Welcome to final 2015 edition of The Rotation! Here's a look at the topics shaping the postseason in Major League Baseball.
1. Bum rush
It's fun to ask, "Who will be this year's Madison Bumgarner on the postseason stage." It's not so fun -- but, unfortunately, accurate -- to answer, "Probably nobody."
There's a reason we all got so breathless with the Bumgarner praise last fall. What he did just doesn't happen. No one had ever thrown 50-plus innings in the postseason with an ERA as low as 1.03. No one has ever compiled a lower World Series ERA (0.25), fewer hits per nine (3.5) or a lower WHIP (0.53) than Bumgarner has in 36 career World Series innings. And five shutout innings of relief in a Game 7, on two days' rest? Dude's a legend for life.
But we've got a few clear candidates to at least establish themselves as Bumgarner Lite in 2015. They are as follows:
David Price, Blue Jays: The greatest in-season pitching acquisition since CC Sabathia in 2008, and, like Sabathia with the Brewers, I would expect Price to be a workhorse. He's got a huge pay day on the line, but this is not a guy who's going to shy away from leading this staff, even if it means going on short rest or extending himself. His last regular-season start was Sept. 26, so he'll be rested and ready for Thursday's Division Series opener at Rogers Centre. And though that last start wasn't anything to write home about, Price had one of the best stretches of his career prior to that point, with a 1.95 ERA and .534 OPS against in 69 1/3 innings over 10 starts.
Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers: Obviously either can dominate, but the strikeout potential is what separates Kershaw from teammate and fellow Cy Young contender Zack Greinke here. Spare me all the talk about Kershaw being a postseason bust. He's had three starts in his postseason history that were something other than "quality" -- one came against the Phillies when he was 21 years old and still just Clayton Kershaw, not CLAYTON KERSHAW, and the other two, famously, came against the Cardinals, a team that seems to have figured something out about Kershaw that no one else has. Let's not forget Kershaw had three playoff starts out of four in 2013 (including one on short rest and one against the Cards) in which he allowed just one earned run in 19 innings. And as far as shaking off past sins against St. Louis and becoming the central figure in this postseason that the Dodgers need him to be, I'll always bet on a truly elite -- and extremely motivated -- talent in a situation such as this. (For those wondering, I'm putting Price ahead of Kershaw, because I flat-out believe the Blue Jays have a better chance of going all the way than the Dodgers do.)
Jake Arrieta, Cubs: Like Bumgarner, it's on him to waltz into PNC Park and break the hearts of a really, really dangerous Pirates team. Unlike with Bumgarner, there will be loads of familiarity in that matchup (Arrieta has already faced the Buccos five times this year, holding them to an insanely low .151/.192/.176 slash). So if the Pirates don't make a major adjustment, Arrieta is in prime position to help the Cubs advance. And if they advance, the guy with 20 straight quality starts and a record-low 0.75 ERA after the All-Star break is going to be a miserable matchup for anybody. We have, of course, also seen Jon Lester step up on this stage in years past.
Gerrit Cole, Pirates: Understandable though it may be, all the Arrieta hubbub is detracting from discussion about what a monster Cole has become. Because the Pirates went all-in for the division race last year and used Cole in the final game of the regular season, we didn't get to see him in last year's Wild Card Game. But he was about as good as you could hope from a rookie in 2013, posting a 2.45 ERA in two starts against the Cardinals in the Division Series. That was before Cole was established as a 200-inning force who made the necessary in-season adjustments to be at his best down the stretch. He had a 2.36 ERA and .547 OPS against in his last five starts, winning four of them. And every single one of those games was against a postseason team -- the Cards, Cubs and Dodgers. If he can outlast Arrieta, he's ready for his close-up.
Cole Hamels, Rangers: We're a long way from Hamels' majestic MVP run through the 2008 World Series as a 24 year old (he had a 1.80 ERA in 35 innings over five starts that October), but that history makes him worth including here. It will be fascinating to see if he can summon some of that magic for his new club. His Texas tenure, to date, hasn't exactly been statistically superb, but the Rangers have won each of his last 10 starts, and he was terrific in the AL West clincher Sunday.
2. Game 1 is game on
It should go without saying that a 1-0 lead in a best-of-five series is a bigger deal than a 1-0 lead in a best-of-seven, but maybe putting a number on it helps.
Twenty years of Division Series history suggests it's about 7 percent more important to win Game 1 in a best-of-five (71.3 percent of those teams have gone on to win the Division Series, while 64 percent of those winning Game 1 in a best-of-seven LCS or World Series went on to finish the job).
But for whatever reason, the contrast is even more marked in the NL, where teams going up 1-0 have won the Series 34 times in 40 tries (85 percent).
That's why it's hard not to feel the Mets have a particularly high hill to climb in Game 1 of their Division Series against Kershaw and the Dodgers, beginning Friday night in Dodger Stadium.
First of all, let's note that this game is only taking place in Dodger Stadium because of a rather improbable final-week implosion by the Mets, who would have held the tiebreaker over the L.A. They were swept by the lowly Phillies and then got no-hit by Max Scherzer in the midst of a series loss to the Nats.
As for the Game 1 matchup, facing Kershaw would be difficult enough if the Mets didn't already have some susceptibility to southpaws. Terry Collins was able to mitigate that concern by loading up his lineup with right-handers vs. lefties for much of the Mets' post-break offensive surge, but Collins won't have that kind of roster flexibility in the postseason, and he's indicated that he might not be as platoon-oriented as he was in the second half. Curtis Granderson (.563 OPS vs. lefties this season) and Daniel Murphy (.632) simply haven't produced against lefties, but lefty-masher Juan Uribe's late-season chest injury puts his status up in the air, and it remains to be seen if Collins feels comfortable incorporating Juan Lagaras and/or Michael Cuddyer into his Game 1 lineup.
Yoenis Cespedes was the Mets' single-biggest sparkplug in the second half (and yes, he's right-handed), but his season (.219/.289/.438) and career (.251/.321/.466) marks against lefties aren't as dynamic as his output against right-handers. Michael Conforto was another huge sparkplug, but he's been deemed largely unplayable vs. lefties (.368 OPS in limited time).
The Mets' potential X-factor here is Lucas Duda, who has had a rollercoaster campaign but one that included a late-September power surge. Duda uncharacteristically crushed lefties (.563 SLG) for stretches this season after career-long troubles in that department. You wonder if he might be 2015's answer to Matt Adams, whose out-of-nowhere homer off Kershaw keyed the Cards' Division-Series-clinching win over the Dodgers last fall.
3. The best vs. the rest of the best
You want a standings-aided reason to get geeked for that Rangers-Blue Jays AL Division Series that kicks off in Toronto on Thursday night (and, perhaps, another reason to be worried about the Mets)?
Here's how the 10 postseason teams ranked in terms of winning percentage against fellow postseason teams this season:
Rangers (27-16), .628
Blue Jays (26-17), .605
Cardinals (34-24), .586
Cubs (31-24), .564
Pirates (29-24), .547
Astros (18-21), .462
Yankees (19-26), .422
Royals (15-23), .395
Dodgers (11-23), .324
Mets (11-26), .297
The Rangers were 42-35 (.546) against winning teams, while the Blue Jays were 42-25 (.627). The Jays tied with the Astros for best home record in the AL this season, while the Rangers had the league's best road record. But whereas the Blue Jays, at +221, had the best run differential of any postseason team (and any team in baseball, of course), the Rangers, at +18, had the lowest.
As for the Mets, well, not only do they rank dead last on the above records list, but they also had the lowest winning percentage against winning teams (.403) of any of this year's postseason clubs.
The Rangers' six-run seventh Sunday might have sealed the AL West, but you had to wonder if the Astros coming up empty in the ninth after putting two on with none out against Brad Ziegler in Arizona might prove to be equally impactful.
Had the Astros rallied from their 5-3 deficit to beat the D-backs, they'd be hosting Tuesday's Wild Card Game against the Yankees (Houston held the head-to-head tiebreaker), and we all know how dominant Dallas Keuchel (15-0, 1.46 ERA, .186/.232/.242 opponents' slash) has been at Minute Maid Park this season. Instead, Keuchel and the boys are Bronx-bound.
Though taking four of six on the road the last week of the regular season saved their season, the Astros still finished with the second-lowest road winning percentage (.407) of any postseason team in history, ahead of only the 1987 Twins (.358).
And Keuchel has been a much different pitcher on the road, on measure, with a 5-8 record, 3.77 ERA and .253/.297/.401 opponents' slash. He had a Major League-best 4.30 groundball-to-flyball ratio at home. On the road he ranked fifth, at 2.37.
(The home/road splits are why I didn't include the potential AL Cy Young winner in my list of Bumgarner Lites above.)
To his credit, Keuchel was terrific at Yankee Stadium on Aug. 25. Backed by 15 runs of support that night, he threw seven scoreless innings in which he allowed just three hits with nine strikeouts. It was, in terms of game score for his road starts, second only to a nine-inning shutout at Oakland Coliseum on April 24. And Keuchel also dominated those Yankee bats for nine shutout innings in Houston on June 25.
So maybe the splits are much ado about nothing. If Keuchel can keep it on the ground, maybe that empty ninth won't matter.
5. Quick hits
- The last time the Cardinals won a postseason game not started by Yadi Molina? Game 7 of the epic 2004 NLCS. On Monday, when Molina sees doctors to get an update on his partially torn thumb ligament, the Cards, who lost both games Yadi didn't start (with a different thumb injury) in last year's NLCS, will find out if they have to try to win one without him again this week.
- Speaking of the Cards, it will be interesting to see how much (if at all) center field Jason Heyward plays this postseason. He only started seven games there during the season, but, as Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted, putting Heyward in center would allow Mike Matheny to start Randal Grichuk in right and Stephen Piscotty at first against a left-handed starter (the Cubs would go with Jon Lester in a Game 1, while the Pirates would use Francisco Liriano).
- If your favorite team has been eliminated, who should you be rooting for in October? Check back Tuesday for our handy flow chart.
- Prince Fielder has a 1.042 OPS in his first plate appearance of games and a .785 OPS in his other plate appearances.
- Are the Yankees hitters running out of gas? Their 23.6 percent miss percentage in September/October was their highest of any month, while their 5.2 percent well-hit percentage of swings in September/October was their lowest.
- The Yankee bullpen also staggered to the finish line, but it wasn't alone among postseason clubs in that regard. The Majors' three highest relief ERAs since Sept. 1 belong to the Astros (5.63), Yankees (5.15) and Blue Jays (5.08).
- Though they struggled against Arrieta, in particular, the Pirates actually had the highest team OPS (.699) against pitchers with an ERA+ of 120 or better than any other postseason club.
- The Cubs tied the longest 2002 Giants' National League record for the longest winning streak (eight games) heading into the postseason.
- Ned Yost put Alcides Escobar back in the leadoff spot (where he hit all of last October), and the Royals won their last five games of the season. Will Ned have the magic touch again this month?
- Zack Greinke (1.66) posted the seventh-lowest ERA of the live ball era, and Kershaw struck out 301 guys. And it's possible neither one of them wins the Cy Young. It's a mad, mad, mad, mad world.
- Mentioned this stat before, and it bears repeating at the onset of October: The Astros (47.8), Yankees (47.8) and Dodgers (44.2) all derived an inordinately high percentage of their runs scored from the long ball. No team in the Wild Card era has won it all after posting a regular season home-run-reliance percentage as high as 44 percent.
- Enjoyed writing this Dr. Seussian season review edition of "The Cycle" for MLB Network. Check it out, and many thanks for reading this year.
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Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor and MLB.com columnist. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.