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2020 MLB Postseason Preview: Separating the great from the good in a playoffs like no other

HyunJae Park | Flickr

However, these playoffs will be like no other. Following the examples of the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League, the postseason will take place in a “bubble.”

The American League is playing in California, specifically Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and Petco Park in San Diego, while the National League is playing in Texas at Minute Maid Park in Houston and Globe Life Field in Arlington. Arlington will also be the host for the first neutral-site World Series in baseball history.

The postseason now has 16 teams and the field is as wide-open as ever. Let’s examine the teams that have a legitimate shot at the Commissioner’s Trophy and highlight some dark horse candidates for the crown.

American League
Tampa Bay Rays

The days of Tampa Bay playing the role of the plucky underdog who has never caused any real disruption to the status quo of the American League are over. In a league where money buys success, the Rays are a reminder that whole teams win games, not necessarily the individual players on the team.

Finishing the regular season with the best record in the Junior Circuit, the Rays’ claim to fame still lies on the mound with their pitching staff. The starting rotation is anchored by their ace, Tyler Glasnow, who led the team in innings pitched and strikeouts.

Relying heavily on his four-seam fastball and curveball, opposing batters only accumulate a .191 expected batting average against Glasnow, with the above-average movement on his curveball proving particularly unhittable.

Former Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell is a great No. 2 starter in a rotation, using his repertoire of a four-seamer, curve, changeup and slider to beguile hitters en route to a decent 3.24 earned run average.

In the bullpen, closer Nick Anderson was one of the most dominating pitchers in the game with an earned run average of 0.55, registering 26 punchouts and only three walks.

Even though he only has two pitches, Anderson gets ahead in the count often, putting hitters at a disadvantage from the start. His four-seam fastball generates an opposition batting average of below one. His curveball is even more filthy, generating a .083 opposing batting average.

A shout-out must also be given to Diego Castillo, who possesses one of the best sliders in the league and uses it with regularity. The percentage of his sliders that end in batter whiffs is staggering at over half.

In the batters’ box, Brandon Lowe has led the charge for the AL East champions. Standing out among the glut of power hitters in the Rays’ lineup, Lowe led the team in home runs with 14 and runs batted in with 37.

Lowe was often carrying the Rays’ offense when the other hitters struggled throughout the season. His batting average of .269 was one of the best on the team, and his Wins Above Replacement rating of 2.1 was the highest on the team. In the postseason, the pitching will always give Tampa a fighting chance and a serious chance at the World Series. If the hitting can rise to the occasion, there is no telling how far the Rays can go.

New York Yankees

The injury bug hit the Yankees, and it almost cost them their season.

Yankee stars Aaron Judge, Gleyber Torres, Giancarlo Stanton and DJ LeMahieu have all spent time on the injured list. A day without injuries was a rare and welcome sight for the Bronx Bombers. When healthy, the argument could be made that the Yankees are the most talented team in the American League, if not baseball altogether.

In the regular season, the Yanks relied on two batters above all others to keep them afloat: LeMahieu and Luke Voit. LeMahieu, or The Machine as he is affectionately known, became the first player in MLB history to win the batting title in the American and National League with his .364 effort.

His on-base percentage of .421 led the AL, and his on-base plus slugging percentage of 1.011 was also top of the AL chart. LeMahieu’s hitting style centers around pure contact. He is always the Yankee that fans and players alike look to for the clutch hit. His Wins Above Replacement rating of 2.9 was the highest among position players in the American League, showcasing his value to the men in pinstripes.

While LeMahieu is about contact, Luke Voit is about power. Voit led the Majors in home runs with 22 and the Yankees with 52 runs batted in. LeMahieu and Voit became the first set of teammates to win the Major League crown for batting average and home runs respectively since Hank Aaron and Eddie Matthews in 1959 for the Milwaukee Braves.

Other players of note include third baseman Gio Urshela and outfielder Clint Frazier. Urshela had a respectable .294 batting average and possessed arguably the best glove in the Bronx.

Frazier came out the gate in August with a torrid start, batting .295 with three home runs and 11 runs batted in. On the mound, the Yankees’ new ace was Gerrit Cole, and he lived up to the hype. Seven wins, a 2.84 earned run average and 94 strikeouts in 73 innings pitched.

Cole was by far the Yankees’ best and most reliable pitcher during the season, however, gaudy regular season statistics mean nothing in the postseason. He was brought into the Bronx to pitch in the postseason, and now he has the chance to solidify his position. There are still concerns for the Bronx Bombers ahead of October baseball.

The rest of the pitching after Cole is suspect and the hitting is extremely streaky. If the pitching does well and the Yankees’ bats get hot, they should make the World Series and contend for a title. If not, then Yankee fans want blood — and manager Aaron Boone might be the sacrifice.

Oakland Athletics

Moneyball strikes again and the Athletics have made the postseason for the third consecutive season, each time ending in the Wild Card game. Luckily for them, the Wild Card round is not one game, it’s three.

If the A’s want to go far, or at least go to the Division Series, they will have to rely on their bullpen. Oakland has one of, if not the, best bullpens in the Majors.

Their relievers combined for the lowest earned run average in baseball and are led by their closer, Liam Hendriks. Mostly using his four-seam fastball, Hendriks throws heat past the batters on a regular basis and uses his slider as his punchout pitch.

Over half of the occasions that Hendriks has thrown the slider this season has ended in a swing and a miss. Batters only hit .071 off the slider and opposing batters have a weighted on-base average of .170 off all his pitches, meaning that they do not generate much offensive value.

With only three walks, 37 strikeouts and 14 saves to his name, Hendriks is as reliable as the come for Oakland.

Another reliable arm from the pen is Jake Diekman. The southpaw has dominated this short season, registering an earned run average of only 0.42. Opposing batters only register an expected batting average of .137, which amongst the best in the Majors.

His four-seam fastball in virtually unhittable, with opposing batters accumulating a measly .056 average against it. The heat of the fastball is balanced with the finesse of his slider and sinker, with his slider proving particularly effective at making batters look foolish.

Other exceptional members of the bullpen staff include Yusmeiro Petit, J.B. Wendelken and veteran Joakim Soria.

Even though their pen is elite, their most valuable player, at least according to Wins Above Replacement, is their starting pitcher Chris Bassitt. Bassitt has emerged as the number one starter for the A’s, registering five wins and a low earned run average of 2.29. Bassitt has a hefty portfolio of pitches, using a slider, cutter, four-seamer, changeup, curve and sinker.

The beauty in his pitching is that the batter does not know what is coming. Oakland’s prowess on the mound can take them far, but they will certainly miss the bat of third baseman Matt Chapman, who is out for the remainder of the season. The pitching staff does not need a lot of run support, but if the Athletics’ bats can do just enough, then they can finally cast aside their wild card demons in 2020.

Honorable Mention/Dark Horse: Chicago White Sox

The White Sox are building something interesting in the South Side of Chicago.

Their bats are elite, with Jose Abreu putting up MVP-type numbers this season. Nineteen homers, 60 runs batted in, a triple slash of a .317 batting average, an on-base percentage of .370, a slugging percentage of .617 and a Wins Above Replacement rating of 2.8 do nothing but sing his praises and strengthen his claim to the Most Valuable Player award.

Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert both registered over 10 dingers this season, as did their boisterous shortstop Tim Anderson. Anderson led the ChiSox with a .322 batting average, challenging for the AL Batting Crown for most of the season. Offseason acquisition Yasmani Grandal has provided the White Sox with a stable presence behind the plate who can hit for power when he wants.

On the mound, Lucas Giolito has emerged as a total stud, becoming the ace of the staff. Giolito’s win-loss record can be slightly deceiving, as his pitching is superb enough to win almost every time he takes the mound. Owner of the season’s first no-hitter, he uses his four-seamer with a changeup to devastating effect. Put Giolito on a rotation with Dallas Keuchel and the Sox have a lethal one-two punch.

This season is an experience year for the White Sox and not much is expected of them, but they can make noise if everything goes right.

National League
Los Angeles Dodgers

World Series or bust — that is the expectation and the goal for the Dodgers this postseason and their regular season play only adds to that standard. They were the best team in baseball, winning 43 games and overwhelming Western opponents in their wake.

Their lineup only got stronger this offseason with the addition of former AL MVP Mookie Betts from the Red Sox. Betts proceeded to state his intent on winning a World Series with the Dodgers as he signed a 12-year, 365-million-dollar contract extension. So far, Betts has proved to be worth the money. By generating the highest Wins Above Replacement rating in the Majors, Betts has led the Dodgers in homers with 16 and has driven in 39 runs. His .292 batting average is also impressive, and his fielding abilities in the outfield are second-to-none.

However, the most impressive batter of the campaign must be shortstop Corey Seager. Seager’s triple slash of .307/.358/.585 is extremely impressive, as is his power. Hitting 15 home runs and driving in 41 runs, Seager has shouldered the offensive burden during down years for Cody Bellinger and Joc Pederson.

Max Muncy was also impressive this season in terms of power, hitting 12 dingers and driving in 27 runs. His batting average needs improvement, but the danger of the Dodgers’ lineup comes in the lineup’s potential to do damage.

Pitchers are never safe when facing the Evil Empire of the West. Pitching is also something the Dodgers have in abundance. Their pitching led baseball in earned run average this season, and opponents’ .252 average in balls put in play is second only to St. Louis in the Majors.

Their starting rotation led by future hall-of-famer Clayton Kershaw, who put together another impressive campaign with 62 strikeouts and only eight walks to go along with six wins and a 2.16 earned run average.

Also in the rotation is lefty Julio Urias, who finished the regular season with three wins and a 3.27 earned run average. Walker Buehler was decent in his few starts for the Dodgers, and Dustin May had a low earned run average of only 2.57.

The bullpen is led by closer Kenley Jansen, who is as shutdown as they come. Throwing 33 strikeouts and saving 11 ballgames, Jansen will be important come postseason time. Their bullpen also has studs such as Victor Gonzalez, who dazzled in his appearances with an earned run average of 1.33 and 23 strikeouts while only walking two batters all season.

There is no weak spot with this team. In the National League, the only question is not whether the Dodgers will win; it is how long will take for the Dodgers to win.

Honorable Mentions/Dark Horses: Everyone Else

This league is the Dodgers’ to lose — and for good reasons. However, the National League has produced some exciting baseball in the regular season.

Cincinnati plays host to the most outspoken player in the Majors, Trevor Bauer. The rebel with a cause of the modernization of baseball, Bauer has had a spectacular regular season and is the presumptive NL Cy Young Award winner.

Possessing a 1.73 earned run average, 100 strikeouts, and the lowest hits given up per nine innings in the Majors, there are few arguments to the contrary. However, Bauer alone may not be enough for the Reds to go far in the postseason. If everything goes right for the Reds, they may make some noise in October.

Another team looking to make noise is the Padres. In the postseason for the first time since 2006, the Padres became known as “Slam Diego” due to their penchant for hitting grand slams this season.

The Friars are the most exciting team to watch in baseball, led by their 400-million-dollar man, Manny Machado. The third baseman has lived up to his price tag, at least for now, with a .304 batting average and a slugging percentage of .580, along with 16 home runs and 47 runs batted in, made for an impressive season.

Shortstop Fernando Tatis, Jr. led the team with 17 home runs while serving as the spark plug for the Padres. With contributions from Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers, and the emergence of rookie second baseman Jake Cronenworth, the Padres have a solid foundation in place for future success. This year will not make or break their future, but it will be a learning experience.

Finally, all the praise must be given to the Miami Marlins. A week into the season, the Marlins were ravaged by COVID-19, and were forced to stop playing for over a week, essentially held hostage in Philadelphia. When they did play again, they were forced to play anyone with a pulse while players recovered.

Coming into the season, the Marlins had the least talented roster in their division and were projected to finish last. However, the Fins started to win, and they never stopped until they clinched a playoff berth for the first time since they won the title back in 2003.

Don Mattingly should be the Manager of the Year, no questions asked or arguments to the contrary, and some credit should be given to the highly influential face of the franchise, partial-owner Derek Jeter.

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