So You’ve Decided to Follow Baseball – Playoff Special

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Egads! It’s Darius Austin

So the season’s over, and the Cubs are the champions. Wait…what’s that? They have to keep playing? Yes, like all American sports, the end of the season means playoffs. If this is your first time following baseball and the playoff structure and schedule – or even the teams from the other leagues and divisions – are unfamiliar to you, never fear. We’ve got you covered with this very simple guide to postseason baseball.

The Format

The first thing to remember is that the leagues are separated from now until the World Series. This used to be the case for the whole season, but now that there are so many interleague games, it might seem a little strange that the leagues are kept apart for an entire month. There are four stages: the Wild Card games; the Divisional Series; the Championship Series; and the World Series. The Divisional Series and Championship Series are normally abbreviated to an acronym with their league name in front, so you’ll be seeing NLDS & ALDS a lot over the next two weeks, and then NLCS & ALCS following that.

The six division winners automatically make it into the Divisional Series (what we might call the quarter-finals), while the two teams in each league with the best records that didn’t win a division face off in the Wild Card game, a single-game playoff that takes place before the DS. The team with the most wins of those two gets to host the WC game, and the winner of that game faces the divisional winner with the most wins, while the other two divisional winners face each other. The winners of those series face off in the Championship Series, and the two CS victors then play in the World Series to decide the overall champion.

The team with the better record always gets to play at home first, and gets an extra home game if the series goes to its maximum length. The DS is best of 5, while the CS and World Series are best of 7, with the higher seed playing 2 home-2 away-1 home in the DS and a 2-3-2 format in the CS and WS. A single off day is included each time the teams change cities. If a team reaches the required number of wins before the maximum series length is reached, then naturally the rest of the games aren’t played. The AL has home-field advantage in the World Series, because they won the All-Star game. If you think that’s a stupid way to decide who gets that, you’re not the only one.

With all that in mind, here’s a brief outline of the schedule for 2016, with the higher seed second, American-style (full details at http://m.mlb.com/postseason-schedule):
American League 

Wild Card Game: Tuesday 4th October

Baltimore @ Toronto

ALDS: Thursday 6th October – Wednesday 12th October
Cleveland vs Boston

Baltimore/Toronto vs Texas

ALCS: Friday 14th October – Saturday 22nd October

National League

Wild Card Game: Wednesday 5th October

San Francisco @ New York

NLDS: Friday 7th October – Thursday 13th October

Los Angeles vs Washington

San Francisco/New York vs Chicago

NLCS: Saturday 15th October – Sunday 23rd October

If you have access, you can watch some MLB games on BT Sport’s ESPN channel, but the best way to see the most games possible is through MLB TV, which is $9.99 for their postseason package, or completely free if you’ve subscribed already.
World Series: Tuesday October 25th – Wednesday November 2nd
The Teams

Have you been so focused on the Red Sox that you don’t know anything about their potential opponents? Was your team so miserable that the postseason has been nothing but a distant dream for several months (sorry, Will)? Here’s a quick guide to the ten teams involved and who you should be watching out for.

Boston Red Sox
Record: 93-69
Runs Scored-Allowed: 878-694
How did they get in?: Won AL East
Chance of winning World Series (via FiveThirtyEight): 19%
Best Regular Season (per Baseball-Reference WAR): Mookie Betts, 9.6 WAR
Team Overview: The Red Sox dramatically underperformed based on the strength of their lineup, as they outscored even the second-best offence of Cleveland by over 100 runs yet put up the third-best record. Nonetheless, there’s no question this is the best offence in the AL, backed up on the pitching side by workhorse starter David Price and surprising Cy Young candidate Rick Porcello. The biggest question might be whether they can get some good starts out of their number 3, whether that’s Eduardo Rodriguez or Clay Buchholz.
Player to watch: David Ortiz. While Betts has gone from unheralded fifth-round pick to MVP candidate in just five years, it’s the retiring Ortiz who has the remarkable postseason resume and just posted perhaps the greatest age-40 season in history, with 38 homers, 48 doubles and an incredible, MLB-leading .620 slugging percentage and 1.021 OPS. Ortiz doesn’t field, and he can barely run, but boy can he hit, and his propensity to shine in the biggest moments makes him a must-watch in his final act.
Cleveland Indians
Record: 94-67
Runs Scored-Allowed: 777-676
How did they get in?: Won AL Central
Chance of winning World Series: 8%
Best Season: Corey Kluber, 6.5 WAR
Team Overview: Cleveland has brought up a remarkable collection of starting pitcher talent over recent years, but they’ll have to cope without Carlos Carrasco, who suffered a broken finger late in the season, and potentially Danny Salazar, who is likely to be limited to the bullpen at best as the result of a forearm strain. The pitching load will rest on Kluber, Trevor Bauer, and the killer bullpen combination of Cody Allen and Andrew Miller, the latter coming off one of the best reliever seasons in history. The lineup is deep, with copious power coming from Carlos Santana and Mike Napoli, but much will depend on whether they can continue to get production from their surprisingly-good cobbled-together outfield. Defence might be their biggest strength, with a great double-play combo of Jason Kipnis and our player to watch.
Player to watch: Francisco Lindor. The shortstop is a .300 hitter and a wizard with the glove. In just his second season, Lindor has arguably become Cleveland’s most valuable position player, with almost every challenging ground ball made to look like an easy out.
Texas Rangers
Record: 95-67
Runs Scored-Allowed: 765-757
How did they get in?: Won AL West
Chance of winning World Series: 8%
Best Season: Adrian Beltre, 6.5 WAR
Team Overview: Despite being picked by many to finish third in their division and barely scoring more runs than they conceded, Texas managed to comfortably win the West and secure the best record in the AL. Midseason trades for elite catcher Jonathan Lucroy and veteran slugger Carlos Beltran significantly bolstered the lineup, while impressive contributions from 22-year-old Rougned Odor (33 home runs) and rookie Nomar Mazara backed up the ever-reliable Beltre and the resurgent Ian Desmond. Despite a solid ERA, there were concerning signs for Cole Hamels, such as his lack of control, and with the back of the rotation far from reliable, Texas needs the lineup firing on all cylinders and some continued excellence from our player to watch.
Player to watch: Yu Darvish. The Japanese ace returned from Tommy John surgery mid-season and pitched 100 innings to help the Rangers lock down their division title, looking like a pitcher already back to his best. Darvish struck out 132 over those 100 innings, which is hardly surprising given that he possesses one of the most visually impressive pitch arsenals in the game. When you can throw a wide range of pitches from the same release point like this, it’s somewhat surprising that hitters can even make contact with the ball. Keep an eye on Beltre and shortstop Elvis Andrus too; in addition to their baseball ability, their antics will keep anyone entertained.
Toronto Blue Jays
Record: 89-73
Runs Scored-Allowed: 759-666
How did they get in?: First Wild Card spot
Chance of winning World Series: 6%
Best Season: Josh Donaldson, 7.4 WAR
Team Overview: The Jays lineup hasn’t been as fearsome as it was in 2015, when it was clearly the most formidable in the league, but they’re still a well above-average unit with plenty of power: their 221 homers ranked fourth in MLB. Their rotation has been deep, but the postseason could prove to be a step too far for young duo Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman, both of whom have seen a massive increase in innings pitched over previous years in their first full years as major league starting pitchers. Sanchez in particular has been the focus, with the team suggesting he would pitch out of the bullpen to reduce his usage in the last couple of months, only to change their minds and ultimately end up relying on the 24-year-old to win the final game of the season, in which he took a no-hitter into the seventh inning. If Stroman gets the Jays through the WC game and Sanchez continues to pitch like he has all season, this team looks strong in all aspects of the game.
Player to watch: Kevin Pillar. Donaldson is the most important player on the offence and an exceptional fielder, but Pillar’s defence in the outfield is a highlight reel waiting to happen. The Toronto pitching staff get quite a few extra outs from his glove in centre field and there may be no-one more likely to make a memorable defensive play in the playoffs if they can make it through the Wild Card game.
Baltimore Orioles
Record: 89-73
Runs Scored-Allowed: 744-715
How did they get in?: Second Wild Card spot
Chance of winning World Series: 4%
Best Season: Manny Machado, 6.7 WAR
Team Overview: If the Jays have plenty of power, I’m not sure what to call the Orioles’ output; it should suffice to say that they nearly broke the all-time single-season team record with 253. Mark Trumbo, obtained for a backup catcher from the Mariners in the offseason, led the league in homers with 47, and five Orioles players in all mashed at least 25. Their rotation, sadly, isn’t on the same level: Kevin Gausman and WC game starter Chris Tillman have been solid but not outstanding (even if Gausman flashes the potential sometimes), Wade Miley and Yovani Gallardo have been destroyed to the tune of ERAs well north of 5. Meanwhile, Ubaldo Jimenez retains his ability to be mesmerising and frustrating in equal parts, looking like a disaster through mid-August and then pitching like Baltimore’s ace over his last 7. The bullpen is outstanding, led by closer Zach Britton and his remarkable 0.54 regular season ERA; the O’s just have to get the ball to the ‘pen with a lead.
Player to watch: Machado. At 24, Machado is already one of the best players in the game, and would be a full-time shortstop if it wasn’t for veteran J.J. Hardy. As it is he’s a top-tier defensive third basemen with a top-tier bat, capable of changing a game on either side of the ball in an instant.
 
Chicago Cubs
Record: 103-58
Runs Scored-Allowed: 808-556
How did they get in?: Won NL Central
Chance of winning World Series: 26%
Best Season: Kris Bryant, 7.7 WAR
Team Overview: The Cubs were predicted to be an all-conquering juggernaut this season, and they’ve more than lived up to that expectation – even though they won 103 games, they’ve actually significantly underperformed their expected winning percentage based on their run differential. That won’t matter to this Chicago squad, who were still undoubtedly the best regular season team and are clearly the favourites to win it all, 108 years after they last did it. They have the best offence, led by Bryant and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, the best defence, most notably from 22-year-old shortstop Addison Russell, and possibly the deepest rotation, from veterans Jon Lester and John Lackey to last year’s NL Cy Young, Jake Arrieta, and the 2016 ERA leader, Kyle Hendricks. This team is so good that it’s easy to forget that anything can happen in the playoffs, and even a team as good as this is only given a 1-in-4 chance of winning it all. If they don’t, then the infamous curse will be cited once again, particularly if they don’t even make the World Series.
Player to watch: Javier Baez. There are numerous options I could select here – Bryant, Rizzo, Russell and most of the pitching staff among them – but for the new baseball fan, Baez’s swing might offer the most immediate entertainment. The 23-year-old isn’t a regular fixture in the lineup, but he has become a valuable defensive option all over the infield and the first bat off the bench. When he does get to swing, it’s a gloriously violent motion that is over so fast you can’t quite believe he’s held on to the bat. Even though Baez’s approach isn’t quite as raw as when Sam Miller first broke down that swing in his first taste of the major leagues, you can still expect fireworks, whether it’s a spectacular strikeout or no-doubt home run.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Record: 91-71
Runs Scored-Allowed: 725-638
How did they get in?: Won NL West
Chance of winning World Series: 15%
Best Season: Corey Seager, 6.1 WAR
Team Overview:  The Dodgers suffered an incredible number of injuries to their starting rotation (only Kenta Maeda topped even 150 innings) and yet somehow managed to win the division and strike out more batters than any other rotation in history. Clayton Kershaw, the league’s best pitcher, seems to be over the back injury that threatened to end his season, and shortstop Seager is a slam-dunk to win Rookie of the Year honours. Los Angeles also has a lights-out closer in Kenley Jansen and some of the best depth in MLB, as demonstrated by their  ability to deal with the aforementioned injuries. Don’t let the 91 wins fool you; this is a better team than the record suggests.
Player to watch: Rich Hill. With one of the most remarkable career arcs in recent memory, the 37-year-old Hill has gone from almost out of baseball to one of the league’s best in just a couple of years. Health is a concern, with blisters restricting him for much of the second half, but when he’s on, Hill’s not only elite, he’s one of the most exciting pitchers to watch, with a sublime curveball and the unusual ability to alter his arm slot to great effect.
Washington Nationals
Record: 95-67
Runs Scored-Allowed: 763-612
How did they get in?: Won NL East
Chance of winning World Series: 8%
Best Season: Max Scherzer, 6.3 WAR
Team Overview: Washington rebounded from a disastrous 2015 to comfortably take the NL East, led by Scherzer and a remarkable year from free agent signing Daniel Murphy. Unfortunately, injuries mean that they will certainly be at less than full strength for the playoffs, with Scherzer’s fellow ace Stephen Strasburg and catcher Wilson Ramos both ruled out for the postseason. The absence of Ramos is particularly sad, with the 29-year-old putting up a breakout season after years of injury and inconsistent performance, only to tear his ACL in the final week of the season, putting his 2017 in doubt. Nevertheless, there’s still plenty of talent left on this team, and in rookie phenomenon Trea Turner, the Nationals have gained a real threat on the basepaths who will give opposing pitchers and catchers fits.
Player to watch: Bryce Harper. Last season’s MVP has suffered a precipitous decline in 2016, which for Harper means an OPS of ‘just’ .814 and a .373 OBP. Nevertheless, Harper has shown the ability to be so good that those can be classified as disappointing numbers, and there have been numerous suggestions that some kind of injury has dogged the outfielder. Harper’s still just 23 so he has plenty of time to rediscover the form of 2015, but the Nationals would love him to do so in these playoffs.
New York Mets
Record: 87-75
Runs Scored-Allowed: 671-617
How did they get in?: First Wild Card
Chance of winning World Series: 3%
Best Season: Noah Syndergaard, 6.0 WAR
Team Overview: The Mets somehow found their way into the WC game despite being sub-500 with 40 games to go and losing starters Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz to injury. Syndergaard is a terrific starter who gives New York a great shot of winning the WC game, but it might be too much to expect the second-year starter to carry last year’s NL Champions all the way through the playoffs. Yoenis Cespedes supplies the firepower on the hitting side and the ridiculous cars in the parking lot; the lineup starts to look pretty thin at the bottom, though.
Player to watch: Bartolo Colon. At 43, Colon is almost 20 years older than his rotation mate Syndergaard, and he couldn’t be a more different pitcher, but he’s no less entertaining for it. Colon combines impeccable control with surprisingly slick fielding and the most entertaining plate appearances you’ll see from a pitcher. This year even featured his first career home run after 20 seasons in the majors.

San Francisco Giants
Record: 87-75
Runs Scored-Allowed: 715-631
How did they get in?: Second Wild Card
Chance of winning World Series: 3%
Best Season: Madison Bumgarner, 5.9 WAR
Team Overview: The Giants frittered away their tremendous first half with a miserable second and had to work very hard in the final days of the season, sweeping the Dodgers to just scrape into the WC game ahead of the Cardinals. San Francisco has two great starters in Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto, the game’s best catcher, Buster Posey, and the excellent Brandon Crawford at shortstop. The lineup isn’t as strong as most in this postseason, however, and the bullpen suffered multiple meltdowns in recent weeks. Of course, none of this really matters, as it’s an even year.

Player to watch: Hunter Pence. No-one has more distinctive mannerisms than Pence: he constantly appears at the plate looking as though he has too much energy and must continue moving in order to disperse it. The effect of all this is that he looks as though he shouldn’t be able to hit, field or run all that efficiently, but he does all three with aplomb. He also has a terrific sense of humour.
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