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Postseason Preview: Two NL West Titans Clash in the NLDS

The Dodgers managed to survive their do-or-die Wild Card matchup against the Cardinals on Wednesday night thanks to the ninth inning heroics of Chris Taylor, setting the stage for the seemingly inevitable clash between the two best teams in baseball in the NL Division Series.

You may have already read that this is the first postseason matchup between these two storied franchises. Since 1995, the first year the Wild Card was implemented, the Dodgers and Giants have made the playoffs in the same season just twice: 2014 and ’16. The success of each team has ebbed and flowed, with one thriving while the other flounders. A new chapter in this historic rivalry will be written this October, with the winner of this series the favorite to claim the National League pennant in the next round.

Dodgers vs. Giants: Team Overview
Overview Dodgers Giants Edge
Batting (wRC+) 113 (2nd in NL) 114 (1st in NL) Giants
Fielding (OAA) -5 (10th) 28 (2nd) Giants
Starting Pitching (FIP-) 78 (2nd) 85 (3rd) Dodgers
Bullpen (FIP-) 90 (1st) 92 (2nd) Dodgers

During the regular season, these two teams were pretty evenly matched. Both won 50 games in the second half. In their head-to-head matchups, San Francisco held the advantage in wins with 10 to Los Angeles’ nine, while the Dodgers scored just two more runs than the Giants in those games. When you break down their rosters into their individual components, these clubs were ranked right next to each other in offense and pitching, with team defense the lone factor separating factor. Read the rest of this entry »

Postseason Preview: Astros and White Sox Set to Battle in ALDS

Both the Astros and White Sox dominated their respective divisions in 2021. For Houston, this was the team’s fourth division title in five years; for Chicago, its first since 2008. With the Rays having run away with the AL’s best record, these two clubs have been in each other’s sights for a while now. Both teams are filled with offensive stars, hard-throwing pitchers, and deep rosters; on paper, this looks like an even matchup.

The Astros are vying for their fifth consecutive trip to the American League Championship Series, which they’ve won twice, first in 2017 and again in ’19. They backed into the expanded playoffs last year as the only AL team with a record below .500 but came alive in the playoffs and nearly completed an 0–3 series comeback against Tampa before falling in Game 7. As for the White Sox, they’ve now made the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in their franchise history — appearances that are the culmination of a long rebuilding cycle that began more than half a decade ago. And this series will be a rematch of the 2005 World Series, Chicago’s last title and back when Houston was still a National League club.

Team Overview
Overview White Sox Astros Edge
Batting (wRC+) 109 (3rd in AL) 116 (1st in AL) Astros
Fielding (OAA) -5 (9th) 41 (1st) Astros
Starting Pitching (FIP-) 85 (1st) 96 (6th) White Sox
Bullpen (FIP-) 85 (1st) 99 (9th) White Sox

For the third time in the last five years, the Astros led the majors in wRC+ and also finished first in runs scored, batting average, on-base percentage, and strikeout rate. That last statistic is perhaps most important to their playoff success. As previous research has shown, high-contact teams do well against high-velocity pitchers, which every postseason team has in spades. A team’s regular-season strikeout rate also tends to correlate well with postseason success, as Eno Sarris found over at The Athletic. That tracks with the foundation of the Astros’ success over the last half-decade.

Astros Team Strikeout Rate
Year Astros K% League K% Astros wRC+
2015 22.8% 19.9% 109
2016 23.4% 20.6% 102
2017 17.2% 21.2% 122
2018 19.2% 21.7% 110
2019 18.1% 22.4% 125
2020 19.7% 23.4% 98
2021 19.3% 22.6% 117

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FanGraphs Power Rankings: Playoffs Edition

After a wild Sunday afternoon that held plenty of drama for the final day of the regular season, the postseason field is set. Team Entropy ultimately found no joy, with the remaining playoff spots finally decided without the need for tiebreaker games. With the Wild Card round set to begin on Tuesday, here’s a look at the 10 teams in the playoffs and how they stack up against each other.

A quick refresher: my approach takes the three most important components of a team — their offense (wRC+), and their starting rotation and bullpen (50%/50% FIP- and RA9-) — and combines them to create an overall team quality metric. Since regular season records don’t matter in the playoffs, I’ve ranked the teams simply by their overall team quality, removing the factors for win percentage and expected win percentage.

Tier 1 – The NL Favorites
Team Record wRC+ SP- RP- Team Quality World Series Odds
Dodgers 106-56 113 76 88 183 16.5%
Giants 107-55 114 84 86 183 8.7%

The Dodgers and Giants spent the entire season battling each other for the NL West crown. Los Angeles won 50 games after the All-Star break to post the best record in the second half and only gained a single game on San Francisco. The closest the Dodgers were to overtaking the Giants was entering their series in San Francisco on September 3. Even though the division wasn’t actually decided until the final weekend, that series gave the Giants the edge they needed to secure their first division title since 2012. It’s a shame they’re lined up to face each other in a Division Series instead of the NLCS — should the Dodgers advance out of the Wild Card game, that is. Read the rest of this entry »

The Unsung Heroes of the Mariners’ September Surge

The Mariners are entering the final weekend of the regular season with their best shot since 2016 at breaking their infamous postseason drought, having gone 18–8 in September and won 11 of their last 13 games after losing a crucial series to the Red Sox mid-month. Earlier this morning, Jay Jaffe took a look at the bigger picture for the Mariners, their negative run differential, and the historic positive turn of their playoff odds. But this climb up the standings wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for some unheralded performances by a number of players on their roster.

From a season-long perspective, the Mariners’ offense has been lackluster, with a wRC+ of 94, ranking tenth in the American League. That went up to 103 in September, but the driving force behind the improved offense has been excellent performance in tight situations. Seattle has the most clutch offense in recorded MLB history (WPA records only go back to 1974), which goes a long way toward explaining the team’s 33–18 record in one-run games this year.

Clutch hitting can take a team far, but it’s not something that can be counted on every night. Luckily, the core of the Mariners’ lineup started hitting extremely well during the final month:

Mariners September Offensive Performers
Player PA BABIP ISO wRC+ Clutch WAR
J.P. Crawford 123 .340 .162 138 0.15 1.1
Mitch Haniger 117 .277 .288 139 0.16 0.7
Jarred Kelenic 106 .262 .295 135 0.64 0.7
Ty France 114 .338 .104 130 0.14 0.6
Luis Torrens 68 .412 .186 119 0.27 0.2
Kyle Seager 107 .224 .186 80 0.67 0.1

After shuffling through a number of early-season contributors, the lineup stabilized after the All-Star break — something that coincided with Kelenic’s second call-up from Triple-A after his rough debut in May. The hits didn’t start falling immediately after his return to the majors; from July 16 through the end of August, he posted a .181/.263/.315 line (a 65 wRC+) with a 30.5% strikeout rate. But something clicked once the calendar turned over to September, with Kelenic hitting .242/.321/.537, good for a 135 wRC+. His strikeout rate dropped to 25.5%, he launched seven home runs, and more than half of his hits went for extra bases.

Read the rest of this entry »

Ian Happ Found His Hitting Stroke a Little Too Late

During last year’s shortened season, Ian Happ led all Chicago Cubs batters with a 130 wRC+ and 1.9 WAR. It was a strong followup to his 2019 breakout season and it looked like Happ had established himself as an integral part of the core of Chicago’s roster. Unfortunately, he got off to an extremely slow start this year. He blasted a home run in the third game of the season, but collected just nine other hits the rest of April. Heading into the All-Star break, he was hitting a paltry .183/.296/.330, good for a 74 wRC+. His early-season struggles weren’t the main reason behind the Cubs collapse this year, but they certainly didn’t help the team’s cause.

Happ continued to struggle after the break, collecting just six hits in 16 games during the rest of July. His issues at the plate had forced him into a part-time role, but then the Cubs traded away a bunch of their roster prior to the trade deadline. Suddenly, Happ was thrust into an everyday role in the heart of the Cubs lineup and he responded with one of the best two months stretches of his career:

Since the calendar turned to August, Happ has hit 14 home runs and posted a .301/.361/.607 slash line, good for a 153 wRC+. His 186 wRC+ in September is the 11th highest mark among all qualified batters in the majors. This two month stretch of success comes a bit too late for the beleaguered Cubs, but it’s a great sign for Happ’s development. Read the rest of this entry »

FanGraphs Power Rankings: September 6-19

It’s shaping up to be a dramatic finish to the season, with surprise contenders and potential tie breaking scenarios still very much alive. With just two weeks left in the season, three teams in the National League have already punched their postseason tickets, and though nothing is official yet, the three division races in the American League have largely been decided as well. That leaves the NL East and West (the Central is all but sewn up) and the two Wild Card races still to be determined.

A quick refresher: my approach takes the three most important components of a team — their offense (wRC+), and their starting rotation and bullpen (50%/50% FIP- and RA9-) — and combines them to create an overall team quality metric. I add in a factor for “luck” — adjusting based on a team’s expected win-loss record — to produce a power ranking.

Tier 1 – Postseason Bound
Team Record “Luck” wRC+ SP- RP- Team Quality Playoff Odds Δ
Giants 97-53 1 108 85 88 179 ↗ 100.0% 0
Dodgers 96-54 -7 106 75 90 176 ↘ 100.0% 0
Rays 92-58 -1 106 97 87 158 ↘ 100.0% 0
White Sox 85-64 -6 109 86 90 178 ↗ 100.0% 0
Astros 88-61 -8 118 89 99 154 ↗ 99.3% 0
Brewers 91-58 0 94 76 96 133 ↗ 100.0% 1

These six teams have either already clinched a playoff berth or should clinch sometime this week. They’re also the favorites to make deep postseason runs; the Dodgers lead the pack with 20.8% odds to win the World Series. It’s a little weird to see Max Scherzer hit a major career milestone in a Dodger uniform, but he finally reached 3,000 career strikeouts last week. Since joining Los Angeles on July 30, he’s posted an absurd 0.78 ERA across nine starts with a 79-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His performance, and Walker Buehler’s season-long excellence, give the Dodgers an embarrassment of riches when it comes to who should start the NL Wild Card game should the Dodgers fail to catch up to the Giants in the West. Read the rest of this entry »

FanGraphs Power Rankings: August 23–September 6

The Wild Card races in both leagues continue to be the source of all the drama down the stretch. There are a handful of teams vying for those last few playoff spots and the competition should go come to the wire. And as we witnessed last weekend, the Giants and Dodgers battling over the top of the NL West should provide a ton of excitement, too.

A quick refresher: my approach takes the three most important components of a team — their offense (wRC+), and their starting rotation and bullpen (50%/50% FIP- and RA9-) — and combines them to create an overall team quality metric. I add in a factor for “luck” — adjusting based on a team’s expected win-loss record — to produce a power ranking.

(All stats through 9/5)

Tier 1 – The Best
Team Record “Luck” wRC+ SP- RP- Team Quality Playoff Odds Δ
Giants 87-50 2 104 86 88 169 ↘ 100.0% 0
Dodgers 86-51 -7 106 78 90 177 ↘ 100.0% 0
Rays 86-51 -1 107 98 83 165 ↗ 100.0% 0

Entering their final head-to-head matchup of the season, the Dodgers and Giants were tied atop the NL West standings and had played to an extraordinary balance in their previous 16 games: they had each won eight games and scored exactly 68 runs against each other. A dramatic 11-inning Giants win on Friday night was a fantastic start to this battle of titans. Alas, the remaining two games in the series were far less climactic, with each team winning a game comfortably. That final series win gives San Francisco home field advantage in case of a potential tiebreaker to decide the NL West at the end of the season. Read the rest of this entry »

Paul Sewald Shows Us Why Vertical Approach Angle Matters

One of the biggest reasons the Mariners have stuck around the fringes of the AL wild card race despite a -60 run differential has been the collective performance of their bullpen. Kendall Graveman had established himself as a bonafide relief ace before being traded to the Astros in late-July, and Drew Steckenrider has revived his career after falling apart in Miami two years ago. But equally unexpected, and perhaps the biggest reason Seattle felt comfortable dealing Graveman at all, has been the fantastic season put together by its other breakout relief ace: Paul Sewald.

Drafted as a reliever by the Mets in the 10th round of the 2012 draft, Sewald came with two years of college experience under his belt at the University of San Diego and quickly moved through the farm system. He reached the majors in 2017 and made 125 appearances out of the bullpen through 2020, but outside of a 23.5% strikeout rate that was just a hair above league average, he was mostly forgettable as a Met; across 147.1 innings in New York, he posted a 5.50 ERA. He was non-tendered this past offseason and signed a minor-league contract with the Mariners in January.

Even though Sewald wasn’t able to make the major league roster out of spring training, he has thrived in Seattle. He was called up on May 13, the same day Jarred Kelenic and Logan Gilbert made their debuts, and while his return to the majors was much less heralded than those two top prospects, he’s arguably been more important to the Mariners this season than either. He’s upped his strikeout rate to 40.3% in 2021, the fifth highest rate among all qualified relievers, and all those strikeouts have helped him drop his FIP to just 1.95. In just 45.1 innings, he’s more than doubled his total career WAR.

Michael Ajeto of Lookout Landing was one of the first to write about Sewald’s breakout, but the reasons for his improvement are tough to spot on the surface. He’s simplified his pitch mix a bit, cutting out his rarely thrown changeup and increasing the usage of his slider to make him a two-pitch pitcher:

Both the fastball and slider are returning better-than-ever results, with the latter generating a 38.6% whiff rate and a .270 wOBA against. But as good as his breaking ball has been, the four-seam fastball has been even better. Its whiff rate is up to 35.3%, the 12th-highest mark among all four-seam fastballs thrown at least 100 times this year, and it boasts the 12th-highest CSW% (35.7) in that group.

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FanGraphs Power Rankings: August 9–22

As the schedule hurtles towards the final month of the season, most of the division races have sorted themselves out. The real drama is in the Wild Card races in both leagues, with a handful of teams in each fighting over those last two playoff spots.

A quick refresher: my Power Rankings approach takes the three most important components of a team — their offense (wRC+), and their starting rotation and bullpen (50%/50% FIP- and RA9-) — and combines them to create an overall team quality metric. I add in a factor for “luck” — adjusting based on a team’s expected win-loss record — to produce a power ranking.

Tier 1 – The Best
Team Record “Luck” wRC+ SP- RP- Team Quality Playoff Odds Δ
Giants 80-44 2 106 86 88 171 ↗ 100.0% 0
Dodgers 78-47 -7 108 79 91 180 ↗ 100.0% 0

The Giants and Dodgers continue to elevate themselves over everyone else in baseball. Over the last two weeks, Los Angeles has gone 11–2 and closed the gap with first-place San Francisco to 2.5 games. The only shame is that they’re on course for a first-round matchup in the playoffs; whoever wins the wild card will end up playing whoever doesn’t win the NL West in the win-or-go-home matchup. For the Dodgers, Trea Turner has been a catalyst atop their lineup, but Max Muncy has been driving their offense recently, launching six home runs in August and putting himself into the NL MVP conversation alongside Turner. Those two are just a decimal point behind Fernando Tatis Jr. for the WAR lead in the NL.

The Giants continue to get phenomenal contributions from their pitching staff. Even though Anthony DeSclafani just landed on the Injured List with an ankle injury, Logan Webb is primed to pick up a lot of the slack. He hasn’t allowed more than two runs in a single start since a six-run blowup in Colorado on May 5. San Francisco’s lineup has also gotten a lot healthier recently, too, with Brandon Belt, Evan Longoria, and Tommy La Stella back from their respective injuries.

Read the rest of this entry »

Jorge Polanco, Walk-off King

There have been very few reasons for joy in Minnesota this year. The Twins entered the season as slight favorites to win their third-straight AL Central division crown, but an early slump in April buried them in the standings and they haven’t sniffed the postseason race since. For a team with no hope of playing October baseball, the dog days of August can feel a bit monotonous — unless a little artificial excitement can be created by winning a bunch of close games. Indeed, the Twins last three wins have all been walk-offs, and to make things even more interesting, Jorge Polanco has driven in the winning run in each of them.

On Sunday afternoon, the Twins were wrapping up a three-game series against the Rays. They had split the previous two games and had taken two of three from the White Sox before that. After climbing to a 4-0 lead through four innings, Minnesota’s pitching staff allowed four runs to score in the next three frames. The game went into the bottom of the ninth inning tied. Max Kepler led off with a double down the left field line and advanced to third after Austin Meadows misplayed the ball in the corner. Read the rest of this entry »