Billy Beane, whose Oakland A's just stole the American League West out from under the Texas Rangers, was not wrong when he described the playoffs as a crapshoot. We can evaluate every team and scrutinize all the numbers, but everyone knows anything can happen in a short series, let alone the one-game "coin flip" of this year's wild card matchups. Usually Justin Verlander is an untouchable ace, usually Joey Votto will destroy pitchers. But sometimes Albert Pujols is awful for a month. Sometimes Eduardo Nunez homers off of James Shields. Baseball experts couldn't predict Baltimore's astounding lack of suck this season or Boston's bloated debacle of a year. So what hope do we have with the tiny sample size of the playoffs?
With that in mind, in addition to evaluating every team via more traditional methods, I consulted Fahrusha, a psychic in New York's East Village. Fahrusha is not a baseball fan, though she's enjoyed the occasional game with family and friends, and we did the readings blind, so that she would not be influenced by any preconceptions about a given team. I assigned each team a random number, and was instructed to concentrate on the team each number represented while swirling the tea leaves. Then we flipped them into the saucer, and Fahrusha provided a reading of the results.
(According to Fahrusha, another good prediction system would involve getting an octopus or giant squid, a la Paul, who predicted World Cup games a couple years back, because "cephalopods are among the most psychic animals." It is now my mission to get Sports on Earth its own "oracle octopus," preferably before the Super Bowl.)
So let's see if, through a mixture of traditional and advanced stats and some very traditional seer techniques, we can tell what these teams have for and against them heading into this weekend's action.
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Strengths: The ability to baffle baseball analysts all around the country, the ability to have one of the best records in the game while only scoring seven more runs than it gave up (until late September, it had a negative run differential).
A team's "Pythagorean record" is an attempt to determine what its record should be, given runs scored and allowed, and How These Things Generally Work. Well, the Orioles' Pythagorean record is 82-79. Their actual record is 93-69. Every other AL playoff team is within two games of its Pythagorean W-L.
So, what the hell? Not to take anything away from what Baltimore has accomplished, but the short answer is luck. It has had good pitching without any established aces, and some good hitters have had good seasons (especially Adam Jones and Nick Markakis), but it has no remarkable sluggers. The Orioles, though, are 29-9 in one-run games, an all-time record, and 16-2 in extra-inning games, and these games have a lot to do with luck.
That said, luck sustained over the course of an entire season is, I'd argue, something of a skill. If the Orioles are like Wile E. Coyote, heedlessly dashing over the cliff and running on thin air after their Road Runner playoff hopes, then one of their greatest accomplishments has been simply not looking down. The Orioles could have swooned in August and no one would have thought anything of it. But here they still are, dashing impossibly over the canyon.
To a certain extent, you make your own luck, and so a lot of credit goes to their bullpen for this and a lot goes to Buck Showalter, whose moves have often been the difference in the Orioles' thin margins of victory, and who has kept the team from collectively glancing below their feet, holding up an "uh oh" sign, and plummeting to earth -- much like, for instance, the Pirates did. It's a safe bet that Showalter will keep them calm during their wild-card game too, not that that playoff series can be won on calmness alone.
Weaknesses: It's not so much a weakness as a lack of a particular strength, bullpen excepted. The Orioles are eighth in the American League in runs scored, seventh in OPS and ninth in OPS+ (which adjusts for Camden), despite being second in home runs; they have the sixth-best ERA in the AL and the seventh-most strikeouts. They are a good and balanced team, but they don't have a starter opponents will lose sleep over, impressive as Chris Tillman has been, nor do they have a slugger who will strike fear into the hearts of pitchers.
Watch Out For: Forty-two-year-old slugger and (if there is any justice) future Hall-of-Famer Jim Thome missed a lot of time this season with a herniated disk, but if he's healthy, he may still be able to find some pop -- and this may be his last postseason.
Fahrusha Reads the Tea Leaves: "Circles are an important symbol for this team. They're methodical. They have somebody who is amazing at catching balls here. They are -- faithful to the team, on some level -- I don't know if that's the fans or the players. I think that people underestimate this team. They have an older player or players who are very good; they might be known as dinosaurs, but not as in too old, dinosaurs as in T-Rex."
My Take: I'm not so sure what to make of the circles, unless it's circling the bases, but that's pretty crucial symbology for any team. Underestimated? Right on, and I say that even though I'm going to go right on underestimating them. Showalter is fairly described as methodical, and here's hoping Thome's the T-Rex.
Strengths: That lineup is not messing around, and neither is Verlander.
The Tigers' ace had another spectacular year: 2.64 ERA, 238 innings, 239 strikeouts, just 60 walks and 19 homers. He also has a well-documented tendency to get even stronger as games go on, and while he wasn't great in last year's playoffs, any team facing him twice in a short series -- or even three times in a long one -- has its work cut out for it. Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer are mortal by comparison, but perfectly respectable.
Meanwhile, Miguel Cabrera, Triple Crown winner and object of intense MVP debate, may not be (for my money) the all-around player this season that Mike Trout was. But I think it's fair to call him the best hitter. He represents a constant, looming offensive threat, so much so that he's managed to overshadow Prince Fielder -- a hard man to overshadow. Fielder's not having a shabby season himself, and neither is Austin Jackson. This team gives starters ulcers.
So how come the Tigers, in the AL's weakest division, have five fewer wins than any other AL playoff team?
Weaknesses: Everyone said the Tigers' defense was going to be a problem for them this year. Everyone was right. Over the course of the season, their infield's hitting prowess compensated for enough of their errors, poor range and bad throws. But in a given crucial playoff game, that might not be the case.
(In fairness, luck is involved in Detroit's underwhelming season, too. Baltimore was hogging the one-run game victories; Detroit went 21-27 in those contests.)
Watch Out For: Andy Dirks, a hustler who in 88 games (he missed time with Achilles tendonitis) has given the Tigers very solid outfield production and done the "little things" -- like hard slides -- well enough to endear himself to old-school manager Jim Leyland and earn more playing time. He seems poised to make himself both useful and better known this October.
Fahrusha Reads the Tea Leaves: "There's somebody on this team with a wonderful sense of humor, well-renowned for wisecracks, stuff like that. I don't think that's going to help the team though. Things look a little undisciplined here. There seems to be some amount of chaos. I see there will be some unusual plays happening for this team. Two of something or a double-something that will have an unusual outcome. And players should all wear the proper safety equipment around the eyes."
My Take: Yeesh, is the Tigers' defense so terrible that they need to be wearing goggles, lest they throw the ball in each other's faces? Give Fahrusha credit on this one, because "unusual plays" certainly abound with this infield, although let's hope it won't be an actual safety issue.
New York Yankees
Strengths: That Yankees' offense is another year older and creakier, but it's still the best in the AL by many measures. The team's fans spent a lot of time agonizing over the Bombers' failures with runners in scoring position, but New York still scored more runs than anyone in the league besides the Rangers (who ended with just four more). That's courtesy of the AL's highest OPS; according to Baseball Reference's OPS+, the Yanks were just behind the Angels. They got on base more than anyone, just edging out the Tigers, and while they were fourth in batting average, they were first in home runs -- and not by a little, with 245 (Baltimore was next with 214). Hits with runs in scoring position are obviously important, but they're less crucial when almost anyone in your lineup can go yard at any time.
The Yankees' come-from-behind Tuesday night victory over Boston was their first of the season when trailing after the eighth inning. That's a bit misleading, though, since it was also their 45th comeback win -- tied with the Reds for most in the majors. In other words, the Yankees won plenty without having to wait for a drama-filled last at-bat.
The entire lineup is strong. Robinson Cano would be an MVP candidate if not for Trout and Cabrera's amazing years. And if Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira aren't what they used to be, Derek Jeter, weirdly enough, is. Curtis Granderson, who still insists that he is not a home-run hitter, is batting .232, but with 43 taters.
Weaknesses: CC Sabathia has been good but not his amazing self this year, and after him and Hiroki Kuroda, the rotation gets less impressive in a hurry. Andy Pettitte has gotten strong results since returning from his fractured ankle but looked shaky in the process, and Phil Hughes is engaged in a fight to the death with home runs allowed.
Finally, while the Yankees' bullpen is a strength overall, and Rafael Soriano has done a truly excellent job of filling in for Mariano Rivera, which is no easy task … Rafael Soriano is not Mariano Rivera. The Yankees head into the postseason without the greatest postseason reliever in the history of the game for the first time since 1995, when they didn't yet know what they had in their bullpen.
Watch Out For: Everyone knew Rodriguez and Teixeira would be overpaid in the last few years of their contracts, but while they're still above average players, they're looking older sooner than expected. How bad could this get? And, meanwhile, how the hell is Jeter pulling this off?
Fahrusha Reads the Tea Leaves: "This team has a variety of skills … all-around good players. The one weakness I see here is, maybe weather could be an issue for them. If the weather is not what they're used to it could be problematic. It's possible that this team has an unusual stadium. And perhaps an overweight player ... he's notable."
My Take: You don't have to be psychic to figure that Sabathia will be crucial to the Yankees' playoff hopes. Yankee Stadium does not strike me as particularly unusual except for that short porch in right -- and it's not crazy to think that might be a factor.
Strengths: Everything, basically. The Rangers' hitting has been better than their pitching, but both have been excellent. They lead the AL in runs (by a nose over the Yankees), are second in slugging percentage and third in on-base percentage -- if they're not the best offense in the majors, they're certainly up there with New York, Detroit and the Angels. Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, David Murphy, Mike Napoli -- that's a scary lineup.
Texas' pitching, if not quite as dominant, was also a strength, with a big three of Matt Harrison, Colby Lewis (who, however, is out for the season) and Yu Darvish, who's finishing the year strong. The team is seventh in ERA (4.02) but third in ERA+, which adjusts for that home park of theirs, and fourth in strikeouts. Joe Nathan, at 37, has anchored the bullpen, with a strong set-up cast.
Weaknesses: Well, losing the division lead you've had since April 9 can't be great for morale. On paper, this team has the talent in all areas to make the World Series. But on paper, it would've annihilated the A's.
I hesitate to call Ron Washington a weakness because he is obviously a great manager of personalities, very popular with his players, and the team has had a lot success under him. On top of that, all the pressure will be on the Rangers now, so Washington's even keel will be even more important. Still, while over the course of a long season great personnel skill and leadership will generally make up for any tactical missteps, that's not always true in a short postseason series, let alone a one-game wild card matchup where every move could be crucial. And in the Rangers' last October appearances, Washington's downright baffling at times bullpen management cost them dearly.
Watch Out For: With Hamilton's future unknown, these could be his last appearances in a Rangers uniform. Let's not go overboard as with Pujols' thousand-and-one "possible last at-bat with the Cardinals," but it's worth marking the occasion.
Fahrusha Reads the Tea Leaves: "A beautiful woman, maybe involved with one of the players, will be seen around the team. Cause for some rumor or scuttlebutt, but I don't see it affecting the winner. ... They look to get off to a slow start, but pick up as things go on. Slow and steady more than fanfare."
My Take: If you count Wednesday, the Rangers' start couldn't have been much slower, but now that they're the wild card, they don't have much time to wait before picking up speed. As for the beautiful woman, we'll just have to keep an eye out.
Strengths: This team could hardly be any hotter -- the A's were 13 games behind the Rangers on June 30, and fought all the way to the wire, making up five games in just eight days. So not only are the A's playing well on both ends of the ball, but they also have perhaps less pressure on them than any team in the playoffs, though of course the effects of that can't be quantified. They're not even supposed to be here, and anything else they accomplish is gravy.
There's no evidence, however, that going into the postseason hot or cold has any effect on how a team does once there. Turning to more tangible matters, Oakland is second in team ERA (3.50) in the AL and also second in ERA+, which takes into account the Coliseum. They are somehow doing this while just 12th in the AL in strikeouts, though they don't walk too many people either. And unlike A's teams of yore, this one is pretty decent defensively.
Oakland's offense strikes out more than any other AL team, and is second-to-last in batting average, third-to-last in on-base percentage and eighth in runs scored. It's basically Yoenis Cespedes -- a brilliant signing so far -- Jonny Gomes, Josh Reddick and a wing and a prayer. Seth Smith has been their fourth-best hitter, which, with all due respect to Seth Smith, is not really a good sign.
But here we're already getting into weaknesses. The A's may be the biggest overachievers in the postseason, giving Baltimore a run for its lucky money. Team chemistry is another thing that can't be quantified, but if you put any stock in it, Oakland must be leading the league.
Weaknesses: The A's have had so much turnover that key people who contributed to their strong pitching numbers are long gone -- most notable, Bartolo Colon, who tested positive for PEDs, and Brandon McCarthy, who was struck in the head by a line drive and suffered a terrifying brain injury (from which, fortunately, he seems to be recovering well). Brett Anderson, the most experienced pitcher they had left, at the ripe old age of 24, strained his oblique. Their replacements have been doing an excellent job, but how far can you really expect A.J. Griffin, Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone and Travis Blackley to carry a team? Can they keep this up for another week, or two or three?
Watch Out For: When watching the A's, I like to play a game called "how many of these players would I recognize if I ran into them on the street?" If you're not a baseball writer or Bay Area fan, the answer is probably about four.
Fahrusha Reads the Tea Leaves: Fahrusha sees "a particular weakness or fatal error of a catching person --" not a catcher, she clarifies, but just someone catching a ball -- which "could be general or particular." Also, "A very outstanding person with odd habits, that may come to the fore in the playoffs in some way.
"They look like they have a very vibrant team, a very energetic or perhaps young team."
My Take: Good call on the youth and vibrancy from Fahrusha, who, again, did not know she was talking about the A's. Given all the inexperience and youth on the team, a big error isn't exactly hard to imagine; and this team is full of outstanding people with odd habits. Does Josh Reddick pieing people while dressed as Spider-Man qualify?
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San Francisco Giants
Strengths: After all those years of being known for great pitching and weak hitting, the Giants are now an offensive powerhouse … actually, powerhouse might be the wrong word. They are young and talented, third in the National League in batting average, fourth in on-base percentage, first in Baseball Reference's WAR, and first in OPS+ -- though they are seventh in OPS and dead last in home runs, with just 103 (Milwaukee, the NL leader, has 202). Their home ballpark has a lot to do with that, but it's still an odd collection of stats.
Their pitching has not been as spectacular as expected, but it's still far from a liability, particularly if you were to take out some of Tim Lincecum's dreadful starts before he stabilized. The Giants' pitchers are fifth in the NL in ERA, at 3.68, though here they benefit from that park (they are just 11th in adjusted ERA+), and Matt Cain and Madison Bamgarner have stepped up to help fill the void left by Lincecum's struggles. Santiago Casilla and Sergio Romo have been strong from the pen.
Weaknesses: The Giants are another Pythagorean overachiever, six games better than you'd think they would be. On the one hand, that's been a strength for them. On the other hand … how long will it last? Meanwhile, the Giants' pitching isn't quite a weakness, but it's much more vulnerable than it used to be, and they'll need to lean heavily on those top two starters.
Also, Guillermo Mota should not be anywhere near a late-inning playoff situation. Like, not even in the same city. I know he was fine in 2010, but I remember 2006 and 2008. Trust me.
Watch Out For: How much can the Giants rely on Lincecum right now? How much should they? And what's going on with him, anyway?
Fahrusha Reads the Tea Leaves: "We've got a real leadership figure with this team. There can be some resistance from the other team members. Does baseball have captains? This team seems to have a very strong leadership person, and that could almost be overdone. … They seem to have a very strong fan base, but I don't know if the fans will travel to the other places. And somebody ... somebody on the team is known as some form of a bird? Hmm. Some association with some team member and a bird."
My Take: I can't think of a specific Giants player who's connected to a bird -- though we have virtually every other kind of creature, from panda to giraffe -- but lord knows the park itself is full of seagulls. Meanwhile, if any member of the Giants' menagerie has been overstepping his leadership bounds, they seem to have kept it out of the media.
Strengths: The Reds may be the most well-rounded team in the playoffs, though the small market they play in has kept them from being too hyped in the rest of the country. Their offense has Joey Votto leading the charge, hitting a sick .337/.475/.561 in 111 games, and excellent years too from Jay Bruce, Ryan Ludwick and rookie-of-the-year candidate Todd Frazier. They also have a remarkably stable and reliable rotation -- four of their starters pitched 200 innings or more. Few batters tremble at the name Bronson Arroyo, but he's been the platonic ideal of a fourth starter after Cueto, Mat Latos and Homer Bailey, who just threw a no-hitter.
The Reds exceeded their Pythagorean win-loss record by six games: They'd be expected to win 91 games, but ended up with a sterling 97. Dusty Baker's in-game managing has been criticized in the past, but he can't have hurt the team much this year.
Weaknesses: For all their great hitters, the Reds' offense ended up much more in the middle of the National League pack than I would have expected. They are ninth in the NL in runs scored, sixth in OPS and 10th in Baseball Reference's WAR. If anything brings them down this postseason, it'll likely be trouble scoring runs.
Watch Out For: If Miguel Cairo makes the roster -- and it would NOT be like Dusty Baker to leave all that playoff experience off the team -- it will be his sixth postseason over 17 major league seasons, which is kind of remarkable for a VERY light-hitting utility infielder. That said, Cairo -- this season hitting a truly excruciating .187/.212./280, which, wow -- has performed to the tune of .290/.372/.406 in his various Octobers.
Fahrusha Reads the Tea Leaves: *This one is a re-creation, as I messed up the first photo. "To me it looks like [the Reds] have put all their eggs in one basket, so to speak. ... It also looks like their home games are going to be very different from their away games. It seems like they're going to win a lot of their home games and lose a lot of their away games. I also see a very good pitcher here ... with two perhaps future Hall-of-Fame batter-type-people. So there's good stuff going on here."
My Take: Well, the Reds won 50 games at home and 47 on the road, so they haven't struggled away from the Great American Ballpark this season, but who knows what might happen in the playoffs. The "very good pitcher" would probably be Cueto, who put up Cy Young-ready numbers before fading just a bit down the stretch, and is an ace right up there with any in the postseason.
Strengths: Here's another balanced team. Their pitchers lead the NL in ERA and are second in ERA+; they strike out a lot of opponents and allow homers to very few of them. Even without Stephen Strasburg, their top three are among the postseason's best: Gio Gonzalez (who will give R.A. Dickey a run for his Cy Young), Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler. Add a lineup that's strong pretty much everywhere besides second base -- where Danny Espinosa has been a bit weak, but still contributed 17 homers -- and this is one of the toughest teams to draw in the division series.
Their bullpen has been excellent; their defense is solid. Davey Johnson is widely regarded as one of the best managers in the game, and it's hard to argue based on this season. He won't miss a trick.
Weaknesses: The team may or may not be affected by this, but if the Nationals get close to elimination, will they be haunted by the Strasburg issue? (Feels like that should be capitalized: The Strasburg Issue.) Anything less than a World Series win, and a lot of Washingtonians will never stop wondering what might have happened with Strasburg in the October rotation instead of Edwin Jackson.
That we're even talking about this is a testament to how few on-field weaknesses the Nationals have. Presumably, the front office knew exactly what they were risking when they shut down Strasburg and had their reasons for doing so despite it all. And then maybe this team will not be affected in the least by those thoughts or the resulting pressure.
But certainly they'll be hearing about it.
Watch Out For: Pay attention to Davey Johnson, who gets to strut his moves in the playoffs for the first time in many years. Also, as always, you can expect Bryce Harper to do something exciting, either at the plate or on the base paths. If anyone has the nerve to steal home in the playoffs these days, it's him.
Fahrusha Reads the Tea Leaves: "Wondering about bird symbology again. ... I see lots of fly balls. I see a strong guy coming in toward the end of a game, he could be a relief pitcher, and he might have some sort of "spider" connotation about him. The word spider comes to mind here. ... This team appears to have built some form of a dynasty in some manner. They work under a particular strategy. ... It seems like maybe a 'wedge' strategy to me? Getting a wedge against the other team? Also: Is there a person on this team who regularly breaks his bat?"
My Take: OK, the dynasty prediction isn't looking bad for this young and talented team. But, spider? Wedge strategy? I have to admit I'm stumped.
Strengths: Taken as a group, the Braves are good but unspectacular at the plate, but better on the mound. Their 3.42 ERA is fourth in the NL and not far off the league-best 3.34 of the Reds and Nationals. Kris Medlen will start their wild-card game, and you couldn't ask for a much better shot than the one offered by his 1.57 ERA after 138 innings. Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm are having quietly good years. And Craig Kimbrel is having one of the best seasons a reliever has ever had. In fact, he's the first ever to strike out more than half the hitters he's faced. If the Braves get a lead in the ninth inning, you will have to pry the win out of their hands with a crowbar.
Meanwhile, Chipper Jones is going out on a high note -- at 40 he's been the best hitter on the team, albeit with time missed for injury and rest. The Braves' next best offensive weapon is Jason Heyward, delivering a season that was expected on his considerable promise. It may not be as spectacular a year as some young players we've seen lately, but the Trouts and Harpers are the exceptions. Heyward is still just 23, and that's still very young. Along with Martin Prado and fielding monster Michael Bourn, he's also helped solidify Atlanta's defense, which is much improved since last season.
Weaknesses: The Braves' lineup is far from bad, but after Chipper and Heyward, then Prado and Freddie Freeman, it gets a little thin. Meanwhile, Hudson and Maholm are good starters, but neither has too many true shut-down games these days. So this team is good, but good enough? It'll need everyone to be at their best all at once if it's going to go for it.
(Atlanta carried on after losing Brandon Beachy, but it was a blow. Imagine a Beachy-Medlen one-two punch.)
Watch Out For: Chipper Jones' swan song.
Fahrusha Reads the Tea Leaves: "This team expended a lot of energy during the season. I'm wondering how much they have left. ... And it sort of looks like somebody's limping. Somebody on the team is described as cat-like; it may be 'cat-like reflexes.' … It may be that the team has not been together that long. But I'm worried about the energy level."
My Take: True story: I was picturing Chipper Jones when I swirled these tea leaves, because when I think "Braves" that's what I think of, and this makes an awful lot of sense as a reading for him -- energy-expended and limping. I'm not so sure that applies to the team as a whole, though, and in any case there's nothing like the playoffs to raise your energy level.
St. Louis Cardinals
Strengths: This is not a spectacular-looking team -- it left the limping Dodgers alive in the second wild-card race for much longer than it should have, and it hit very well, but its pitching is just on the positive side of mediocre. Under last year's system it would not be here.
Still, St. Louis teams sneaking into the payoffs with unimpressive records are not to be taken lightly, as those in 2006 and 2011 should remind us. Maybe the team's remarkable streak of exceeding expectations in October left with Tony La Russa and pitching-coach genius Dave Duncan … but I'm done betting against the Cardinals.
And there's no doubt that offense can really, really rake: Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, Allen Craig, David Freese, Carlos Beltran, Jon Jay -- that's a group that could bludgeon its way ahead, at least for a while.
Weaknesses: St Louis is the only playoff team to have significantly underperformed its Pythagorean record. This team has been disappointing all year, though now would be a good time to reverse that trend. Kyle Lohse is pitching Friday, the Cards' ace by a long shot. After him, the starters have not been an impressive bunch, what with Lance Lynn and Adam Wainwright having off years. Of course, the 2006 Cardinals won the World Series by turning Jeff Weaver into Cy Young for a couple weeks … anything is possible here. Unlikely, but possible.
Watch Out For: Rally squirrels.
Fahrusha Reads the Tea Leaves: "A member of this team has a huge fan base. They look to have a mixed performance this season. I do see good strength in the fielding. And not a very overwhelming management style."
My Take: Mixed performance is about right; strong fielding is too, at least if you're focusing on Molina. And compared to La Russa, no one's management style is overwhelming, least of all Mike Matheny.