04 October 2005

MLB Playoff Predictions & Analysis: Round 1

This is one of the easiest columns of the year to write, for three reasons:

1) Significance. I have a topic of obvious interest both to myself and to readers, and no shortage of other writers' analysis on which to draw.

B) Timing. I have a definite deadline by which the column must be done, namely before the start of the first round of playoff series, in order for my writing to be relevant.

iii) Accountability. I have none. I can make any prediction I want, and regardless of the outcome, there are absolutely NO consequences for me. I don't get fired, or docked any pay, or put on probation, or reassigned to cover high school girls JV field hockey. Nothing. Even if I'm wrong on all counts I probably won't lose one regular reader, which is fortunate, because that would leave me with so few of them that Mordecai Brown could count them on his pitching hand.

On the other hand, where I have two more fingers than Mordecai, I do have to look myself in the mirror every morning, so I'd better try to do this right.

ALDS: Boston Red Sox vs. Chicago White Sox


Which ones? Who knows? The Red Sox will start Matt Clement (6.00), David Wells (4.50) and Tim Wakefield (3.15) in the first three games of the series, and presumably Curt Schilling (4.02) if it goes to Game Four. Those numbers in parentheses are their ERAs since the start of September. The Pale Hose will counter with Jose Contreras(1.99), Mark Buehrle (3.38), Jon Garland (3.71) and then Freddy Garcia (3.98) if it goes that far.

Clement has been all but awful since he was hit by a batted ball in mid-summer, and though you can harldy blame him ifhe's a little tentative on the mound these days, you also can hardly count on him to pitch a good game. Wells has been consistently inconsistent all year, and Buehrle should help to minimize the damage Boston's lefties can do, especially if they're away from the hitter-friendly Fenway Pahk. The Red Sox could be down 0-2 going into Game Three, with a knuckleballer controlling their fate, though statistically Wakefield vs. Garland seems to give them the best chance to win. Even so, It's hard to know which Curt Schilling will show up to face Garcia in Game Four.

Prediction: Sox in Five. Oh, sorry, White Sox.

ALDS: New York Yankees vs. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Which is still a stupid name.

Game one pits Mike Mussina against Bartolo Colon, and while that matchup generally favors the Angels, the Yankees have generally hit Colon very hard throughout his career, whereas Moose has historically done much better against, um... LAnahfornia(?). Whether tonight's starter is the same Moose or not remains to be seen, but the Yanks certainly have a fighting chance in Game One.

The Yankees' Game Two starter was recently changed from Shawn Chacon to Chien Ming Wang, presumably because the Yankees' feel that Wang's sinker will sink more if he doesn't go a whole week between starts. Sinkerball pitchers often seem more effective if their arm is a little tired rather than over-rested, but Wang will have his work cut out for him against John Lackey, who quietly won 14 games with the 6th best ERA in the American League (3.44). Only Johan Santana and Yankees' Game Three starter Randy Johnson struck out more AL batters. If Lackey has a weakness, it's walks, as his 71 free passes also ranked him 6th in the AL, so the Yankees's hitters would do well to be patient with him. Given that the Yankees had the second most walks in the majors, that shouldn't be a problem.

Game Three matches the aforementioned five-time Cy Young Award winner against Jarrod Washburn, whose 8-8 record belies his 3.20 ERA, which ranked 4th in the AL. Unfortunately for him, his run-support was the 5th worst in the AL, hence the so-so record. With Johnson pitching much more like himself lately (6-0, 1.93 ERA in his last eight starts), look for the Yanks to win this one. And if it comes to Game Four, Shawn Chacon (2.68 ERA at Yankee Stadium) should beat Paul Byrd handily.

Prediction: Yankees in Four.

NLDS: St. Louis Cardinals vs. San Diego Padres of San Diego

See how stupid that sounds?

Speaking of stupid, how stupid is a system in which a team that's 82-80 makes the post season and not one, not two, but three teams with better records get to watch the playoffs from the comforts of their own homes?

The Padres have no business being in the post season. They went 34-39 after the All-Star Break, stumbling to the weakest division title in history. The team does not have a player with 20 homers, or 85 RBI, or 95 runs scored, or 25 steals. It has one .300 hitter, Brian Giles, who hit .301. Certainly, PETCO Park is not a hitter's paradise, but the team was nearly as bad on the road (.741 OPS) as it was at home (.707). Only Jake Peavy is really a "good" starting pitcher, and he's better than that, but other than him, the Cardinals should not have any trouble with them. If the Padres are lucky, Carpenter struggles tonight and Peavy and a decent bullpen get them one win, but they'll either have to go to Woody Williams or to 15-game loser Brian Lawrence for Game Four, neither of which is an attractive option. Lawrence shut out the Barry-less Giants over 9 innings in a generally meaningless late September game, but still finished the month with a 6.18 ERA. Williams started thjat game the Pads lost 20-1 to the Rockies, a glorified AAA team.

Pedro Astacio, Williams and Adam Eaton do not constitute any kind of threat to Jim Edmonds, Larry Walker, and Albert Pujols, who ought to win his first of several MVP awards this year.

Prediction: Cards in Four. Tops.

NLDS: Houston Astros vs. Atlanta Braves

This is the toughest pick of the bunch. You know the Astros have Pettitte, Clemens and Oswalt going in Games 1, 2 and 3. You know how good they've been this year. You know about Roger Clemens' seven Cy Young Awards and Oswalt's two straight 20-win seasons. You know Andy Pettitte's reputation as a "Big Game Pitcher". You may not know, however, that Pettitte has a career ERA of 7.54(!) against the Braves in the postseason, but it's also worth noting that the Andy Pettitte who put up those numbers in 1996 and 1999 was never as good as the 2005 version is.

The Braves' current rotation of Smoltz, Hudson and Sosa is not the stuff of legend that constituted their rotation in the 1990's, but it's capable of keeping the team in games. Smoltz, for one, actually has the numbers to back up his big-game pitcher status (14-4, 2.70 postseason ERA, and he's never lost a game in the Division Series) and Hudson's no slouch either (3.44 ERA in four trips to the postseason).

You know that Houston's offense has been just as bad as their pitching has been good, but this is not the same offense that struggled to score 3.5 runs per game through April and May. A healthy Lance Berkman, plus Morgan Ensberg, Jason Lane and the suddenly-powerful Craig Biggio give the 'Stros at least a decent offense.

The Braves' hitters are not an uber-patient lot, but they'll take a walk. Unfortunately, Astros pitchers don't really give up walks, as their 440 allowed were the fewest in the NL. They don't give up hits, either, (.246 opponent batting average was also lowest in NL) or extra-base hits (.389 opponent slugging percentage was second to the Mets, who had the help of a pitcher's park, unlike Houston). The Braves' best hitter, Andruw Jones, hit only .208 in September, lowering his season average to .262, which will hopefully end his chances of being named NL MVP. Other aspects of the Braves' offense are solid, but nothing seems to indicate that they'll be good enough to beat the Astros' Big Three.

Houston has a better rotation, a better bullpen, and an offense sufficiently capable to win some games, and beat the Bridesmaid Braves.

Prediction: Astros in three. Get out the brooms, baby.

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