On Thursday, the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants will wrap up the divisional round when they play a decisive Game 5. The winner will advance for a Championship Series matchup against the Atlanta Braves. Whoever prevails in that series will then face the Houston Astros or the Boston Red Sox in the World Series.
That the Dodgers-Giants is the last series standing is fitting: it was the most anticipated of the divisional round, with the two clubs combining for 213 regular season victories. Even so, with today marking the first day off since the postseason began, we figured we'd use it to reflect on those who have already won and lost in the divisional round; not the literal winners and losers, but the individuals and aspects who had the best (and worst) week-plus of October baseball.
With that in mind, let's get to it.
Winner: Red Sox's unsung moves
Some people might use the Red Sox's success this season to justify the Mookie Betts trade. We disagree with that evaluation. We do think, however, that Chaim Bloom deserves credit for a number of lower-level moves that have paid off.
- Kiké Hernández delivered a club-leading nine hits during Boston's ALDS win against the Rays. This came on the heels of a five-win season, according to Baseball Reference's calculations. The Red Sox signed Hernández for two years and $14 million over the winter, meaning he's already proven to be a bargain.
- Garrett Whitlock was a Rule 5 pick by way of the New York Yankees. All Whitlock did during the regular season was post a 1.96 ERA in 73 innings. In the ALDS, he appeared twice and held Tampa Bay scoreless in three-plus frames.
- Nick Pivetta led the Red Sox in ALDS innings, thanks in part to a clutch performance in the marathon portion of Game 3. Bloom originally lassoed Pivetta (and a prospect) from the Philadelphia Phillies at the 2020 trade deadline in exchange for Heath Hembree and Brandon Workman.
- Maybe Kyle Schwarber is stretching the definition of unsung, since he was very well known when he joined the Red Sox at this deadline, but he homered seven times in 41 games down the stretch.
You can spotlight other moves as well, but the Red Sox's success is a nice reminder that the smaller deals made on the margins can make a big difference.
Loser: Tony La Russa
Turning to baseball's other Sox, the ALDS is the kind of series the White Sox were supposed to win when they made a change at manager over the winter, dumping Rick Renteria in favor of Tony La Russa. That didn't work out.
Instead La Russa made some questionable decisions with his bullpen, and ended his first year back in Chicago by accusing the Astros of intentionally plunking José Abreu.
A manager can do only so much to a team's chances, good or bad, during a four-game stretch. But there's no real reason to think Renteria would have fared worse.
Winner: Sign-stealing drama
White Sox reliever Ryan Tepera made headlines after Game 3 of Chicago's series with the Astros when he implied Houston might be stealing signs again. (You may have heard that the Astros were punished in early 2020 after a league investigation confirmed they had improperly used technology to steal and relay signs during games during their World Series title run in 2017.) Tepera's comments didn't stop the Astros from dismissing the White Sox in four games, but it did provide a number of memorable quotes, including a response from Houston shortstop Carlos Correa.
Oh, and by the way, the Astros will now square off in the ALCS against the Red Sox, the other team recently punished for using technology to steal signs and one managed by Alex Cora, the former Astros bench coach and one of the leaders of Houston's cheating scheme. It's probably not good for the game's integrity, but for a certain type of fan it makes for a juicy watch.
Loser: Christian Yelich
The 2018 NL MVP didn't author the big comeback year everyone hoped he would after a down 2020 season. Instead he finished with a career-low 99 OPS+ and raised more concerns about his ability to return to his old form.
Yelich didn't make up for his lackluster regular season during the Brewers series against the Braves, either. In four games, he notched three hits and struck out eight times -- including striking out looking to end Game 4 and the Brewers' season. He left three batters on base in Game 4, a contest the Brewers lost by one. To make matters worse, there were a few too many instances for such a short series in which he looked overwhelmed or puzzled at the plate.
Christian Yelich: “I’ve got to be better. I came up in a lot of big spots throughout the year and this postseason as well. I came up short. That’s how it rolls, it’s part of the game. You have to take it all in and pick yourself up afterwards and keep moving.” pic.twitter.com/rRCBvfzWEu— Adam McCalvy (@AdamMcCalvy) October 13, 2021
Here's hoping Yelich can return to form next season. Otherwise, the Brewers will have reason to get anxious about how the rest of his long-term extension is going to play out.
Winner: Wander Franco
We covered Franco in greater depth elsewhere, but this was the young phenom's first time on the national stage. He didn't waste the opportunity to introduce himself, either. Franco went 7 for 19 with two doubles, two home runs, four runs batted in and a number of high-quality defensive plays. At no point did he appear overmatched or out of place, which is saying something considering he's 18 months younger than Henry Davis, the catcher the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted No. 1 overall in July.
Although Franco's Rays lost, we're putting him here because it's rare for a young player to engender so much hype -- he'd been the game's No. 1 prospect dating back into 2019, or roughly an eternity in the scouting world -- and then perform at a level that validates it. Whatever comes next for the Rays, at least they have Franco.
Loser: Brandon Lowe
You have to feel for Franco's Rays teammate. Over the past two years, Lowe has hit .253/.346/.532 (145 OPS+) with 53 home runs and 10 stolen bases in 205 games. Those marks translate to more than seven Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference's calculations, putting him 16th among hitters and in fine company alongside the likes of Aaron Judge, Bo Bichette, Marcus Semien, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Yet once October hits, Lowe stops. In 20 games last fall, he hit .118/.183/.276 with nearly three times as many strikeouts (28) as hits (nine). This time around, he went 0 for 18 with nine strikeouts. It's true that teams can gameplan more in October, but Lowe is too good to continue to be so poor under the game's brightest lights. Maybe next year.
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