Due to the various implications of the pandemic and elongated negotiations leading up to the 2020 MLB Season, the playoff field was expanded to 16 teams. At the conclusion of play Sunday, Sept. 27th the 16 Teams were locked in their seeding. In the agreement, the first round is the “Wild Card Round” a best-of-3-game series pitting the top 4 seeds against the correlating lower 4. Then the winners of the 1 v 8 and 4 v 5 games will play each other and the winners of the 2 v 7 and 3 v 6 games will play each other in best-of-5-game “Divisional” series. The winners of those match-ups will face off in a best-of-7-game series in the “League Championship” round. Finally, the last two teams standing, one from each league, will face off in the best-of-7 World Series. If every series goes the distance, another 65 games could be played.
Each match-up presents different interesting tidbits and story lines to follow. With a truncated season, it’s hard to know if the “real” versions of any of these teams has really been on display or what to expect when the playoff pressure starts. Even “playoff pressure” will be different this year, with no or limited fans and the games beyond the first round all being played at neutral sites. Despite all that, here’s how I expect the first round to end up.
AL 1. Tampa Bay Rays vs 8. Toronto Blue Jays
The Rays stormed out of the gates and claimed their first AL East title since 2010 and 3rd in franchise history. They had a balanced approach finishing 4th in the AL in OBP and 3rd in ERA. Their Ace, Tyler Glasnow, finished the season with an impressive 14.28 K/9 over 57.1 IP and their bullpen lead the AL in fWAR. Brandon Lowe spearheaded an above-average offense with a .274/.364/.563 slash and 14 HRs.
They’re facing a familiar foe in the first round, in fellow AL East contenders the Toronto Blue Jays. As the 8th seed, the Blue Jays are significantly less impressive. Their team ERA was 10th in the AL but Ace Hyun-Jin Ryu and August acquisition Taijuan Walker both pitched well each allowing 2 or less earned runs in six of their last seven starts. The Jays offense was slightly above average but did finish 4th in HRs and 5th in ISO. Teoscar Hernandez had a breakout season as their best hitter and youngsters Cavan Biggio, Lourdes Gurriel Jr, and Bo Bichette were also all above-average offensive contributors.
Toronto hasn’t announced their starters yet, so I’ll be guessing.
Game 1: TBR Blake Snell vs TOR Hyun-Jin Ryu
Game 2: TBR Tyler Glasnow vs TOR Taijuan Walker
Game 3 (if necessary): TBR Charlie Morton vs TOR Tanner Roark
Prediction: Rays in 2
The Rays took the season series 6 games to 4 and are too balanced to let the Jays take them out.
AL 2. Oakland Athletics vs 7. Chicago White Sox
The A’s were also on top of the AL West from the very start and rode a strong first couple weeks to a division title. It was their first division title since 2013 and ended the Astros’ run of three in a row. They led the AL in bullpen ERA on the arms of righties Liam Hendriks and Joakim Soria and lefty Jake Diekman. Starter Chris Bassitt continued his growth and posted the 3rd best ERA in AL. Offensively, the A’s were exactly league average but as a team walked at an elite 10.7% clip.
Their opponent will be a very dangerous White Sox club. The South Siders smashed an AL-leading 94 HRs (tying the Yankees) and led the AL in SLG. AL MVP candidate Jose Abreu led a potent lineup including sluggers Eloy Jimenez, Yasmani Grandal, Luis Robert, and Edwin Encarnacion. Their pitching was less impressive but still managed to finish 5th in the AL in ERA led by Ace and star right-hander Lucas Giolito.
Oakland hasn’t announced any of their starters and the White Sox haven’t picked Game 3 yet either.
Game 1: OAK Sean Manaea vs CWS Lucas Giolito
Game 2: OAK Chris Bassitt vs CWS Dallas Keuchel
Game 3 (if necessary): OAK Mike Fiers vs CWS Dylan Cease
Prediction: White Sox in 3
The A’s really struggled to score runs all season and if Giolito shuts them down in Game 1 like he’s fully capable of doing, the White Sox have a good chance of taking one of the next two with their power.
AL 3. Minnesota Twins vs 6. Houston Astros
The Twins caught the White Sox in the last two weeks of the season to take a second consecutive AL Central title. The 2019 Twins were an offensive juggernaut but several of their pieces went elsewhere and the rebuilt squad wasn’t quite as potent. Still, they managed 91 HRs and nearly exactly league average production overall per their 102 wRC+. Newly acquired former Dodger Kenta Maeda was a revelation for their pitching staff which was 4th in the AL in ERA and their bullpen finished 2nd in the AL with a potent 10.28 K/9.
The Astros were the talk of the league as the “trashcan” scandal dominated the news cycle in over the winter and into the spring. Distractions and subtractions both played a role in Houston’s struggles along with career worst-seasons from stalwart contributors Jose Altuve, Josh Reddick, and Yuli Gurriel. An offense that in 2019 dominated the league found itself on the wrong side of the mean this year, albeit only barely. The Astros starting pitching was a highlight despite losing 2x Cy Young award-winner Justin Verlander to injury, finishing 4th in the league in fWAR led by veteran Zack Greinke. Ryan Pressly was the most reliable arm in a shaky bullpen that finished 10th in the AL in ERA.
Houston does not have their starters projected out beyond the 1st game.
Game 1: MIN Kenta Maeda vs HOU Zack Greinke
Game 2: MIN Jose Berrios vs HOU Lance McCullers Jr
Game 3 (If necessary): MIN Michael Pineda vs HOU Framber Valdez
Prediction: Twins in 3
The Astros have to win Game 1. If they can’t back Greinke, it could over much more quickly.
AL 4. Cleveland Indians vs 5. New York Yankees
The Indians overcame a rough start and rode AL MVP candidate Jose Ramirez and the presumptive AL Cy Young Shane Bieber to 2nd in the AL Central. The Indians offense was not good. They slashed .226/.315/.367 as a team, their 85 wRC+ only better than the lowly Rangers. They did however walk at a 10.7% clip and Ramirez was awesome. The infielder slashed .287/.380/.597 with 17 HRs and a 12.4% BB rate. His 3.2 fWAR led the AL. As bad as their offense was, their pitching was stellar. Their starters lead the AL in nearly every category behind Bieber, Carlos Carrasco, Aaron Civale, and Zach Plesac. They had seven different pitchers finish the season with at least 20 IP and 10+ K/9, led by ferocious reliever James Karinchak’s 17.31.
The Indians will face off with the Bronx Bombers. The Yankees were a combination of good starting pitching, great hitting, and a terrible bullpen. They led the AL in HRs, RBIs, wRC+, wOBA, BB%, ISO, and total runs scored. They were 3rd in the AL in starter’s fWAR, K/9, and led in BB/9. However, their bullpen was 12th in the AL in fWAR and 10th in LOB%. Injuries once again bit the Yanks holding Judge and Stanton to a combined 204 ABs but DJ LeMahieu and Luke Voit made up for it with elite offensive seasons. LeMahieu became the first player to win a batting title in both leagues since Ed Delahanty in 1899 & 1902.
The Yankees haven’t announced their starter for Game 3.
Game 1: CLE Shane Bieber vs NYY Gerrit Cole
Game 2: CLE Carlos Carrasco vs NYY Masahiro Tanaka
Game 3 (if necessary): CLE Zach Plesac vs NYY Jordan Montgomery
Prediction: Yankees in 3.
There’s too much offense in the Yankees’ lineup for the Indians to contend with. Of all the AL matchups, this is the most intriguing because even with the Indians’ struggles, Ramirez has shown he’s capable of winning a series on his own.
NL 1. Los Angeles Dodgers vs 8. Milwaukee Brewers
The best team in baseball by record (and AEE Power Rankings) was the Dodgers. They combined the #2 offense in terms of fWAR with the #3 pitching staff to cruise to 43 wins and their 8th consecutive NL West division title. Their pitching was led by a 3-headed-monster of Walker Buehler, Clayton Kershaw, and Julio Urias, with a breakout for youngster Tony Gonsolin. Offensively, they led baseball in HRs with 118 and a .227 ISO. Off-season acquisition and NL MVP candidate Mookie Betts led an offense that featured 6 hitters with at least 100 ABs and an OPS over .800.
They’ll face the “last team in” who clinched their spot at the 11th hour. The Brewers needed some things to go right and they did for them to earn their date with the Dodgers. They earned that spot with the best pitching staff in baseball. NL Cy Young candidate Corbin Burnes won’t be available however but the Brewers can still run out several premier arms such as Brandon Woodruff, Freddy Peralta, and “airbender” Devin Williams. Their 11th ranked offense will face a difficult task against the Dodgers’ myriad of effective pitchers. Hope remains, however, as 2018 MVP Christian Yelich showed signs of life the last few weeks and is certainly capable of dominating a short series.
The Brewers haven’t announced starters, LA has the first two.
Game 1: LAD Walker Buehler vs MIL Brandon Woodruff
Game 2: LAD Clayton Kershaw vs MIL Brett Anderson
Game 3 (If necessary): LAD Julio Urias vs MIL Adrian Houser
Prediction: Dodgers in 2
They’re the best team in baseball for a reason.
NL 2. Atlanta Braves vs 7. Cincinnati Reds
The Braves took their 3rd consecutive NL East crown with an unexpectedly explosive offensive unit. Phenom Ronald Acuna, NL MVP candidate Freddie Freeman, and NL HR & RBI leader Marcel Ozuna bat 1-3 in a lineup that hit 108 HRs and led baseball with 64.6 offensive runs above average. They needed all that offense because injuries to Mike Soroka and Cole Hamels along with regression from several others left their starting pitching 13th in NL as a unit. A strong bullpen (3rd in the NL) and a Cy Young caliber season by Ace Max Fried salvaged what was otherwise a disastrous pitching situation.
They’ll face off with one of the hottest teams in baseball, the Cincinnati Reds. They were the opposite of the Braves, with an offense that slashed an abysmal .212/.312/.403 buoyed by the best starting rotation in the NL. NL Cy Young hopeful Trevor Bauer, with an elite 5.88 K/BB and league leading .795 WHIP leads a rotation that includes studs Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray. Their bullpen was middle-of-the-pack only converting 9 saves, only the Pirates had fewer with 6. Offensively, they were a one-man show and it’s not who you’d likely expect. Jesse Winker slashed .255/.388/.544 with 12 HRs worth a wRC+ of 146 easily leading their anemic lineup. 3B Eugenio Suarez also popped 15 HRs but his .312 OBP is well below average.
The Reds have announced all 3 games, the Braves just the 1st.
Game 1: ATL Max Fried vs CIN Trevor Bauer
Game 2: ATL Ian Anderson vs CIN Luis Castillo
Game 3 (If necessary): ATL Kyle Wright vs CIN Sonny Gray
Prediction: Braves in 2
The Braves are definitely on upset alert, the Reds are hot and Bauer-Castillo is a very nasty 1-2 punch. However, Atlanta’s epic offense feasts on bullpens, and this Reds unit was subpar at best. If the Reds manage to push it to the 3rd game, they’ll have a chance against the lesser starters Atlanta has to offer.
NL 3. Chicago Cubs vs 6. Miami Marlins
The NL Central champions were the surprising Chicago Cubs. They had the 5th and 6th best pitching and offense respectively in the NL, in neither phase did they stand out as particularly good or particularly bad. They had stretches of looking like a real contender but also struggled out the gate and saw regression among several of their core pieces. Kris Bryant limped to a .206/.293/.351 slash and Javier Baez was even worse at .203/.238/.360. On the other hand, Ian Happ seemed to put it together and Jason Heyward rode a career-high 16.6% walk rate to his best offensive season since his breakout rookie campaign. NL Cy candidate Yu Darvish led a strong rotation and rookie manager David Ross seemed to settle into a bullpen formula that worked down the stretch.
They’ll face the surprising Miami Marlins. Reaching the playoffs for the 3rd time in franchise history, the Marlins were an early victim of COVID-related postponements but managed to make up all 60 games and lock in a playoff birth. They managed to reach the playoffs despite having the worst pitching staff in the NL. Dead last in K/9, fWAR, and a troubling 5.02 FIP, they sent 13 different men to the mound to start games despite the shortened season. Even bright spot Sixto Sanchez stumbled down the stretch after a couple dominating starts early in the season. Their offense had been a revelation early in the season but it also regressed hard finishing 12th in the NL in fWAR and 8th in wRC+.
Neither team has announced their starters yet.
Game 1: CHC Yu Darvish vs MIA Sandy Alcantara
Game 2: CHC Kyle Hendricks vs MIA Pablo Lopez
Game 3 (if necessary): CHC Jon Lester vs MIA Sixto Sanchez
Prediction: Cubs in 2
The Cubs have been uneven but still have much more talent on their roster than the Marlins. It’s hard to see a path to victory for Miami but its baseball, so anything can happen!
NL 4. San Diego Padres vs 5. St Louis Cardinals
The Padres were another pleasant surprise in 2020, riding a potent offense to their first playoff berth since 2006. For most of the season, they were the 2nd best team in the NL combining an offense with a pitching staff that both finished 4th in the NL in fWAR. Pitching wise, they were very balanced with good production from the starters and relievers. Injuries to acquisition Mike Clevinger and Ace Dinelson Lamet put a damper on the last couple weeks but the Padres are hopeful Lamet will be able to start Game 1. He led the Friars with 2.4 fWAR due to his 2.09 ERA, .65 HR/9, and 80.4 LOB% over 69.0 IP. Their 4th ranked offense boasted the exciting talents of Fernando Tatis Jr and Manny Machado. The left side of their infield hit 33 HRs combined and both produced an elite 149 wRC+. Additional breakout hitting from former Brewer Trent Grisham and NL ROY hopeful Jake Cronenworth gave the Padres lineup significant depth.
They’ll face the 4th playoff team from the Central, the St Louis Cardinals. Like the Marlins, the Cards lost games due to COVID and navigated a gauntlet of doubleheaders to navigate the last several weeks of the season. Their pitching was uneven but it finished 4th in the NL in ERA due mostly to strong starting pitching. Their offense was slightly below average, with a 93 wRC+, which was 9th in the NL. Offensively, they struggled with only Paul Goldschmidt (146), Brad Miller (121), and Harrison Bader (113) posting a wRC+ above average.
Neither team has announced their starters.
Game 1: SDP Dinelson Lamet vs STL Adam Wainwright
Game 2: SDP Zach Davies vs STL Jack Flaherty
Game 3 (if necessary): SDP Chris Paddack vs STL Dakota Hudson
Prediction: Padres in 3
I could go either way in this series. The Padres are better in nearly every phase but the Cardinals always play over their heads in the playoffs. Flaherty is capable of taking Game 2 entirely on his own. I think the team with the best player (Tatis Jr) has the best chance of winning but in a series this short anything is possible.