Rating All the Playoff Teams

Pretty soon, there are going to be nine playoff teams remaining. Pretty soon after that, the field will narrow to eight. In time, there will be four, then two, then one, the one remaining team being the champion. Say what you will about the MLB playoffs, but they never fail to select someone. There will be nine losers and one winner, and the winner will write the story. In some way or ways, the winner will have been the best team of the month.

Who *looks like* the best team of the month? That, we can try to answer today. The playoffs begin only a few hours from now. A few hours after that, either the Twins or the Yankees will be eliminated. Before that happens, I thought we’d do some rating. Some rating that goes beyond just basic regular-season records — some rating that considers how playoff rosters are constructed. I did this a year ago, and I’m doing it again.

We’re beginning baseball’s seventh month, and although these 10 teams have already played for six, the fact of the matter is that their compositions have changed. Rosters have changed, and performances have changed, and even more important than that, playoff baseball isn’t exactly like regular-season baseball. In the playoffs, you get to lean more heavily on your best players. In the playoffs, you don’t need so much depth.

You don’t need to tell me that none of the numbers in this post actually matter. Baseball will solve itself, and many October outcomes will have been unpredictable. I get it, and that’s the fun of the whole thing. Doesn’t mean there’s no point in looking at relative strengths today. For the 10 playoff teams, we’ve updated our depth charts to go into playoff mode, with guesses for playoff rosters and playing time. To start with, here’s how all the teams would project, over full-season equivalents, in terms of WAR. In theory, projections are the best measures of true-talent level. So might this table be, for teams.

Playoff Team Projections
Team Position Players Starters Relievers WAR Wins per 162
Dodgers 28 23 7 58 106
Indians 26 23 7 56 104
Astros 31 18 6 55 102
Nationals 24 23 6 52 100
Cubs 27 19 6 52 99
Red Sox 25 20 6 51 99
Yankees 24 18 8 50 98
Diamondbacks 19 17 3 40 87
Rockies 19 15 5 39 86
Twins 20 12 3 35 83

That last column is simply the second-to-last column, plus a constant. The playoff Dodgers, for example, would be expected to win something like 106 games, if they got to exist over a full season. They narrowly edge out the Indians, who narrowly edge out the Astros, who narrowly edge out the Nationals, and so on. As far as I’m concerned, this is a story of two tiers. You’ve got seven teams in one group, and then you have the Diamondbacks, Rockies, and Twins, who come away looking substantially worse. There’s a double-digit WAR gap between seventh place and eighth. You can argue the numbers as much as you want, but I didn’t make them up from nothing.

Incidentally, when I did this same analysis last October, there were three teams in this table that reached 50+ WAR. This time around, we’re looking at seven. There’s something meaningful in there, I think — the best of this year’s playoff teams are awfully good. You all probably already had a hunch, but all the best teams have been beefed up. This is why it’s so hard to pick a favorite. There are six or seven really, really, really good teams.

On the position-player side, the Astros project the best, with the Diamondbacks and Rockies the worst. It’s not a surprise, because the Astros just had one of the better lineups in modern baseball history. They hit for contact and they hit for power, which could make them something of a postseason nightmare for opponents. Isolating rotations, we’ve got a three-way tie for best between the Dodgers, Indians, and Nationals. They all benefit from getting to lean more heavily on their aces. The Twins, of course, bring up the rear. The Twins are also last in the bullpen, tied with the Diamondbacks. The Yankees are out in front, as you’d figure. Bullpen projections might be the trickiest ones, since we can’t project extreme reliever-usage patterns, but most of the time, these things look normal. The 2016 Indians were the exception.

Okay, so, that all deals with projections. It’s usually safest to deal with projections. But I’ve also broken things down, looking at only 2017 statistics. We can start by going team-by-team through the position players. Here’s how all the teams look, weighting by projected postseason playing time.

Playoff Team Position Players, 2017 Stats
Team wRC+ BsR Def WAR
Dodgers 118 13 37 37
Astros 123 6 -35 36
Nationals 115 12 14 32
Yankees 111 6 -9 30
Cubs 109 -8 30 28
Indians 109 -8 -5 27
Twins 103 16 1 25
Diamondbacks 109 7 -27 24
Red Sox 98 5 16 22
Rockies 96 -13 7 15

Based on how the players actually did this year, the Astros have the best hitters, while the Dodgers have the best overall players. The Twins, Dodgers, and Nationals look like the biggest threats in terms of running the bases, while the Dodgers and Cubs appear to have the best team defenses. The Red Sox and Rockies look considerably weaker than the rest of the group at the plate, with the Rockies being worse than the Red Sox across the board. I should note that this excludes any aspect of pitchers hitting. It’ll matter, of course, but it’s unlikely to matter much, and I don’t care about pitchers at the plate when I’m trying to run team comparisons across leagues.

Let’s move on to starting pitchers.

Playoff Team Starting Pitchers, 2017 Stats
Indians 75 73 29 27
Nationals 65 77 31 25
Red Sox 81 84 22 21
Astros 74 82 28 21
Dodgers 75 85 27 20
Yankees 84 85 19 19
Diamondbacks 71 85 24 19
Cubs 87 90 17 17
Rockies 88 93 19 15
Twins 95 100 14 12

The Nationals look the best by ERA, and therefore by RA9-WAR. Clearly, any rotation will look great when it gets to begin with Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. But Gio Gonzalez’s unsustainable ERA is kind of throwing this off. FIP tends to feel more reliable, and that’s where the Indians stand out, moving a little ahead of the Nationals. You won’t be surprised to find the Twins at the bottom. It might be more surprising to see the Cubs down there, but, well, what happened happened. I should say that, as far as the Diamondbacks are concerned, the playoff format hurts them a little, because their rotation was strong one through five. That fifth starter isn’t going to matter. Too bad. Them’s the breaks!

Bullpens, now.

Playoff Team Relief Pitchers, 2017 Stats
Yankees 60 60 12 11
Indians 61 65 13 11
Dodgers 67 74 12 10
Red Sox 57 71 14 9
Rockies 75 78 9 8
Diamondbacks 74 79 8 7
Astros 85 83 8 7
Nationals 75 84 9 6
Cubs 74 84 9 6
Twins 88 92 5 4

The Yankees bullpen is SO GOOD. Also, the Indians bullpen is SO GOOD. You’d expect to see those two teams at the top. You’d also, again, presumably expect to see the Twins at the bottom. They’re going to need a lot of good fortune to escape play tonight, to say nothing of any further baseball down the road. As far as the Red Sox go, every bullpen is somewhat volatile, but their fate could be determined by David Price and Carson Smith, who could conceivably go either way. Maybe they’ll serve as high-leverage firemen. Maybe they’ll come apart. I don’t really know, and a team like, say, the Yankees is thankful to not be dealing with so much uncertainty.

Putting it all together, we can mirror the first table in this post.

Playoff Team Weighted 2017 Stats
Team Position Players Starters Relievers WAR Wins per 162
Dodgers 37 20 10 67 114
Indians 27 27 11 65 112
Nationals 32 25 6 64 111
Astros 36 21 7 63 111
Yankees 30 19 11 60 108
Red Sox 22 21 9 52 100
Cubs 28 17 6 50 98
Diamondbacks 24 19 7 50 97
Twins 25 12 4 41 88
Rockies 15 15 8 39 86

By the projections, there were two tiers, with seven teams looking strong, and with the Diamondbacks, Rockies, and Twins looking weaker. Isolating just how players performed in 2017, you might pick out three tiers. In the top group, you’ve got the Dodgers, Indians, Nationals, Astros, and Yankees. In the middle group, you’ve got the Red Sox, Cubs, and Diamondbacks. And then in the bottom group, you’ve got the Twins and the Rockies. I’d say it all more or less matches up with the perception. Clearly, the two second wild cards would look the weakest out of everyone. And then at the top, good lord, everyone’s terrific. Again, a year ago, for this same exercise, two teams reached 60 WAR, and four teams reached 50. This year, we’re at four and eight, respectively. I don’t know the last time there was such a clear distinction between the haves and have-nots. I don’t know the last time there were so many haves.

If you want a favorite, then, technically, by the projections and by the 2017 statistics, the Dodgers are out in front. Yet the analyses are imperfect, and we can’t predict all the playing times accurately, and certain guys have injury questions. In reality, there’s a handful of favorites, meaning there isn’t a favorite. In these playoffs, there are only obvious underdogs. Ervin Santana’s going to start for one of them pretty soon. As soon as he does, we can leave all these numbers behind, and just focus on the actual gameplay.

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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6 years ago

Hope Yanks advance tonight. Really want to see how they utilize the pen. If Girardi plays t right could be one of the tougher teams to get past.

Jackie T.
6 years ago
Reply to  scott

Really rooting for the Galactic Empire going forward. If they utilize the shock troops right, this could be something special.