Earlier today Bill took a look at the strengths and weaknesses of each of the ten teams in the postseason. That was good, analytical information that will definitely help you figure out each team’s keys to victory and, perhaps, the reason all but one of these ten teams will be home disappointed about a month from now.
But while solid, objective information like that is important, let’s now talk about the stuff that will more directly impact our experience as viewers of the postseason as opposed to the teams’ chances of winning or losing in it: the storylines.
You know, the narratives which surround each team, their histories and their particular place in the baseball cosmos as they take the field in the grand postseason tournament. The narratives which, however accurate and legitimate they may be — and hey, many if not most of them are! — can often be beaten to death by the third inning of Game 1, making watching some of these games with the sound on a chore.
Let’s catalog that which we will likely hear far too much about for each team as the playoffs unfold, shall we?
Tampa Bay Rays
Narrative you’ll hear a lot: Did you know that the Rays have a small payroll and don’t draw well? Did you know that they basically invented and perfected bullpenning? Did you know that no one was bullpenning back when [insert retired player who is doing color commentary] was in his prime?
Narrative you’ll hear less of but should hear more: Kevin Cash is an excellent manager who probably deserves to get more Manager of the Year hype than he tends to get (getting short-changed even by me this morning) because he is really good at doing more with less and because we tend to praise front offices far more than managers these days. A lot of teams bullpen now. Not many of them do as good a job as Cash does with the Rays.
Narrative you’ll hear a lot: Moneybal—[CLANK!!!] Sorry, I just dropped a 16-ton lead weight on my head to keep from even thinking about a 16-year-old book that, however wonderful it was, is massively misunderstood by almost everyone who talks about it. Short version: it’s not a synonym for sabermetrics or analytics and it’s not about being cheap or winning on a shoestring. It’s about exploiting inefficiencies by zigging when everyone else zags. All commentators should be barred from bringing up Moneyball unless they note that, given today’s groupthink across baseball front offices, someone might could do REALLY well thinking differently than Billy Beane thought back in 2002 or whatever.
Narrative you’ll hear less of but should hear more: Maybe today’s national broadcasts are good enough to talk intelligently about defense — they haven’t gotten too deep with it in postseasons past — but the A’s have a great defense. Also, in today’s power-pitching game, the A’s pitchers’ strike out fewer batters than any contender. If that bites them, of course, they won’t be in the postseason very long. If it doesn’t — if they pitch to contact, keep the ball down somehow, the defense has their back and they make an improbably long run — Oakland’s pitchers will have turned the broader, home run crazy narrative of 2019 on its head. Not that I’m betting on that so much.
Narrative you’ll hear a lot: Dingers. Dingers. Did I mention dingers? Oh, the Minnesota Twins hit a lot of dingers.
Narrative you’ll hear less of but should hear more: All that power notwithstanding, you might be able to pitch to these guys if you give ’em junk. They have feasted on fastballs early in the count this year and have walked at a below league average rate. That, understandably, is why they have hit a ton of homers. Maybe the lack of talent among their divisional foes prevented us from seeing it most of the year, but look for the better pitchers in the postseason to have the confidence to nibble early or try to get Twins batters to chase or, at the very least, to guess.
New York Yankees
Narrative you’ll hear a lot: Pick one. There are always so many surrounding the Yankees, with the laziest among them being their history, the mystique and the aura and all of that. Assuming broadcasters and analysts can avoid that low-hanging fruit (note: I make no promises that I can), the talk will be all about the injuries the Yankees have overcome this year. Which, to be fair to prevalent narratives, is actually still a really damn good point.
Narrative you’ll hear less of but should hear more: Is there anything about the Yankees you don’t hear a ton about? Not really. One that you will hear a ton about in a certain way — their dominant, fire-throwing bullpen — should also be talked about in a different way the longer the Bombers are in the postseason. Specifically, are they at risk of tiring out? I can picture utter slugfests should the Yankees and Astros meet in the ALCS and if New York makes the World Series, it’ll be a legitimate question whether Aaron Boone can rely on those arms, however great they are, as much as he’s likely to. Just something to keep in mind as Boone trudges out to the mound in the third inning of Game 1 of the ALDS and everyone talks about the embarrassment of bullpen riches he has at his disposal.
Narrative you’ll hear a lot: Verlander and Cole. Cole and Verlander. The intimidating-as-all-get-out lineup. The air of invincibility and inevitability that is the 2019 Houston Astros. I’d normally say that kind of thing is overplayed but, um, I’m sort of struggling to see how any of that is untrue. If it was not for baseball history being rotten with teams which profile like the Astros when the postseason starts getting upset somewhere along the line I’d not bother watching. Indeed, watching to see how the opposition approaches and, perhaps, beats this juggernaut may be the single biggest reason for those whose teams’ seasons are over to pay attention to the postseason. Odds favor the Astros but everyone except Goliath fans favor David.
Narrative you’ll hear less of but should hear more: Their closer, Roberto Osuna, got one of the longest-ever domestic violence suspensions since Major League Baseball began handing them out. Given that MLB tends to give out longer ones the worse the underlying facts are, Osuna’s conduct, which did not result in a criminal conviction mostly because his victim would not come back from Mexico to testify, was probably pretty damn bad. No, I do not expect TV broadcasts to mention this and, actually, I expect to get pushback from Astros fans for my even mentioning this. Indeed, broadcasters do mention it, I suspect they’ll bungle it, with someone inevitably falling back on the wildly inappropriate “he’s overcome so much adversity” cliche. If Astros fans do push back, well, I don’t care. I simply think it’s worth remembering that some of the players on baseball teams which we rush to cover with glory — especially the ones who may, like Osuna, pitch the final out of a deciding World Series game and thus feature prominently in baseball history — are certified jackasses who should not be celebrated in any way.
Narrative you’ll hear a lot: Christian Yelich‘s injury and their late season surge in which they won 18 of 20 down the stretch.
Narrative you’ll hear less of but should hear more: They’re not as good as they were last year, particular in the bullpen. That late-season stretch was against an insanely weak schedule and they got a major assist by the Cubs imploding and, frankly, mailing it in. They’ve been a great story for much of the year, but there is less here than meets the eye.
Narrative you’ll hear a lot: They’ve never won a playoff series. I think we can still trot this one out even if they beat Milwaukee in the Wild Card game because, while the Wild Card is the playoffs, it ain’t a series. If they don’t make the NLCS the streak continues. You’ll also likely hear a lot of “they did this after letting Bryce Harper go,” which is satisfying to a lot of Nats fans I’m sure, but is also a bit of a simplistic gloss about the Nats’ improvement between 2018 and 2019.
Narrative you’ll hear less of but should hear more: If they do win the Wild Card game and if, miracle of miracles, they get past the Dodgers in the NLDS (don’t bet on it, but go with me here), they should actually be favored in the NLCS over either St. Louis or Atlanta. Yes, they’re a lower seed than the Braves, but the Nats’ insanely poor start this year masks a team much better than its 93-69 record suggests. Scherzer/Strasburg/Corbin is probably the third-best playoff rotation going after Houston and L.A. If they can actually get far enough to where they actually get to use ’em all.
St. Louis Cardinals
Narrative you’ll hear a lot: I said you don’t tend to hear much interesting about defense from national commentators, but if anyone proves to be the exception to that it’ll be the Cardinals as their D is fantastic. They probably have the weakest offense of any of the playoff teams and their pitching has been pretty darn good all year — they’re fifth in MLB in starter and reliever ERA and are 5th overall — so I suspect they’ll be dubbed the Throwback Cardinals, powered by those old standbys, pitching and defense. As Bill noted this afternoon they run well too, so even expect some comps to the old Whiteyball teams of the 80s, even if they, as a team, only have a few more stolen bases this season than Vince Coleman did in each of his first three years.
Narrative you’ll hear less of but should hear more: Top-to-bottom they are the weakest division winner and I’d take the Rays and A’s over ’em too, and even if their division race was the only one to go all the way to the last day of the season, they benefitted from a pretty weak NL Central. I dunno, maybe you’ll hear that if the Cards make a deep playoff run, but it’ll probably be in service of a Cinderella narrative as opposed to something anyone says beforehand to explain why the Braves are beating them. If, in fact, they do beat them.
Narrative you’ll hear a lot: When you follow a team closely it’s sometimes hard to get your brain around what the national narratives are going to be because everything seems so important to you and it’s hard to have perspective. I presume they will lead and close with “Ronald Acuña is the most exciting young player in the game” thing, which hey, that’s totally fair because he probably is. If it’s not all-Acuña all the time they’ll talk about how the Braves have a quartet of mashers in Acuña, Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies and Josh Donaldson, letting slide the fact that if you can get around those dudes the bottom of the lineup is no great shakes.
Narrative you’ll hear less of but should hear more: The Braves are banged up. Acuña missed the last few games with a sore groin and Freddie Freeman has bone spur problems. You’ll hear that in-game, of course, in passing, but I suppose the opening montages will be all about the big bats. If a couple of ’em go silent against that good Cardinals pitching, there may be a reason.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Narrative you’ll hear a lot: “Is this the year the Dodgers finally win it all?” Yes, get ready for anything less than a World Series victory being cast as failure. I even expect a few references to the 1990s Buffalo Bills if they’re doing anything but hoisting a trophy and hoisting the moist after the final game of the World Series. Which I totally get, but which I also think would be kind of unfair if they face, say, the Houston Astros again in the World Series because the Astros are better and there is no shame and no choking involved in losing to a better team. Of course these are high class problems to have and I don’t expect anyone to shed tears about how people talk about the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Narrative you’ll hear less of but should hear more: You tend to hear a lot about the big bats — Cody Bellinger will be talked up as the presumptive MVP and there are a lot of power threats in that lineup — but pitching and defense is their calling card this year, probably more so than it is for the Cardinals. We tend not to laud teams for their pitching and defense unless they kinda suck at the plate, though, which the Dodgers don’t. It’s sort of like how they tend not to talk about how good a defensive catcher a guy is if he can hit, even if a good-hitting catcher is good at defense too. Really, though, the Dodgers allowed fewer runs a game all year than any team in the league, walked fewer batters than any team in the league, and gave up fewer homers than every team but the Rays, all while playing excellent team defense. The Astros are, at present, a scarier team than the Dodgers, but not that much scarier.
So that’s what everyone will be talking about. Let’s now hope for a postseason that plays out totally differently so as to make the experts look dumb.