Deciding the Divisional Series

October baseball is upon us. The best eight teams in the MLB will contend for the right to represent their leagues in the World Series, then battle for the championship. While my beloved Red Sox won’t be in it, they still had their moment of influence. In beating the Yankees Sunday, they gave Tampa Bay the AL East title and home-field advantage until the World Series (where the National League will have home-field, thanks to their All-Star Game victory). We’ve got four divisional series to predict, so let’s get to it:

Texas vs. Tampa Bay: This one may turn out to be the quickest. Texas finished the AL West race nine games up. That means they clinched awhile ago and have been resting their starters ever since. But too much rest can hurt a team, as we saw in the 2007 World Series. Texas may come out flat in this series. Also, while Texas has the third-lowest team ERA in the American League, Tampa Bay is one of the two teams above them. And Texas’ low team ERA is boosted by their bullpen’s performance (3.33 bullpen ERA, lowest in the AL). Tampa Bay had 18 more quality starts than Texas did, meaning the Rays should get consistently better starting pitching performances in each game. The Rangers might be able to take one in Tropicana because the Rays don’t get a great crowd (they’ve even complained about it), but all that will do is push the series to five games, since it’s unlikely they sweep at home. Tack on Texas’ weak overall record (90 wins, worst among all playoff-qualifying teams), Josh Hamilton’s questionable durability, the Rays’ excellent road record (47 wins, best in the MLB), and the fact that this is likely their last shot at a ring (several key members of the Rays, among them Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena, will become free agents) and I think you might see a sweep. Pick: Rays in three.

Minnesota vs. New York: Up until mid-August, I would’ve picked the Yankees to win the World Series. But after playing .500 baseball for the last two months, I’m not so sure. Every time the Red Sox clinched a playoff spot for themselves, such as 2003, 2004, 2007 and 2008, they did relatively well (two World Series championships, two ALCS game 7’s). But every time they backed into a playoff spot, they floundered (2005, 2009, two ALDS sweeps). The Yankees backed into the playoffs this year, and that’s worrying for New York. Also, the Twins have the best home record in the AL (the Yankees are second), eager to christen their new stadium with a World Series ring. Now, the Yankees have the AL’s probable Cy Young winner in C.C. Sabathia to anchor their starting rotation. But after that, it’s a bit dicey. Andy Pettite had a good year, but A.J. Burnett and Javier Vazquez did not. Nova is a rookie, and Hughes struggled in the playoffs last year. In a seven-game series it’d be hard to pick against the Yankees, but in a five-game set they’ll probably be able to get just three good games from their 1-2 pitchers. That means two games from untested or struggling pitchers in Yankee Stadium. They might be able to win one of those games, but two is unlikely. And while I’m unsure who the Twins will start, they have good enough starting pitching to take at least one of their home games. That means a final game, played at Minnesota. In that situation, my money’s always on the home team. Pick: Twins in five.

Cincinatti vs. Philadelphia: The return of the Big Red Machine has been one of the great stories of this season. Unfortunately, I think it’s going to end in the NLDS. The Phillies won more games (97) than any other team in the MLB, and they have home-field for the playoffs. They also have the best starting pitching rotation of any team in the playoffs. Roy Halladay has absolutely transitioned from the AL to the NL, going 21-10 with a 2.44 ERA and NINE complete games (one of which was a perfect game). He will be the NL Cy Young winner this year. The Reds will lose both games Halladay pitches, meaning they’ll have to win all three other games to take the NLDS. Cincinatti has a much better offense (which explains why they have so many pitchers with a decent number of wins but a questionably high ERA), but in the playoffs pitching really does rule. Pick: Phillies in four.

San Francisco vs. Atlanta: This one is definitely the hardest to call. Both teams clinched right at the end of the season, and their records differ by a single win. Statistically, San Francisco has a slight edge in pitching (3.38 vs. 3.56 team ERA), but Atlanta has a slight edge in hitting, having a far superior on-base percentage (.338 vs. .321; sabermetrics teach that on-base percentage is the most accurate indicator of offensive capability) and scoring 37 more runs (725 vs. 688).  However, Atlanta has the worst road record (just 35 wins) of any team in the playoffs. I look at the Braves starting rotation and I just don’t see how they can win three games. Tim Hudson might out-duel Tim Lincecum, but after that the advantage swings SIGNIFICANTLY towards the Giants. I see both teams splitting their home two-game sets, setting up a game five in San Francisco. Pick: Giants in five.

So there you have it: the Tampa Rays, Minnesota Twins, Philadelphia Phillies and San Francisco Giants will all win their playoff series. That sets up league championship series of Tampa Bay vs. Minnesota, with the Rays enjoying home-field advantage, and Philadelphia vs. San Francisco, with the Phillies getting home-field advantage. Look for my LCS picks around the middle of next week. Go Big Red! (Just because I picked against them doesn’t mean I won’t root for them)

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