After an MLB wild card weekend that scrambled the lower tier of the World Series odds,1 the division series offers four solid favorites — on paper, at least. According to our MLB forecast model, the top-seeded Houston Astros, L.A. Dodgers, New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves each have at least a 2-in-3 chance at moving on to their league’s championship round:
But as we know, things are rarely that tidy when it comes to baseball’s postseason. Here’s how the four underdogs can upset their way into the next stage of the playoffs.
How the Mariners can beat the Astros: Houston is a scary opponent with few weaknesses to exploit, but Seattle’s own relentless lineup might be able to turn the tables. The Mariners had the second-best walk rate in the league, and arguably no group was better at working its way into favorable counts than Julio Rodríguez and company: Seattle owned MLB’s top rate of working 3-0 and 2-0 counts, and the second-best rate of earning 3-1 counts. Further, 10 of Seattle’s 12 top hitters by plate appearances were above-average according to weighted runs created plus. So against an Astros staff that recorded the second-highest strikeout rate during the regular season but also walked batters at a roughly average rate, the Mariners won’t let Houston rest easy with any leads. And if Houston wants further proof, it can just look at how Seattle’s offense exploded on the Toronto Blue Jays in the decisive second game of their wild card series on Saturday — plating four runs in two separate innings and quickly erasing a seven-run Toronto lead. If the Astros aren’t careful, they might get a similar jolt to their system at some point in the ALDS.
How the Guardians can beat the Yankees: Offensively, the Yankees and Guardians could hardly be more different. While New York specializes in drawing walks and hitting for power, Cleveland traffics in a more pesky, 2015 Royals-style style of baseball. The Guardians ranked first in contact rate, first (tied) in Speed Score, third in baserunning runs,2 fifth in the share of balls hit the opposite way and seventh in batting average. They’re constantly putting pressure on the opposition, and that brand of chaos will force the Yankees to truly live up to the regular season’s No. 1 ranked defense by runs above average.3 It should also help complement Cleveland’s strong 1-2 starting-pitching punch of Shane Bieber and Triston McKenzie — once they’re available again after pitching in the wild card round — and a sharp bullpen that allowed zero runs in 10⅓ innings last round to give the Guardians the best upset probability (33.1 percent) of any team in the divisional round.
How the Padres can beat the Dodgers: A pessimist might say, yes, do tell — how can the Padres beat the Dodgers? After all, San Diego went just 5-14 against L.A. during the regular season, including a 3-9 mark after the Padres made their many splashy trade-deadline acquisitions. This San Diego team has its flaws; the opponent it’s facing may not have any. But the theory of the Padres upending the Dodgers is similar to the one that already worked to knock off the 101-win New York Mets: San Diego has the talent and depth to run with anybody, they just need to be harnessed effectively. Against New York (which started multiple future Hall of Fame aces in the series), five Padre hitters had at least an .800 OPS. Although it’s unlikely that, say, Austin Nola and Trent Grisham maintain that level going forward, it was a testament to the number of potential contributors lurking in this lineup. Likewise, San Diego got great top-line pitching from Joe Musgrove and Yu Darvish (we won’t talk about Blake Snell’s Game 2 outing) and held the formidable Met hitters to a .185/.283/.326 batting line in the series. Another near-perfect performance might be a tall order for the Padres in their next series — and beating the Dodgers will probably require perfection — but San Diego now has at least set an impressive precedent for how it can be done.
How the Phillies can beat the Braves: As terrifying as the defending champs are, Philadelphia held its own against Atlanta during the regular season, nearly breaking even on run differential (minus-3) against a Braves team that outscored all other opponents by 177 runs combined. One of Philadelphia’s keys was maintaining a relatively high level of offensive output (4.5 runs per game) against the Braves’ vaunted staff, led by Bryce Harper’s .881 OPS — and putting big numbers on the board makes sense as Philadelphia’s best weapon here, when you think about the core framework of this bat-heavy Phillies roster. Perhaps just as important, though, will be Philadelphia’s starting pitching, which ranked third in wins above replacement4 during the regular season. Obviously that applies once the rotation resets and co-aces Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler — who collectively allowed zero runs in 13 wild-card innings — are available later in the NLDS. But don’t sleep on likely Game 1 starter Ranger Suárez, an underrated sinker-baller (89 ERA-minus, 95 FIP-minus) who could help steal an early series win as well.
Check out our latest MLB predictions.