Welcome to the postseason. For six months, baseball fans obsess over the concept of the postseason. What are your preseason picks? Who’s going to make the postseason? Which teams hurt themselves at the trade deadline? Which teams helped themselves? Who’s going to win the division? Who’s going to get a bye? Which teams are in? Which teams are out? What’s that team’s magic number? Et cetera, et cetera.
Now we’re here. Before the weekend, trap doors will open underneath a third of these teams. Foomp. Into the inky abyss, never to be seen again. It takes 162 games to get there and about six to eight total hours to be forcibly removed. Fans of 11 out of 12 teams are about to be absolutely sick about what’s about to happen. They’ll never get over it.
About a week after that, trap doors will open under another third. Foomp. This is a horrible and cruel sport, and guess what? We’ll all be back here in the spring, talking about the postseason. It is our sick and deviant way.
To help get a lay of the land, we’ve sorted the postseason teams into tiers. Please note that they’re empirically correct and that the comments section should be reserved for comments like, “Wow, great job!” and “I completely agree with what you wrote about my favorite team! Thanks for writing this.”
How MLB playoffs work: Bracket, rules, format
I. Parishioners at The Church of Jeff Weaver
This tier is reserved for the teams that need to find their own Jeff Weaver to make postseason noise. For the unfamiliar, Weaver was a right-handed starting pitcher with a 5.76 ERA over 31 regular-season starts in 2006. He had a 6.20 ERA over 27 regular-season starts in 2007. In between, he had a 2.43 ERA over five postseason starts and carried the 83-win Cardinals to a World Series win over the team that drafted him. It wasn’t funny at the time, but it’s really funny from here.
These teams are perfectly fine teams, but they’re going to need a couple of surprises to get past the other perfectly fine teams, and they’ll need even more than that to get past the excellent teams that have a first-round bye.
Quick: Name the Diamondbacks’ third starter in 2001. If you’re an Immaculate Grid sicko, you’ll know the answer, but even I had to look it up. It was Miguel Batista, except he was kind of a swingman. After that were Brian Anderson and Robert Ellis, who didn’t exist until I typed his name right now. He was just Mandela Effected into the simulation. Welcome, Robert.
Yet the Diamondbacks won the World Series that season. So if you’re looking at what a team can do even if they have only two starting pitchers, there you go. It’s not exactly quibbling to point out that Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly are orders of magnitude below Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in their prime, but you can accomplish a lot with a top of the rotation like that.
You know what would really help the Diamondbacks here? If they had one of the greatest postseason pitchers of his generation. That’s right, Madison Bumgarner. Why, if they only had him on the roster, they’d be favorites, no foolin’.
(Kidding. But I’m now also doing the Alonzo Mourning GIF in real life, so who knows.)
Every year, I pick the Brewers as my sneaky-good team you don’t want to face in the postseason. And every year, something happens to them. In 2021, Devin Williams punched a wall. In 2022, they missed the postseason, which really hurt their chances. This year, Brandon Woodruff is out for at least the wild-card round, and it doesn’t sound great when it comes to the rounds after that — if they get there.
The Brewers’ lineup often features a half-dozen hitters with a batting average under .240, which would be fine if they hit a bunch of dingers, but they don’t, so they’ll have to pitch their way past teams if they want to win the first World Series in franchise history. Fortunately for them, they still have Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta and a heckuva bullpen, which makes up for a lot.
The Brewers embody sustained success in a small market. Can they finally ace the October test?
I regret to inform the Brewers and their fans that they’re, yet again, the team that I’m irrationally optimistic about. Sorry. Sorry about that. I think their bullpen has a chance to absorb a lot of the innings that Woodruff would have pitched, which means his absence might not be as painful as it could have been, and I’ll guess that, let’s see, Brice Turang hits .450 with a bunch of doubles. Not for any particular reason. Just because the postseason will break brains like that.
Oh, what could have been. With a healthy Sandy Alcantara and Eury Pérez, the Marlins would have had the potential to break a lot of hearts. As is, Jesús Luzardo and Braxton Garrett are excellent starters, but they’ll need help from Edward Cabrera, who could walk a giraffe,* or Johnny Cueto, who looks absolutely cooked. Their lineup has looked a lot better with Josh Bell and Jake Burger in the deadline, so bully on them for winning the trade deadline, but it still doesn’t look like a lineup that can propel a team past the first round. Whatever success they have, it’ll have to come from the pitchers.
However, this is the postseason. Jeff Weaver! Marco Scutaro! Steve Pearce! Remember that time when Tyler Matzek looked like the greatest reliever in baseball history? The Marlins have a history of October nonsense, so they know the deal. Just get to a best-of-something series, prevent runs and hit just enough.
* See, giraffes are tall, so their strike zones would be really big. Jokes are always funnier with an explanation, in my opinion.
II. Postseason games are six innings now, right?
This tier is dedicated to the teams with a horrifically messy bullpen, which is typically not the path to postseason success. And lookie here, there’s just one team in this tier. Good luck. Good luck and Godspeed.
Warning: If the Rangers’ bullpen is on fire, do NOT throw water on them. That will just make things worse. Either smother the flames with a towel or cover the bullpen with a lid. Then fetch Bruce Bochy a glass of 2017 Château Lafite Rothschild. Actually, just bring him the bottle and a very long straw. He’s gonna need it.
The Rangers’ bullpen ERA by month:
The Rangers were 14-22 in one-run games this season, and you have to wonder where those 14 wins came from. It’s been a ride. So the general prescription would seem to be “hope the starting pitchers go deep,” except the starters were even worse in September. Nathan Eovaldi looks gassed, and Jon Gray hasn’t been much better. If the Rangers had traded for Jack Flaherty instead of Jordan Montgomery, they might have missed the postseason altogether. Now they have to face the Rays, who scored more runs than all but one AL team. It has the potential to get ugly.
If you’re looking for ways not to get discouraged, though, consider that the only AL team to score more runs than the Rays was the Rangers. They can mash. And mash and mash and mash. And while the Rays’ bullpen isn’t a grease fire, their rotation was at least a small brush fire in September. There should be a chance to jump on them early.
III. They will go as far as their pitching will take them … maybe even to a ticker-tape parade
Here’s the thing about starting pitchers: They’re weirdos. Not personality-wise, but when it comes to being predictable in October. It’s great that Johnny Pitcharm had a 12-9 record and a 3.78 during the regular season and his team couldn’t have made the postseason without him. But here he comes out for Game 1 or Game 2 and, whoops, he just doesn’t have it. He’s given up six runs and can’t get out of the third inning. You see it every postseason.
Starting pitchers are chaotic neutral. (Relievers are lawful evil. Lineups are true neutral. Speedy teams are chaotic good. Still working on this.) Here are the teams that have a chance to win the whole danged thing if their pitchers are roughly as good as they were all season.
I know that Twins fans are tired of hearing about the team’s postseason losing streak, and I empathize with them. However, it turns out that the Twins have lost 18 freaking postseason games in a row, which is absolutely bananas. They’re 6-27 in the postseason since winning the 1991 World Series. That’s not the elephant in the room; it’s T.C. Bear in the corner with a machete, head cocked to the side and staring at you with those dead eyes. Good luck ignoring that.
The lineup is banged up, but they’re getting Royce Lewis and Carlos Correa back, and Edouard Julien and Matt Wallner give the lineup more depth than they had to start the season. They’re not the Braves, however, and they’re not going to slug their way to the World Series. They’ll need their excellent rotation to be, well, excellent. If Joe Ryan can pitch to his expected statistics and stop giving up dingers, even better.
If there’s room for extra optimism, it’s this: Not only are they not facing the Yankees, who have handed them the majority of their postseason losses, but they’re facing the only team in baseball that’s the literal opposite of the Yankees. Not in terms of style of play but because they’re from a totally different country. They have pictures of a queen on their money and everything. That’s as far from a Yankee as they can get.
(They should keep an eye on Aaron Hicks, though, just to be safe.)
Hey, it worked last year. Shove Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola down opponents’ throats and hit a bunch of long home runs. It’s a formula that’s as pure as it is simple. The problem with this strategy is that Nola isn’t quite the same pitcher this season. He hasn’t been a disaster, but he’s scuffled for most of the season, and he was at his most erratic in September. Behind Wheeler and Nola, the Phillies have Ranger Suárez and Taijuan Walker, who are fine, but this isn’t the same 1-2 punch as last year.
Here’s some food for thought, though: The Phillies are facing the Marlins in the first round, and Miami is without two of their best starting pitchers. If they get past them, then they’ll face the Braves, who might not have one of their best starting pitchers, and Max Fried is dealing with blister issues. The Phillies are a team that can thump. Teams like them are always one hanging slider away from glory, and the odds are in favor of them seeing more of those hangers than you typically see in the postseason.
Also, don’t forget about the wild card of the Wild Card: Orion Kerkering, who has a tremendous name and a slider to match. His name gives off strong paladin-on-a-quest vibes. Lo, he has journeyed long and far to bring peace back to the Kingdom of Jawn, and he has the potential to be a surprising October presence.
Toronto Blue Jays
All of these teams are starting to blend together. Here’s something about a bunch of starters with ERAs between 3.00 and 4.00. Here’s something about a bullpen that’s strong but has weak spots. Here’s an imperfect lineup that can do a few things right, and if a bunch of their hitters get hot, look out. Rinse and repeat.
The Blue Jays, though, are the king of these teams. They should be the American League Braves. Look at all those hitters! Look at how good they should be! Then you look at their Baseball-Reference page, and almost every single hitter has an adjusted OPS that’s about 20 points lower than it should be, except for Kevin Kiermaier, who is apparently stealing their lifeforce with dark magicks.
The thing about those kinds of teams, though, is that nobody would be surprised if the entire lineup just went absolutely bonkers for a month. We talk about the teams with strong starting pitching or dominant bullpens being the ones you don’t want to face in a short series, but don’t forget about the teams that can offer dingers from seven, eight or nine spots in the lineup. That and, oh yeah, their starting pitching runs plenty deep, too. They’re better than an 89-win team.
The Astros are the Blue Jays’ lineup of starting pitchers, if that makes sense. You look at the names, and you remember why they won the World Series last year, but every single one of their pitchers has an extra run or two or three tacked onto their ERA from last season. The 16-win difference between last season and this one isn’t all due to starting pitcher hiccups and injuries, but most of it is.
They’re hitting, though, and they’re peaking at the right time. After a middling May and a merely decent June and July, the Astros had a team OPS over .800 in both August and September, slugging a cool .479 in the final month of the season. They never got José Abreu all the way back, but he hit .237/.299/.536 in September, with seven homers and 28 RBIs, which seems like a lot of RBIs. He’s had a rough year overall, but you’ll still never hear a pitcher say, “Oh, heck yeah, José Abreu is coming up with runners on base. Cool.”
It’s all about their pitching and run prevention, then. Since the start of August, their rotation has thrown 299 2/3 innings (5.4 innings per start), with a 4.90 ERA, and they’ll either face a team that hit 233 homers in the regular season (Twins) or a team that should have hit 233 homers in the regular season (Blue Jays). The Astros are the only AL postseason team that allowed more than 200 homers, so they might be on a collision course with some taters if they don’t figure a few things out.
IV. Sleeper picks to win it all that you’re not thinking nearly enough about
It’s easy to focus on the Dodgers, Braves and Astros because they’re the last three World Series winners, and they’re seemingly in the postseason every year. Throw a dart and pick one of them, and you’ll probably be right. But here are the teams that aren’t just happy to be here. They might just win the whole thing.
The Orioles … might have the best rotation of any AL postseason team? I’ve typed that sentence and deleted it 14 times, but I think it’s accurate. Kyle Bradish has been an absolute freak in the second half, and Grayson Rodriguez has been almost as good. John Means is back and has returned to his flummoxing ways, and even Kyle Gibson had an ERA under 3.00 in September. It’s not Jim Palmer/Mike Cuellar/Dave McNally, but it’s approximately 100 times better than what their possible postseason rotation looked like at the All-Star break.
The Orioles have a well-balanced lineup, which is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because they have a lot of hitters who do something right, whether it’s hit for power, get on base or rope a bunch of doubles. Adley Rutschman can do all three, which seems like a neat trick for a catcher to pull off. Even Jorge Mateo can steal bases at a high clip, which seems like something that can matter a lot more in a short postseason series.
It’s a curse, though, because they don’t have That Guy. They had eight players with an OPS above .700, which is great, but they didn’t have anyone with an OPS over .814, which is less encouraging. They’re about to run a gauntlet filled with the best pitching staffs in baseball.
Still, combine the starting pitching with a well-balanced lineup, and add a bullpen that’s good enough to impress even without Félix Bautista, and you have a team that shouldn’t surprise you if they win it all. They won 101 games for a reason, you know.
Tampa Bay Rays
Aaron Civale was a disaster in the final month of the season. Tyler Glasnow and Zach Eflin have been merely OK. They might have the best rotation in baseball if you count pitchers on the 60-day IL, which you should not. There are many reasons to worry about the Rays’ starting pitching, which seems like a big deal in the postseason.
They’ll figure it out. I try not to mess with the appeal to authority fallacy too much, but I’ll cash in a chip here. They’ll figure it out. This is a franchise that wins every season, even though they have the payroll of an airport Sbarro and a roster filled with unlicensed players from “Bases Loaded 3.” A couple months ago, the Rays traded their first-round pick from 2020 for a 30-year-old reliever with a career ERA of 5.00. He immediately turned into a fire-breathing deity and struck out more than a third of the batters he faced with his new team. That’s absurd. And they’re plotting ways to do it again, but with postseason decisions instead of transactions.
They can hit, too. While they weren’t able to sustain the hilarious early-season pace that made it look like they’d have eight 50-homer players, they settled into a nice, respectable groove, especially in the final two months of the season. They can hit for average, hit for power, take a walk, steal some bags … you know, baseball stuff.
If the starting pitchers figure it out, this is probably the most well-balanced team in the postseason or second behind the Orioles. The Braves had their worst bullpen ERA in September, and the Dodgers have zygotes in their rotation because of injuries and other assorted issues, but all the Rays need to do is get their previously effective starting pitchers to be effective again.
They’ll figure it out.
V. Would be the favorites to win the World Series if their Opening Day rotations were available (but let’s not kid ourselves, they’re probably still the favorites)
Los Angeles Dodgers
Clayton Kershaw led the Dodgers in innings pitched this season. He threw 131 2/3 innings. The Dodgers had 17 different pitchers make starts this season, which is the third-most in franchise history. Their rotation is a mess, and that’s before you remember that Kershaw’s shoulder is barking, growling and howling at the moon. There have been a lot of postseasons where the Dodgers had to triage, but this might be the most scrambling they’ve ever had to do with a rotation.
And they’ve been excellent in September. Bobby Miller has arrived. Emmet Sheehan isn’t far behind. Lance Lynn has been extremely Lance Lynn, but at least the Dodgers didn’t trade for Max Scherzer, who got hurt shortly after the deadline. Kershaw isn’t the start-on-short-rest horse he used to be, but he’s grinding, five innings at a time. The rotation shouldn’t be outstanding in the postseason, but it shouldn’t be as awful as it has every right to be. The Dodgers should have a team ERA of 5.50, considering what’s happened to them. Instead, they won 100 games.
They did it with two MVP candidates, Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman. You can’t gameplan for them. You don’t deploy a secret platoon reliever against them. You just hope they screw up, which they generally don’t. The Dodgers don’t have a perfect, dominant lineup — they have a surprising number of hitters who can be pitched to, considering — but if you drafted Betts and Freeman with your first two picks of the Want Them On My Postseason Roster Draft, nobody’s going to make fun of you.
Charlie Morton and Max Fried finished the regular season on the IL, and their availability for the postseason is uncertain. Bryce Elder has a fine ERA but a marginal FIP because he allows a lot of contact, and that doesn’t seem like an ideal strategy against some of the best offenses in baseball. The Braves are the franchise that gave the world “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain,” and now they’re entering a postseason with “Strider and … Elder, I guess, and … Smith-Shawver, but that guy went to prom, like, 18 months ago?” which doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as easily.
Doesn’t matter. They’ll hit. After studying all of the rosters of all the postseason teams, the common thread is that all of them have pitchers who are good, maybe even very good, but few who are great. There isn’t Cliff Lee in his prime on any of these teams. There’s no Johnson/Schilling to chew up even the best lineups. There isn’t even a Kershaw/Buehler, which was just a couple years ago. The Twins, Blue Jays, Dodgers, Phillies, Brewers — all of them really — have a collection of solid pitchers. Some of them are even better than solid, and maybe a couple of those pitchers can give the Braves the business in a short series.
Then the Braves will snack on the other starting pitchers and the relievers that come in after them. It will be a gory mess. TBS and FOX should pixelate the screen. There are children watching, my heavens.
It’s possible that the lack of starting depth will catch up with the Braves, and don’t overlook their bullpen, which had a lot of September weirdness and very little dominance. But they’ll hit. And hit and hit and hit. This is an absolutely goofy team. The second-worst hitter in the lineup by OPS+ is Eddie Rosario, and he has 21 homers and a .450 slugging percentage. Ozzie Albies has a .280/.336/.513 slash line and that’s good for only the sixth-best OPS in this lineup.
They have this one guy with 41 homers and 73 stolen bases. Can you even imagine such a thing? Seems unfair.
Sure, maybe Horacio Ramirez will have to make a couple starts here and there, but they’ll hit. And against this postseason field, that might be enough.
(Top photo of Gunnar Henderson and Adley Rutschman: Jess Rapfogel / Getty Images)