It’s time for real, live playoff baseball. Or as sabermetricians like to call it: the season where weird stuff happens.
The playoffs are entirely different from the regular season, with an emphasis on top-tier starting pitching and the savvy usage of strong late-inning relief. Sabermetrics researchers have struggled in vain for years to pinpoint a secret sauce that can guarantee postseason success. Because of the changing strategies and wild-card structures in MLB, trying to figure out who’s going to win the World Series creates problems that are similar to those faced by electoral prognosticators, only with much less data.1 The truth may be that there is no very accurate way to forecast who will survive the gantlet of the MLB playoffs.
But that’s not going to stop us from trying! Elsewhere, Neil Paine has used Elo ratings (FiveThirtyEight’s pet power rating system) to project each wild-card game and divisional series. But before you go read that, stick with me so I can tell you a little bit about each of the AL teams that have found their way into the hunt. (I’ll cover the NL teams on Wednesday.)
There are clearly two tiers of teams fighting for the pennant, with the Blue Jays and Royals towering above the Yankees, Astros and Rangers.
(Chance of winning the World Series: 4 percent)
Don’t sleep on the ’Stros. Although the Astros are only the second wild card, they show some intriguing potential for October contention. After several much-derided moves to strengthen the bullpen in the offseason, Houston had the second-best relief corps in the major leagues (by wins above replacement). It doesn’t have the top-end relief aces of, say, the Yankees, but the Astros can count on a number of solid arms to bail them out in high-leverage situations.
And don’t get put off by the Astros’ second-half swoon, because the team seems to have been unlucky this year. They sport the fourth-best Pythagorean record in the league (but the 10th-best record), and the team lost 17 runs on offense because of unfortunate clustering of their hits, another sign of poor fortune. Even these statistics may be underrating Houston, because a large portion of their production comes from young players who were called up mid-season, like shortstop Carlos Correa and starting pitcher Lance McCullers. The Astros team that the Yankees are facing in the play-in game will be significantly improved from the one that started the year.
New York Yankees
(Chance of winning the World Series: 5 percent)
This Yankees team feels like the prototypical Bronx outfit of the past few years: a team filled with a gaggle of aging veterans on massively overpaid free-agent contracts. Outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury is the current exemplar, and catcher Brian McCann was last year. Together, the Yankees boast the highest average age for position players of any team in baseball, when you weight the players by their WAR contribution. Age and the injuries that come with it make the current Yankees team less intimidating than the one that racked up 87 wins in the regular season. The Bronx Bombers lost their most productive hitter, first baseman Mark Teixeira, after an August injury, and other older players may feel the wear-and-tear more than most.
What may make the Yankees unusually dangerous in the playoffs is their incredible late inning relief crew. Their setup man is the intimidating Dellin Betances, who just finished one of the 20 best reliever seasons of the past five years, and their closer is Andrew Miller, whose season ranked in the top 40 on the same list. Although the bottom of the bullpen is more questionable, Yankees manager Joe Girardi can conceal it behind two of the best relievers in baseball, which presents a tactical advantage in the playoffs.
(Chance of winning the World Series: 9 percent)
After suffering by far the most injuries last season, the Rangers bounced back to take the division this year. But the Rangers’ playoff position belies the performances of their players. They are 12th in position-player WAR and 20th in pitching. The Rangers’ run differential is a perfectly adequate +18, which puts them more in the range of the Orioles (+20) and Diamondbacks (+7), two also-rans. Indeed, by Pythagorean record, the Rangers ought to have lost the second wild card to the Indians.
So the numbers suggest that the Rangers aren’t long for the playoffs, but there are some minor reasons to believe that the Texas roster is stronger than it appears. The deadline trade for Cole Hamels gave them a potent and dependable frontline starter. Rougned Odor has been one of the best second basemen in the majors since being recalled after being demoted to the minors.
Even so, it’s hard to buy into the Rangers as genuine contenders. They lack the outstanding bullpens of last year’s surprise teams and don’t match up especially well with the rest of the AL field. Although this season is an unexpected success for Texas, it’s hard to imagine it continuing too far into October.
Kansas City Royals
(Chance of winning the World Series: 13 percent)
Now we get to the class of the league. The Royals are one of the most unexpectedly formidable teams of the past few years. Whether by luck, chemistry or a secret ingredient that the rest of the league has yet to discover, Kansas City has managed to baffle the majority of the preseason prognosticators this year, and I am no exception.
It’s never a good idea to bet against the projections too confidently or too often. But the Royals have the production to back up their standing in the league, with a run differential that’s fifth-best in MLB and WAR totals to match.2 Having boosted themselves at the trade deadline with the addition of a frontline ace in Johnny Cueto and a versatile hitter in Ben Zobrist, the Royals stand as good a chance as anyone but the Blue Jays at taking the crown, even if we still don’t understand why they are so good. Speaking of those Blue Jays ...
Toronto Blue Jays
(Chance of winning the World Series: 19 percent)
It’s difficult to overstate just how incredible the Blue Jays have been this year. Their run differential exceeds the next-best team (the Cardinals) by 99 runs, which itself would be the fifth-best run differential in the league. Since 1950, only 18 teams (out of 1,592; just about 1 percent) have had season run differentials better than the Blue Jays’ sum of +221.3 With their midseason trades for arguably the best position player (shortstop Troy Tulowitzki) and pitcher (starter David Price) available, the Blue Jays became something we almost never see in modern baseball: a steamroller, a world-beater, a superteam. Sure enough, since the All-Star break, the Jays have been even better, racking up a run differential of +139, which put them on pace for the best full-season run differential of any team since 1950.
And yet, of those 18 teams with run differentials better than that of the 2015 Blue Jays, only six went on to win the World Series. Only 11 of the 18 even went to the World Series. There’s a reason baseball has gone away from the superteam model: No matter how strong the team, nobody can predict what will happen in a short postseason series.