Monday, October 02, 2006

2006 MLB Playoff Predictions

October is my favorite month for sports. Football, both college and pro, is in full swing. NBA training camps open, and the NHL regular season starts, reassuring me that there will be sports to follow once football season wraps up. Most important of all, October means playoff baseball.

If you ignore the on-going steroid scandals, this is a pretty good time to be a baseball fan. After a largely dull string of New York Yankee dominance in the late ‘90s, we had a pretty good run of playoff baseball in the past 5-6 years. 2001 and 2002 produced memorable, thrilling seven-game finales (D-Backs-Yanks and Angels-Giants), while the 2003 and 2004 ALCS battles between the Red Sox and the Yankees rank among the most memorable playoff matchups of all time. Last year’s playoff round was something of a dud, but there’s reason to believe that will be an aberration.

After the big-market vs. small-market problems of the last decade, competitive balance has returned to baseball. Since 2002, we’ve had 8 different teams in 4 years appear in the World Series. Of those 8 teams, only the Yankees and Cardinals qualified for the playoffs this year, meaning that it’s likely that this stat could grow to 10 different teams in 5 years. In the same time frame, we’ve had 10 of the 16 National League teams qualify for the playoffs, and 6 of the 14 American League teams make it in. This seems to be a good balance between parity and sustained success.

As for the plight of small-market teams, some of them have found ways to put together a contender over a number of years, notably Minnesota and Oakland, who both return to the playoffs this year despite ranking, respectively, 19th and 21st overall in team payroll.

If you look at the salaries of the teams who made it to the World Series since 2002, it shows that you can be a middle-market team, and still succeed:

Year: Winner, Loser (Ranking in Overall Payroll)
2002: Anaheim (15th), San Francisco (10th)
2003: Florida (25th), New York Yankees (1st)
2004: Boston (2nd), St. Louis (9th)
2005: Chicago White Sox (13th), Houston (12th)

A couple of other parity-related stats:

•: Aside from the Yankee juggernaut, only the Florida Marlins have appeared in more than one World Series (1997 and 2003) since 1997.

• Six different teams have won the World Series in the past six years.

Another reason to be excited about baseball is the number of emerging young stars in the game. Several of them are performing in the playoffs this year, notably Jose Reyes and David Wright of the Mets, Jake Peavy of the Padres, Joe Mauer, and Justin Morneau of the Twins, Jeremy Bonderman, Justin Verlander, and Joel Zumaya of the Tigers, and Dan Haren, Nick Swisher, and Huston Street of the Athletics.

This list doesn’t even include some of the future Hall of Famers (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Mariano Rivera) who will be on display, nor does it mention the players at the top of their game, such as Albert Pujols, Carlos Beltran, and Johan Santana.

It’s an exciting time for baseball, and it should be an exciting month ahead. On to the picks.

ALDS: New York Yankees vs. Detroit Tigers
The Tigers are 19-31 in their last 50 games. They got swept at home by Kansas City on the final weekend of the season, and blew a 6-run lead in the final game. Their young pitchers are tired, and their offense has gone into a funk.

New York may not be perfect, but they have a deep lineup that knows how to work the count and get on base, a rotation that is at least as steady as the Tigers’, and the greatest closer of all-time holding down the fort.

Unless they recapture the magic of the first 110 games of the season, I have trouble imagining any way that the Tigers can pull this series out. They have the advantage in defense and overall bullpen strength, but that won’t be enough to make a difference unless their offense can get to the Yankees’ starters and force Joe Torre to use his middle relief for extending periods. If New York’s starters get through the 6th or 7th inning of a game, it’s likely to be game over.

Prediction: Yankees in 3.

ALDS: Minnesota Twins vs. Oakland Athletics
This is the toughest series to pick for me. After being the popular pick in the pre-season, the A’s have flown under the radar since, quietly putting together an excellent season. They are very good defensively, have hitters who know how to get on base, and quite possibly have the best rotation of any playoff team. These are three important characteristics of a championship club.

The Minnesota Twins made a dramatic, Oakland-esque charge down the stretch to win their division. After a sub-.500 start, they won more than 2/3 of their last 100 games. On the field, Johan Santana, the best pitcher in the game, anchors their rotation. Justin Morneau and AL batting champion Joe Mauer, who could both make a case for being the most valuable player in the league, bring power to the lineup. They are supported by a scrappy surrounding cast that White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen nicknamed “the piranhas”. While Nick Punto, Lew Ford, and Jason “President” Bartlett may not be household names, they’re the kind of character players who tend to make big plays when they count.

Each team has question marks. Minnesota’s lineup looks to be one bat short, and their rotation is questionable beyond Santana. Oakland, on the other hand, needs more output from their offense, and I can’t get over the fact that this team has played 9 playoff games in the Billy Beane era in which they could have clinched a series win, and lost all of them. However, as Chris Berman would say, these are not your father’s Oakland Athletics. This Oakland team is more than just a collection of on-base machines, they can play defense too.

Nonetheless, I can’t shake the feeling that Oakland will choke, and/or the Twins will find a way to get the outs and the runs that they need.

Prediction: Twins in 5. Minnesota rebounds from a 2-1 deficit (Johan loses Game 1) to win, extending the A’s streak to 11 losses in potential series winning games.

NLDS: New York Mets vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
The Mets are in trouble. Not only is ace Pedro Martinez gone for the year, but their hitting completely disappeared in the month of September, and their lineup is vulnerable against left-handed pitching. Their rotation for the NLDS features two pitchers on the wrong side of 40, followed by TBA, expected to be mediocre veteran Steve Trachsel and erratic youngster John Maine.

On the plus side for the Metropolitans, they will only face one left-handed starter (Hong-Chi Kuo in Game 2), and LA only has one left-handed relief specialist on the post-season roster (Joe Beimel). The Dodgers have some question marks too, with Kuo being largely unproven outside of one strong performance in Shea last month, and Brad Penny, who should be penciled in for Game 4 if healthy, nursing some nagging injuries. Other Dodgers nursing nagging injures: Nomar Garciaparra and Jeff Kent.

In the playoffs, I look at starting pitching, relief pitching, fielding, then offense. A generous observer might call the rotations a wash, but the Dodgers have a clear edge in the bullpen, The Mets are a slightly better team in the field, though with their recent slump, might be the worse of the two teams as far as hitting goes.

This is a tough call, but I’m making my decision based on the assumption that Grady Little will cost his team at least one game.

Prediction: Mets in 5

NLDS: San Diego Padres vs. St. Louis Cardinals
The St. Lunatics backed into the playoffs, and are missing several key players due to injury. They boast the best hitter in baseball (Albert Pujols), and he has a decent supporting cast in the field. Their pitching looks to be a disaster waiting to happen, though.

San Diego looks like the favorite to win the National League. They have a sound rotation, with a young ace (Jake Peavy), a budding star (Chris Young), and two solid veterans (Woody Williams and David Wells). Their bullpen is deep, anchored by the all-time saves leader (Trevor Hoffman) and two lights-out set-up men (Scott Linebrink and Cla Meredith). They’re a strong team defensively, and have enough hitting to contend.

Prediction; Padres in 4.

Moving on to the League Championship Series…

National League: New York Mets vs. San Diego Padres
The Mets good fortune will run out here. The only decisive advantage I can see them having over the Whale’s Vagina is on the base paths – Reyes, Beltran and company will run wild on Mike Piazza and his Johnny Damon-like arm. Nonetheless, a better pitching staff, a slight edge in defense, and timely hitting will be more than enough to carry San Diego to its third World Series appearance.

Prediction: Padres in 5.
MVP: Chris Young, who wins Games 1 and 5.

American League: New York Yankees vs. Minnesota Twins
I should pick the Yankees here, since there’s a lot to like about this club if you’re trying to pick a winner. Their lineup is second to none in these playoffs, they figure to be well rested after dismantling the Tigers, and their rotation should have more depth than Minnesota’s, with or without Randy Johnson.

But I just can’t do it. The post-2000 Yankees strike me as the Indianapolis Colts of baseball. There are certainly some similarities – both are led by a universally-disliked franchise player who has a reputation for disappearing in the clutch (ARod and Peyton), both teams try to build winning clubs by assembling the most potent offense possible, at the expense of the traditional characteristics of championship teams (pitching and defense in one case, running the ball and stopping the run in the other), and both teams have a manager/coach who tends to be overvalued because of he’s an overall great guy. Now this isn’t a perfect analogy, since the Colts don’t have an equivalent to Jeter or Rivera, but the point is this: neither team is built like a traditional championship club.

Also, something about this Twins teams gives me a feel-good “team of destiny” vibe. It could be the emergence of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, two of the faces of the new generation of baseball stars (who are from, respectively, Minnesota and British Columbia of all places). It could be the presence of Boof Bonser, the underrated rookie who has stolen Coco Crisp’s claim to having the best name in baseball. Or it could be Brad Radke’s miraculous comeback. I think he’ll make one start per round, even though his right arm could fall off at any moment. That, my friends, proves that, like Vince McMahon, he has balls the size of grapefruits. We also haven’t talked about the resurgent Torri Hunter, or the numerous scrappy, likeable players that fill out the rest of the lineup. Minnesota will put the ball in play against pitchers like Mussina and Wang. New York’s deficiencies there, along with those in middle relief, will make the difference and allow Minnesota to come out on top.

I might be picking with my heart and not my head, but here it goes:

Prediction: Twins in 6.
MVP: Joe Nathan, who saves 2 games and gets a win.

World Series: Minnesota Twins vs. San Diego Padres
Twins all the way.

Prediction: Twins in 5.
MVP: Torri Hunter.

12 Comments:

At 5:40 PM, Blogger Avi Schaumberg said...

First round predictions off the back of an envelope: Tigers, Twins, Mets and Padres.

But I'm rooting for Oakland all the way.

 
At 6:12 PM, Blogger Alex said...

I think you're the only person I've seen pick the Tigers. Any chance that you'll explain why?

 
At 7:12 PM, Blogger Andy Grabia said...

No other picture of Joe Mauer exist except for one with a watermark?

I'll go A's, Tigers, Who cares?, Who cares?

The A's beat Who Cares? for the World Series. The reason: Avi finally won a fantasy baseball league. It's an omen I can't ignore.

 
At 9:29 PM, Blogger J.R. Hippe said...

BOOM!

>Yankees over Tigers in 4
>Twins over Athletics in 3

>>Twins over Yankees in 6

>Mets over Dodgers in 4
>Padres over Cardinals in 5

>>Mets over Padres in 5

>>>Mets over Twins in 6

Book it, boys.

 
At 10:05 PM, Blogger Alex said...

Ignoring the National League, Grabia? Could you be any more of a Simmons-bot? I can't wait until you preview the NHL season using quotes from "Talladega Nights".

Good point about the A's/Avi connection, though.

Interesting picks J.R. I can't bring myself to pick a team whose ace is Orlando "Slightly Younger Than Julio Frnaco" to win it all. Very bold of you.

 
At 10:55 PM, Blogger Alex said...

Um, that should say Orlando "Slightly Younger Than Julio Franco" Hernandez. Carry on.

 
At 11:28 PM, Blogger Avi Schaumberg said...

Well, I probably think the Yankees will win but someone's got to stick up for Detroit, right?

Granted, a team that finishes the season 19-31 and bats Sean Casey third doesn't deserve to have me, or anyone, stick up for them. But I'm doing it anyways.

The real reason I picked them is out of a stubborn desire to try out Nate Silver's thesis in Baseball Between the Numbers. His look at the post-season found no correlation between regular season offensive performance and post-season success. Instead, post-season success correlated with three things: pitcher strikeout rate, closer WXRL (expected wins above replacement level, adjusted for the opposing lineups faced), and FRAA (fielding runs above average).

In terms of FRAA, Detroit was first in baseball with 32 FRAA, while the Yankees were 13th with 6. It's a tremendous advantage.

The teams are close on strikeout rates, with Detroit at 5.8 EQK/9 and the Yankees at 5.9 (good for 23rd and 19th overall respectively). And Detroit's WXRL ranked 10th to the Yankees 8th. Give that Todd Jones time to Joel Zumaya and it could give the Tigers the edge.

If you weight the category rankings equally, that puts Detroit 7th overall to the Yankees' 10th.

It's not much to go on -- and in the case of Detroit vs. the Yankee lineup it's hard to believe in it. But a five game series is a wacky thing. Maybe this year it will be defence and Joel Zumaya that win championships - or at least knock the Yankees off their perch.

 
At 12:46 PM, Blogger Alex said...

I figured it was based on some obscure statistic or something, and you didn't disappoint, Avi.

On another note, ESPN just reported that El Duque strained a calf muscle running, and is questionable for his scheduled start tomorrow.

 
At 1:22 PM, Blogger Andy Grabia said...

The Big Hurt is killing the Twins. This has been an awesome game.

 
At 3:46 PM, Blogger Mini Me said...

That World Series pick isn't looking that great at the moment.

 
At 6:07 PM, Blogger Alex said...

NO it's not. However, if Oakland blows a 2-0 series lead, it wouldn't be the first time.

Also, St. Louis' rotation is abysmal beyond Carpenter, so I wouldn't jump to any conclusions after one game.

 
At 8:10 PM, Anonymous Jays_AL_East_2007 said...

Wow, WAY OFF eh?

As for now, I'm thinking:

AL Championship
Oakland over the Tigers 6

NL Championship
Mets over the Cards in 5

World Series
Oakland over the Mets in 6

 

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