For the first time in Major League Baseball history, we just witnessed a full round of Wild Card Series. As all interested parties know by now, each league sent eight teams to the playoffs. Everything started on Tuesday with a three-game series determining which eight would be advancing to the divisional round.
The dust has settled in San Diego and we're set with a final four teams per league. It was a furious four days, though it could have been a lot more hectic if a ridiculous six of the eight series didn't result in a sweep. Here's what we learned from the unprecedented round of postseason baseball.
Series drama was lacking
Coming into the week, we had the opportunity to see:
- Four games Tuesday
- Eight games Wednesday
- Eight games Thursday
- Four games Friday
This week seemed like a veritable smorgasbord for die-hard baseball fans sure to net a few casual fans into the experience and maybe even win over a few lapsed or future fans. Instead, six of the eight series were two-game sweeps. Thanks to a "rain"out in Chicago on Thursday, here's how the final game count ended:
- Four games Tuesday
- Eight games Wednesday
- Four games Thursday
- Two games Friday
We had a shot at 24 games. We got 18. Boo!
But there was plenty of game drama
Of the 18 games, 12 were decided by three runs or less. In fact, in 13 of the 18 games, the winning team had to deal with the tying or go-ahead -- in many cases both -- runner at the plate in the eighth inning or later. Six of the winning teams in the 18 games took the lead for good in the seventh inning or later. Despite only having two win-or-go-home games, there was plenty of nail biting in the wild card round.
Will we see a similar format moving forward?
Many of us who didn't want the playoffs past this crazy season to continue with eight teams per league were trying to be realistic that the plan floated last winter by MLB is what would actually hold moving forward. That is, seven teams per league with the one seed in each league getting a bye and not having to deal with beating an eight seed in a three-game series. There's just something that seems amazingly wrong in baseball to have a 104-win team required to beat a 76-win team in a three-game series in order to get to the divisional round.
Unfortunately, the 1 vs. 8 matchups didn't do us any favors. Though three of the four games in those series counted as close, it never really felt like there was any danger whatsoever of the Blue Jays or Brewers toppling the Rays or Dodgers. The combined score in those two sweeps was 18-5 in favor of the No. 1 seeds. They never trailed.
I'm not necessarily saying we needed an eight seed to convince Rob Manfred, the owners and/or the players to not move forward with this format, but if that's the way everyone is already leaning, it sure as hell didn't help.
Woe is the Central region
Don't be the person who takes this as more than a fun (or not-so-fun, depending upon your point of view) fact, but the region with the most playoff teams was the Central. There were seven of the 16 in the playoffs. The East sent five and the West sent the minimum of four. Still standing? Four from the East and all four West teams. The Blue Jays went home along with all seven of the Central teams.
Strikeouts are way too high
There were a ridiculous 382 strikeouts in 18 games played. We've gotten to the point that it's surprising when a playoff team doesn't strikeout 10 times in a game. Some of the strikeouts can't be avoided because it's simply how good the pitchers are these days with velocity, stuff and the insane ability they have to miss bats. The ever-increasing emphasis on pitch framing surely helps matters here in working counts and getting those "questionable" strike three calls. The bottom line, though, is that it's just too many strikeouts. We need more balls in play for more action on the field. Also, we already know "strikeouts are fascist," as the immortal Crash Davis taught us decades ago.
Home runs are king
It's a time-honored tradition at this point. We get to the postseason, some former player sitting in a broadcast booth starts lamenting how bad today's product is. A bunch of older-generation fans talk about how "back in my day," players used to play the right way. You know, bunting. Hitting it "where they ain't." All this ignores actual fact that hard-throwing pitchers in the 1970s were guys sitting in the low-90s and that's where sliders and changeups are now. But hey, why worry about reality when you can cry about how much better things used to be? I agree that it would be great to find a way to cut down on strikeouts, but talking about how hitters should "try to make more contact" doesn't mean anything. Telling them to bunt on a 100-mph heater or 92-mph slider is a total waste of time -- just as much time as it would be to actually try bunting on those pitches.
But man, these people sure love Small Ball, don't they?
Oh, while we're here: Teams which hit more home runs than their opponents went 12-0 in the first round. We go through this every single year and every single year the exercise ends up in the same place. I just wish we could find more broadcasters to focus on this instead of falsely stating how much better it would be to have a power hitter try to bunt.
Some of my favorite items
- The Yankees hit seven home runs and scored 22 runs in two games. Bunting? LOL. The Game 2 win in Cleveland was the most exciting game of the first round on the AL side, featuring so much back-and-forth action on dramatic extra-base hits. Again, stop talking about bunting. Go rake.
- He only got to play in two games, but Jose Ramirez yanking three doubles for four RBI was pretty cool.
- Tyler Glasnow's filthy stuff never gets old.
- Mookie Betts setting the tone for his Dodgers' playoff career by doubling in each of the first two innings of Game 1.
- Vintage Clayton Kershaw? Hmm ...
- Slam Diego, man. Hoo boy can they pile up the runs in such a short time. That Game 2 comeback was one for the ages and if things progress in San Diego as they appear to be progressing, it's one generations will look back at as a big turning point.
- Dylan Carlson sure looks like the real deal for St. Louis, huh? Oh, and wily veteran Yadier Molina went 5 for his first 10 in the series.
- I don't love the during-the-game interviews of managers, but if we're forced to hear it, can it please be Dusty Baker every single time? He's the best!
- Carlos Correa and the Astros social media accounts going crazy about winning two games and talking about how much everyone hates them is pretty darn funny, I must say. Please keep it up, guys.
- Let's just say that next time he takes the mound, don't miss the first few innings of Sixto Sanchez's raw stuff. Mercy!
- Yu Darvish was pretty filthy, too.
- Lucas Giolito flirting with perfection. Tim Anderson racking up NINE hits in three games. Jose Abreu hitting it hard nearly every time. Luis Robert's raw power.
- How about A's closer Liam Hendriks throwing 49 pitches and not being able to finish Game 2, but then going out on pure adrenaline and striking out three straight White Sox after allowing the tying run to come to the plate in Game 3? It closed down the first A's all-or-nothing game in more than a generation! This was my favorite individual inning of the entire first round, given the surrounding circumstances. Hendriks is an animal. He'll have plenty of rest before next round, too.
Farewell to ...
Oh, Twins. The current legacy of this group is carrying the weight of the 18-game playoff losing streak, even if most of those losses didn't come with any of the current players. The next time they make the playoffs, they'll hear about it again. It won't go away until the streak is over. Just ask any Red Sox player before 2004 or any Cubs player before 2016. Hell, any Nationals player until last season.
Hey, let's give the Brewers some credit. The Justin Smoak thing didn't work out. Lorenzo Cain opted out early on. Christian Yelich picked it up as the season went along, but never looked like the 2018-19 version. Some rotation options never panned out. Corbin Burnes did, and established himself as an ace, but he was hurt before the playoffs. Devin Williams looks like a superstar reliever, but he was also hurt. The Brewers were just 29-31 entering the playoffs and never sat above .500, not even for a day. And they still didn't get blown away by the 43-win Dodgers, losing 4-2 and 3-0.
The Reds didn't even really show up until they won 11 of their last 14 games, surging to the seven seed. Of course, they lulled so many people into thinking they'd be a playoff threat, but then they went right back to being that underachieving team we'd seen most of the year, albeit mostly just their offense. They have something to build on for next year, but it's no sure thing and Trevor Bauer is a free agent.
The Indians nickname? We've already seen the Redskins moniker dropped on the NFL end and it seems like the Cleveland Baseball Team is headed in that same direction. Regardless, the roster itself might be getting a bit of a makeover in the offseason, too. If ownership is really losing money as it says, the options for Carlos Santana and Brad Hand might not be picked up. Cesar Hernandez is a free agent. Superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor is just one year away from free agency and might find himself in a Mookie Betts situation this coming offseason, too.
Sure, it's 2020, but in a way we're saying farewell to the 2016 Cubs, in all likelihood. More on that here.
Let's appreciate what the Cardinals did this season on the field. They played five games (going 2-3) and went a ridiculous SEVENTEEN days without playing another game before returning. From Aug. 15-Sept. 27, they played 53 games, a stretch that included ELEVEN doubleheaders. They somehow managed to get through that with a winning record, pushing a team that started 13-3 until the final weekend before being able to clinch the division. Then the Cardinals had the Padres on the ropes late into Game 2 and played them hard to the end in Game 3. This is a wild card exit and nothing more on paper, but it feels like a pretty strong showing under the circumstances.
It feels like only a temporary goodbye to the Blue Jays. The following players had more than 125 plate appearances and sat between 114 and 146 in OPS+: Vladimir Guerrero, Cavan Biggio. Bo Bichette, Lourdes Gurriel, Randal Grichuk, Rowdy Tellez and Teoscar Hernandez. The oldest of the bunch was Grichuk at 28. A handful of these guys look like they could be stars. A full 2021 after seeing how they continue to build the pitching staff is really something to watch.
Similar sentiment applies to the White Sox, but I'll ramp it up a notch. Jose Abreu and Tim Anderson are MVP-caliber right now. Yoan Moncada and Luis Robert have the skillset to get to that level. Eloy Jimenez is a power icon in the making. Yasmani Grandal is as good an all-around catcher as there is. Lucas Giolito is an ace while Dallas Keuchel is an excellent complement. Dylan Cease and Dane Dunning can grow into mid-rotation arms (or better?). Hopefully Garrett Crochet isn't badly hurt and Michael Kopech can come back strong. There's so much potential here, but they need to do a good job of adding at the margins.
Unfortunately they don't re-seed on the NL side, because on this one I'd rather mix up the matchups. We've already seen this one 10 times and it doesn't seem overly compelling to run it back. The Braves won six of the 10 and that includes taking three of four from the Marlins to open the final week of the season. The Braves' offense was an utter wrecking crew in September, hitting .277/.372/.516 with 55 homers and 173 runs in 26 games. They have the better team on paper here by a decent margin.
Yes, but. This Marlins group has become the embodiment of the scrappy team that thrives off an "us against the world" mentality. They are wearing shirts that say "bottom feeders" and embracing it. They also have some live arms. Counting them out would be foolish.
And of course, the Marlins are 7-0 in history in playoff series. This will be notable whether they win or lose.
Astros vs. Athletics
HERE WE GO (Part I).
The Astros won the 2017-19 AL West titles with the 97-win A's having to settle for a wild card in each of the previous two seasons. Then A's starter Mike Fiers was the whistleblower on the Astros sign-stealing scandal in the offseason, the Astros became Public Enemy Number One for many teams, there was blowback against Fiers himself, the A's went out and won the division while the Astros disappointed and, oh yeah, there was a fight between the two teams earlier this season.
The Astros, as alluded to above, are now a playoff team with a serious chip on their shoulder. The A's are still looking to prove they can make a deep playoff run after all these years of playoff failures (their only time past the ALDS round since 1992 was 2006, when they were swept in the ALCS) and you know they absolutely cherish the opportunity to send the Astros home. On the Astros end when it comes to that latter point? You can bet pretty heavily the feeling is mutual.
Yankees vs. Rays
HERE WE GO (Part II).
At 40-20, the Rays were the best team in the American League for a good portion of the season. The Yankees entered the season as heavy favorites to repeat in the division, too. The biggest obstacle was the Rays owning them in head-to-head games. The Rays won eight of the 10 games in the battle.
And yet, it still feels like David vs. Goliath, doesn't it? I'd love it if the Rays attempted to shift the narrative to them being the Goliath during the series, but man, it's the Yankees vs. Rays in the public eye and there's only one way that goes when it comes to stature.
The best part? There's bad blood, as detailed by my colleague Mike Axisa.
Padres vs. Dodgers
HERE WE GO (Part III).
Are you kidding me? How fun is this?
Let's hope both teams get as close to full strength (I'm looking specifically at the health of Padres' frontline starters Dinelson Lamet and Mike Clevinger but generally at both full rosters), because this is the battle royal baseball deserves.
We've got a veteran playoff team that has dominated its division for the better part of a decade and arguably its league for a bit. The Dodgers have won the NL West eight consecutive years. They have won two of the last three pennants and they were the best team in the NL last year. They've gone to four of the last seven and three of the last four NLCS rounds. All signs say this is the premier National League team.
And yet they still haven't won the World Series since 1988. After all these years, there's no reason for them to be lacking any hunger to grab that elusive ring.
Meanwhile, the upstart Padres are ready to stop sleeping in the shadow of Los Angeles and show they are ready to take the mantle, perhaps a year or two prematurely. Remember the 2015 Cubs taking out the 100-win Cardinals a year before they were "ready?" This series could be shades of that.
Then again, the Dodgers won six of 10 from the Padres this year, going 2-0-1 in series. They are the better team here, especially if the Padres are missing Lamet and/or Clevinger.
How about the star power? Mookie Betts, Fernando Tatis, Manny Machado, Clayton Kershaw, Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager, Justin Turner, Kenley Jansen. Yeah, that was almost all Dodgers. It's time for the rest of the country to start learning about Lamet, Jake Cronenworth, Trent Grisham and to become reacquainted with Wil Myers and playoff Eric Hosmer.
I can't wait. The wild card round didn't go as deep as it should have, but it was off-the-charts fun. It's only going to get better.
Now, let's sit through two full days off. 😡