The playoffs, in a way, represent a clean slate. Once you’re in, it’s anyone’s title to claim.
Some winners are wire-to-wire favourites, such as the 2018 Boston Red Sox, who had an MLB-best 108 wins. Others are improbable underdogs, such as the 2014 San Francisco Giants, who started their playoff journey on the road in a do-or-die wild-card game.
Unpredictability of some kind is bound to happen — as evidenced by what the Washington Nationals did Tuesday — but it doesn’t hurt to look back at a season’s worth of data to see which teams have some advantages.
Ahead of the divisional round, here’s a look at the playoff teams that rank best and worst in nine important, predictive categories.
Best: Houston Astros (.352)
Worst: St. Louis Cardinals (.322)
Baserunners can create hope and cause havoc in October, so the more you have, the better. In Houston, MVP candidate Alex Bregman was third in the league with a .423 OBP. The Cardinals, meanwhile, only had one player with an OBP higher than the Astros’ team average, second baseman Kolten Wong (.361).
Best: Minnesota Twins (307)
Worst: St. Louis Cardinals (210)
In a record-setting year for the long ball, the Twins had eight players hit 20 or more home runs (led by Nelson Cruz’s 41). That amount of power up and down a lineup will be nice to have in tight games, where one swing of the bat can change everything. As for St. Louis, it doesn’t bode well that they rank last in two critical offensive categories.
It’s worth mentioning that the New York Yankees just missed the cut here with 306 home runs, an impressive feat considering they were without signature slugger Giancarlo Stanton for all but 18 games this year. With Stanton back in the fold, the Yankees are likely even more potent than the Twins.
Best: Los Angeles Dodgers (42.3 per cent of balls in play)
Worst: Washington Nationals (36.1 per cent of balls in play)
It’s common knowledge that putting the ball in play is considered a good thing. But you know what’s better? Hitting the ball hard. The Dodgers did that better than anyone else, led by Justin Turner and MVP frontrunner Cody Bellinger, while the Nationals were 24th in the majors in this category.
Rotation fielding-independent pitching (aka FIP, explained here if you’re unfamiliar)
Best: Tampa Bay Rays (3.34)
Worst: New York Yankees (4.74)
As the team that trademarked the use of openers, it’s unsurprising to see Tampa Bay top this list. But they also have a strong core of traditional starters with reigning Cy Young winner Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow and Charlie Morton.
The Yankees had their share of starter woes this year with the likes of J.A. Happ and C.C. Sabathia (who is likely to move to the bullpen for the post-season), but they are probably better than their FIP reflects. The staff ace, Luis Severino, missed almost the entire season before returning in late September and has looked strong through three outings.
Best: Minnesota Twins (3.92)
Worst: Washington Nationals (4.94)
Individually, the Twins don’t have any relievers in the MLB’s top-10 leaderboard for FIP. But a deep, balanced group led by closer Taylor Rodgers (2.85 FIP) has led to a reliable bullpen in Minnesota.
The opposite has been true for the Nationals, whose FIP ranked 26th in the majors. Most teams trend toward increased reliever usage in the playoffs, but that probably won’t be the case for Washington.
Defensive efficiency (explained here if you’re unfamiliar)
Best: Houston Astros (72.9 percent)
Worst: Minnesota Twins (69.1 percent)
In short, defensive efficiency measures a team’s ability to convert balls in play into outs. A 3.8 per cent difference between the Astros and Twins may seem miniscule, but over the course of a 162-game season it really makes a difference.
Consider that the Twins had roughly 4,000 "fieldable" balls in play this year (i.e. not home runs). The aforementioned 3.8 per cent, when applied to 4,000 balls in play, means the Twins recorded approximately one out per game less than the Astros. The fewer outs a team records, the more chances they give the opposition.
Record in one-run games
Best: Minnesota Twins (23-12)
Worst: New York Yankees (18-19)
There are two ways to look at this: does a team’s record in one-run games mean they’re lucky/unlucky? Or does it explain some sort of skill/deficiency they have when it’s crunch time?
The best answer is probably a mix of both. But keep this in mind: the best one-run record this year belonged to the San Francisco Giants (38-16), who finished 12 games out of a playoff spot.
Total games of playoff experience (estimated based on playoff roster projections)
Best: Los Angeles Dodgers (568 games)
Worst: Tampa Bay Rays (61 games)
The Dodgers — back-to-back NL champions and winners of seven-straight NL West divisions — are more than 200 games of playoff experience ahead of the next highest team (Houston). That kind of experience helps as a long season gets longer and pressure-packed moments pile up.
On the flip side, the Rays possess shockingly little playoff experience. For many of their players, this is their first time in October. Wednesday’s win sure helps, but they’re a long way from the finish.