Strengths and weaknesses for all 10 playoff teams
As the calendar turns to October, postseason baseball will begin. The playoffs will begin on Tuesday with the Nationals hosting the Brewers for the NL Wild Card game. That will be followed by the AL Wild Card game between the Rays and Athletics in Oakland on Wednesday. After that, the NL Division Series kicks off on Thursday followed by the start of the AL Division Series on Friday.
Let’s take a look at all 10 playoff teams, identifying some strengths and weaknesses for each, starting with the Wild Card teams.
Tampa Bay Rays
- Starting pitching: After putting up career-best numbers with the Astros last year, Charlie Morton went to the Rays and had an even better year. The right-hander posted a 3.05 ERA with 240 strikeouts in 194 2/3 innings. Undeniably the ace of the staff given Blake Snell’s down year after winning the AL Cy Young Award, Morton is not a fun match-up for opposing hitters. Tyler Glasnow posted incredible numbers in September after coming back from a flexor strain, limiting the competition to two runs on five hits with 21 strikeouts in 12 1/3 innings. He hasn’t been able to go deep into a start yet, so the Rays will have to expect to use the bullpen early and often if he starts a playoff game.
- Bullpen: The Rays’ aggregate 3.71 bullpen ERA was best in baseball, which was important because the bullpen also led the majors with 772 innings of work. Of course the team that popularized “the opener” would have a strong bullpen. It’s led by closer Emilio Pagán, who in a career year recorded 20 saves with a 2.31 ERA and 96 strikeouts across 70 innings. If there’s one thing that the back of this Rays bullpen will do, it’s strike batters out.
- Power hitting: In a season famous for the “juiced ball,” the Rays had only one hitter exceed 21 home runs this year, Austin Meadows with 33. The club’s collective .178 isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) ranked 20th among all 30 teams. The only playoff team with a lower ISO is the Cardinals with .170.
- Drawing walks: While the Rays’ 8.6 percent walk rate was in the middle of the pack during the regular season, eight other playoff teams all had a higher walk rate. While drawing walks isn’t the most important skill to have in the postseason, it can’t be discounted. In a do-or-die game, being able to put a runner on base late in the game could be the difference between advancing or going home.
- Power hitting: The A’s had seven hitters reach the 20-homer plateau. Their collective .198 ISO was sixth-best in baseball. This is absolutely a team that will live and die by the home run. The A’s won’t complain about doubles, but Matt Chapman and Matt Olson aren’t going up there looking to hit a line drive down the line.
- Back of the bullpen: The Athletics finished 2019 with the fourth-best bullpen ERA in the American League, thanks in large part to a career year from Liam Hendriks. The Aussie racked up 25 saves, a 1.80 ERA and a 124/21 K/BB ratio in 85 innings this season. Based on this season’s stats alone, there are few relievers one would rather have closing out a nail-biter. Yusmeiro Petit seems to have found his niche in the bullpen after years of struggling as a starter earlier his career. He pitched in an AL-high 79 games with a 2.72 ERA. It’s the front of the bullpen that’s a question mark. If the A’s win the Wild Card game and move into the ALDS, a poor and/or abbreviated start could spell disaster.
- Speed: Athletics base runners stole all of 49 bases during the regular season, fourth-fewest in baseball. They will absolutely not be manufacturing runs in the AL Wild Card game. Marcus Semien was able to reach 10 steals, but he did so in 18 attempts. He probably shouldn’t be attempting to steal in a one-game playoff.
- Starting pitching: While the Athletics’ starting rotation isn’t bad by any means, it’s not the most consistent. Consider Mike Fiers, who authored a no-hitter back in May. Sometimes he throws brilliantly like that, and sometimes he puts up an absolute clunker like his September 9 outing against the Astros in which he surrendered nine runs (including five home runs) over one-plus innings of work. The A’s are also debating starting Sean Manaea against the Rays. Manaea missed the first five months of the season but posted a brilliant 1.21 ERA across five September starts. As good as he has been, it’s still only five starts post-injury. Brett Anderson lurks behind Fiers and Manaea. Anderson had a full, healthy season for the first time since 2015, but he managed only 90 strikeouts in 176 innings.
- Power hitting: Undeniably the Twins’ calling card this season and it has been since day one. They had five players reach 30-plus homers, led by Nelson Cruz at 41. They narrowly out-homered the Yankees and edged them in ISO by one point as well. The Twins’ lineup scary and what’s more -- they’re deep. Luis Arraez, Jason Castro, Ehire Adrianza, and Jake Cave were all good to great in less than full-time roles.
- Hitting for average: Along with hitting for prodigious power, the Twins were also surprisingly good at simply getting hits. Arraez hit an impressive .334 but four other hitters -- Cruz, Jorge Polanco, Eddie Rosario, and Mitch Garver -- hit .270 or better, solidly above the .252 league average.
- Speed: As seems to be the common theme, those that hit the ball with authority don’t seem to care much about swiping bases. The Twins trailed the rest of the league by a wide margin, stealing only 28 bases. The Cubs had the second-fewest at 45.
New York Yankees
- Power hitting: The Yankees and Twins were the class of the league when it came to hitting dingers, so it’s only appropriate they would match with each other in the first round of the playoffs. The Yankees dealt with myriad injuries during the season and found incredible production from unlikely sources, such as D.J. LeMahieu hitting 26 homers. Giovany Urshela hit 21. Mike Tauchman hit 13 in 87 games. Mike Ford hit 12 in 49 games. They have a healthy Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, as well as regulars Brett Gardner, Gary Sánchez, and Gleyber Torres. Smart money is on a bunch of high-scoring games against the Twins.
- Back of the bullpen: As expected, the back of the Yankees’ bullpen was dominant. Aroldis Chapman led the way with 37 saves, a 2.25 ERA, and 84 strikeouts in 56 innings. Adam Ottavino and Zack Britton were even more dominant with respective ERAs of 1.79 and 1.94. If the Yankees get to the eighth inning with a lead, it’s going to be tough to pry it out of their relievers’ hands.
- Starting pitching: The Yankees really don’t know what they’re going to get out of their starting pitchers in the ALDS. Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ, and James Paxton were each inconsistent throughout the year. Paxton and Happ, at least, seemed to figure it out towards the end of the season. Paxton posted a 1.24 ERA in six starts between August 23 and September 21. Happ had a 1.65 ERA in five September starts, but he’s made it into the seventh inning just once since June 13.
- Speed: The league has really devalued base stealing in recent years, so it’s not surprising to see so many playoff teams failing to care about swiping a bag. The Yankees only stole 55 bases, led by Brett Gardner’s 10. If anyone will steal a crucial base in a playoff game for the Yankees, it will be Gardner.
- Plate discipline: Astros hitters struck out at the lowest rate in baseball this season, 18.3 percent. They drew walks at the highest rate, 10.1 percent. This offense will see a ton of pitches and they won’t offer at junk. Good luck with that approach, opposing pitchers.
- Starting pitching: If it weren’t for each other, Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole would be unanimous AL Cy Young Award winners. They may very well be co-Cy Young winners. They both won 20-plus games and reached 300-plus strikeouts, becoming the first pair of teammates to do that since Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in 2002 for the Diamondbacks. And then they have Zack Greinke in the No. 3 slot, who ended the regular season with a 2.93 ERA. Good luck with that, opposing hitters.
- Speed: I stretched for a weakness here because this team really doesn’t have any, hence the 107 regular season wins. Like most teams these days, the Astros are not wantonly running the bases. Their 66 steals ranked 17th in baseball. Shrug.
- No Christian Yelich: I say this jokingly because after losing the reigning NL MVP to an injury on September 10, the Brewers responded by going 13-2 in their next 15 games. They were swept by the Rockies in the final series of the season, but only after clinching a playoff spot.
- Power hitting: Even without Yelich, the Brewers can match any team’s offensive output. Mike Moustakas, Yasmani Grandal, Eric Thames, and Ryan Braun each crossed the 20-homer mark while Keston Hiura nearly got there with 19 in just 83 games.
- Strikeouts: No playoff team struck out at a higher rate during the regular season than the Brewers at 24.8%. They did pair it with a 10 percent walk rate, the second-highest rate in baseball behind the Astros. This is really a three true outcomes team.
- Bullpen: While the ever-dominant Josh Hader lurks in the ninth inning, it’s getting to Hader with a lead that will prove difficult. Junior Guerra posted a 3.55 ERA bridging the gap during the regular season, but that’s an average-ish ERA for a set-up man on a playoff team. And there’s a severe drop-off in quality behind Guerra. Navigating the sixth through eighth innings could be troublesome.
- Starting pitching: While Max Scherzer/Patrick Corbin/Stephen Strasburg isn’t quite Cole/Verlander/Grienke, it’s scary nevertheless. Of the three, Strasburg had the highest ERA at 3.32 and each recorded at least 238 strikeouts. Aníbal Sánchez is not to be forgotten about in the No. 4 slot as he finished with a quality 3.85 ERA across 30 starts.
- Speed: It feels like speed has been a weakness for many teams, but it’s certifiably a strength for the Nationals. Four of their players reached double-digits in steals, led by Trea Turner’s 34. Victor Robles had 27 swipes, Adam Eaton had 14, and Juan Soto had 12. What’s more is how efficiently they stole bases, going 111-for-140 (79.3%).
- Bullpen: The bullpen has been an issue for the Nationals all year long. They simply have to cross their fingers and hope for the best in the playoffs. Their collective 5.70 bullpen ERA was second-worst in baseball. Closer Sean Doolittle wore down late in the season, yielding 12 runs in his final 12 innings. It’ll be an adventure just trying to cleanly get the ball to Doolittle with a lead, so it’s up to the starting pitching to provide length and the offense to provide cushion.
- Bottom of the lineup: While Matt Adams, Brian Dozier, and Victor Robles each brings something solid to the table offensively, they were on the whole slightly below average during the regular season. Adams had an adjusted OPS of 86, 14 points below average. Dozier was at 95 and Robles was at 88. Part-timers Ryan Zimmerman and Gerardo Parra were at 87 and 83, respectively. This offense is mostly the Anthony Rendon (153) and Juan Soto (139) show.
St. Louis Cardinals
- Speed: Like the Nationals, the Cardinals will attempt to steal. They had four players reach double-digits in steals: Kolten Wong (24), Tommy Edman (15), Marcell Ozuna (12), and Harrison Bader (11). And, like the Nationals, they stole bases efficiently, going 116-for-145 (80%).
- Bullpen: The Cardinals don’t have a bullpen full of household names yet, but it’s quality across the board. Carlos Martínez, Giovanny Gallegos, John Brebbia, Tyler Webb, John Gant, Daniel Ponce de Leon, and Ryan Helsley each posted an ERA at 3.76 or below during the regular season. This is a team that could get an unexpected abbreviated start from one of its starters and stay afloat.
- Offense: The Cardinals’ aggregate .314 weighted on-base average (wOBA) ranked in the bottom-third of the league. Among all 10 playoff teams, the Cardinals’ .245 average, .322 on-base percentage, and .415 slugging percentage were the worst marks during the regular season.
- Rotation depth: Jack Flaherty was excellent and Dakota Hudson was quite good, but the trio behind them -- Miles Mikolas, Adam Wainwright, and Michael Wacha -- were mediocre. Mikolas led the league in wins last year with 18 and led in losses this year with 14. Wins and losses aren’t a great stat but it is interesting. Wainwright ended the season with a couple of clunkers and the Cardinals have zero idea what they’re getting out of Wacha on any given day.
- Offensive balance: The Braves’ offense doesn’t stand out in any one particular department. They do a lot of things well. Ozzie Albies (.298) and Freddie Freeman (.294) hit for a high average. Ronald Acuña Jr. (41 homers), Freeman (38), and Josh Donaldson (37) hit for power. Donaldson (100), Freeman (87), and Acuña (76) can draw walks. Acuña (37 steals) and Albies (15) can steal bases. As you’ll see below, the problem is that there are a lot of repeat names there.
- Power hitting: While the Braves aren’t prodigious like the Twins or Yankees with power, it’s still a strength. Their .194 ISO was eighth-best in baseball.
- Offensive depth: How the Braves fare will be largely dependent on how well Albies, Acuña, Freeman, and Donaldson fare at the plate. By adjusted OPS, Dansby Swanson (89), Nick Markakis (99), Austin Riley (88), Tyler Flowers (85), and Brian McCann (88) had below average years at the dish.
- Starting pitching: The Braves will be leaning heavily on the two starts Mike Soroka will likely make in the NLDS. Soroka, an NL Cy Young award candidate, finished the regular season with a 2.60 ERA. His rotation mates did not fare nearly as well. While still solid, Dallas Keuchel’s 3.75 ERA is not ace material, nor is Julio Teheran’s 3.81 ERA.
Los Angeles Dodgers
- Starting pitching: The Dodgers’ starting pitching can match up toe-to-toe with the Astros’. The stats aren’t quite as good, especially in terms of defense-independent stats, but no hitter is looking forward to facing this slate of pitchers. Hyun-Jin Ryu, the favorite for the NL Cy Young Award, posted an MLB-low 2.32 ERA. He’ll be backed up by Walker Buehler (3.26), Clayton Kershaw (3.05), and Rich Hill (2.59).
- Power hitting: The Dodgers’ .215 ISO was best in the National League. Presumptive NL MVP Cody Bellinger had a lot to do that, mashing 47 dingers along with 34 doubles. Joc Pederson (36) and Max Muncy (35) also hit the 30-homer plateau.
- Bullpen: Closer Kenley Jansen has been quite inconsistent, finishing with a career-high 3.71 ERA. His other stats were still good, especially his 80 strikeouts with only 16 walks in 63 innings. Jansen, however, has been inducing much less soft contact and a lot more hard contact. Not a great recipe in high-leverage innings in October. Pedro Báez was great setting up for Jansen, but it’s the sixth and seventh innings that can prove troublesome for the Dodgers. They need their starters to go deep.