The wild-card games are in the books and all four division series are set. In this preview, we'll attempt to focus on one under-the-radar aspect of each playoff series, something that might not jump out in the team or individual stats, but will be fun to watch once we've pointed it out.
Two of the hottest teams in the National League will face off when the Rockies and Brewers meet in the NLDS. The Brewers are 20-7 since the start of September, and the Rockies are 20-10 in the same span. Both teams have MVP candidates -- Milwaukee has Christian Yelich; Colorado has Trevor Story and Nolan Arenado.
Those guys will obviously factor in, but there will be an interesting matchup they're likely to be involved in. The Brewers had the second-best defensive efficiency in the National League -- which means they're great at turning balls in play into outs. They're second in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved and first among outfields.
The Rockies, on the other hand, are sixth in the majors in batting average on balls in play, they lead the majors in batting average and are second in slugging on balls hit to the outfield.
Seems simple enough, right? Your standard strength-vs.-strength scenario. Well, not to bring up a tired argument, but Coors Field must be considered when the Rockies are involved. And in this case, the consideration is huge.
The Rockies lead the majors in BABIP by a large margin at home this season, and they're last in the majors by a large margin on the road. It's not just the home runs -- they play half their games in the second-biggest outfield of any ballpark in baseball. So keep an eye on how many balls the Rockies can drop in when they're in Milwaukee, and how many balls those Brewers outfielders can snag in cavernous Coors Field.
One bonus thing to watch along these lines: The Rockies lead the league in percentage of extra bases taken, no doubt impacted by all the room to run in Colorado.
The Dodgers beat the Rockies in the NL West tiebreaker game Monday to avoid the NL Wild Card Game and earn this spot with home-field advantage in the NLDS, and they did it thanks to their biggest strength. Cody Bellinger and Max Muncy each hit two-run home runs, continuing the Dodgers' power surge from left-handed hitters (both homers featured a lefty on base as well, for good measure).
The Dodgers were second in the majors in slugging by left-handed hitters, and fifth in on-base percentage. Their three leading home-run hitters were lefties (Muncy, Bellinger and Joc Pederson) and the guy in fourth is switch-hitter Yasmani Grandal, who hit more than 80 percent of his homers from the left side.
The Braves can counter that -- their pitchers allowed the lowest batting average in the National League to left-handed hitters this season, and the second-lowest slugging percentage. And three of their starters were in the top 12 in the NL in slugging allowed to lefties -- Anibal Sanchez (fifth), Mike Foltynewicz (11th) and Kevin Gausman (12th). But their biggest weapon might be the ability to bring multiple southpaws out of the 'pen to mix and match with the Dodgers sluggers.
Only 24 lefties made 60 appearances this season, and the Braves have three of them. And the Braves might have a secret weapon in 24-year-old lefty Max Fried, the seventh pick in the 2012 draft who they acquired from the Padres for Justin Upton.
Fried made 15 starts in the minors this season, and five in the majors, so he could likely go multiple innings if needed. But in his four appearances out of the bullpen after his latest callup in September, he had eight strikeouts in five innings, including seven of the past 11 batters he's faced.
And one of his five major-league starts this season came against the Dodgers at the end of July -- he had seven strikeouts in five innings, allowing just two hits and a run in that game (extremely small sample size alert).
We know a lot about both of these clubs, the two most recent AL representatives in the World Series.
But what might decide this series is how each team performs in two-strike counts. Both team's pitching staffs are in the top five in the majors in strikeout percentage this season, and these are the two toughest lineups to strike out.
Both teams are in the top six in the majors in on-base and slugging percentage with two strikes, and some of their best hitters are dangerous in two-strike counts.
Six of the 25 toughest hitters to strike out this season will be in this series, three from each team. And seven of the top 17 starters in strikeout percentage could pitch in this series, including each of the Indians' top four starters. And to add to that, new Boston addition Nathan Eovaldi is fifth in the big leagues in K percentage in September.
Lowest strikeout percentage -- Hitters in this series
And the exciting part is that it's not a bunch of slap hitters -- there are players on both sides doing damage with two strikes. There are 32 players who have hit 10 homers in two-strike counts this season, and five of them will be in this series, including Jose Ramirez, who is tied with Giancarlo Stanton for most in the majors (18).
That means when we get to two strikes, and the crowds are on their feet, we've got a good chance at seeing fireworks on either side.
No introduction needed here -- the Yankees and Red Sox met 19 times this season and are intimately familiar with each other. But the thing to watch in this series is how early Red Sox manager Alex Cora goes to his bullpen.
The reason might seem obvious -- to get the right matchups for Aaron Judge and Stanton and Gary Sanchez and even Luke Voit -- but a deeper dive shows how important it will be, and how much it would differ from the regular season.
The four Yankees sluggers just mentioned are right-handed hitters, and Boston's seven most-used relief pitchers this season were right-handed. And it's unlikely that more than three lefties will be on the Sox's postseason roster (Chris Sale, David Price and Eduardo Rodriguez). So for Cora to get the matchups he needs against those guys, he'll need to make a move early and often. But will he?
We know about Price's postseason struggles, especially as a starter, so a short leash for him seems probable. Sale has only pitched in the postseason once (last season) and it didn't go well -- he allowed seven runs in his playoff debut, and didn't finish the fifth inning in his second start. And if Rodriguez gets a start, expect righty Nathan Eovaldi to be warming up early.
But this would be different from what those Yankees hitters saw from the Red Sox this season. I was shocked when I looked this up, but all four of those guys took at least 45 percent of their plate appearances against the Red Sox this season against left-handed pitchers, and Judge (51 percent) and Voit (63 percent) were over half!
That's not a recipe for success for the Sox, especially when you see the left/right splits for Stanton, Judge and Sanchez this season. But we also saw what the former two did against righties in the AL Wild Card Game, both obliterating home runs to get the Yanks to this series.
Notable Yankees sluggers' OPS this season
|Player||vs. LHP||vs. RHP|