Presenting the Low-Seed Playoff Dark Horses

We’re a day away from the start of a bizarre, expanded postseason, one with an abnormally large field of teams, a short Wild Card round that makes the better ones unusually vulnerable, and a five-game Division round without an off day. The postseason’s new structure presents one-time advantages and disadvantages that could impact series outcomes. I’ve considered which aspects of roster construction might suit this unique situation (some more familiar than others) to determine which lower-seeded teams are especially strong and are perhaps teed up to make a sneaky deep October run.

For this exercise I’m only considering teams that currently have a winning percentage under .550, since while the Yankees and White Sox are currently seeded fifth and seventh respectively in the American League, I think they’re quite good and relegated to a lower seed purely due to the quality of their divisions. They’re not sleepers, they’re just a lower-seeded contenders. Let’s begin by looking at the obvious criteria.

It’s a tale as old as time, but having starters who can twirl a gem gives you a puncher’s chance in a playoff series. Even if your offense does nothing, a dominant start means you’re, at worst, in a close game with a chance to squeak out a victory despite scoring few runs.

I’m certain this category is the one already most familiar to even casual baseball fans, let alone FanGraphs readers, who can all point at Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray and know the Reds are especially dangerous in this respect. But I wanted to apply some amount of rigor and objectivity to this to make sure I’m not either overrating or overlooking anyone. So I turned to Game Score Version 2. It’s a nice shorthand more than it is a precise, meaningful stat, but while FIP (which I’ve also included in the following table) is a better proxy for overall pitcher quality, I wanted a measure that indicates a pitcher’s capacity to have a dominant and/or elite-level start. As such, in the table is each pitcher’s 2020 FIP, as well as how many times they’ve had a Game Score v2 start of 65 (Strong Starts) or better, and how many they’ve had at 72 (Elite Starts) or better.

Why 65 and 72? Starts with a Game Score of 65 win 65% of the time, and that’s the ratio of games a team needs to win to advance to the LCS; elite starts are benchmarked as starts with a Game Score over 72 because that’s what presumptive AL Cy Young winner Shane Bieber’s average Game Score was this year. It’s somewhat arbitrary, I agree, but again, I’m just looking for a pitcher’s capacity to shove for seven or more innings and win a game on his own. Because some pitchers missed time due to injury and have fewer of these starts as a result, I’ve also included Shove%, which is simply the number of starts with Game Scores at or above 72 divided by the total number of starts. This can viewed as the rough chances that a pitcher has a force of nature start:

Pitchers by Game Score 2
Pitcher Team FIP GSv2 ≥ 65 GSv2 ≥ 72 Shove%
Hyun Jin Ryu TOR 3.01 8 2 17%
Taijuan Walker TOR 4.56 4 1 9%
Matt Shoemaker TOR 5.94 1 0 0%
Tanner Roark TOR 6.86 1 0 0%
Robbie Ray TOR 6.50 0 0 0%
Trevor Bauer CIN 2.87 7 6 55%
Luis Castillo CIN 2.65 4 3 25%
Sonny Gray CIN 3.05 3 1 9%
Tyler Mahle CIN 3.88 4 2 22%
Framber Valdez HOU 2.85 6 2 20%
Zack Greinke HOU 2.80 4 1 8%
Lance McCullers Jr. HOU 3.70 5 2 18%
Jose Urquidy HOU 4.71 1 1 20%
Cristian Javier HOU 4.94 4 1 10%
Jack Flaherty STL 4.11 3 2 22%
Kwang Hyun Kim STL 3.88 4 2 29%
Adam Wainwright STL 4.10 3 1 10%
Austin Gomber STL 3.53 1 1 33%
Daniel Ponce de Leon STL 5.64 1 0 0%
Johan Oviedo STL 5.3 0 0 0%
Sixto Sánchez MIA 3.5 3 3 43%
Pablo López MIA 3.08 4 2 18%
Sandy Alcantara MIA 3.71 4 0 0%
Trevor Rogers MIA 4.33 0 0 0%
Corbin Burnes MIL 2.03 4 3 33%
Brandon Woodruff MIL 3.2 4 3 23%
Josh Lindblom MIL 3.87 2 0 0%
Brett Anderson MIL 4.38 1 0 0%
Adrian Houser MIL 4.84 1 1 9%

Next is another familiar trait of dragon-slaying playoff teams: elite relievers. Great starters can create a coin flip game but having lock down late-game relievers will win you one. You could use the WAR leaderboard for this after a full season but it takes relievers longer to accumulate meaningful differences in WAR during such a short slate, so here I just skimmed for swinging strike rate and fastball velocity as a way of illustrating who has monster late-game stuff. I also included walk rates in the table as a way of showing who is more or less likely to implode by allowing free baserunners:

Late-Inning Relievers
Pitcher Team FIP Fastball Velo SwStr% BB%
Ryan Pressly HOU 2.81 94.7 17.4% 7.7%
Blake Taylor HOU 4.54 93.8 8.1% 13.8%
Brooks Raley HOU 3.94 90.2 13.1% 6.5%
Josh James HOU 7.05 96.3 10.0% 20.5%
Anthony Bass TOR 3.62 94.7 11.5% 9.0%
Rafael Dolis TOR 3.02 94.7 12.6% 14.0%
Nate Pearson TOR 7.19 96.4 11.1% 16.0%
Patrick Murphy TOR 1.94 96.7 7.6% 5.6%
Jordan Romano TOR 3.12 96.6 19.4% 8.8%
Devin Williams MIL 0.86 96.5 22.3% 9.0%
Josh Hader MIL 4.03 94.6 16.7% 12.8%
Freddy Peralta MIL 1.98 93.0 15.8% 9.6%
Justin Topa MIL 2.31 97.5 10.8% 0.0%
Drew Rasmussen MIL 4.75 97.7 12.6% 12.7%
Ryan Helsley STL 7.02 96.9 14.4% 15.4%
Génesis Cabrera STL 4.76 96.1 12.6% 15.7%
Kodi Whitley STL 4.47 93.8 15.6% 5.9%
Alex Reyes STL 3.30 97.5 14.5% 16.7%
Giovanny Gallegos STL 2.34 93.6 19.2% 8.0%
Andrew Miller STL 2.57 90.3 13.2% 9.1%
Brandon Kintzler MIA 5.00 91.2 6.4% 10.9%
James Hoyt MIA 3.19 88.4 15.8% 13.1%
Brad Boxberger MIA 4.86 92.5 10.4% 10.1%
Yimi García MIA 1.66 94.5 11.6% 8.3%
Raisel Iglesias CIN 2.03 96.2 18.9% 5.8%
Michael Lorenzen CIN 3.87 96.7 14.6% 11.6%
Amir Garrett CIN 4.47 94.7 17.6% 10.6%
Tejay Antone CIN 3.84 95.7 12.7% 11.8%
Archie Bradley CIN 3.32 94.1 9.4% 4.1%

Now we get to the fun, weird stuff that I think is unique to this season. First, let’s continue with pitching and talk about long men. The Division Series five-game gauntlet without off days means there is no rest for relievers built into the schedule. While this puts an overall emphasis on pitching depth, I think it makes it especially valuable to have relievers who can pitch multiple innings in the event of a blowout or extra-innings game, which, especially if your starter has been knocked out early, saves as much of your bullpen as possible for the rest of the series. The next table has a list of the lower-seeded teams’ relievers who have pitched two or more innings in an outing, as well as how many times they’ve done that this season:

Playoff Long Relievers
Pitcher Team FIP 2-plus Inning App.
Enoli Paredes HOU 3.62 2
Thomas Hatch TOR 4.14 4
Ross Stripling TOR 6.15 2
Chase Anderson TOR 6.16 3
Brent Suter MIL 3.00 5
Freddy Peralta MIL 1.98 6
Alex Reyes STL 3.30 3
Jake Woodford STL 6.71 5
Nick Neidert MIA 4.51 4
Michael Lorenzen CIN 3.87 4
Tejay Antone CIN 3.84 6
Lucas Sims CIN 3.89 6

Next is, in essence, the inverse of this. Which lineups are the best at grinding away at opposing pitchers and might be able to exploit the lack of rest days in round two of the playoffs by taking cuts off the weaker arms in their opponents bullpens more often than their opponents? For these tables we’re going team by team and looking at Pitches per Plate Appearance for each hitter, as well as their O-swing% as a way to assess ball/strike discipline. I’ve also included in-zone contact rates to show which players are best at putting balls in play, and barrel rates so that you can see who is capable of doing damage. Each team’s table has the major-league average of each stat included so you can sort the rows and see in which categories each team thrives or struggles.

Toronto Blue Jays
Player Pitches per PA O-Swing% Z-Contact% Barrel%
Cavan Biggio 4.20 16.4% 83.6% 5.1%
Bo Bichette 3.72 45.4% 91.4% 11.7%
Teoscar Hernández 4.06 34.3% 76.9% 17.8%
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 3.75 27.8% 84.0% 8.3%
Randal Grichuk 3.70 37.1% 84.2% 11.4%
Lourdes Gurriel Jr. 3.67 36.0% 84.2% 10.8%
Joe Panik 3.77 21.7% 90.5% 1.2%
Danny Jansen 3.88 25.1% 84.6% 8.8%
Travis Shaw 3.90 27.6% 79.4% 8.2%
Jonathan Villar 3.91 37.0% 81.0% 1.6%
Jonathan Davis* 4.01 32.0% 75.6% 12.5%
Rowdy Tellez 3.47 37.3% 89.3% 8.4%
MLB Average 3.96 31.0% 84.0% 6.4%

Toronto’s young lineup hits with power and I think they’d have a marginal second round advantage because of the Danny Jansen and Alejandro Kirk catching combo, as the lack of Division Series off days could mean every team’s backup catcher will have to play once or twice. Jonathan Davis has played well recently and he and Rowdy Tellez, should Tellez return from injury, would give the Jays two situational impact pieces for late in games.

But while Hyun Jin Ryu has been more consistently good than every other pitcher in the top table, the pitching thins out pretty quickly after that, and the bullpen has dealt with a compromising number of injuries. Even with all of those long relievers and Nate Pearson and Jordan Romano back, the mid-season losses of Julian Merryweather, Trent Thornton, Ken Giles and others leave Toronto thin behind a rotation that is prone to meltdowns. Ryu could steal a game in the Wild Card Series and, simply because of that the Jays are an early threat, but I don’t think they’re deep enough to be considered one in the Division Series, at least compared to other clubs here.

Miami Marlins
Player Pitches per PA O-Swing% Z-Contact% Barrel%
Corey Dickerson 4.09 36.5% 80.0% 5.6%
Starling Marte 3.76 37.6% 88.2% 7.1%
Garrett Cooper 4.19 31.3% 87.4% 9.0%
Matt Joyce 4.07 29.1% 76.8% 3.4%
Brian Anderson 3.88 32.6% 77.8% 9.6%
Jesús Aguilar 4.08 36.2% 90.5% 5.8%
Miguel Rojas 3.76 26.2% 87.3% 1.0%
Jon Berti 3.93 20.9% 91.0% 3.5%
Jorge Alfaro 3.41 49.1% 77.7% 7.0%
Chad Wallach* 4.06 31.2% 84.5% 9%
Lewis Brinson 3.78 39.6% 79.5% 7.9%
Jazz Chisholm 4.24 25.5% 91.4% 10.8%
Monte Harrison 4.32 25.8% 66.0% 19%
Magneuris Sierra 3.88 32.3% 95.0% 0.0%
MLB Average 3.96 31% 84% 6.4%

A Wild Card Series rotation of Sixto Sánchez, Pablo López, and Sandy Alcantara (who has pitched very well in four of his last five starts) might upset the Cubs but the back of the rotation and bullpen are still clearly behind those of other playoff teams. In a perfect Marlins world, one like 2003, more of the young players would have actualized quickly. Lewis Brinson had a three-week stretch where he hit .364/.375/.618 before struggling down the stretch. He, Monte Harrison, and Jazz Chisholm are ultra-talented variables who can change a single game, but none of them appears ready to perform consistently enough to alter a series.

Cincinnati Reds
Player Pitches per PA O-Swing% Z-Contact% Barrel%
Shogo Akiyama 4.64 28.4% 89.0% 1.0%
Nick Castellanos 4.01 38.2% 84.0% 16.0%
Joey Votto 4.15 19.5% 86.8% 9.1%
Eugenio Suárez 4.33 26.9% 82.7% 14.4%
Mike Moustakas 4.07 31.4% 88.0% 9.5%
Jesse Winker 4.28 22.5% 79.6% 13.5%
Brian Goodwin 4.23 23.7% 77.6% 11.2%
Freddy Galvis 3.86 28.0% 82.4% 4.5%
Tucker Barnhart* 3.96 25.9% 85.0% 7.1%
Curt Casali* 4.44 21.2% 80.5% 6.4%
Jose Garcia 4.01 42.0% 71.0% 2.4%
Kyle Farmer* 3.87 34.1% 87.5% 5.9%
Aristides Aquino* 3.93 36.3% 78.4% 6.9%
Nick Senzel* 3.29 27.8% 89.0% 3.5%
MLB Average 3.96 31% 84% 6.4%

This team should terrify the National League. In addition to the three big starters, Tyler Mahle has had a good year and Michael Lorenzen, who should pitch out of the bullpen and pinch run during the Wild Card round, made two good starts toward the end of the regular season. This team also has one of the deeper bullpens in baseball, especially if we’re talking about the inning-eating long relievers. Lucas Sims, Lorenzen, Tejay Antone and perhaps Wade Miley and Anthony DeSclafani can all give the club multiple innings out of the bullpen. The lineup doesn’t have power from top to bottom but those who lack power grind out tough at-bats, and the club can play left/right matchups with their outfielders and upgrade their defense late with Freddy Galvis and Jose Garcia coming off the bench. I think this group could make a deep, deep run.

Houston Astros
Player Pitches per PA O-Swing% Z-Contact% Barrel%
George Springer 3.70 27.5% 85.0% 12.3%
Jose Altuve 3.61 38.1% 89.3% 4.6%
Michael Brantley 3.84 25.2% 93.0% 4.9%
Alex Bregman 4.07 21.0% 93.6% 3.9%
Kyle Tucker 3.80 31.3% 85.1% 9.1%
Yuli Gurriel 3.44 37.8% 94.6% 3.7%
Carlos Correa 3.95 33.9% 88.8% 5.9%
Josh Reddick 3.96 28.3% 87.0% 4.7%
Martín Maldonado 4.21 26.2% 85.0% 8.1%
Dustin Garneau* 3.83 25.5% 73.5% 4.0%
Jack Mayfield* 3.98 39.3% 77.8% 2.7%
Abraham Toro* 3.80 37.6% 87.6% 3.1%
Aledmys Díaz* 3.66 40.7% 93.1% 2.2%
Myles Straw* 4.09 28.6% 88.4% 2%
MLB Average 3.96 31% 84% 6.4%

Houston has one of the deeper sleeper rotations and should they end up advancing to the Division Series, I think they could be pesky, but I don’t trust the back of the bullpen. Ryan Pressly is the photon of light that behaves differently when observed; he always seems to cough up games I watch, though his numbers are okay. Every single hitter in the starting lineup has an in-zone contact rate above league average but only George Springer and Kyle Tucker have barrel rates above the league average. Can they do enough damage to give the bullpen cushion? I’m doubtful.

St. Louis Cardinals
Player Pitches per PA O-Swing% Z-Contact% Barrel%
Kolten Wong 4.08 27% 90% 0.6%
Tommy Edman 3.86 28% 91% 3.8%
Paul Goldschmidt 4.20 25% 87% 10.7%
Matt Carpenter 4.38 23% 79% 9.8%
Paul DeJong 3.92 25% 82% 7.5%
Brad Miller 4.10 28% 75% 13.4%
Yadier Molina 3.57 44% 89% 2.4%
Dexter Fowler 4.47 26% 79% 4.8%
Dylan Carlson 4.13 30% 81% 9.2%
Matt Wieters* 4.49 31% 86% 7.7%
Rangel Ravelo* 3.88 35% 87% 6.5%
Harrison Bader 4.18 30% 89% 11.9%
Tyler O’Neill 3.96 28% 76% 8.2%
MLB Average 3.96 31% 84% 6.4%

The rotation is on thin ice because of injuries and the big pieces in the bullpen have had scary issues with walks, but the ‘pen is also chock full of guys with huge stuff, several of whom have had to go multiple innings at various points this year because of all the double headers St. Louis has had to play. Their lineup is deep, they don’t swing at balls, they do damage, and Tommy Edman’s versatility enables late-game maneuvering that enables the Cardinals to prioritize offense or defense depending on their needs. It might take Johan Oviedo taking a step forward or Alex Reyes moving into the rotation in round two, but St. Louis has a shot to go deep.

Milwaukee Brewers
Player Pitches per PA O-Swing% Z-Contact% Barrel%
Avisaíl García 3.52 38.8% 78.7% 3.8%
Christian Yelich 4.48 21.0% 82.0% 12.1%
Ryan Braun 3.52 42.0% 89.2% 11.4%
Daniel Vogelbach 4.52 20.3% 87.0% 12.9%
Keston Hiura 4.02 35.0% 67.9% 14.2%
Jedd Gyorko 4.22 28.8% 84.0% 16.0%
Orlando Arcia 3.72 28.6% 85.3% 5.6%
Eric Sogard 3.90 24.1% 97.4% 0.0%
Jacob Nottingham 4.19 35.3% 80.6% 14.3%
Omar Narváez 4.39 35.7% 82.6% 7.2%
Luis Urías 4.03 29.1% 87.0% 1.3%
Jace Peterson 4.69 19.2% 81.0% 7.7%
Tyrone Taylor 3.84 33.0% 85.4% 13.3%
MLB Average 3.96 31% 84% 6.4%

The Corbin Burnes injury is a knockdown blow that stymies Milwaukee’s hopes at making a deep run. Losing Burnes not only costs the Brewers their best starter but weakens the bullpen since Freddy Peralta or Brent Suter will almost certainly be deployed to eat innings in his stead at a time of necessity rather than when it’s strategically advantageous. The lineup slugs but also chases and whiffs a lot. With Burnes, I’d have Milwaukee right there with St. Louis and Houston in tier two of this contingent; without him, they’re closer to Toronto.





Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.

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carter
Member
Member
carter

Quick note: Devin Williams while being a late inning relief pitcher has thrown 2 ip 4x this year for the Brewers as well, including his last 3x out. I’d imagine he is going to get the ball for 2ip+ twice in the first round.

Also, I don’t follow this. “Toronto’s young lineup hits with power and I think they’d have a marginal second round advantage because of the Danny Jansen and Alejandro Kirk catching combo, as the lack of Division Series off days could mean every team’s backup catcher will have to play once or twice. ” I don’t think that pertains to playoff catcher usage.

Lanidrac
Member
Lanidrac

You certainly won’t see Molina take a day off in a 5-game series if the Cardinals get past the first round, maybe not even in a 7-game series.