BY J.A. SCHWARTZ
The 2020 baseball season has arrived at a destination that many felt would never be reached: the successful end of the regular season. Due to the legitimate concerns of staging baseball games amid a pandemic, many skeptics predicted that it was no better than a coin flip that the season would be completed. There were COVID-19 outbreaks that impacted several teams, including the Marlins, Cardinals and Brewers, whose schedules had to be manipulated to allow them to make up missed games while testing could occur to clear the teams for a safe return to play.
Ironically, the rigorous schedule didn’t seem to negatively impact those teams, as each qualified for the postseason. Seven inning doubleheaders helped compensate for the games that were cancelled due to virus related issues, and would also prove useful when the air quality in many west coast cities made playing baseball games impossible in August and September.
Players plied their trade in empty stadiums devoid of the rabid fans that would normally fuel their best efforts. Cardboard cutouts in many stadiums provided immobile witnesses to those exploits, but they were as inert as they were silent. Through all these challenges, baseball finds itself on the precipice of perhaps the most unusual postseason ever played.
The abbreviated 60 game schedule MLB mandated was decried by purists as an imperfect measure of the true quality of teams. Sometimes 162 games isn’t enough to fully sort through the teams trying to qualify for a shot at playoff glory, so how could less than 40% of a full season possibly seem legitimate? That question appears to have been answered.
Prior to the start of the season, the Las Vegas odds makers had the Astros, Dodgers, Yankees and Braves as the teams most likely to win the World Series. Each of those teams has qualified for the playoffs. Based on those odds, 12 of the top 16 teams rated will be part of the October playoff bracket, with only the Red Sox, Mets, Nationals and Phillies failing to live up to their projected levels of performance. In their stead, longer shots like the White Sox, Padres, Blue Jays, and Marlins have crashed the party, fueled in each case by a young roster of inexperienced but very talented ballplayers, who matured more quickly than had been anticipated. It would be disingenuous to suggest that the shortened season has unfairly represented the true abilities of these teams, and there should be no question about the legitimacy of the process that helped to qualify them for postseason play.
AL Wild Card Series matchups:
Tampa Bay (1) hosts Toronto (8)
Tampa Bay ran away with the AL East, and secured the top seed in the American League in the process, finishing 40-20. The strength of the Rays is their pitching staff, led by former Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell, right-handers Charlie Morton and Tyler Glasnow and a host of interchangeable, yet consistently dominant relievers. The Rays don’t feature a traditional closer, with 12 different pitchers earning saves in 2020, led by Nick Anderson’s six. Their 3.57 team ERA was third overall in the majors this year, so scoring in bunches might be challenging for the Blue Jays. Their offense is also distributed among several run producers, led by the versatile Brandon Lowe, who was the only Ray to reach double digits in homers with 14. Tampa also draws a lot of walks, finishing second in that category to the Yankees in the majors this year, prolonging both rallies and elevating pitch counts. The Jays are fueled by their young hitters, primarily Teoscar Hernandez (16 HRs), Bo Bichette and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who helped the team score the third most runs in the AL. But it’s their starting pitching that must hold up if the Jays are to pull the upset in Tampa. Despite finishing with a 4.63 team ERA, Toronto will throw their ace Hyun-Jin Ryu (2.69 ERA) and Taijuan Walker (2.70 ERA) at the Rays, and depend upon their middling bullpen to hold leads or allow for rallies by their young sluggers.
Oakland (2) hosts Chicago White Sox (7)
The A’s won the AL West this year, finishing 36-24 using a familiar recipe: pitching and defense. Oakland’s 3.77 ERA was good for sixth in the majors, buoyed by the best bullpen ERA in baseball, and supported by excellent play from Matt Olson, Matt Chapman, Marcus Semien and Ramon Laureano. The A’s offense does not strike fear into opponent’s hearts, however, with no hitter featuring an OPS above Robbie Grossman’s .826. Sadly for Oakland, one of their primary producers, Chapman, is out for the entire postseason following hip surgery. Fortunately, the A’s have Chris Bassitt leading their rotation, who quietly put up a 2.29 ERA this year, and closer RHP Liam Hendriks, who had 14 saves and a 1.78 ERA for the club. The White Sox will be hoping that their young hitters are ready for prime time. Outfielders Luis Robert and Eloy Jimenez, both just 23, combined to hit 25 HRs and 72 RBIs, and shortstop Tim Anderson, 27, hit .322 with ten homers of his own. If those inexperienced batsmen aren’t up to the rigors of October baseball, perhaps the resurgent Jose Abreu can carry the day. Abreu may be the AL MVP after hitting .317 with 19 HRs and 60 RBIs, and will hope to showcase his abilities against Oakland’s hurlers. The White Sox pitching finished just ahead of Oakland with a 3.72 ERA, good for fifth in the majors. Lucas Giolito (4-3, 3.48), who threw a no-hitter in August, will start Game 1. Southpaw Dallas Keuchel, the former Astro Cy Young winner who signed with Chicago as a free agent, went 6-2 with a 1.99 ERA this year, and will pitch the second game of the series. The White Sox pen is led by closer Alex Colome, who had 12 saves and a 0.81 ERA for the Pale Hose, but also includes five hurlers with ERA’s south of 2.50.
Minnesota (3) hosts Houston (6)
The Twins won the AL Central for the second year in a row, finishing 36-24 to clinch the division. Minnesota’s pitching was fourth best in the majors with a 3.58 ERA, led by former Dodger Kenta Maeda, who went 6-1, 2.70. Maeda, who was frustrated by his former team’s reticence to start him in the postseason, will now take the ball in Game 1 for Minnesota. The Twins have a strong pen in front of closer Taylor Rogers, who had nine saves despite a 4.05 ERA. The Twins offense is triggered by ageless DH Nelson Cruz, 40, who paced the team with 16 HR’s and a .992 OPS. The health of third baseman Josh Donaldson, who missed much of September with a calf issue, might be a critical factor in this series.
The Astros, the only team heading into October without a winning record (29-31), will be without their ace Justin Verlander, who had Tommy John surgery and figures to be out until the 2022 season. Zack Greinke, 36, (3-3, 4.03) this year, and is getting the Game 1 assignment. Hoping to follow him with strong outings will be young starters Framber Valdez, 26, and Cristian Javier, 23, each of whom won five games for Houston. The pen was an issue all season, as closer Roberto Osuna only managed four innings before going down with a right elbow injury. Ryan Pressly stepped up to secure 12 saves, but Houston lacks the dominant arms that seem to be a staple of successful playoff runs. Their offense was middle of the pack in 2020, and down years by infielders Yuli Gurriel, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa made big innings a rare occurrence. Outfielder George Springer, a free agent following the season, led the team with 14 HRs and an 899 OPS.
Cleveland (4) hosts New York Yankees (5)
This matchup is a true contrast in styles. The Indians pitching staff led the AL in ERA at 3.29. They also led baseball in strikeouts by their staff, and walked the fewest hitters in the AL. The Yankees led the AL in runs with 315, so this is the proverbial irresistible force against the immovable object series. Indians ace Shane Bieber won the AL triple crown, going 8-1, 1.63 with 122 strikeouts, and is the presumptive AL Cy Young Award winner. He’ll get the ball in Game 1 against the Bronx Bombers. Carlos Carrasco (3-4, 2.91) and Zach Plesac (4-2, 2.28) will try to keep the Yankee bats from exploding. The Tribes pen is anchored by southpaw Brad Hand, who had 16 saves and a 2.05 ERA this year. His primary set up man is rookie James Karinchak, who struck out 53 batters in only 27 innings. The offense is more pedestrian, led by MVP candidate Jose Ramirez, who hit 17 HRs with 46 RBIs, and an OPS of .993 (the only Cleveland hitter to have an OPS north of 800). The Yankee lineup is littered with dangerous sticks. DJ LeMahieu led the AL with a .364 average and Luke Voit paced the AL with 22 homers. The Yankees led the AL in HR and runs, and did so without significant contributions from superstar outfielders Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton, who missed large swaths of the season with injuries, but are healthy heading into the playoffs. The Yankees will depend upon Gerritt Cole (7-3, 2.84) to counter Bieber in Game 1. Cole has lived up to his nine year, $324 million contract thus far, and his matchup with Bieber in Game 1 is arguably the premier showdown in the first round. Masahiro Tanaka (3-3, 3.56) will follow and both will be supported by the stout Yankee bullpen, led by closer Aroldis Chapman. Chapman appeared in only 13 games due to injury this year, but he still struck out 22 in 11+ innings, and is going to be counted on to squelch ninth inning uprisings for New York. He’s set up by LHP Zack Britton, 1.89 and RHP Chad Green, 3.51.
Wild Card Series:
Tampa Bay over Toronto
Chicago over Oakland
Minnesota over Houston
New York over Cleveland
AL Division Series:
Tampa Bay over New York
Minnesota over Chicago
AL Championship Series:
Minnesota over Tampa Bay