The story of the American League this year was hitting, as the five playoff teams are the top five in the Junior Circuit in team OPS and runs scored. Or, was it pitching?
The five playoff teams all finished in the top six in ERA, as the Tampa Bay Rays – likely a playoff team themselves if they didn’t have the misfortune of being in the East – also are among the elite in that category.
The defending champs hit as well as anyone, but if it’s true that good pitching beats good hitting, then the Astros are in great shape, with a staff that has allowed more than 100 fewer runs than anyone else in the American League this year.
They get to start the playoffs by facing easily the weakest team in the field, Cleveland, and once again have such strength on the pitching side that either Charlie Morton or Lance McCullers Jr. will shift to the bullpen.
The Astros’ main weakness is that this is baseball, and losing three out of five or four out of seven is highly possible even for the best teams, and also that they may have wasted a hot run of play with how well they did in September to put away the West after the A’s rallied to tie for the lead in August.
The team with the second-most home runs in the American League this year gets to go to Yankee Stadium for the wild-card game, and if they can win that, the A’s will be acclimated to East Coast time when they go to Fenway Park for the start of the division series.
There is a case to be made that Oakland has the best bullpen going, and while they absolutely need it because of a rotation that’s even thinner without the injured Sean Manaea, it isn’t like that’s slowed them down so far.
This is a team that was under .500 in the middle of June, and wound up 30-some games over by the end of the season. The A’s are a great longshot bet at +1000 with Karamba.
Boston led the East by five games at the end of July, and the margin never went below that in the final two months, ballooning into double digits for most of the stretch run. Could a lack of meaningful games be a problem?
How about the fact that the Red Sox had losing records this year against the A’s, Astros, and Cleveland? The Red Sox have two MVP candidates in their lineup in Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez, Chris Sale and David Price anchoring the rotation, and Craig Kimbrel to close out games.
They’re stacked, although the middle of the bullpen can be iffy – a concern if games go into extra innings or a starter’s pitch count gets worked. Boston is great, but not invincible, and in a league with three 100-win teams, it’s easy to shy away from the favorite. You can bet them at +175 with Karamba.
In another year, the Yankees might be favored to win it all, but in 2018, they’re headed to the wild-card game.
Their strength is reflected, along with their popularity, in the fact that they’re extremely close in odds to a division winner, despite having to start the playoffs with a win-or-go-home game against an A’s team that’s plenty dangerous in its own right.
The Yankees set a major league record for home runs this year, and the power runs up and down the order, and on the bench, and New York finally is getting healthy at the perfect time.
The bullpen is dominant, but not immune to melting down – particularly Aroldis Chapman – and between Luis Severino’s rocky second half and Masahiro Tanaka’s penchant for giving up homers, the rotation has to be seen as a question mark.
Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez are a fabulous tandem on the left side of the infield and in the lineup, providing Cleveland’s heartbeat. The starting rotation is loaded, with four pitchers who struck out at least 200 hitters this year, all capable of going deep into games.
They’d better, because the bullpen is an obvious Achilles’ heel. Cleveland not only has the worst record of any American League playoff team, but rolled to the Central title on the strength of its performance within the division.
Against everyone else, Cleveland went an uninspiring 42-53 – although 4-3 against the possible ALCS opponent Red Sox.