As the 2019 regular season winds down in Major League Baseball (MLB), it is time to start narrowing our focus to the cream of the crop—the teams who have set themselves apart as championship contenders on the diamond.
What we fail to appreciate all too often about this game is the variance that results from its parity. In other words, come October, it truly is anyone’s game. No Golden State Warriors dynasty, no New England Patriots tipping the scales. When it comes to baseball, there are few sports that do a better job of weeding out the greatest squad among the qualifying contenders.
That being said, this season’s edition of the MLB playoffs will be perhaps the most offensively-loaded we’ve seen in years.
Let’s take a moment to put it in perspective: in 2015, the most potent offense in the game by runs scored was the Toronto Blue Jays with 891 total runs scored, with the New York Yankees in second with 764 total runs.
That season marked a watershed moment in the timeline of baseball. From then on, offense has been king.
Flash-forward a few seasons to today’s power-heavy game—there are 11 teams who have reached the 800-run-season plateau, with seven out of the eight playoff-qualifying teams in that elite category.
Nonetheless, as baseball wisdom commands, the playoffs have historically been all about whose pitchers can weather the offensive turbulence and become genuinely reliable assets to a team’s championship quest.
The Yankees and Twins have both had phenomenal seasons but their lack of elite pitching concerns me. New York’s best starter in 2019, Domingo German, will be absent for the postseason, with a shaky James Paxton and still-easing-back Luis Severino shoring up the rotation.
Meanwhile, the Twins’ staff is talented without a doubt, but they lack crucial experience and their bullpen is simply not formidable enough to hang with the lethal bats in the American League (-1.1 total bullpen Wins Above Replacement).
With clutch pitching at a premium in the MLB postseason, especially in the American League, you have to love what Houston has been able to do this season.
The team with the best record in baseball this season boasts perhaps the two best pitchers in the game currently. For each of the following metrics, Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander land either number one or number two in the AL (stay with me): earned run average (ERA), total strikeouts, walks to hits per innings pitched (WHIP), win probability added, and strikeout-to-walk-ratio. Wow. Cole in particular has had a season for the ages, racking up the most strikeouts (326) for an AL pitcher since Pedro Martinez in 1999.
Nevertheless, you can’t have a World-Series-caliber team without a steady offense to support a dominant pitching unit.
Houston can hang with the best of them in a postseason offensive shootout, eclipsing the 900 run mark with a loaded, experienced lineup to boot. Oh yeah, they’re also the most disciplined lineup in the AL with the least amount of strikeouts in the league by 110.
There’s little doubt in my mind: take the Astros over the field in the American League this postseason.
The postseason landscape in the National League also promises to excite, with some of the game’s most glory-deprived fan bases anxious for the World Series crown.
I’ve loved what I’ve seen from the Atlanta Braves this season—their offense has grown into one of the game’s most reliable power sources, led by 21-year-old MVP candidate Ronald Acuna Jr.
Third baseman Josh Donaldson, who has plenty of postseason experience, has enjoyed a career resurgence this season, slugging 37 home runs and 94 RBIs.
Similar praise can be applied to the LA Dodgers, who led the NL and set a franchise record with 106 wins in 2019.
Guys like Max Muncy, Joc Pederson and Cody Bellinger have kept this team rock-steady, making a ten-run final score update a thing of normality.
Pitching stability will certainly determine the fate of the National League just as it will for the AL, and the Dodgers are a cut above the rest.
They have by far the lowest team pitching ERA in the league, bolstered by starting pitchers who go late into games and relievers who shore up the back end of victories.
Most intriguing to me about their bullpen is their poise in those crucial moments that determine the outcome of playoff matchups—when runners are in scoring position.
LA’s bullpen has the league’s lowest opponent batting average in those situations, not to mention allowing the least amount of walks. Again, give me the boys in blue over the field in the NL.
Astros vs. Dodgers. Who will take home the World Series title in a 2017 rematch?
While I believe Houston to be a more dependable choice on paper, there’s something about the Dodgers this season that makes me believe, and I mean truly believe, that they finally have the pieces to put it all together and redeem their shortcomings from years past.
MVP candidate in Cody Bellinger? Check. Cy Young contender in Hyun-Jin Ryu? Check. Elite starting rotation and bullpen? Check. A stable of rookies who can hang with the best arms in the game? Check.
I’ll leave you with this: FanGraphs and FiveThirtyEight, the sport’s two most respected sabermetric think tanks, have determined through analytics that the Houston Astros have the best chances at winning it all. No surprise there.
However, the past five years, for both sites, only once has the team with the highest odds taken home the crown (2016 Cubs). Almost always a team with the second- or third-best odds ends up hoisting the championship trophy at the end of October.
No three-peat-defeat: I’m taking the Dodgers over Astros in six with Enrique Hernandex taking home MVP honors. Call me a homer, but the boys in blue are finally ready for glory.