Rating All the Playoff Teams

In a very short amount of time, the 2018 MLB playoffs will commence. Some number of hours after that, we will have already observed our first advance and our first elimination. The Cubs and Rockies played for half of their lives on Monday; tonight, one will be spared, and one will be finished off. Even though it was weird to have a couple of tiebreakers, they functioned as an effective warm-up for the postseason. Yesterday, the stakes were moderate. Beginning today, the stakes are high.

So, with the playoff field set: Who looks like the best playoff team in the bunch? Who looks like the biggest underdog? This is a post I try to get up each year. Here’s last year’s edition. I thought it would be weird to publish this after someone had already been knocked out, so I’m coming in today just under the wire. It’s time to look at what the numbers can tell us.

One thing here is of great importance. That thing is that this post doesn’t matter. I mean, none of our posts really matter, but you all already know that the playoffs will sort themselves out however they wish. This isn’t a tournament that rewards the best team overall. It’s a tournament that rewards the team that wins the most games in the course of four weeks. Any team alive today could win the championship. Any team, out of the ten. No one would beĀ that much of a surprise. The playoffs select for teams that are already good in the first place.

So with that in mind, there’s a secondary thing of great importance. It’s still fun to try to estimate talent levels, and, well, this is going to be the seventh month of baseball. And during the first six months, rosters change. So, yes, it would be easy to just look at how all these playoff teams did during the regular season, but the regular-season numbers aren’t necessarily all that indicative. Playoff rosters are different, and they’re used differently. The playoffs select for better players. Depth is now of lesser relevance. Teams are going to get to lean on their best. That’s why I like doing the work for this post — I think it helps to highlight just how high the playoff talent level is.

Let’s begin with a table. This is a table of current combined player projections. We’ve shifted our team depth charts into so-called “playoff mode,” and we’ve laid out expected rosters while assigning projected playing times. Here’s how each playoff team would project over a full season as constructed, in terms of WAR. Evidence typically suggests that the projections are the best measure of true talent. That’s not always the case, but it is the case more often than not. The table should be fairly simple to understand.

Playoff Team Projections
Team Position Players Starters Relievers WAR Wins per 162
Yankees 33 19 9 61 108
Indians 31 23 6 59 107
Astros 30 22 6 59 107
Red Sox 32 22 4 58 106
Dodgers 33 19 5 57 104
Cubs 31 13 3 46 94
Athletics 28 8 4 41 88
Brewers 25 9 6 40 87
Rockies 21 14 4 39 86
Braves 21 11 2 34 81

That last column is just the penultimate column plus a constant. Basically, if the playoff version of the Yankees got to exist during a regular season, the projections would expect those Yankees to win about 108 games. Then the Indians and Astros are right there at 107. The Red Sox are right there at 106. And the Dodgers are right there at 104. Obviously, everything in here comes with certain error bars, so there’s not a real meaningful difference between the top five teams. You can divide these teams into tiers if you’d like. There’s a pretty clear top five. The Cubs are kind of by themselves. And then you have a group of either three or four, depending on what you do with the Braves. Say what you will for Charlie Culberson’s weird breakout, but the projections would still rather the Braves have Dansby Swanson.

On the position-player side, the Yankees and Dodgers lead the way, with the Braves and Rockies bringing up the rear. The Indians, Astros, and Red Sox look to have the best rotations, at least as long as Chris Sale has recovered from whatever was bothering him over the past few weeks. Unsurprisingly, the Brewers and A’s rotations look weak. And then the bullpen column is dominated by the Yankees. At least as much as such a column can be dominated, when we’re dealing with single-digit integers. The Braves are at the bottom. The Cubs are almost at the bottom, and they have some injury concerns regarding both Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr., the latter of whom isn’t on the Tuesday roster.

Projections are neat, and projections are useful, but we shouldn’t just look at them alone. So for this next section, I’m plugging in only 2018 regular-season statistics. Let’s begin with a table of position-player data.

Playoff Team Position Players, 2018 Stats
Team wRC+ BsR Def WAR
Dodgers 130 6 -14 40
Yankees 126 11 -28 39
Athletics 117 10 38 39
Red Sox 114 7 28 35
Indians 112 3 -1 30
Braves 112 11 10 30
Astros 116 -6 -29 29
Cubs 113 -4 4 28
Brewers 109 1 13 27
Rockies 102 7 -4 21

Now the Braves move up. The projections have been pretty light on them all season long. But while the Braves look better, your eye is drawn to the top, where the Dodgers, Yankees, and A’s are all in their own tier. Notice that the Dodgers have a combined 2018 wRC+ of 130. The Yankees are just behind, at 126. The A’s don’t look that good, but they do seem to have the best defense, which makes up the gap. The A’s, Yankees, and Braves also profile to perhaps have the best baserunning.

The Rockies are at the bottom again. They combine to have a nearly average wRC+. Usually, there’d be nothing wrong with having a nearly average wRC+, but this is the playoffs, and average is no longer average. The next-worst wRC+ in there is 109. Not that it matters that much, but note that this excludes pitcher-hitting, because I don’t care about it. Hopefully we don’t see too much of it in important situations this month. Or, alternatively, hopefully we…do? I never know what I’m rooting for.

Now for starting rotations.

Playoff Team Starting Pitchers, 2018 Stats
Indians 66 71 31 28
Astros 73 74 28 27
Red Sox 74 79 27 24
Dodgers 70 81 27 21
Yankees 86 84 19 21
Rockies 84 89 21 17
Braves 81 97 21 14
Brewers 96 99 14 12
Athletics 90 102 17 11
Cubs 88 103 18 11

The Indians have the lowest combined ERA-, and they have the lowest combined FIP-, so therefore they have the highest WAR by both of the measures. Now, for whatever it’s worth, the Indians *did* play a laughably weak schedule of opponents, so all their numbers are a little bit inflated, but it’s not like they make all of the difference. The Indians have four really good starters, now that Trevor Bauer is back. The Astros also have four really good starters, even with Lance McCullers Jr. stuck in the bullpen. The Red Sox have a good rotation of their own, but, again, so much depends on whether Sale is right. His velocity drop-off is frightening, and I’m not that easy to scare.

The Cubs actually bring up the rear in FIP-. Now, they’re eighth if you prefer to go by ERA-, but FIP- is generally more reliable. The other one includes more noise, and also factors in defensive contributions, which are pitcher-independent. Lately, the Cubs’ rotation has performed better than it did in the first half, but you can understand why Cubs fans have been more nervous than you’d expect from fans of such a good team.

To the bullpens!

Playoff Team Relief Pitchers, 2018 Stats
Yankees 75 70 9 11
Astros 71 72 11 10
Brewers 68 72 12 10
Athletics 65 82 12 8
Red Sox 69 84 12 8
Rockies 87 84 7 7
Indians 89 87 6 6
Dodgers 90 89 6 6
Braves 77 88 9 5
Cubs 76 90 10 5

Here is what’s likely to be the real source of uncertainty. We don’t know exactly how heavily certain teams are likely to lean on their relievers. The A’s and Brewers, one would assume, will waste little time in going to the bullpen. The Indians and Astros might prefer to let their starters get deeper. The table above assumes every bullpen throws the same number of innings, and that’s not going to be true. But at least it allows us to compare across teams without having to make extra calculations. The Yankees, Astros, and Brewers lead the way. I’m unconvinced by the Red Sox’s ERA-, and I think a chunk of the A’s low ERA- is a function of the defense.

Something that might become more and more important: By that order up there, four of the five worst bullpens are in the National League. The Brewers are the one NL team whose bullpen is a legitimate strength. Of course, they also have a relatively weak group of starters, but if they’re as quick to the bullpen as I expect, then it’ll come down to managing fatigue. Or maintaining adrenaline for as long as is possible.

Putting it all together, we can now mirror the first table from the post.

Playoff Team Weighted 2018 Stats
Team Position Players Starters Relievers WAR Wins per 162
Yankees 39 21 11 70 118
Red Sox 35 24 8 67 115
Dodgers 40 21 6 67 114
Astros 29 27 10 66 113
Indians 30 28 6 64 112
Athletics 39 11 8 58 106
Braves 30 14 5 49 96
Brewers 27 12 10 48 96
Rockies 21 17 7 44 92
Cubs 28 11 5 43 91

Comparing the projections table and the 2018 table, we see the same top five teams. That’s convenient, and it suggests those are the five teams to beat. There’s not a whole lot to separate any of them, and then the real separation comes further down. In this table, the A’s are stuck between tiers. They’re not quite a favorite, but they’re not quite an underdog. The Braves, Brewers, Rockies, and Cubs would appear to be the relative underdogs based on 2018 alone. And the Brewers might argue they don’t belong in that group on account of their bullpen. I’m sympathetic to the thought. We still aren’t entirely sure what to do about a unit that good. The Brewers will show us exactly how aggressive they plan to be. Their ideas are secret now, but they’ll reveal themselves as soon as the action resumes.

All of that above — that’s my best effort. And baseball will subsequently do whatever baseball will do, regardless of what the numbers say. This time of year is fun for how unpredictable it usually is. Read these tables, and think about what they show. But always remember that October baseball doesn’t care. The Rockies might well win the whole thing. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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This is not directly related but that NL playoff teams don’t seem to have good bullpen got me thinking whether NL starters are overrated and relievers underrated due to the fact that starters get to pitch to other pitchers while relievers rarely get that opportunity. It would not be a big difference but not insignificant, either.