Chalk in the NL
I just finished a story that will go up on MLB.com tomorrow examining a few teams that might be particularly well-built for October. In it, I included a line about how I was leaving out teams like the Nationals and Rangers, because anybody can pick a favorite.
The problem is, when I wanted to include at least one National League team, that limitation made it pretty tough on me. I found a team (a team I’ve liked since March, actually), but my heart was less in it. I think there are more of those interesting-in-October teams in the AL than in the NL. The White Sox, the Angels, even the Orioles all look like teams that have some argument for being tough outs in the playoffs. Heck, even the Rays and A’s, if you wanted to make a case, I’d listen.
That’s because the two teams that are best built for October in the NL, for my money, are the two best teams in the NL. I know, on Twitter, this would probably earn me an #analysis hashtag, but I really think the Nationals (even without Stephen Strasburg) and the Reds are the teams to beat in the NL postseason.
(STANDARD AND ESSENTIAL DISCLAIMER: Nobody has that much more than a 1/8 chance of winning the whole thing. The best team doesn’t win a playoff series that much more than 50 percent of the time, so predicting October outcomes is really a fool’s errand. Anyway, on with the show.)
Baseball Prospectus “retired” its Secret Sauce rankings a couple of years ago, but I think the things still have some merit. The idea was that the things that best determine October success are: a rotation that strikes people out, a dominant closer, and an airtight defense. I think there are a couple of other things (though without actual evidence, I’m perfectly open to any skepticism about this theory; it’s based on observation, which is always dangerous) to take seriously: a tactically sound manager and an offense that has at least one of the following two traits: lineup depth and/or power.
I believe in the first because I’ve just seen it too many times, managers getting exposed tactically in October and paying the price. I don’t believe, at all, that tactics are all there is to being a manager. In fact, it’s one thing that being on the beat really impressed upon me, that I had that balance wrong. I thought tactics were the vast majority of managing. I no longer do. But in October, while some personal challenges become magnified, many kind of fade away. It’s easier to get everybody on the same page when the goal is so clearly in sight.
As for the offensive part, well, the expression (courtesy of my friend Joe Sheehan) is “Ball go far, team go far.” It’s easier to hit one home run than to string several baserunners together against elite pitchers and defenses. But if you don’t have power, the next best thing is depth, as the increased exposure, scouting, video, etc. of a short series should make it easier to shut down one or two or three key guys. (for a second time: I’m not decreeing these things to be so. I could be wrong. They’re based on my impressions, observations, reading, analysis, etc. Just my take. I’ve been wrong more than once before in my life. Anyway, again, on with the show.)
Well, look at the Nats and Reds, and especially the Nats. Talk about a rotation that misses bats. Even without Strasburg, they certainly have that. They don’t have a Rivera-class closer, but they have something that IMO is even better: a core of four or so relievers who can dominate. I don’t think you need to go seven deep in October. In fact, I know you don’t. But you do need more than just a closer. Most teams are going to ride 3-4 relievers hard in the postseason. They can do that.
As for the offense, as of right now Washington meets both criteria. Believe it or not, the Nats are second in the NL in home runs. They also feature a lineup where Jayson Werth leads off, and guys with 22 and 16 home runs bat sixth and seventh. A rejuvenated Kurt Suzuki is a nice-looking eighth hitter. The more I see this team, the more I like it. They’re a load for just about anybody in the NL.
The defense isn’t great, but it’s not bad. And the manager, for my money, is one of the shrewdest tacticians of the past few decades. There just aren’t any obvious weaknesses to exploit here. If I had to pick a team to win the NL (and at some point, I’m sure I will have to do just that), right now it’s Washington.
And if it’s not Washington, it’s Cincinnati, which has many of the same qualities. I don’t like the depth of Reds’ rotation as much as that of the Nats’, but the top two guys definitely miss bats. The bullpen, on the other hand, may be even better. They’re potent from the left and right sides, and if Dusty Baker gets creative, Aroldis Chapman could be a 4-, 5-, or even 6-out monster in playoff games.
The lineup is just as deep, if not deeper, with seven players who have 14 homers or more. The Reds are right behind the Nats in homers on the year, and they’ve done that with Joey Votto missing a huge chunk of the year. Top to bottom, I’d take the Reds lineup over the Nats lineup. I don’t like Dusty Baker as a tactician nearly as much as I like Johnson, but then, I could say that about most managers. Davey’s awfully sharp. They’re also not quite as good defensively as the Nats according to the numbers, but boy, they look like a pretty good fielding team to my eye.
In short, I think the Reds are sort of 90 percent of the Nats, with broadly similar strengths and weaknesses. And while I certainly wouldn’t rule out the Giants’ rotation getting torrid for a month, or the Cardinals hanging six runs a game for a month, as of right now I like the Nats and Reds a good bit more than any other team in the NL when it comes to October matchups.
Feel free to call me on this in mid-October when it’s a Dodgers-Pirates NLCS, btw.