficiency this year, worth nearly 13 runs above average (crushing the next-best team in the NL by 7.7 runs).  The well-rounded Nationals hitters have turned out respectable top 5 league-wide numbers in wRC+, Home Runs, OBP, and Stolen Bases.

But let’s be real: the story here is the pitching.  Traditionally, teams go with a 4-man rotation in the postseason, dropping their worst starter to the bullpen.  For the Nationals, that means Tanner Roark.  Roark had a monster year, posting a 2.85 ERA while making 31 starts throwing just shy of 200 innings.  Doug Fister’s mind-melting 2.55 ERA gets the nod for the #4 slot.  The top of the rotation is a 3-headed monster (Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, and Gio Gonzalez) that have averaged to strike out more than 9 batters per 9.0 innings pitched.  Nationals pitchers have led the league in fewest walks (2.18 vs. league-average 2.92 per 9.0 IP) AND fewest home runs allowed.  For you fantasy players out there, the Nationals led the league in WHIP as well, allowing only 1.16 baserunners per inning.  You do not get on base against this team.  You do not hit home runs against this team.

The Nationals have pitching.  The Nationals run the bases well.  They can hit a bit, and play a little defense. The Nationals have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. But first and foremost, the Nationals have pitching.  Good gravy, do they have pitching.

 

Because Dee Gordon

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Stars by WAR

  • Clayton Kerhsaw, SP – 7.2 WAR: His career took the leap from “among the best of his generation” to “among the best ever” in 2014
  • Yasiel Puig, OF – 5.1 WAR: Funny how he managed to improve upon nearly everything about which people ragged on him during his roller-coaster rookie season
  • While only Kershaw and Puig played at truly superstar levels, the Dodgers boasted nine 3.0+ WAR players

The beauty of a 162-game season is that the good teams find their way to the top.  The Dodgers had assembled arguably the most talented roster in MLB, and there are no surprises at the results.  A first place finish for the Dodgers was secured with league-leading hitting and a top-heavy rotation featuring the immaculate Clayton Kershaw.

This year, the Dodgers struck gold with a cast of familiar characters doing unfamiliar things.  Cast-off second-baseman Dee Gordon led the league with 64 stolen bases this year.  Defensive dynamo and ageless wonder Juan Uribe found a contact stroke, posting the highest OBP of his career (and he used to play for the Rockies!).  Even Yasiel Puig managed to limit the damage he does on the basepaths, only costing his team -0.2 runs via TOOTBLANs in 2014.

All those useful things pale in comparison to the terrifyingly familiar things the pitching staff did. Dodgers pitchers led the league in strikeouts by a wide margin.  Closer Kenley Jansen had another efficient and reliable year (44 Saves) and has only blown 2 saves in the second half.  Clayton Kershaw has a strong argument (and my vote) for NL MVP with a league-leading 7.2 WAR.

Popular opinion used to be that if there is any knock on the Dodgers, it is the perception that they are talented, but ‘top-heavy’.  But the projected 4-man rotation is excellent, top-to-almost-bottom.  Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu are aces on most other teams.  Puig and Hanley Ramirez may have the star power, but the lineup is deep with useful bats.  Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Matt Kemp may sound like names we found in the glove box of a DeLorean, but they all had well above-average years offensively.  In fact, Dee Gordon was the only regular in the Dodger lineup to produce even slightly below-average numbers in 2014, and even he provided big value on the bases – that’s 9 full guys with at least a 98 wRC+.  The lineup is deep.  The pitching is deep.  And with it, the Dodgers might make their 2014 playoff run deep, too.

Because Dee Gordon.

 

Defense and a Prayer

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Stars by WAR

  • Jhonny Peralta, SS – 5.4 WAR: One of the few power threats in this line-up has morphed into one of the game’s most gifted defenders over the past half-decade seasons)
  • Adam Wainwright, SP – 4.5 WAR: Despite taking a step back from what was probably a peak-season in 2013, was still among game’s very best.

The Cardinals are a bit of an enigma this year.  Despite outperforming their luck-regressed peripherals, the pitching doesn’t seem to have that ‘Cardinal Sparkle’ of past years.  Cardinal pitchers on the whole are fairly mediocre at getting strikeouts, avoiding walks, and preventing home runs.  Cardinal hitters haven’t fared much better, ranking dead last in the league in home runs hit and baserunning value.

The one area in which St. Louis really shines is the field, where their #2 ranked defensive skills have propped up a top-5 WAR finish for their position players.  Getting Yadier Molina back in time for the postseason was a blessing, but there is still some concern that he’s playing hurt and rushed his recovery from a thumb ligament tear.  The playoff rotation may be a bit of a concern, as there isn’t much depth after perennial stud and playoff veteran Adam Wainwright.  Similarly, no Cardinals regular posted a wRC+ over 120 other than steady veteran Matt Holliday.

For the Cardinals to make a real run at the World Series this year, they’ll have to start over-performing their seasonal marks.  Colloquial wisdom suggests that defense tends to not slump, while bats can get hot.  It remains to be seen if the St. Louis Cardinals can field their way to a ring.

 

Hit the Best, Ignore the Rest

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Stars by WAR

  • Andrew McCutchen, OF – 6.8 WAR: Improved in several ways upon his 2013 MVP campaign
  • Russell Martin, C – 5.3 WAR: A massive BABIP spike helped produce a season that rivaled his then-revelatory 2007
  • Josh Harrison, 3B, 2B, OF – 4.9 WAR: Josh Harrison puts on a helluva show no matter where he plays
  • Starling Marte, OF – 4.1 WAR: One of the more under-the-radar wRC+ seasons over 130 I can remember

First the bad news:  The Pirates had, by WAR, the worst starting pitching in the NL this year, and ranked only behind the Rockies in walks surrendered at 3.11 free passes per 9.0 IP.  By advanced ERA statistics, they weren’t dead last, but instead clustered with the esteemed starting rotations of teams like the Phillies, Diamondbacks, Mets and Marlins.  Their relievers, as a group, ranked in the bottom five of both strikeouts per 9.0 innings pitched and WAR.  The Pirates are going to need the bats to carry them.

The good news?  The bats can totally carry them.  Pirates hitters ran deep this year, with six regulars hitting over 120 wRC+ and have two of the top 3 batting averages in the league in Josh Harrison and Andrew McCutchen.  McCutchen is also leading all National League hitters in WAR.  Again.

There’s more bad news though.  No one ever plays Bad News / Good News / Bad News, but it is sadly unavoidable when addressing Pittsburgh’s fielding skills.  The Pirates rank dead last in the league in fielding with a large chunk of that responsibility resting on Pedro Alvarez.  Alvarez is the worst defensive third baseman in the league by a country mile, but oddly enough, he’s also been the seventh-worst offensively as well.  In fact, Pedro Alvarez has a negative WAR, which means he’s been worse than a player that can be hired “for free” (that is, a player readily available in the minor leagues or on the street who can be had at the league minimum salary).

I get that baseball is hard.  When you watch the Pirates, you get the feeling that it is REALLY hard sometimes.  But there is a path to the World Series for the Pirates.  They need to hit, and hit some more and keep hitting, and when they won’t let you hit, you petition the new baseball commissioner to make them let you hit again.  Otherwise, this may be a short October for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

 

This is a baseball team that is in the playoffs

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Stars by WAR

  • Buster Posey, C – 5.7 WAR: A second-half surge reminiscent of his 2012 MVP campaign saved the super-star status of his season and the Giants’ playoff chances
  • Madison Bumgarner, SP – 3.6 Pitching WAR + 1.2 Hitting WAR = 4.8 WAR: Consistently very good, with occasional spikes in both extremely positive and the extremely negative directions
  • Hunter Pence, OF – 4.7 WAR: A monster throughout most of the season, he really cooled off down the stretch; a Pence hotstreak can carry a club, however

When looking over the Giants team numbers, it’s not a stretch to concede that this is a team that could possibly -even probably – make the playoffs.  Even when you regress the pitching numbers as hard as you can to account for the park, you’re still looking at average-or-better across the board.  The staff doesn’t appear to be outstanding at any one given thing, but are on the right side of average at limiting walks, getting punchouts, and keeping the ball in the yard.

Giants position players manufactured the 4th best WAR in the NL by swatting their way to a top 3 wRC+ and then crapping it away with bottom 5 defense and baserunning.  Taking a communist approach to power hitting, the Giants had 4 hitters between 16 (Michael Morse, Pablo Sandoval) and 21 (Buster Posey) home runs this year.  There is similar reliability in the rest of the lineup, as every position player (other than Brandon Belt – in 2014, at least) is a threat to get on base at better than the .320 league-average clip.

Madison Bumgarner will get the ball in the Giants most important games of the postseason, and it’s a sound strategy – as good as Jake Peavy was since being traded mid-season from the Red Sox, Bumgarner was the only Giants pitcher to amass even 2.0 WAR this season.

There are questions about starting pitching depth, and doubts about how high the lineup can carry them, but when you look at all the numbers at the end of the day, it’s clear that this is a team that could make the playoffs.

 

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