The Glass Eye: MLB Division Series Preview

I’ve watched baseball for a long time and plan to watch for much longer, but I’m not sure I’ll EVER see as crazy a finish to a season as we saw Wednesday night – two extra-inning games, a seven-run comeback, two walk-off hits…culminated by Evan Longoria’s walk-off HR only minutes after the Red Sox had lost. Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com suggests that the odds of the events of the last month in the AL happening were approximately 1 in 278 million! Let’s not forget the gritty September comeback by the Cardinals or the collapse of the Braves – an event that sure made this Pirate fan very happy. The postseason seems like it has to be anticlimactic after that crazy finish but…that’s why they play the games. On to the previews, starting with Friday’s games.

Tampa Bay vs. Texas

The Stats: Tampa 707 runs scored (8th in AL), 618 runs against (1st); Texas 855 runs scored (3rd), 677 runs against (5th).  Other interesting stats: Texas batters had the fewest strikeouts BY FAR in the AL (930), while Tampa batters were third in the league in K’s (1193); Tampa led the league in complete games, and was tied for the lead in quality starts – surprisingly, with Texas, who led the league with 19 shutouts. In fact, the most surprising thing to me when looking at the numbers is the similarity between Texas’ and Tampa’s pitching stats.

Surprising players: Tampa’s James Shields went only 16-12, but he threw 249 innings, gave up only 195 hits, struck out 225 and put up a 2.82 ERA – with a little more run support, he would have been in the Cy Young mix. Texas’ Michael Young was almost traded in the offseason and was thought to be aging, but batted .338 and hit 41 doubles, and his teammate Mike Napoli hit 30 HRs in only 369 at bats!

Keys to the series: For the Rays, they have to out-pitch the Rangers and keep this a low-scoring affair. Their only true advantage is in the rotation – their offense is not high powered at all, and their bullpen is not deep. For the Rangers, the key is also the rotation – their starters have been surprisingly effective all season, and if they even approach that level of success in this series then Texas should win.

Final thoughts: Both of these teams have been under the radar most of the season, and both have been a lot more impressive than I first thought. I didn’t realize until I checked the numbers just how good Texas’ starters have been – statistically, they have been almost as good as the Rays, and their bullpen was better. However, Texas’ offense is vastly superior to the Rays, and unless their pitching blows up they should be able to get by Tampa. RANGERS IN FOUR.

Detroit vs. New York Yankees

The Stats: Detroit 787 runs scored (4th), 707 runs against (8th);New York 867 runs scored (2nd), 649 runs against (3rd). Other interesting stats: despite a fine team ERA, the Yankees were in the bottom half of the league in quality starts – but they also have the best relief corps in the AL. Detroit was dead least with only 49 stolen bases, while the Yankees stole 147 bags and were successful 76% of the time – look for the Yanks to press the issue on the basepaths.

Surprising players: Detroit’s Doug Fister went 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA and had only five walks in 11 starts after being traded from Seattle, and the Tigers’ closer, Jose Valverde, hasn’t blown a save all season in 49 chances. Jhonny Peralta had a great comeback year with Detroit (.299 with 21 HRs), but the emergence of Alex Avila at C has to be the biggest surprise – a fine defensive catcher, Avila hit .295 with 19 HRs and a .505 slugging % this year.

For the Yanks, I knew Curtis Granderson would rebound from 2010, but 41 home runs? However, most of the Yankees’ surprises were on the mound – the trio of Freddy Garcia, Ivan Nova, and Bartolo Colon saved their season by combining for 83 starts, 470 innings, 36 wins, and an ERA around 3.75. With Phil Hughes hurt and A.J. Burnett ineffective, there’s no way New York would have won 95+ games without those pitchers. In the bullpen, David Robertson struck out 100 in only 66 innings, and the team’s top four relievers each had an ERA under 2.10.

Keys to the series: For Detroit I think there are four key players: starters Verlander and Fister, and hitters Cabrera and Martinez. Verlander has to be dominant, and Fister has to give the Tigers at least one quality start, because the rest of the starting staff is pretty poor. Cabrera and Martinez each hit over .330, and the Tiger offense isn’t strong or deep enough to overcome a poor series by that duo.

For the Yankees, the keys are Garcia, Nova, and Jeter. Garcia and Nova each exceeded expectations and will be counted on to provide at least five solid innings. Jeter still hit for average, but his power is virtually gone and if he slumps at the top of the order now, it will affect the entire offense.

Final thoughts: New York has actually been somewhat underappreciated this year, especially on the mound – I look for Sabathia to pitch well, and if either Nova or Garcia provides one good start that should be enough. Verlander is capable of a dominant start, but I don’t think he can do it twice against an offense this powerful, and I think the Yankees’ sizable edge in middle relief will loom large in this series. YANKEES IN FIVE.

Arizona vs. Milwaukee

The stats:  Arizona 731 runs scored (3rd), 662 runs against (8th) ;Milwaukee 721 runs scored (4th), 638 runs against (6th). Other interesting stats: these teams are virtually identical on offense except for strikeouts – the Brewers struck out the third fewest times in the league, while the Diamondbacks were among the top third of the league. In addition, the Brewers’ pitching staff recorded a lot of strikeouts (1257) and the Arizona staff was more of a pitch-to-contact staff (1058 K’s) – this puts a lot of pressure on Arizona’s defense to make plays.

Surprising players: You’ve probably heard about Ian Kennedy’s great season, but did you know the DBacks have three pitchers who pitched over 210 innings? Daniel Hudson and Joe Saunders were also solid for Arizona this season. C Miguel Montero had a great season, playing 140 games and batting .282 with 18 doubles and 36 doubles. Finally, in another year Justin Upton would have been a viable MVP candidate – 31 HRs, 75 extra-base hits, and 21 steals, he just needs to draw more walks.

For the Brewers, Ryan Braun was better than you think – 33 homers, 33 steals AND the .332 batting average. If Nyjer Morgan had hit this well (.304, .357 OBP), Pittsburgh would have kept him. The Brewers had three 200-inning guys and would have had four if Grienke had not broken his rib last winter – this is a very underrated starting staff that really came on at the end of the season.

Keys to the series: For the DBacks, they have to make all the plays on defense, and Kennedy needs to give them two very strong starts. They will need an unsung hero to step up on offense – maybe 2B Aaron Hill (hit .315 with power after being traded to AZ)?

For Milwaukee, the top of their order has to hit – the bottom third of the order isn’t that good. Great players have to come up big in big moments, and Braun and Fielder have to lead the way. I suspect Grienke will be just fine, but Gallardo has to provide steady innings as well.

Final thoughts: I think there are three very tough postseason teams in the NL – Arizona looks to me to be the odd man out here. As I’ve said so many times, ANYTHING is possible in a short series, particularly a 5-game series, but the Brewers have the better offense, the better starters, and the best home record in MLB. BREWERS IN FOUR.

St. Louis vs. Philadelphia

The stats: St. Louis 762 runs scored (1st), 692 runs allowed (8th); Philadelphia 713 runs scored (7th), 529 runs allowed (1st). Other interesting stats: Philly’s pitching was remarkable – 18 complete games (no other NL team had more than 7), 108 quality starts (average was 87), 21 shutouts, only 404 walks allowed (by the way, the NL playoff teams ranked first thru fourth in the league in walks allowed – no coincidence).

St Louis’ offense was almost as remarkable – highest average, OBP, tied for highest SLG%, by far the fewest K’s and the third most walks…and the fewest stolen bases in the NL (again, can we note the complete lack of correlation between steals and runs?). Lost in Philly’s excellent season is the fact that their offense continues to regress year by year, and is now average at best – they didn’t even slug .400 as a team, they hit only 153 HRs (4-year progression for Philly’s HR total: 214, 224, 166, 153). In short, this team now NEEDS this fine pitching in order to win.

Surprising players: OF John Mayberry had great numbers (15 HRs, .513 SLG% in only 296 ABs), but the must surprising thing about Philly is that their offense had no surprising performances at all. On the mound their big surprise was Vance Worley, who finished 11-3 with a 3.01 ERA and 119 K’s in 131 innings – thanks to him, there were no holes in the rotation at all.

For the Cards, Lance Berkman is the biggest surprise, coming back with one of his best years (.300, 31 HR) after looking washed-up on 2010. Yadier Molina hit .300 and showed more power than he ever has, and David Freese hit well at 3B. On the mound, Kyle Lohse came up huge with 30 starts and a 3.39 ERA, and while Chris Carpenter’s overall numbers were down, he finished extremely strong.

Keys to the series: The key matchup in this series is clearly the Phillies’ starters vs. the St. Louis offense – both the best in the league, the team that wins that battle will likely win the series. Individually, I think Utley and Howard have to come up big for the Phillies, and for the Cards it’s up to Jaime Garcia and Lohse to try to give manager Tony LaRussa 5-7 innings and give the team a chance to win.

Final thoughts: In my opinion this is the best of the first round series, and not unlike what the Phillies faced last year (the Reds led the league in runs a year ago). The differences from last year:  Philly’s pitching is better, their offense is worse, and the Cards have an ace of their own in Carpenter. If this goes five games I actually think St. Louis would pull it out – I’m a big believer in Carpenter – but I think the Phillies’ rotation is just too deep. Should be an excellent series, mostly low-scoring, but I like the PHILLIES IN FOUR.

Next week, our NHL preview starts – enjoy October baseball!

Dave Glass can be reached at buggyracer@verizon.net.

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