We know now that the MLB playoffs will be played in a bubble. We know that the teams will be banned from having alcoholic beverages as part of their postseason celebrations. So now, it’s time to look at which teams seem most likely to be jumping up and down six feet apart from each other in Texas and California, flapping their hands back and forth in an attempt, unconscious or not, to mimic spraying bottles of champagne.
That’s right. It’s time to look at the teams that are locks for the postseason, and how they got here.
Of course, it’s 2020. Anything could happen. We’re in the midst of a global pandemic. There are murder hornets. The least terrible part of the devastating wildfires on the west coast is that San Fransisco looks like Blade Runner: 2049. I was just canvassing this weekend, and spoke with a woman who said she wasn’t sure if she would vote in the election because she believes the apocalypse is nigh, and she quoted scripture as specific evidence. I just had to say: Ma’am, you have a point.
So yes, we have been conditioned beyond surprise. But these are the teams, even if they don’t end up clinching their division title, that seem safe to make it as the second playoff team in this year’s expanded postseason.
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I assume most baseball fans, notably excepting those who are fans of a franchise that will not be named, feel the same joy that I feel to see the Rays at the top of the AL East. Though they have been playing .500 baseball for the last ten days, the Rays have a comfortable .646 winning percentage, second best in the American League.
The Rays Lineup
What’s all the more delightful is the way that the Rays have accomplished this feat, making history in ways that are very on-brand for their franchise. And here, I am thinking of the Rays rolling out the first lineup that featured nine true left-handed batters. But also, after Aroldis Chapman unleashed his 101 MPH fastball at the head of Michael Brosseau in a game that the Rays lost, Brosseau came back to slug two homers and lead the Rays to a win the following day. Amidst manager Kevin Cash’s chirping and suspensions for Chapman, Aaron Boone, and Cash, Brosseau ending the conversation with a double-dong is the kind of baseball we’ve seen from the 2020 Rays.
Because who else had Mike Brosseau as a major factor for the Rays this season? Dear reader, I must confess: not me. But in his 29 games, Brosseau’s .318/.371/.635 likely makes him the third-largest contributor for their offense. That slots him after the superstars that everyone was expecting to carry the team, Willy Adames and Brandon Lowe. Right? But amidst a mystifying slump of a brief season for last year’s MVP candidate Austin Meadows, who is striking out 10% more than his career average, the Rays have continued to roll out a potent offense with their patented mix-and-match approach.
Sadly, Ji-Man Choi, a hero in the Rays’ postseason push last year and purveyor of excellent dances, is expected to miss at least 2-3 weeks with a hamstring strain. But on the flipside, young outfielder Randy Arozarena, acquired from the Cardinals over the offseason, has a 198 wRC+ in his 11 games with the Rays so far, and will likely help keep them on track for a postseason berth.
The Rays Pitchers
It’s also surprising that the Rays have done so well, considering that their top three rotation arms have not quite performed up to the very high expectations set for them, as potentially one of the best one-two-three waltz-steps in the game. (Why does it always have to be punches, y’all?)
But 2018 Cy Young winner Blake Snell continues to struggle with going deep into games. And after two full seasons of avoiding much time on the IL, Charlie Morton has succumbed to his injury-prone reputation, or to shoulder inflammation, or both, and missed a number of starts. His return, most recently giving up 3 runs to Boston in 4.1 innings, has been about as middling as have Tyler Glasnow’s overall results. But for Glasnow, a 3.06 expected ERA, based on quality of contact, and a 2.88 xFIP, projecting future performance, both have solace to give to his 4.47 ERA.
Plus, he looks like the other part of the love triangle in the teen romance novel with Dansby Swanson, which must help his self-confidence, if not the Rays playoff chances, specifically. But in all cases, I forecast better performances for these three aces going forward.
Also, check it: Nick Anderson has a 0.00 ERA in 11.1 innings. Right now, that looks like a very good trade for the Rays, giving up Ryne Stanek (6.75 ERA for the Marlins this season). Also, Anderson is not the closer. In both cases, Rays gonna Ray. Long may they thrive.
Before the season, everyone had the White Sox with the best winning percentage in the American League, right? Cool.
All I can say is: I am here for it. As Alyson Footer notes, the White Sox have the best record in all of baseball since August 16, going 20-5, and outscoring the opposing teams 164-79. The White Sox are the American League’s answer to the Padres, in terms of sheer Delightfulness to Watch.
The White Sox Lineup
It’s looking like the White Sox 6-year extension of Luis Robert was not only a wise move but an absolute steal, as Robert is on the Rookie of the Year short-list for his contributions on both sides of the ball. His power and speed in offense, with 11 homers and 6 steals, is matched by more slick web gem catches than I have the space to post, however indulgent my editors.
Above merely flashy plays, Robert also leads all of baseball in outs above average, and it’s safe to say that the Ladies Love Smartly-Executed Defensive Plays Lobby have a special place for him in their hearts. And last year’s rookie, Eloy Jimenez, though, erm, not a defensive dreamboat, is slashing .307/.346/.591, living up to every bit of the hype that his very good 2019 season didn’t quite meet.
And neither of these budding young superstars are even carrying the team, with Tim Anderson, himself only 27, proving that his 2019 batting title was no fluke. With a .362 mark, Anderson is well ahead of hitting machine Juan Soto’s .354 batting average (although, in fairness to Soto, whom I just love and won’t get to rave about elsewhere in this article, his .482 OBP leads baseball by 20 points).
Speaking of White Sox stats from last season bearing themselves out…
Jose Abreu’s insane 123 RBI from last season are matched by an MLB-leading 48 RBI, a testament to the strength of both Abreu’s offensive prowess–.320/.362/.619–and the strength of his team context. And I’ve gotten this far without even mentioning Yoan Moncada! Moncada’s season has not been as eye-popping as last year’s, but he is matching a career-high walk rate. New signee Yasmani Grandal has missed some time with back issues, but performed capably, while James McCann is posting the best offensive season of his career, with a 146 wRC+.
The White Sox Pitchers
Of course, Grandal’s contributions as an excellent defensive catcher also yield dividends with the White Sox pitching staff, anchored by Lucas Giolito. His sparkling no-hitter led many to marvel at the rags-to-riches story of Giolito’s ascension from having the worst ERA of qualified starters in 2018. (For more on Giolito’s evolution, check out this piece by Shelly Verougstrate, who is as smart as they come.)
Interestingly, when the Nats shipped Giolito to the White Sox for Adam Eaton, they also traded Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning, now comprising 3/5ths of the Sox rotation. Lopez has yet to quite click, but Dunning has been a very pleasant surprise this season. He might not continue to have a 2.70 ERA moving forward, but with an xSLG, xWOBA and xWOBA on contact in the top 10% of the league, he deserves the excellent results of his four starts.
Meanwhile, the Sox will be very glad to welcome Dallas Keuchel back from the IL on Thursday. His astonishing campaign, with a 2.19 ERA in 9 games, may be hard to sustain if he continues to have his lowest strikeout rate since 2012. His 56% ground ball rate is fourth-best among qualified starters this year, but shy of the truly elite 62-67% marks he has used to put together his best seasons. Still, even if he regresses towards his 3.16 FIP, that will be more than good enough for a lineup with this kind of pop.
Just as I was bold enough to include two teams from the NL West, I think it’s safe to say that these two teams from the AL Central are going to make it, even if the unexpected leads one or the other to a Wild Card spot.
The Twins Lineup
No conversation about the Twins can start with anything other than the eighth wonder of the world, Nelson Cruz. The 39-year-old Cruz seems to age like an expensive scotch, with double-matured barrels. (See what I did there? You’re welcome/I’m sorry.) Nelly currently leads MLB in homers with 16, tied with Mike Trout and Stupid Luke Voit ™ (please listen to this episode of the Poscast to hear the story behind this epithet), but he exceeds either in wRC+ with 180, the third-best in baseball. And as Sam Miller and Ben Lindbergh recently pointed out on Effectively Wild, the fact that the 2019 season was Cruz’s best to date suggests that this year’s heroism is no small-sample fluke.
Cruz has certainly been lifting the Twins offense, which has not universally performed as planned. Josh Donaldson’s calf injury has returned like an undead monster that only lay dormant for 2019. Mitch Garver has only one home run on the season rather than one home run per plate appearance as he did last year (note: hyperbole). However, it’s fair to note that the Twins simply have another exceptional offensive performance from a young catcher, this time 23-year-old Ryan Jeffers, along with solid seasons from Max Kepler, Eddie Rosario, and Jorge Polanco. Miguel Sano has also cooked up 11 taters, his signature dish, and Byron Buxton has the highest slugging percentage of his career at .516, along with his defensive prowess. Buxton’s skill set makes him a likely poster child for an inside-the-park home run, which makes this, from last night’s game, uniquely satisfying:
The Twins Pitchers
Kenta Maeda was one of my favorite picks to reach a new level this year, and the Twins are reaping the benefits of no longer subjecting him to the Dodgers’ innings-related contract manipulation. Last year, Maeda was towards the top of the league (5%-12%) in batted ball peripherals like exit velocity, hard hit rate, whiff percentage, and the expected stats like xWOBA and xSLG. This year, Maeda has continued to evolve, throwing his slider and changeup more, the latter pitch revamped with two more inches of vertical drop, changing it from good (36% Whiff in 2019) to excellent (43.5% Whiff in 2020). All this is to say, his 2.43 ERA is not an accident, and the only thing to lament this year was the spoiling of his no-hit bid versus the Brewers in the 9th inning.
It also means that the Twins can confidently view Maeda as a rock for their rotation in an up-and-down season for Jose Berrios, with a 4.15 ERA on the year.
Rich Hill, like most mortals, is not aging like an expensive scotch, and has been hopping off and on the IL. The same is true for teammate Jake Odorizzi, who has only made three starts. Randy Dobnak, on the other hand, has certainly been a bright spot in helping the Twins vie for the top spot in the Central, though he has faltered in a couple of recent outings. I also can’t think about Dobnak without thinking of the joke that Nick Pollack frequently quotes, referring to Dobnak’s 4.89 K/9: “How do you spell Dobnak? With one ‘K.’”
Interestingly, the Twins and White Sox are also in a battle for the better bullpen. In the American League, the Twins sit third and the White Sox fifth in terms of fWAR (2.6 and 2.4), while the White Sox are third and the Twins fifth in bullpen ERA (3.71 and 3.74). Either way, their relief squads are positioned to protect a lead.
The A’s Pitchers
However, no one has a better bullpen than the A’s, whose relievers’ 3.1 fWAR and 2.21 ERA top all of baseball. But they will need to cling tight to their closer Liam Hendricks, along with Jake Diekman, J.B. Wendelken, Yusmeiro Petit, and others, for a number of reasons.
The first is that their starting pitching has been exactly average, at 15th in MLB. A 4.64 ERA for the group corresponds to nearly as much value, at 3.2 fWAR, as the bullpen. Frankie Montas has shown flashes of the pitcher we saw in 2019; helpfully, two of his best three starts have been versus the Astros, directly behind the Athletics in the division, and the other one was against the Mariners, nipping at the Astros’ heels. But his velocity is slightly down and he has struggled with his command, both, perhaps, symptoms of the back issue that put him on the IL. Rookie Jesus Luzardo also hasn’t quite gotten the results that his arsenal seemed to promise—a 43.8 Whiff% on his changeup and 68.4 Whiff% on his curveball last year—but he is only 22.
Chris Bassitt, with a 2.92 ERA, and Sean Manaea, with a 4.46 ERA, have been the A’s best starters so far this year. Their peripherals suggest Manaea ought to have better days ahead, but Bassitt may also regress. Mike Fiers has been Mike Fiers. By which I mean, the Mike Fiers that was hiding in his xFIP all along.
The A’s Lineup
The other reason that the A’s must squeeze their beautiful bullpen real real close—seriously, I watch the worst bullpen in baseball every night—is that they just lost one of their superstars, Matt Chapman, to hip surgery. It has been a matter of amazing restraint for me not to mention Matt Chapman any earlier in this article, but perhaps it was because I knew that if I did, I wouldn’t be able to go on. I picked Chapman to win AL MVP on a number of pre-season podcasts on the strength of his platinum-glove defense, and the vast world of MLB is a colder, sadder place for me without him. Suffice to say, the Ladies Love Smartly-Executed Defensive Plays Lobby watches all videos of Luis Robert while dabbing their eyes with little yellow-and-gold handkerchiefs embroidered ‘Chappy.’
And other injuries plague the Athletics’ position players. Chad Pinder’s hamstring strain will keep him off the field until at least the playoffs. Stephen Spaghetti*, who has provided the Athletics many key hits this season, is dealing with a chronic knee issue. And though he’s on the field, Marcus Semien has struggled with soreness to his side during the season, putting a damper on repeating last year’s MVP-candidate season.
*This is my pet name for Stephen Piscotty but I like just sliding it in there as if it were an accepted nickname, and this a serious journalistic discussion.
But a comfort for the A’s is that there have been other contributors to their offense: Mark Canha, Robbie Grossman, and catcher Sean Murphy are having solid seasons. Matt Olson, whom I love as much as I love Chapman, is still circling the interstate with a .193 batting average, but his expected batting average of .239 suggests he deserves better. Olson’s club-leading 13 homers also mean a club-leading 38 RBI, and an impressive 15.3% walk rate is the best of his career in a sample size this large. (Even if “sample size” and “large” seem contradictions this season.) Also, he hit his 100th career home run!
Trade deadline addition Tommy LaStella has performed well for the A’s and can play third base. They also signed Jake Lamb, released from the Diamondbacks; he was vintage 2017 Rake Lamb with a homer in his first game with the A’s.
And most importantly, the Athletics have a comfortable 6.5 game lead on the Astros, so despite their challenges, they seem assured of a postseason slot. And one thing about this A’s team of the past several years, to me, is that the whole feels greater than the sum of its—very lovable—parts.
- / 9 hours ago
It's Week 3... and the computer didn't pick Chris Herndon this time