The No-BS Playoff Previews!
Sports previews are, by their very nature, filled with BS. This, as they say, isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. Because what are previews, after all? They are bold and overly confident predictions about the future. Do you know what’s going to happen in the future? Do I know what’s going to happen in the future? Of course not. I don’t even know what I’m going to have for lunch.
So, that’s why you will see the word “momentum” tossed around a lot in previews. This team has momentum. That team has momentum. Nonsense. You will hear about how the stars line up. Nonsense. As anyone who has followed baseball knows, the stars often play little-to-no role in a playoff series. People will make too much out of homefield advantage, too much out of which team has the better bullpen, too much out of which team has had more rest, none of which might matter at all. You will hear about how this manager is better at managing games than that manager. Forget that. I once watched Ned Yost tactically destroy Buck Showalter in a playoff series. If that could happen, anything can happen.
But there’s no real value in writing “Anything can happen,” again and again in a preview, even if it’s the only thing any of us actually knows. The four series we are previewing here are best-of-three series, and it is the most obvious thing in the world that any team can beat any other team in a best-of-three series. If the 107-loss Washington Nationals were somehow just allowed in the playoffs and were faced off against the 111-win Los Angeles Dodgers in a best-of-three, they would have a very real chance of winning the series.
That’s not an idle thought. The teams played a three-game series in July. In L.A. The Nationals took two out of three.
So what’s the point of this preview then? I think it’s just to get a bit excited about these series, because each one is really interesting. I don’t love expanded playoffs, for the many reasons I’ve written about through the years, but now that they’re here, I’m obviously super-hyped for them. Baseball quadruple-headers! Let’s go!
Tampa Bay at Cleveland
Friday: 12:07 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Saturday: 12:07 pm ET (ESPN2)
Sunday (if necessary): 4:07 p.m. ET
I love this Guardians team. Let’s start with the simple fact that they’re the youngest team in baseball. Can you guess the last time the youngest team in baseball made the playoffs? No, go back a little more. A little more. Keep going.
It was the 1986 Mets. Before that you have to go back to the 1970 Reds, the early days of the Big Red Machine.
But it isn’t just their youth that clutches at the heart: It’s the way they play. The Guardians don’t hit homers. And they don’t walk. They rebel against their time. The Guardians score runs by simply putting the ball in play, stealing bases at a high success rate (76.2%), and hitting more sacrifice flies than anybody else. They play some of the best defense in baseball, particularly in the outfield. After ace Shane Bieber, they send solid starters out there who don’t strike out the world but manage to prevent runs from being scored. Emmanuel Clase closes the door without ever bothering to throw a single off-speed pitch.
It doesn’t SOUND like a winning formula. But somehow it has been.
I can’t wait for a few more baseball fans to see this team play.
The Rays have had a strange and injury-plagued season. Their phenom, Wander Franco, played only 83 games, their 2021 star, Brandon Lowe (who annoyingly pronounces his last name as if it rhymes with cow), is out, their breathtaking defensive centerfielder, Kevin Kiermaier, is out, the electric lefty Tyler Glasnow pitched in only two games, etc.
And yet — here they are again, back in the playoffs, because they’re the Rays and they have a seemingly unlimited supply of breathtaking young players, such as 23-year-old Isaac Parades, who plays pretty much every position well and has enough home run power to scare you.
Obviously, when it comes to the Rays, you will want to watch Randy Arozarena. In all, he probably had a slightly disappointing season, but he still mashed 41 doubles, 20 homers and stole 32 bases (even if he was caught a league-leading 12 times). This is a no-BS preview, so we won’t put in the sentence “Arozarena loves the big games and plays his best under the bright lights,” because we don’t know that. But we do know that he has provided many of the most memorable moments in recent playoff history, and the guy is just a blast to watch.
Who will win: Either Cleveland or Tampa Bay
Seattle at Toronto
Friday: 4:07 p.m ET (ESPN)
Saturday: 4:07 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Sunday (if necessary): 2:07 p.m. ET (ABC)
I’m so, so happy for all those Seattle Mariners fans who have endured this team’s almost unbelievable, 20-season playoff drought. I’m particularly happy for my friend Mike DiCenzo, who picked up the Mariners many years ago because he loved Ken Griffey Jr. We all loved Ken Griffey Jr., obviously, but Mike stuck with this team even after Griffey was gone, stuck with them through the Melvin years, the Hargrove years, the McLaren-Riggleman fiasco, the Wakamatsu years, the Wedge years, the McClendon years and all the way to today.
I asked Mike to break away from writing for “Saturday Night Live” to offer one line to describe his excitement for the upcoming series.
And he wrote: “Thank God Julio Rodriguez is vaccinated.”
Yes. Well, the more general “Thank God for Julio Rodriguez” should probably be the T-shirt every Mariners fans wears. What a player. He’s 21 years old, and he played in 132 games, and he hit 28 homers and stole 25 bases and was a terrific centerfielder and beyond that did all sorts of superhero things. About a month ago, the Mariners were playing Atlanta, and they took a 6-2 lead into the ninth inning.
The bullpen blew the lead — the big hit being a two-run home run by Robbie Grossman off veteran reliever Paul Sewald.
So what did Rodriguez do? He raced in at the end of the inning, big smile on his face, and he went up to a dejected Sewald and basically said, “Don’t worry, man, we’re still going to win this game.”
And then he went out and hit the game-tying home run, then Eugenio Suarez hit the game-winning home run, and that was that.
“I’m glad he’s on our team,” Sewald said of Rodriguez.
Uh, yeah. By the way, speaking of Suarez, here’s a weird chart: Most home runs hit since 2018:
Aaron Judge, 164
Eugenio Suarez, 160
Kyle Schwarber, 153
Matt Olson, 152
Nolan Arenado, 151
Awesome. I’m rooting for ya, Mike.
Then again, I have powerful feelings for this Blue Jays team, too. I love that this is a matchup of the 1977 expansion teams — I was 10 years old then, and I can remember what a huge impact it had on me that baseball was adding two whole new teams in these exotic sounding cities. I instantly loved both of them.
I realize that there’s no way to do it in the playoffs — too much on the line — but it would be SO FUN if they could somehow mic up Blue Jays Game 1 starter Alek Manoah. What a force this guy was when he had the microphone in the All-Star Game.
Manoah had a sensational season, by the way. His 2.24 ERA is second-lowest in Blue Jays history, behind only Roger Clemens’ titanic revenge season of 1997. And Manoah was fantastic down the stretch; he gave up just six runs in his last eight starts as the league hit just .165 against him.
This is a no-BS preview, so I’m not going to say that Manoah’s brilliance the last five weeks should make him tough to beat in Game 1. We have no idea.
One fun thing you might keep an eye on — Manoah hit the most batters in the league for the second consecutive year. He does like to throw inside. And the Mariners were hit by pitches more than any other team in the league.
Remember 2020, when the Blue Jays first unveiled their “My Three Sons” lineup with Vlad Guerrero Jr. (son of Hall of Famer Vlad Guerrero), Cavan Biggio (son of Hall of Fame Craig Biggio) and Bo Bichette (son of All-Star and home run champ Dante Bichette)? Well, here’s how they look going into the playoffs.
Guerrero finished second in the MVP race last year (behind Shohei) and dropped off pretty significantly, though he still mashed 32 home runs and posted a 132 OPS+.
Bichette was wallowing around with a .728 OPS in late August, but then got scorching hot and hit .395/.444/.633 in his final 36 games.
And Biggio, sigh, he really struggled at the plate — hitting just .202 and slugging just .350 — and found himself on the bench.
Who will win: Either Toronto or Seattle
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Philadelphia at St. Louis
Friday: 2:07 p.m. ET (ABC)
Saturday: 8:37 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Sunday (if necessary): 8:37 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
So many fun new teams in the playoffs this year — it has been more than a decade since the Phillies made the postseason. Obviously, my thoughts are with my dear friend Ellen Adair, who has happily danced her way through this semi-magical season. I asked her for a line about her feelings. She could not keep it to a line because of course she couldn’t, there’s no way to moderate Ellen’s feelings about the Phillies, and who would even want to try?
“The Phillies are second in starter fWAR, almost two-thirds of which is Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler, so they can provide a one-two punch that can be incredibly impactful in a short series. The rest of the rotation didn't end the season strong, which could be more of a problem the deeper they might go into the postseason.
“The defense and the bullpen are much better than they have been, but the ghosts of these past troubles have not been exorcized and can spring up at any moment to ruin an otherwise enjoyable game for Phillies fans. The bullpen, in particular, didn't have a good September, with Zach Eflin, returning from injury, and Jose Alvarado, improved with a filthy cutter, the only reliable arms.
“Bryce Harper hasn't been the same since returning from his broken thumb, and Nick Castellanos has had a puzzling season, but if both of them return to form, with the addition of their young "daycare" players who held the team aloft in Harper's absence (and a good amount of Schwarbombs, Hoskdongs and Just Taters), the Phillies offense could be more formidable than it looked at any point this season.”
So there you go.
Let’s talk for a minute about Kyle Schwarber. What an odd player. Schwarbs led the league in home runs and strikeouts while also spending almost the entire season as a leadoff hitter. That’s some mind-scrambling stuff. Hey, I fully appreciate that managers do not put together lineups the way they once did, but Schwarber literally breaks every rule of the long-running leadoff checklist.
The Leadoff Checklist:
Is he fast? No, he’s actually kind of slow.
Does he put the ball in play? No. He strikes out more than anybody else.
Does he get on base? No, not really — a .323 on-base percentage is fine.
Is he scrappy? No. He’s sort of the opposite of scrappy.
Does he hit with power which might make him a better cleanup hitter? Yeah, tons of power, more power than almost anybody.
But … these are the Phillies, right? Hitters galore, not super-interested in defense, of course they have Kyle Schwarber leading off. They’ve got like 12 Kyle Schwarbers on the team, of which he’s the Schwarbiest of the bunch.
Oh, wait, Ellen just added something:
“Oh I also want to mention: It seems like no one but Phillies fans is talking about Rob Thomson as even a candidate for manager of the year, and given his turnaround of the team, that feels unfair! Is he technically ineligible? Is this why? Not saying he should win it, but he should be in the conversation.”
I love Ellen so, so much.
It really is the end of an era in St. Louis — this (it seems) will be the last time around for Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright. Between them that’s 5,695 hits, 889 home runs, 195 wins, 2,567 innings of pitching and two World Series titles. More than that, these are three of the most beloved players in recent memory. Seriously, the love Cardinals fans feel for Molina and Wainwright added to the love they obviously feel for the Great Albert, could power Beijing for 100 years.
Because this is a no-BS playoff preview, I’m not going to tell you that any of those three will matter in this series as they ride the emotional wave of their final days in St. Louis. They might and they might not. But it will be emotional either way.
As for the rest — the MVP race between Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt is super-interesting. Arenado actually nudged past Goldschmidt in FanGraphs and Baseball Reference WAR right at the end of the season, but it was by such a tiny margin (two-tenths in FanGraphs, one-tenth in Baseball Reference) that it should not mean a thing.*
*Interestingly, Bill James’ Win Shares doesn’t even have the race being close, with Goldschmidt at 34 Win Shares and Arenado at only 26.
So which one actually had the better season? Because this is a no-BS preview I will tell you … I have no idea. But I lean toward Goldschmidt. He had the significantly better offensive season; his OPS was 90 points higher than Arenado’s (.981 to .891) and it is split evenly between 45-point advantages in on-base and slugging. By Batting Runs, Goldschmidt put up a gigantic 61 runs above average, which is a true monster season. Arenado, in contrast, put up 36 runs above average.
So that means Arenado had to make up a whole lot of ground with his defense. And you could certainly argue that he did — Arenado, we all know, is a defensive genius at third base. The two WARs calculate that he did make up that ground. I’m a bit more skeptical. Goldschmidt is an excellent defender himself, even if it is at a much-less-demanding position. Sure, it’s close, but I’ll go with Goldschmidt’s offense.
Who will win? Either Philadelphia or St. Louis.
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San Diego at New York Mets
Friday: 8:07 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Saturday: 7:37 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Sunday (if necessary): 7:37 p.m. ET (ESPN)
The Padres did sneak into the playoffs back in 2020, but that was the COVID season and nobody cared, so really you have to go back to 2006 for the last time that the Padres were in a playoff that mattered. You have to go back to 1998 for the last time they won a playoff series.
San Diego has so many star players from past and present that it’s kind of hard to make much sense out of them. Like, would it surprise anybody if Juan Soto went absolutely nuts in the playoffs? Of course not. We’re talking about one of the great young hitters we’ve seen. But Soto was a disappointment after he got to San Diego — he hit .236 and slugged .390 in 52 games.
Could Manny Machado be the Padres’ hero? Obviously. But he had a super-weird season — for three months he looked like the surefire MVP, then in July he couldn’t hit at all, then in August he was back at an MVP level, then in September he was OK, and all the while his once-superior defense seemed off and I don’t know what any of it means.
How about Yu Darvish? He had a rough 2021 and was sort of going along this year, solid but unspectacular, and then in September he turned it up and batters hit just .168 against him. Will he be a dominant ace in the postseason? Maybe. And also maybe not.
That’s this whole team — maybes and maybe nots.
The Mets, meanwhile, they won 101 games (same as division-winning Atlanta) and had a plus-166 run differential and all they got was this stupid T-shirt of having to play in the wild-card round. It doesn’t seem right until you remember that they’re the Mets.
Because this is a no-BS baseball preview, we are not going to dive deep into the recent troubles of Jacob deGrom. As you might know, he came back from injury on Aug. 12 and for seven starts was vintage deGrom, with a 1.66 ERA and batters hitting .135/.158/.216 against him.
His last four starts? He’s 0-3 with a 6.00 ERA and batters are slugging .519 against him. Does that bode poorly for the Mets’ playoff chances? No idea. Maybe he will struggle. Maybe he will be awesome.
Typically, he’s awesome.
Closer Edwin Diaz struck out more than half the batters he faced this year. Really. He struck out 118 batters and he faced 235.
I’ll tell you what will be fun: Watching Francisco Lindor in the playoffs again. Lindor ended up having a fantastic year for the Mets — he hit with some power, he stole some bases, he handled shortstop every game, and he brought that smile with him. In Cleveland, they’re talking about how well the Lindor trade turned out, and they’re absolutely right — the Guardians got middle infielders Andres Gimenez and Amed Rosario, and that is now one of the best, if not the best, young double-play combos in baseball.
But it still hurts my heart just a little to see Lindor not wearing a Cleveland uniform. I will still be rooting hard for him in the playoffs. We all should be rooting hard for him. He’s pure delight.
Who will win: Either San Diego or New York.