Jeff Passan's 20 questions as the MLB playoffs begin

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Someone asked about the best thing I saw in the 2020 Major League Baseball regular season, and my answer was baseball. Not a titanic Ronald Acuna Jr. home run or a dazzling Mookie Betts throw or an obscene Yu Darvish splitter or Trevor Bauer doing his Conor McGregor walk or Fernando Tatis Jr.’s drip or a Jose Ramirez walk-off or Adalberto Mondesi stealing second or Juan Soto swinging or Tim Anderson flipping or Mike Trout Mike Trouting, though admittedly I enjoyed all of those things.

Honestly, it was great to just see a groundout.

Months without baseball — with labor issues that were every bit as much to blame for the lack thereof as the coronavirus pandemic — were brutal. Then, when the game returned, and COVID-19 outbreaks sidelined two teams, and people across front offices and even the commissioner worried about pulling off a full season, it felt dire.

I took solace in the simple things. A center-cut, 90 mph fastball, about the worst pitch there is? Beautiful. A dropped popup? It happens. That rollover 6-3? Poetry. Because when compared to the alternative — a summer without the summer game, a fall without the Fall Classic — the mundane became magnificent.

Now here baseball is, still, with the first pitch of the postseason set to be thrown by Kenta Maeda at 2 p.m. ET today on ABC. Three more games follow, and then Wednesday’s cornucopia blossoms to eight, with playoff games at noon, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7 and 10. Again: That’s one day, eight postseason games. This super-sized postseason doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for a regular-sized regular season, but it feels quite strong in the moment.

With something that came together so on-the-fly — 10 of the 16 teams’ seeds were determined Sunday, the last day of the season — there are bound to be questions. You’re in luck.

Who’s going to win the World Series?

First question, huh?

Isn’t it what people want to know?

Fine. The Los Angeles Dodgers. I was picking them when the season was 162 games. I picked them when the season was announced at 60. I’m picking them now. Nothing I’ve seen has dissuaded me.

They aren’t just deep. They ooze top-end talent. Betts reminded everyone this year that he’s a top-five player in baseball. Shortstop Corey Seager fulfilled the promise of his rookie season. Will Smith might be the best offensive catcher in the game. Outfielder A.J. Pollock, thought to be a free-agent bust, whacked 16 home runs. Third baseman Justin Turner was his rock-solid self. Utilityman Chris Taylor defies the mediocrity implied by his position. Oh, and the Dodgers have last year’s National League MVP, Cody Bellinger, ready to turn October into his playground.

Their best pitcher has the worst ERA in the rotation: Walker Buehler at 3.44. Two rookies, Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin, have sub-3.00 ERAs. Clayton Kershaw looks like Clayton Kershaw of old. The Dodgers’ relievers aren’t big names. They just had the lowest walk and home run rate of any bullpen in baseball.

This is a superteam. The Dodgers outscored their opponents by 2.27 runs per game, the fourth-highest difference ever, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The two previous teams to top that, the 1927 and 1939 New York Yankees, swept the World Series. The other, the 1902 Pirates, played the year before the first World Series. They finished 103-36.

The 43-17 Dodgers weren’t quite at that level, though their .717 winning percentage is the best in baseball since Cleveland went 111-43 in 1954. After losing in the 2017 and 2018 World Series to a pair of teams later investigated by Major League Baseball for cheating, this is the Dodgers’ year to add their first ring since 1988.

You sure?

Of course not. Baseball is not basketball. It isn’t football. It isn’t any other major sport. It’s a game in which the worst team can beat the best team, and it isn’t some kind of monumental upset. With the wild-card round this year made up of three-game series and the division series running five before the seven-game league championship and World Series, the 2020 playoffs are ripe for upsets — even with the best teams.

Sweet hedge, bro. Whom are the Dodgers going to face in the World Series?

The Tampa Bay Rays.

Hold on. You’re talking about how baseball is a sport of massive variance, of potential upsets, of a mad October just waiting to happen … and you picked a World Series between the No. 1 seeds?

Uhhhhhh …

You’re the worst. Why the Rays?

There is not a superteam in the American League. There are a bunch of good-to-great teams that beat up on one another all season. The Rays are like the Dodgers without the glitz and glamour. They are fundamentally exquisite. They walk about as much as anyone. They run with intelligence and purpose. They catch the ball with aplomb. Their starting pitchers — especially Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow and Charlie Morton, their dynamic trio — rate with just about every other three-man offering in baseball. Their bullpen had the second-lowest walk and home run rates.

There are two criticisms of the Rays. The first is that they strike out too much. That is a real vulnerability this October. The second is that they don’t have any stars. That is nonsensical and needs to be launched into a black hole so it can vanish forever. If people don’t know who plays for the Rays, they’re the problem because they’re the ones missing out.

Oh, and one more thing: Against teams .500 or better this season, Tampa Bay was 21-9. That was the best such record in the big leagues. The Rays know how to beat good teams. And that’s what October is about.

Who are the greatest threats to the Dodgers and Rays?

Atlanta and Minnesota.

The Braves can really, really, really hit. In 26 September games, they scored 173 runs — nearly 6.7 per game. Take out the 29 runs they dropped on the Miami Marlins, and it’s still 5.8 runs per game, a huge number. Outfielder Marcell Ozuna led the NL in home runs and RBIs and finished 14 batting average points shy of an outright Triple Crown … and he wasn’t the best hitter on his team. Freddie Freeman is the NL MVP favorite — with good reason. Here’s the list of first basemen in history with a triple-slash of at least .341/.462/.640, which Freeman put up this season: Lou Gehrig seven times, Jimmie Foxx twice and Albert Pujols, Todd Helton, Carlos Delgado and Norm Cash once apiece. That’s some company.

We haven’t even talked about Acuña or the phenomenal Travis d’Arnaud or Dansby Swanson or Ozzie Albies or Adam Duvall. Not to mention a severely underrated bullpen. All anyone wants to talk about with the Braves is their paucity of starting pitching. Yeah, it’s real, and with league series this October featuring no off days, that might prove to be a problem. Compared to others’ issues, though, it isn’t necessarily a killer.

The Twins are different. They aren’t quite the Bomba Squad of last year. They aren’t sure if they’re going to have third baseman Josh Donaldson or center fielder Byron Buxton for the wild-card series. But nobody pitched better in September than the Twins, who lead off with Kenta Maeda (the presumptive AL Cy Young runner-up), follow with Jose Berrios (who looks dialed in) and chase him with Michael Pineda (who hasn’t allowed a homer in 26⅔ innings this year). The Twins have big arms with swing-and-miss stuff throughout their bullpen, and manager Rocco Baldelli comes from the Tampa Bay tree and is plenty versed in mixing and matching.

It’s not like the Twins are some scrub-ridden offense, either. The ageless Nelson Cruz is a marvel. Donaldson is a delight when he plays. Max Kepler, Eddie Rosario and Buxton are pure excitement, though each could stand to get on base more.

Put it this way: If the Twins don’t snap their 16-game postseason losing streak — that’s not a misprint — against the 29-31 Astros, something will have gone very wrong.

Did you say 29-31?

Sure did. The Brewers finished with that record, too. Welcome to the consequence of expanded playoffs: Houston and Milwaukee’s .483 winning percentage is the worst ever for a postseason baseball team, just behind that of the 1981 Kansas City Royals, who went 50-53 (.485) and made the playoffs in that year’s split, strike-shortened season.

Those aren’t the only ugly numbers this postseason. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the five worst team batting averages ever for playoff teams came in 2020:

2020 Reds: .212
2020 Cubs: .220
2020 Brewers: .223
2020 A’s: .225
2020 Cleveland: .228
1906 White Sox: .230

What’s the best wild-card series?

Give me Braves-Reds. In baseball’s one-year, 16-team experiment, the 2-7 series looks a lot like a 5-12 in the NCAA Tournament — ripe for upset.

Yes, a few hundred words ago, I was singing the Braves’ praise. Yes, a few dozen words ago I was pointing out that over 60 games, the Reds batted .212. Here’s the thing: Cincinnati will start the deserved NL Cy Young winner, Trevor Bauer, in Game 1, follow with Luis Castillo (September: 32⅔ IP, 22 H, 9 BB, 37 K’s, 2.20 ERA) and, if necessary, close with Sonny Gray.

Even though the Reds can’t hit, they walked more than any other team in the National League and finished behind only the Dodgers, Braves and Padres, three swatalicious teams, with 90 home runs. In fact, 59.7% of the Reds’ runs came via the long ball — by far the highest in baseball history, according to ESPN Stats & Info. (The previous best: Toronto in 2019, with 53.2%.)

How about in the American League?

It would be so ESPN of me to say Yankees and whomever the Yankees are playing, right?

It would.

Well, tough. Yankees-Cleveland really is that interesting. It’s not just the matchup between Shane Bieber (who made $230,815 this year and is going to win the Cy Young unanimously) and Gerrit Cole (who made $810,000 per start this year and was very good, especially in September). Greatness abounds. Ramirez should win the AL MVP — and he might be the second-most talented player on the left side of the infield, with Francisco Lindor manning shortstop. The right side of the Yankees’ infield balances the ledger rather nicely, with second baseman DJ LeMahieu, the AL batting champ, and Luke Voit, the league’s home run king.

Both bullpens are deep. The Cleveland rotation, with Bieber, Carlos Carrasco and Zach Plesac, is a nice counterbalance to a Yankees lineup that is clearly stronger, especially in the outfield. Four Yankees numbers are of concern: 11-18 and 10-17. The first is their record on the road. The Yankees were dreadful away from the Bronx this year. The second is their record against teams .500 or better. Against Boston and Baltimore, the dregs of the AL East, New York went 16-4. Against all other teams: 17-23.

Why aren’t they starting Gary Sanchez?

Marly Rivera explains it really well in a piece everyone ought to read, but the tl;dr version is: Sanchez has been awful this year, and Cole is more comfortable throwing to Kyle Higashioka.

OK, smart guy. Who are going to be the breakout players this October?

A few names to consider:

Garrett Crochet, relief pitcher, Chicago White Sox: Drafted 11th overall in June, the left-hander out of Tennessee has pitched six scoreless innings, struck out eight and averaged 100.2 mph on his fastball.

Sean Murphy, C, Oakland Athletics: Nobody was better for Oakland in September than the rookie catcher.

Randy Arozarena, OF, Tampa Bay Rays: He destroys left-handed pitching, and with the Blue Jays featuring a number of lefty options (including Hyun-Jin Ryu), he’ll have ample opportunity.

Trent Grisham, CF, San Diego Padres: Last you saw him in the playoffs, Grisham was in a Milwaukee uniform overrunning a bad hop that allowed Washington to win the wild-card game — and eventually the World Series. He’ll acquit himself better this time around.

Tony Gonsolin, starting pitcher, Los Angeles Dodgers: The latest product of the Dodgers’ player development machine doesn’t have the same raw stuff as May but has incredible pitchability.

Tyler Duffey, reliever, Minnesota Twins: Presuming, of course, the Twins are ahead in a postseason game for once and need to call upon their best high-leverage reliever.

Nick Anderson, reliever, Rays: He’s the best reliever in the game. Now it’s time for the whole baseball world to see it.

Will Smith, C, Dodgers: He has been the best hitter on the best team in baseball, and he calls a delightful game, too. The rich get richer.

Austin Adams, reliever, Padres: Back from knee surgery and throwing vicious sliders, the right-hander was a secondary player in the Austin Nola deal before the trade deadline and could pitch his way into primary status.

James Karinchak, reliever, Cleveland: He struck out 53 in 27 innings and should be deployed as an old-school fireman.

Nate Pearson, reliever, Toronto Blue Jays: Typically a starter, he has slotted into a bullpen role and will throw 102 mph fastballs regularly.

What’s the most seemingly lopsided matchup in Game 1?

The White Sox are 14-0 against left-handed starters this year. Against all lefties, they’re hitting .285/.364/.523. The A’s will start rookie Jesus Luzardo. He is left-handed.

The response from White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson: “I guess they haven’t done their homework.”

Perhaps not, though the White Sox have a fair bit of Yankees vibes to them. Their record against the two worst teams in the AL Central, Kansas City and Detroit: 18-2. Their record against everyone else: 17-23. Their record against .500-or-better teams: 12-20.

The Athletics’ Chris Bassitt just won AL Pitcher of the Month for September. Why aren’t teams’ best starters going in Game 1?

It’s not just Oakland. Ryu will get plenty of down-ballot Cy Young support, and he’s starting Game 2 for Toronto behind Matt Shoemaker, even though that pushes Taijuan Walker, Toronto’s second-best starter, to Game 3, which might not be needed. The Cubs might go with Kyle Hendricks ahead of Yu Darvish, a strong Cy Young candidate in the NL. Even though Marlins rookie Sixto Sanchez is the most talented arm on the team with the highest upside, Sandy Alcantara is likely to get the nod.

One decision-maker suggested that the difference between Game 1 and Game 2 simply isn’t that big. Another person said some teams think Game 2 is more important and will save their best pitcher for it — and give an extra day’s rest by doing so. That said, the Elias Sports Bureau passed along an awfully interesting statistic about three-game series. In the past 10 regular seasons, teams that won the first game of a three-game set went on to win the series 75.5% of the time.

What’s the Cardinals’ excuse for not pitching Jack Flaherty in Game 1 or Game 2?

No idea.

Flaherty is the Cardinals’ best pitcher. He doesn’t have the best ERA; that belongs to Kwang-Hyun Kim, the 32-year-old left-hander in his first season who has posted a 1.62 ERA. Flaherty doesn’t have the most experience; that’s Adam Wainwright, the 39-year-old who has been very good this year, too.

Between Kim and Wainwright, though, the Cardinals are trying to pull off some kind of a trick. This season, 126 starters threw at least 30 innings. Only 17 of them averaged below 90 mph on their fastballs. Kim and Wainwright are two of them.

On fastballs between 88 and 92 mph this year, according to Statcast, the Padres hit .329 and slugged a major league-best .658.

One more time: Flaherty, even with his 4.91 ERA, is the Cardinals’ best pitcher. He has the best stuff. He has the right attitude. In fact, Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said on MLB Network that Flaherty would go in Game 2. Then, suddenly, the Cardinals decided he wouldn’t. If they win one of the first two games, it will look very smart. If they don’t, they’ll have lost a postseason series without using their ace.

What other pitchers aren’t we seeing?

Right-handers Dinelson Lamet and Mike Clevinger, on whom a deep Padres playoff run almost certainly depends, are both questions after exiting their last starts. Justin Verlander’s Tommy John surgery leaves a gaping hole in an Astros rotation that is middle of the pack without him. The Braves with a healthy Mike Soroka and Cole Hamels would be an even greater threat to the Dodgers than they are already. Had Corbin Burnes not caught an oblique in his final start of the season, the specter of Milwaukee ousting Los Angeles would loom far more realistically than it does.

How can the Brewers beat the Dodgers?

Let Craig Counsell do his managerial wizardry and leverage his bullpen to the hilt over three days.

An important thing to note for these next four days of wild-card action: The AL Division Series don’t begin until Oct. 5, four days after the scheduled Game 3 of the wild card. The NL layoff is the same. As teams go into playoff bubbles, they’ll get ample rest.

Counsell is almost certain to go bullpen game in the opener. For Game 2, he has Brandon Woodruff, who is fantastic and has the sort of stuff that can handcuff the Dodgers. Game 3, if it gets there, will probably be all hands on deck again.

Those hands, though, they’re pretty good. The best reliever in the NL this year wasn’t Josh Hader, the Brewers’ closer who has held that title in recent seasons. It was Brewers right-hander Devin Williams, a 26-year-old rookie who, like Karinchak, struck out 53 in 27 innings, allowed just eight hits, posted a 0.33 ERA and regularly used the single best pitch in baseball this season, his changeup.

There’s Hader and Williams. Right-hander Freddy Peralta is a strikeout monster, too. Lefty Brent Suter, who has started and could serve as an opener, is a ground ball machine. Same with Adrian Houser. They’re still not the best on the Brewers at inducing grounders: That’s side-arming right-hander Eric Yardley, who is the perfect countermeasure with a 61.2% ground ball rate. There’s also Drew Rasmussen and Justin Topa, two rookies with fastball velocity that sits at 98 mph.

This takes a lot of squinting and some dreaming. But again: This is baseball. Anything can happen.

Like a positive COVID-19 test?

Holy Debbie Downer.

It’s worth asking about.

That’s fair. Considering how the coronavirus nearly waylaid the Marlins’ and Cardinals’ seasons, it’s reasonable to ask how a positive test would affect the postseason, especially when MLB is endeavoring to create a bubble around teams.

The protocol after individual positive tests as the season progressed was typically to miss a few games. Baseball’s playoffs are crammed into such a short time period that postponements aren’t an option. The league’s postseason operations manual calls for all of the usual steps: contact tracing, follow-up testing (even though players and staff are being tested every day) and trying to ensure the virus doesn’t spread.

If there is an outbreak, teams are traveling with a dozen replacement players who can fill in. The idea of that — participating in a postseason with lower-tier players — does not sit well with some officials but is a reality with which they’re learning to live.

Too much is at stake for MLB to lose the playoffs. Owners are counting on the billion or so dollars in postseason TV revenue. It’s the league’s greatest source of income this year, and MLB will do everything it can to secure that bag — including forcing teams to play with lesser talent.

Are there going to be fans?

“That’s the hope,” one official familiar with the situation said Monday. Whether they will appear at the NLCS in Arlington, Texas, or the World Series at Globe Life Field is unclear.

Owners, one person in contact with them said recently, “are desperate to get fans back this year. They want to show that it’s possible so they can have fans on Opening Day next year.”

Don’t expect a packed house. At most, the stadium might be filled to a quarter of capacity. That would still be 10,000 more fans per game than there were at any of the 898 played during the regular season.

What are you most excited for this October?

Baseball.

But not just the simple stuff. The finest teams in the world are vying for a championship. This is the moment for greatness. For the best players playing the best. For Acuña and Betts and Darvish and Bauer and Tatis and Ramirez and Anderson and everyone else showing out.

MLB’s October sizzle reel is full of bright colors and big swings and premium flow and dancing and bubble blowing. It’s DJ Khaled talking over BTS and trying to sell this as the same game for a new generation. “If you don’t know,” Khaled says, “now you know.”

Here’s what those of us in the know know: October is when the best baseball is played, when the best moments are forged, when history, which the game holds so dear, is made. It starts with four games today, doubles on Wednesday and moves forward from there — the biggest playoff field ever, the most games ever, the greatest number of opportunities for those moments.

It’s time to crown a champion. Baseball certainly earned it.



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