Safety in numbers:
Our experts and BaseballHQ size up how the playoffs might unfold.
This year’s October brackets are very different. On the AL side: the 108-win Boston Red Sox, the 103-win defending champion Houston Astros, 197 more wins worth of wild-card entries, and a sneaky Cleveland Indians team a year removed from 101 wins.
Meanwhile, the NL story is one of parity, as evidenced by the need for two Game 163s to settle seedings. Even after the extra games, the five NL entries are bunched between 90 and 96 wins.
How will the month play out? Here is our take:
Colorado enters the wildcard game with the Coors Field question. Despite finishing third in runs, the Rockies offense was just 21st in scoring on the road — and will be lacking home-field advantage in every round. No surprise: the Rockies own the worst ERA among NL postseason clubs.
A solid Chicago Cubs pitching staff is neutralized a tad by an offense that has been nothing special, particularly since the All-Star break (771 OPS in first half, 709 in second half). Despite the late-August Daniel Murphy acquisition, Chicago hitters have slid dramatically in most offensive categories, including strikeouts, walks, batting average, homers and slugging.
The wild-card winner will face the Milwaukee Brewers, who roared down the stretch, winning nine of their last 10. They’ve hit the fourth-most homers in the majors, headlined by peaking MVP candidate Christian Yelich.
The Brewers’ soft spot is a pedestrian five-inning-a-night rotation, but a lethal bullpen keeps them dangerous. Josh Hader (15.9 K/9, 2.50 ERA), Jeremy Jeffress (1.29 ERA) and a resurgent Corey Knebel (no runs, 32/3 K/BB over his last 15 innings) can eat four innings in any close contest. Milwaukee should advance against either the Cubs or Rockies.
The Atlanta Braves rode youth, a fast start and weak competition to their NL East title. They struck out fewer times than any of their NL postseason competitors, finishing seventh in overall contact and fifth in batting average. But they also finished 19th in both walks and homers, suggesting that they’ll need good luck on balls in play to keep up with the NL West champion Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Braves rotation outpitched its peripheral numbers all season, feasting on three bottom-10 offenses in the NL East. Atlanta lost five of seven to L.A. during the regular season and will suffer a similar fate without a home-field advantage.
The July acquisition of Manny Machado paid big dividends down the stretch for the Dodgers, who led the majors in scoring in September. They ranked second overall in home runs and first in walks.
Just as important, their pitchers topped the NL in strikeouts and limiting walks, thanks to a rotation that finished with the NL’s best ERA.
Clayton Kershaw, fast-rising Walker Buehler, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Rich Hill match up very well with their postseason competition on paper. Though a volatile bullpen suggests the Dodgers may need to lean more heavily on their starters in October, they should have enough to get past the Braves and then the Brewers in the NLCS. Barely.
The Astros’ title defense starts on the mound. Aces Justin Verlander (2.52 ERA, 12.2 K/9) and Gerrit Cole (2.88 ERA, 12.4 K/9) form the best 1-2 punch in the AL. Houston aggressively retooled its bullpen in-season, adding closer Roberto Osuna (1.99 ERA with Houston) and Ryan Pressly (0.77 ERA with Houston) to an alreadydeep group. As their leagueleading 3.11 team ERA (half a run better than the next team) shows, the Astros’ run prevention is elite.
Offensively, Alex Bregman (31 HRs, .926 OPS) has graduated from supporting actor to stardom. He augments the returning heart of 2017’s championship core — George Springer, Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve — all of whom spent time on the disabled list in the second half but are now healthy.
Houston will face the Indians, who feature their own pair of aces in Corey Kluber (2.89 ERA, 9.3 K/9) and Carlos Carrasco (3.38 ERA, 10.8 K/9). The key for them is the next man up, whom they hope will be Trevor Bauer (2.21 ERA, 11.3 K/9), as he is just returning from a late-season leg injury.
The Indians bullpen is headlined by the three-headed monster: midseason acquisition Brad Hand (32 saves, 2.89 ERA, 13.3 K/9), last year’s closer Cody Allen (27 saves, 4.70 ERA, 10.7 k/9), and dinged-up super weapon Andrew Miller (only 34 innings, 4.24 ERA, 11.9 K/9), all of whom figure to be deployed aggressively by manager Terry Francona.
The Indians lineup finished third in the AL in runs scored, keyed by the dynamic infield duo of Francisco Lindor (.277, 38 HRs, 129 runs, 25 SB) and Jose Ramirez (.272, 39 HRs, 106 RBI, 34 SB). But late-August pickup Josh Donaldson is a potential game-changer. He spent September shaking off a summer’s worth of rust, and it seemed to work: his 1.00 Eye ratio (10 walks/10 strikeouts) with the Indians suggest he’s ready for October.
Cleveland is formidable, but we’ll favor the Astros in this ALDS matchup.
The wild-card showdown between the Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees features two teams with similar profiles: relatively thin starting rotations, backed by deep and versatile bullpens, and the two top homer-producing offenses in the circuit.
Awaiting the wild-card survivor will be a stacked Red Sox team that has a surprising number of questions entering October.
Chief among them is the status of ace starter Chris Sale (2.11 ERA, 13.5 K/9), who threw only 42 second-half innings, in between two DL stints for shoulder inflammation. Behind him, David Price (3.58 ERA, 9.1 K/9) had a strong rebound year but was repeatedly shelled by the Yankees (10.34 ERA in 16 IP).
Rookie manager Alex Cora spent September holding open auditions for bullpen slots in front of closer Craig Kimbrel (42 saves, 2.74 ERA, 13.9 K/9), without finding clear answers.
Previously unknown Ryan Brasier (1.60 ERA, 7.8 K/9 in just 34 IP) seemed to step into the eighth-inning role as Matt Barnes (3.65 ERA, 14.0 K/9) missed much of September to injury.
What the Astros are to run prevention, the Red Sox are to run scoring. Boston’s 876 runs scored were 50 more than any team except the Yankees. With their Fenway Park home-field advantage locked in, they have the potential to simply slug their way through any series — even if Sale isn’t at his best, or the bad version of Price shows up, or the setup relief crumbles in front of Kimbrel.
In a titanic ALCS matchup between the Red Sox and Astros, we favor Houston’s elite run prevention, plenty of offensive firepower in their own right, and fewer question marks overall. Look for the Astros to make a return trip to the World Series ... and once again edge out the Dodgers in a sevengame rematch.
Everything points to the Astros celebrating a second consecutive World Series title this fall, again coming at the expense of the Dodgers.