FORT MYERS, Fla. — He was an Opening Day catcher two months before wrecking his ankle while playing left field. He crams four varieties of gloves into one spring training equipment bag. And although he is out of minor league options, his career could still go in more directions than a “Choose Your Own Adventure” novel.
Just ask opposing scouts, many of whom can’t take their eyes off him.
“To me,” a National League talent evaluator said Friday, “he’s a legit trade target.”
A former first-round draft pick in 2011 (No. 26 overall), Swihart was regarded as recently as three years ago as the Red Sox’s catcher of the future. But criticism of his defense behind the plate, an ill-advised decision to move him to an unfamiliar outfield position and a serious left ankle injury torpedoed his 2016 and 2017 seasons and put him on an alternate course, one that now has him attempting to make the big league roster — Boston’s or perhaps another team’s — as a super-utility player.
Over the past 10 days, Swihart has started seven games at four positions. He played first base for six innings Feb. 28, served as the designated hitter March 1 and was behind the plate March 2. He was the DH again on Sunday, played six innings in left field on Tuesday, caught Thursday and was the DH on Friday.
Next week figures to bring more of the same, with the possibility of adding third base to the rotation.
“Love it,” Swihart said. “Especially when I’m healthy, I love playing. If I can go out there and get as many reps as I can, it’s almost like a tryout for me.”
Actually, that’s exactly what it is.
Coming off a strong season last year, Christian Vazquez has ascended to the role of the Red Sox’s primary catcher. Sandy Leon has the inside track to be the backup, in part because he was ace lefty Chris Sale‘s preferred catcher last season. Barring injuries, 11 of the 13 Opening Day roster spots for position players are filled, setting up a three-way fight for two jobs between Swihart and utilitymen Brock Holt and Deven Marrero.
Holt has the track record, to say nothing of the ability to play seven positions. But Marrero and Swihart are out of options and can’t be sent to Triple-A without being exposed to waivers. There’s at least a chance that Marrero, a slick fielder but a .208/.259/.309 career hitter, would go unclaimed. Swihart almost certainly would not.
And so, the Red Sox are trying to increase Swihart’s versatility. First-year manager Alex Cora has drawn comparisons between Swihart and Austin Barnes, who played 55 games at catcher, 21 at second base and one at third base last season for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“There’s a guy, he can catch and all of a sudden in the World Series he was playing second base because he’s that good of an athlete,” Cora said. “You see how athletic [Swihart] is. He’s one of the best athletes out there.”
But there’s another point to all of this: By maximizing Swihart’s playing time in spring training, the Red Sox also are showcasing him to other teams. Swihart might not have as much trade value as he did in, say, the winter of 2014-15, when he was strictly a catcher and Boston’s then-general manager Ben Cherington refused to deal him to the Philadelphia Phillies for lefty Cole Hamels. But if there isn’t a spot for him as a regular on the Red Sox’s roster, it’s possible his best use to them might be in a trade to a catcher-needy team.
“I’d let him catch and develop his bat and fill in elsewhere to get at-bats, but the utility thing can be done any time down the road,” the NL talent evaluator said. “Either way, I still worry that he won’t get enough at-bats right now [with the Red Sox], barring injury.”
Swihart insists he isn’t focusing on all that — “I think I’ve been in every trade rumor since the day I was signed,” he said — but rather on whatever position he’s asked play on a given day. Although he has stated a preference for remaining a full-time catcher, he isn’t averse to mastering new positions. As long as he plays almost every day at the big league level, Swihart doesn’t much care where he is on the field.
“I do think he could be one of those guys,” said Shane Shallenberger, Swihart’s former coach at Cleveland High School in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. “He’s never been, ‘I’m just a catcher.’”
Swihart always has been uncommonly athletic for a catcher, probably because he was an infielder until his junior year of high school. It was then that, as Shallenberger recalls, Swihart showed up for practice and said, “I want to work on catching.”
Swihart had a good reason. He thought it would improve his draft stock, according to Shallenberger, who suggests that Swihart be taken at his word when he says he’s committed to expanding his skills at other positions as a way of cementing a big league job.
“I never really had plans of Blake catching because he was so good at other positions, but for what we had, it really worked out for our program at the time,” Shallenberger said. “I think Blake has always had a plan of what he wanted to do with his baseball career, so I didn’t ever question him. I said, ‘Let’s see what you can do,’ and of course, he became one heck of a catcher.”
On that point, there’s some difference of opinion. Swihart was rushed to the majors in 2015 after both Vazquez and Ryan Hanigan got injured and caught 83 games for the Red Sox. Some pitchers, including veteran right-hander Clay Buchholz, expressed a preference for throwing to Leon, a more experienced game-caller.
Last year, Swihart’s arm came under scrutiny in spring training when it appeared he had the yips while throwing the ball back to the pitcher.
“I really don’t know where it came from that I wasn’t a good catcher and I couldn’t throw, so I put in a lot of work this offseason,” Swihart said. “I feel like there’s a lot of balls [in the dirt] that I get to. I’ve heard that I can’t throw either, but I can throw the ball 100 mph. I’ve just got to keep proving myself.”
Indeed, Shallenberger said Swihart uses the criticism as motivation. Swihart also doesn’t waste time lamenting the move to left field, thinking about his collision with the wall in foul territory at Fenway Park and wondering if he might have avoided ankle surgery if the Red Sox hadn’t tried to introduce him to a new position.
“Blake doesn’t cry over spilled milk, so to speak,” Shallenberger said. “He knew he had to rehab 100 percent, and I think he was a little frustrated that he wasn’t 100 percent [last year]. But he definitely wasn’t down about it. That injury set him back pretty good, so he had to learn from adversity and overcome that. I think he did.”
Swihart is out to prove it this spring, one way or another. And on a Red Sox team that is largely unchanged from last season, he’s the most interesting story in camp.
A case for Ronald Acuña Jr. as the MLB Latino Face of the 2020s
With the MLB postseason here and Hispanic Heritage Month underway, ESPN found the timing ideal to tackle one of the bigger debates among one section of baseball’s fandom: With so many superstar candidates, which one is most worthy of being labeled the current Face of Latino Baseball?
Our friends at ESPN Deportes and FiveThirtyEight devised a formula using on-field performance, social media popularity, feedback from 30 ESPN analysts and fan votes to get to the answer. The results produced a ballot that stands at four candidates: the Atlanta Braves‘ Ronald Acuña Jr., from Venezuela; Dominican players Juan Soto of the Washington Nationals and Fernando Tatis Jr. of the San Diego Padres; and Puerto Rico’s Francisco Lindor of the Cleveland Indians. All are young, charismatic and popular and have enough accomplishments in their short careers to be considered for the honor.
Check out the highlights from baseball’s biggest stars under the age of 25.
Monday through Thursday this week, we will present the case for one of the four superstars, with our winner to be revealed Friday. We start with Acuña, the Braves’ sensational outfielder.
At 22, Acuña already has three major league seasons under his belt and has put together a .281 batting average, 81 homers, 194 RBIs and 61 stolen bases. The 2018 National League Rookie of the Year also appeared in last year’s All-Star Game.
He earned a Silver Slugger award in 2019, a season in which he joined Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Jose Canseco and Alfonso Soriano as the only players in history to tally 40 homers and 35 stolen bases.
Acuña, from La Guaira, Venezuela, draws frequent comparisons to Ken Griffey Jr. However, arguments can be made that Acuna is already ahead of the Hall of Famer Griffey’s pace with a WAR of 11.9 — the second-highest among our four candidates. Equally impressive are his career .909 OPS and .538 slugging percentage.
Social media popularity
What hurts Acuña’s case: He has shared just four Instagram posts in 2020, but those have nevertheless averaged more than 90,000 interactions for each.
Even though he has a low Instagram profile, Acuña has been one of the most searched Latino players since the beginning of the 2019 season. His average Google Trends search index for the period of Apr. 1, 2019 to Sep. 1, 2020, trails only Albert Pujols and Guerrero Jr. among all Latino players, and leads our finalists for the Latino Face of Baseball.
Acuña, who debuted in April 2018, received only three first-place votes from our panel of experts, but he appeared on 27 of the 30 ballots, the most of any player.
“Acuña is already one of the best players in the major leagues,” ESPN Deportes’ Enrique Rojas said. “He’s more or less like a Venezuelan Mike Trout. Both can hit for power, run, play defense and throw hard at the bases — a complete package of tools that belongs only to the best in the business.”
Special category: Fan vote
Between Aug. 26 and Aug. 28, you, the fans, had a hand in deciding who should be the Latino Face of Baseball through four tightly contested polls.
Acuña dominated the SC Español poll with 39.9% of the vote. He was second among voters in the other three web polls: ESPN Béisbol (29%), ESPN Deportes (26.3%), and ESPN México (21.9).
Expert picks for the 2020 MLB playoffs
The Washington Nationals did not make it into this year’s MLB playoffs, so Major League Baseball will crown a different team as champion in 2020. Can the Los Angeles Dodgers get over the final hurdle and take home their first championship since 1988? Or could the Tampa Bay Rays win their first title after earning just their second pennant? Will the Cleveland Indians win their first World Series since 1948? Or will we see a complete surprise, like the upstart Chicago White Sox or San Diego Padres, storming back from their successful rebuilds?
We asked 30 of our MLB experts — from ESPN.com, TV, Stats & Information and more — to give us their predictions: wild-card series winners, division series winners, league championship series winners and World Series winner.
Below are the vote totals along with analysis from some of our experts.
National League wild-card series
No. 8 Milwaukee Brewers at No. 1 Los Angeles Dodgers — Dodgers 30 votes, Brewers 0
No. 7 Cincinnati Reds at No. 2 Atlanta Braves — Reds 16, Braves 14
No. 6 Miami Marlins at No. 3 Chicago Cubs — Cubs 20, Marlins 10
No. 5 St. Louis Cardinals at No. 4 San Diego Padres — Padres 27, Cardinals 3
American League wild-card series
No. 8 Toronto Blue Jays at No. 1 Tampa Bay Rays — Rays 29, Blue Jays 1
No. 7 Chicago White Sox at No. 2 Oakland Athletics — A’s 19, White Sox 11
No. 6 Houston Astros at No. 3 Minnesota Twins — Twins 21, Astros 9
No. 5 New York Yankees at No. 4 Cleveland Indians — Indians 20, Yankees 10
National League Division Series
NLDS No. 1: Dodgers 25, Padres 5
NLDS No. 2: Reds 11, Braves 9, Cubs 8, Marlins 1
Why are you picking the Braves to get through the NLDS?
The Braves have to get past the Reds in the wild-card round — no easy assignment — but their high-powered offense should carry them past the Cubs (or Marlins) in the NLDS. Last year, it felt like the Atlanta lineup thinned out after Ronald Acina Jr., Freddie Freeman and the now departed Josh Donaldson, but with Acuna, Freeman, Marcell Ozuna, Travis d’Arnaud and Adam Duvall, you have five players slugging over .500. Dansby Swanson bats ninth and he’s a tough out. Sure, the Atlanta rotation is thin, but the bullpen has been solid and the Cubs’ offense has struggled all season and it’s not like they have a lot of pitching depth behind Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks. Braves in 5. — David Schoenfield
American League Division Series
ALDS No. 1: Rays 19, Indians 11, Yankees 2
ALDS No. 2: Twins 13, A’s 8, White Sox 6, Astros 3
Why are you picking the Indians to get through the ALDS?
Outside of a mid-September stretch when the Indians collectively forgot how to play baseball and lost eight games in a row, they’ve been as good as anyone in the American League most of the season. I am of the belief that Cleveland has the best pitching staff in this postseason, period. Tampa Bay might actually be No. 2 overall there, so I expect lots of low-scoring games. And while their offense isn’t going to win many slugfests, Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor & Co. have a penchant for coming through late in close games. — Dan Mullen
National League Championship Series
Why did you pick the Padres to win the NLCS?
One of 2020’s most exciting teams to watch had a rough final week of the regular season with injuries putting the status of Dinelson Lamet and Mike Clevinger up in the air for the postseason, but that shouldn’t put a dent in Slam Diego’s chances at making a World Series run. The rotation will lean on the likes of Chris Paddack and Zach Davies for strong innings should Lamet and Clevinger not be at full strength, and they’ll depend on relievers Trevor Rosenthal and Drew Pomeranz — who both had strong seasons — to help overcome any potential starting pitching shortcomings. I expect this postseason to be chaotic with the introduction of the best-of-three first round, but San Diego boasts the second-best run differential in baseball and is riding on the backs of Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado. I expect this team to make a strong run. — Joon Lee
American League Championship Series
White Sox: 2
Why did you pick the White Sox to win the ALCS?
Don’t let that No. 7 seed fool you, these White Sox are really good. Sure, it’s a bit of a feast-or-famine lineup — but postseason games often come down to the long ball, and Jose Abreu, Luis Robert, Tim Anderson, Edwin Encarnacion and Eloy Jimenez can all change a game with one swing of the bat. They have a one-two punch at the top of the rotation in Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel and there are some nasty young arms like 2020 draft pick Garrett Crochet and Codi Heuer in that bullpen. — Dan Mullen
White Sox: 1
Why are the Dodgers your pick to win the World Series?
The Dodgers finished the 2020 season with the fourth-best run differential per game since 1900, even though three of their most important hitters — Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy and Joc Pederson — struggled mightily through most of it. The Dodgers’ depth and talent remains unmatched. They’re as susceptible to the randomness of a short series as anybody, but they feature a deep and versatile bullpen this year, a major advantage given that there will be no days off within the Division Series and Championship Series. That might end up being the key difference. — Alden Gonzalez
The 2020 playoff tournament is a crapshoot, more so than any postseason in baseball history. That’s due to a combination of the best-of-three first round and the fact that all 16 teams have to survive four rounds before they can hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy. Nevertheless, there is simply no reason to pick against the Dodgers. Los Angeles might have challenged the all-time win record if the season had been a normal length. If you think you see a fatal flaw in that roster, you’re overthinking it. — Bradford Doolittle
The injury to Corbin Burnes gives them a favorable wild-card matchup. Their depth is enough to overwhelm whomever they play in the division series. And when the seven-game series start, it’s simply too hard not to bet on the Dodgers’ deluge of talent. This is a special team. There are concerns about the back end of their bullpen, and it may well lose them a game or two. But the Dodgers have spent years building toward this moment. And the highlight of Kirk Gibson limping around the bases and pumping his fist will be replaced by Mookie Betts or A.J. Pollock or Corey Seager or Cody Bellinger or Will Smith or someone in that gifted lineup that finally gets them another ring. — Jeff Passan
I know, going out on a limb here. The Dodgers were my preseason pick back in March and there is no reason to change now. They scored the most runs in our 60-game sprint and only Cleveland allowed fewer (by just four). They were second in rotation ERA, second in relief ERA, hit the most home runs, had the second-most defensive runs saved and won the most games (with the highest winning percentage since the ’54 Indians). There are the best team and this, finally, will be their year. — Schoenfield
Why are the Padres your pick to win the title?
The Padres are essentially tied for first with the White Sox and Dodgers in FanGraphs offensive WAR, which includes hitting, baserunning and defense for the whole team. On the pitching side, they’re somewhere in the top five or six depending on your metric of choice. A key separator is that these are full-season numbers while the Friars have no major injuries from key 2020 contributors and the team also dramatically improved at the trade deadline. Their top two starters — Mike Clevinger and Dinelson Lamet — are both trending toward being available for their first-round starts, but it’s in the cautiously optimistic realm as of Sunday night.
The playoffs will see more weight on the top three starters, best relievers and core hitters, where the Padres have concentrated more value throughout the year. Playing with less rest, youth and enthusiasm are also keys, which Slam Diego leads the league in. Even after all of those little edges in their favor on top of the surface stats, they’re still basically a coinflip with the Dodgers for the best team in the playoffs in my book, but I give the Padres a slight edge. — Kiley McDaniel
Why did you pick the Rays to win it all?
The Rays were my preseason World Series pick, and I’m going to stay consistent here. Tampa Bay started the season out a bit slow but managed to climb atop the AL East with strong seasons from players like Brandon Lowe, a bounce-back from former Cy Young award winner Blake Snell and an always adaptable, ever-changing bullpen featuring strong performances from Ryan Yarbrough, Nick Anderson and Diego Castillo, among others. I believed in the roster-building and front-office philosophies of the organization coming into the year, which best positioned the Rays to take advantage of the idiosyncrasies and maximize the performance of a roster during this 60-game season. I see no reason to shift away from that as this first-place team marches into the postseason. — Lee
Why did you pick the Indians to win it all?
Start with the best pitcher in the sport in Shane Bieber, and on the days he does not pitch, there is a deep, well-run bullpen with myriad strikeout options. The offense is top-heavy but those top options can be great, led by Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor. I think it is Cleveland’s time to get back to the Series and edge the Dodgers. — Eric Karabell
Why did you pick the A’s to win it all?
Sixty games shouldn’t cause us to throw aside everything-or even much-of what we know about these players. So while the A’s rotation is filled with bloated 2020 ERAs, I’m holding on to what I knew about Sean Manaea, Mike Minor, Frankie Montas and Jesus Luzardo two months ago: They’re really good. In a crammed postseason, with few days off, Oakland’s pitching depth really stands out, with at least five starters capable of shutting down a top-tier offense and at least seven relievers comfortable in high-leverage innings. — Sam Miller
Why did you pick the Twins to bust up their postseason jinx and take home the title?
Avoiding the Yankees until the League Championship Series — if such a matchup happens at all — shouldn’t be a big deal, but I think it’s a very big deal, considering how much the Yankees seem to be in the Twins’ heads for the past decade-plus. Instead, the Twins draw perhaps the most advantageous Wild Card Series matchup, and their roster is well balanced between offense, defense and pitching, with the latter particularly important in a postseason that doesn’t provide midseries days off. Kenta Maeda is probably the postseason’s most underrated staff ace, and how great a story would it be if the guy who couldn’t crack the Dodgers’ rotation in postseasons past tosses a pair of gems against them as a starter in the World Series? — Tristan Cockcroft
MLB playoffs preview – Everything you need to know about the 16-team postseason
It’s time for the MLB playoffs! After a wild sprint to the finish that needed every day of the regular season to determine the seeding, the real fun begins. For the first time, 16 teams will enter the postseason and just a few short days later half of them will be headed home.
Who will rule every round from the wild-card frenzy to the World Series? Will the Los Angeles Dodgers turn the league’s best record into an October coronation? Will the New York Yankees ride a strong finish to postseason glory? Will the Chicago Cubs or Chicago White Sox bring a title to the Windy City? MLB experts Bradford Doolittle, Jeff Passan, Sam Miller and David Schoenfield go deep on everything from the matchups and breakout names you need to know to key stats and very bold predictions for every team. Doolittle has also calculated the odds for every team’s shot at winning it all as well as every potential matchup in each round against any possible opponent.
Watch the 2020 MLB playoffs on ESPN and ABC starting Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET. Don’t have ESPN? Get instant access.
Jump to each postseason team:
43-17 | NL West champs | 29.8% World Series odds
Odds by round
WC: 75.4% vs. Brewers
NLDS: 75.6% vs. Cardinals; 63.3% vs. Padres
NLCS: 88.5% vs. Marlins; 82.7% vs. Reds; 77.8% vs. Cubs; 73.3% vs. Braves
WS: 83.7% vs. Blue Jays; 81.4% vs. Astros; 73.8% vs. A’s; 72.8% vs. Yankees; 72.7% vs. Indians; 70.1% vs. White Sox; 69.4% vs. Rays; 69.3% vs. Twins
How they could go far: If the middle of the bullpen performs at a level that inspires the confidence of Dave Roberts, the Dodgers will be as close to upset-proof as a club can be in a short series. This is partially about Kenley Jansen closing things out, but even more so about Blake Treinen, Jake McGee, Dylan Floro & Co. The bridge guys in the Dodgers’ bullpen are all that stands between a great playoff roster and a perfect playoff roster. Really, though, the variability of a best-of-three format is probably the biggest threat to the Dodgers. — Doolittle
How they could go home before you’re done reading this: There are so many layers and redundancies built into the Dodgers’ roster, it’s hard to point at one key injury or one performance meltdown that, alone, would sink them. Sure, you could make that claim about Jansen, who has had some bad outings, but overall he has converted at a reliable rate. What’s beyond the Dodgers’ control is how the opponent is stepping up, and if they get into a first-round series against a team with a lockdown back of the bullpen, then L.A. runs the risk of a brief run if it gets behind early in a couple of games. In a best-of-three, that’s all it would take to end the season of baseball’s best team. — Doolittle
Most likely October hero: You hope it’s Clayton Kershaw. You want it to be Clayton Kershaw. He has bounced back from a 3.03 ERA in 2019 — great for anyone else, but his highest since his rookie season of 2008 — to dominate in 2020. He’ll be the team’s top starter entering the postseason, not Walker Buehler. But we know Kershaw’s October history: Since 2013, he’s 9-11 over 25 starts (and five relief appearances) with a 4.43 ERA. The Dodgers’ bullpen is deeper than it has been, so Roberts won’t have to fool around with Kershaw in relief. Kershaw also will be subject to a relatively quick hook as a starter, although that’s not new — he hasn’t thrown 100 pitches in any of his past 10 postseason starts. Really, five or six good innings is all that might be asked. May they be filled with zeroes. — Schoenfield
Matchup to watch in Round 1: Really, it’s the postseason demons of not just Kershaw, but of closer Jansen and 2019 MVP Cody Bellinger, more than any individual showdown. Maybe that’s unfair in Jansen’s case, although his two blown saves in the 2018 World Series loomed large in Roberts’ reluctance to use him last year against the Nationals. Still, over the past three postseasons, Jansen has a 1.55 ERA and .122 average allowed over 29 innings. Bellinger, however, has a career line in the playoffs of .178/.234/.326 over 36 games. They need him to produce. — Schoenfield
Their only-in-2020 stat: Dodgers starters have the National League’s lowest ERA this year. They’ve also thrown among the fewest innings, with just 4.7 innings per start — fourth from the bottom. Once upon a time that would have seemed like a contradiction, but these days it can be seen as an explanation, as the Dodgers have protected their starters from overuse, overexposure and the need to pace. Here’s the only-in-2020 stat that most stands out: No starter on the NL’s best staff has thrown 100 pitches in an outing this year. Kershaw’s 99-pitch outing against San Diego this month is as far as a Dodger has gone. — Miller
One bold prediction: Kershaw exorcises his playoff demons in spectacular fashion and leads the Dodgers to their first championship in 32 years. — Passan
35-25 | NL East champs | 7.6% World Series odds
Odds by round
WC: 60.8% vs. Reds
NLDS: 70.7% vs. Marlins; 56.4% vs. Cubs
NLCS: 64.7% vs. Brewers; 58.3% vs. Cardinals; 39.4% vs. Padres; 26.7% vs. Dodgers
WS: 65.5% vs. Blue Jays; 62.1% vs. Astros; 50.7% vs. Yankees; 50.6% vs. Indians; 47.5% vs. White Sox; 49.5% vs. A’s; 44.2% vs. Rays; 44.1% vs. Twins
How they could go far: Rotation struggles and injuries have plagued the otherwise airtight Braves all season. The group remains uncertain as the postseason dawns. Max Fried has been spectacular but is ramping back up from injury. Rookie Ian Anderson looks good, but his track record is short. Kyle Wright has been better of late but hasn’t proven he can be consistent. Mike Soroka and Cole Hamels are out for the season. The Braves’ offense and bullpen are so strong that if the starters can simply keep the other team from leaping to large early leads, Atlanta will be in good shape. — Doolittle
How they could go home before you’re done reading this: The key for the pitching staff might be to simply keep the ball in the park. Atlanta’s pitchers ranked 23rd in strikeout rate, but no pitching staff gave up a lower rate of its runs via the homer (35%). If they can maintain that into October, then the Braves’ below-average team defense can do only so much damage. The run prevention doesn’t have to be perfect because Atlanta might have the best offense in baseball. — Doolittle
Most likely October hero: Freddie Freeman is the heart and soul of the Braves and he has become better than ever at the plate, hitting not just for power, but hitting for average and cutting down on his strikeouts (he had more walks than K’s for the first time). His numbers against righties are ridiculous this year, so it will be interesting to see if teams pitch around him and try to make Marcell Ozuna beat them. — Schoenfield
Matchup to watch in Round 1: Braves hitters versus Reds fastballs. Well, this will be fun. The second-best offense in the majors (the Dodgers crept just ahead of the Braves in runs per game, 5.82 to 5.80) against the dynamic rotation of the Reds. The Braves led the majors in wOBA against fastballs, hitting .304 and slugging .547. Game 2 starter Luis Castillo had the second-highest swing rate among starters on his fastball at 37.1% (four-seamer or two-seamer), but batters hit .300 and slugged .525 against his fastballs. Game 1 starter Trevor Bauer had a much lower swing-and-miss rate (23%), but batters hit just .141 against his fastball. — Schoenfield
Their only-in-2020 stat: For every fan who is constantly aggrieved by their favorite team’s inability to move a runner over or get a runner in with less than two outs, be soothed: The Braves’ offense this season has by far the lowest percentage of “productive” outs — either advancing a runner with no outs, or scoring a runner from third with one out. With runners on third with less than two outs, they have the worst record of driving the run home. Meanwhile, they were second in the majors in scoring, with nearly six runs per game — the most by the franchise since the 1800s. — Miller
One bold prediction: Anderson will become the first Braves rookie to throw at least six shutout innings in a playoff game. — Passan
3. Chicago Cubs
34-26 | NL Central champs | 4.5% World Series odds
Odds by round
WC: 63.9% vs. Marlins
NLDS: 57.7% vs. Reds; 43.6% vs. Braves
NLCS: 59.2% vs. Brewers; 52.5% vs. Cardinals; 33.9% vs. Padres; 22.2% vs. Dodgers
WS: 60.0% vs. Blue Jays; 56.4% vs. Astros; 44.9% vs. Yankees; 43.7% vs. A’s; 42.3% vs. Indians; 39.4% vs. White Sox; 38.5% vs. Rays; 38.4% vs. Twins
How they could go far: Chicago’s core has been in place for a long time, and its best players — Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez — are among the most recognizable stars in the game. Bryant returned from his oblique tweak over the weekend (and hit a grand slam), so the guys are all lined up for another playoff run. The Cubs squeezed by during the regular season in a weak division with that trio well under .700 in OPS most of the way. But the key Cubbies have to hit like full-grown bears if there is to be any hope of a 2016 reprise. — Doolittle
How they could go home before you’re done reading this: David Ross has to find someone who can answer the call when he goes to the bullpen to close out games. Craig Kimbrel might be that guy. He might not. His stuff remains diminished from his once-dominant days, but he hasn’t given up a run in September. Closing games is, after all, what he is paid to do and it’s unclear if Rowan Wick (oblique strain) will be able to walk through that bullpen door. Jeremy Jeffress has gotten the job done for most of the season, but his underlying Statcast indicators suggest Ross should keep an open mind. — Doolittle
Most likely October hero: Yu Darvish has been one of the top starters in the majors since the second half of 2019, when he suddenly started pounding the strike zone like never before. He doesn’t have the reputation as a big-game pitcher, although maybe his performance in the 2017 World Series against the Astros can be excused. Still, postseason pitching is about missing bats and Darvish does that better than anybody else on the Cubs’ staff. — Schoenfield
Matchup to watch in Round 1: Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks versus Marlins hitters. The Marlins ranked 25th in the majors in chase rate — meaning they will chase pitches out of the strike zone. Darvish and Hendricks are two of the top strike-throwers in the majors. In fact, Darvish led all qualified starters in percentage of pitches within the strike zone (not that they were easy to hit). It will be interesting to see if the two Cubs starters deviate from their usual plan and throw more pitches off the plate to see if the Marlins chase. — Schoenfield
Their only-in-2020 stat: The expanded playoffs this year will lead to a lot of bad-for-a-playoff-team fun facts. But the Cubs didn’t sneak in through the expanded format — they actually won their division, despite having a team batting average that’s about 15 points lower than any other postseason team in history. It’s not the bottom of the order; it’s the Cubs’ stars, with Baez, Bryant and Kyle Schwarber at or below .200. The Cubs’ top five spots in the order: .211, .217, .204, .190, .211. — Miller
One bold prediction: The Cubs’ offense — which has been positively wretched in September, with its .215/.299/.340 slash resembling the career line of pitcher Zack Greinke — is going to break out in the wild-card series and put up multiple crooked numbers. — Passan
37-23 | second place, NL West | 11.1% World Series odds
Odds by round
WC: 63.1% vs. Cardinals
NLDS: 70.4% vs. Brewers; 36.7% vs. Dodgers
NLCS: 80.4% vs. Marlins; 72.5% vs. Reds; 66.1% vs. Cubs; 60.6% vs. Braves
WS: 73.8% vs. Blue Jays; 70.7% vs. Astros; 61.3% vs. A’s; 60.1% vs. Yankees; 60.0% vs. Indians; 57.0% vs. White Sox; 56.0% vs. Twins; 53.7% vs. Rays
How they could go far: Early in the season, the Padres’ post-Kirby Yates bullpen was the glaring area of concern. According to FanGraphs, San Diego’s revamped relief staff leads the majors in bullpen WAR since Sept. 1. Lately, the offense has mildly slumped and that’s a concern if the small-sample droughts of Eric Hosmer, Fernando Tatis Jr., et al, extend into October. Above all else, the very recent injuries to Mike Clevinger and Dinelson Lamet put the onus on the rotation, whether or not they are able to go. Because if the Padres’ starters perform in the postseason, this is a complete team that can go toe-to-toe with anyone. Well, except maybe the Dodgers. Perhaps the overriding dilemma facing the Padres is that everything they do, the Dodgers do just a little bit better. — Doolittle
How they could go home before you’re done reading this: About that lineup … according to the leading contextualized team metrics, the Padres have been a top-five offensive club. That the roll has slowed a bit over the past couple of weeks is more a thing to keep in mind than a clear indicator of impending doom. Another thing about the Padres’ offense is that only one team has been more reliant on homers for its scoring than San Diego. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing. All of the leading teams in the homer-based offense category are winning teams. However, if the sources of power are thinned out by ill-timed slumps and playoff-caliber pitching, then an inability to turn the scoreboard could make the Padres’ return trip to the playoffs a short one. — Doolittle
Most likely October hero: As much as we love Tatis, his late-season slump is a cause for concern and he performed much better against bad teams. So let’s go with Lamet. Postseason history is filled with young power pitchers who come up big (although at 28 he’s not that young). Think of pitchers such as Jose Rijo for the Reds in 1990 or Josh Beckett for the 2003 Marlins or Nathan Eovaldi for the Red Sox in 2018. Postseason experience is overrated and Lamet had a terrific regular season, misses a ton of bats and has the big fastball/wipeout slider combo. — Schoenfield
Matchup to watch in Round 1: Fernando Tatis Jr. and Jake Cronenworth versus Cardinals pitchers. Tatis was the runaway MVP leader after the first month-plus of the season but hit .208/.311/.403 in September. Cronenworth was the runaway Rookie of the Year leader after the first 30-plus games but hit .183/.275/.268 in September. — Schoenfield
Their only-in-2020 stat: The 1977 White Sox plugged their catchers into the last slot in the batting order and apparently never thought about that decision again; the result, when those catchers (Jim Essian and Brian Downing) each had great years, was a .375 OBP in the No. 9 spot, the highest ever. The Padres this year — with no pitchers batting — walloped that record. Their No. 9 hitters — 10 different players have started in that spot, with Jurickson Profar leading the way — have a .385 OBP. It’s partly a testament to the Padres’ lineup depth, and partly just one of those weird things, considering the No. 9 hitters have actually outhit the club’s cleanup hitters. — Miller
One bold prediction: The most impressive thing about the Padres isn’t going to be their offensive might or starting pitching. It will be a bullpen led by Trevor Rosenthal, Drew Pomeranz and Austin Adams, who recently returned from knee surgery equipped with his devastating slider. — Passan
30-28 | second place, NL Central | 1.9% World Series odds
Odds by round
WC: 36.9% vs. Padres
NLDS 54.3% vs. Brewers; 24.4% vs. Dodgers
NLCS: 67.2% vs. Marlins; 57.2% vs. Reds; 47.5% vs. Cubs; 41.7% vs. Braves
World Series: 58.8% vs. Blue Jays; 55.2% vs. Astros; 42.4% vs. A’s; 41.2% vs. Yankees; 41.1% vs. Indians; 38.1% vs. White Sox; 37.3% vs. Rays; 37.2% vs. Twins
How they could go far: The Cardinals need to keep scores low, even lower than you typically see in a tight postseason contest. To do that, they must keep the ball in the yard. St. Louis ranked fifth in limiting runs per game by means other than a home run. They were more middle of the pack when it came to giving up runs on homers. When you look at the teams in the Cardinals’ path — the Padres, the Dodgers, pretty much every club in the postseason — they feature attacks built around the long ball. If only the Cardinals could play against themselves. — Doolittle
How they could go home before you’re done reading this: St. Louis badly needs to hit a few bombs. The Cardinals have a reliable if unspectacular rotation. The bullpen has been in flux but suddenly looks like a strength with Alex Reyes morphing into the new Mariano Rivera. The offense has not been good, but collectively the St. Louis hitters get on base at an acceptable clip. That’s where the troubles begin: The Redbirds ranked 27th in slugging, and dead last in both homers and isolated power. It’s hard to score in the postseason and teams need a few home runs to survive. The good news is that in guys like Paul Goldschmidt, Matt Carpenter, Paul DeJong and Yadier Molina, St. Louis has hitters who are capable of going deep. If they don’t, the Cardinals won’t score enough to beat the beasts of the National League. — Doolittle
Most likely October hero: Look, when the Cardinals win, the heroes are never who you would expect. In 2006, the NLCS MVP was Jeff Suppan and the World Series MVP was David Eckstein. In 2011, David Freese took home both honors. The NLCS MVP in 2013 was rookie Michael Wacha. So we’re probably looking at, oh, Brad Miller, a guy who has been released by the Brewers and Dodgers in recent years, waived by the Indians and given up for cash by the Yankees. — Schoenfield
Matchup to watch in Round 1: RISP versus RISP. The Padres led the majors with a .310 average and .569 slugging with runners in scoring position (remember all those grand slams!). The Cardinals gave up a .222 average with RISP, second lowest in the majors to the Dodgers. Adam Wainwright was especially good in this area, holding batters to a .171 average and .195 slugging. — Schoenfield
Their only-in-2020 stat: On Sept. 1, ahead 11-0, Andrew Knizner pinch hit for Goldschmidt and grounded a single up the middle. That marks the only pinch-hit for the Cardinals this year. Collectively, they’re 1-for-29, for an .034/.125/.034 line. (It could, technically, be worse; the Diamondbacks’ pinch hitters are 0-for-22, though with a higher on-base percentage.) — MIller
One bold prediction: Jack Flaherty will strike out at least 10 batters in his first start this postseason. — Passan
31-29 | second place, NL East | 0.5% World Series odds
Odds by round
WC: 36.1% vs. Cubs
NLDS: 42.5% vs. Reds; 29.3% vs. Braves
NLCS: 39.1% vs. Brewers; 32.8% vs. Cardinals; 19.6% vs. Padres; 11.5% vs. Dodgers
WS: 38.8% vs. Astros; 39.9% vs. Blue Jays; 27.3% vs. A’s; 26.2% vs. Yankees; 26.2% vs. Indians; 23.7% vs. White Sox; 23.1% vs. Rays; 23.0% vs. Twins
How they could go far: The Marlins will go on a run if they can channel the magic of the only two previous South Beach teams to make the postseason. Miami is one of the season’s great stories and this has been a season in which we needed great stories. But as any good Gen-Xer knows, reality bites. The Marlins reached .500 and clinched a playoff spot despite a run differential that was by far the worst in the NL East. However, there is always hope. The memorable title runs of 1997 and 2003 were fueled by young pitchers who were hot at the right time. In Sixto Sanchez, Pablo Lopez, Sandy Alcantara and Trevor Rogers, the 2020 Marlins have the right ingredients to remake that exact recipe. — Doolittle
How they could go home before you’re done reading this: The Marlins have been shut out as often as any offense in baseball. They’re a team with no clear-cut offensive strength, just a bunch of veteran types who put up just enough tallies to give the pitching staff a chance on most nights. Against elite pitching, that’s a fraying tightrope that has to be traversed. It’s not hard to envision a scenario in which the Marlins hang tough for a couple of games but just can’t put enough crooked numbers on the board to keep going. Someone from this unsung bunch needs to get hot. — Doolittle
Most likely October hero: We have to go with Sanchez because if the Marlins do anything, it probably will be because the starting pitching gets on a roll. Plus, Sanchez fits in perfectly with Marlins history. Livan Hernandez was a 22-year-old rookie in 1997 when he won NLCS and World Series MVP honors. Josh Beckett was 23 in 2003, a second-year pitcher, when the Marlins won it all again. Sanchez is just 22 and has fewer than 10 career starts but has the best stuff on the staff. — Schoenfield
Matchup to watch in Round 1: The Marlins aren’t a big power team, but they did finish second to the Padres in stolen bases, so let’s see if Don Mattingly tries to generate some offense on the basepaths. Utilityman Jon Berti, who has been starting at second base down the stretch, is the top threat, with Starling Marte, Lewis Brinson and Miguel Rojas also threats to run. — Schoenfield
Their only-in-2020 stat: Thanks to quarantines, makeup doubleheaders and midseason trades, the Marlins used 61 players, including 37 pitchers — the most in franchise history, despite the short season. A lot of these pitchers worked only an inning or five, planting themselves in some future franchise trivia question while, collectively, torching the club’s pitching stats. The 15 Marlins who threw the most innings this year had a collective ERA of 4.23, which would put them in the top half of the league. The 22 short-timers had an ERA over 7.00, swelling the club’s overall ERA to almost 5.00 — painting a somewhat distorted, somewhat misleading picture of the Marlins’ staff heading into the postseason. — Miller
One bold prediction: The Marlins don’t start their uber-talented rookie, Sanchez, in Game 1 of the wild-card series. — Passan
31-29 | NL seventh seed | 1.7% World Series odds
Odds by round
WC: 39.2% vs. Braves
NLDS: 60.4% vs. Marlins; 42.3% vs. Cubs
NLCS: 49.5% vs. Brewers; 42.8% vs. Cardinals; 27.5% vs. Padres; 17.3% vs. Dodgers
WS: 50.3% vs. Blue Jays; 49.2% vs. Astros; 36.6% vs. A’s; 35.4% vs. Yankees; 35.4% vs. Indians; 32.5% vs. White Sox; 31.8% vs. Rays; 31.7% vs. Twins
How they could go far: Happily for Reds fans, if the one-dimensional Cincinnati offense gets a few long pokes, their club enters the playoffs with one of the best pitching staffs around to nurse a lead. The rotation works deep, led by the big three of Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray, which should allow manager David Bell to parse out high-leverage innings if the Reds advance to the later rounds, thus preserving his top bullpen arms. That’s all the Reds need, is a few homers here and there. If the Reds’ starters get a modicum of run support, Cincinnati will be a nightmare playoff opponent for any team, as Joey Votto suggested. — Doolittle
How they could go home before you’re done reading this: In this home run-heavy era, you can say that every team needs to hit home runs to do well in the playoffs. You can say that for every team, but it won’t be as true for every team as it is for the Reds. Simply put, this is one of the most extreme offensive teams in the history of baseball. The Reds finished with a historically low batting average that belongs on sepia-colored baseball cards put out by tobacco companies. They ranked 21st in wRC+, per FanGraphs, just to cite one contextual measure. That they did as well as they did was because of a homer-based offense that ranked fifth in runs per game via homers. Alas, the Reds finished dead last in runs by non-homer means by a mile. Cincinnati has to hit homers or it won’t survive, no matter how well its pitching staff does. — Doolittle
Most likely October hero: Bauer’s rubber arm means he can pitch deep into games and could start on short rest or even pitch in relief, but the Reds are going to need offense from somewhere, and after a dreadful first month, Eugenio Suarez has been back to pounding home runs the way he did last season, when he hit 49. He leads the majors in home runs since the second half of 2019. — Schoenfield
Matchup to watch in Round 1: Reds hitters versus BABIP. The Reds hit just .212 — the lowest average ever for a playoff team and the second-lowest average ever, period (the 1910 White Sox hit .210). But the Reds also finished with a .245 average on balls in play, the lowest since the 1968 Yankees. According to Statcast metrics, their expected batting average based on quality of contact should have been .242. Maybe that would have evened out over 162 games. The Reds need it to even out over the next two or three games (and hopefully beyond). — Schoenfield
Their only-in-2020 stat: In a season of so many low-batting-average fun facts, this one is the most fun/least fun of all: The Reds’ team batting average on balls in play is an unfathomable .245, the lowest by any team since the Year Of The Pitcher in 1968, the second lowest since the end of the deadball era in 1920, an incredible 20 points lower than any other team in baseball this year, and one point better than pitchers hit last year. The Reds are fourth in the NL in homers, second in the NL in walks — and are second from the bottom in scoring. (Bonus Reds stat: Their Nos. 7-8-9 hitters have a higher OPS than their Nos. 1-2 hitters, or their Nos. 3-4-5-6 hitters.) — Miller
One bold prediction: The Reds’ bullpen is going to blow a lead early in the postseason and jeopardize the team’s good fortune of being in a short series with superior starting pitching. — Passan
29-31 | NL eighth seed | 0.7% World Series odds
Odds by round
WC: 24.6% vs. Dodgers
NLDS: 45.7% vs. Cardinals; 29.6% vs. Padres
NLCS: 60.9% vs. Marlins; 50.5% vs. Reds; 40.8% vs. Cubs; 35.3% vs. Braves
WS: 52.1% vs. Blue Jays; 48.4% vs. Astros; 37.1% vs. Yankees; 36.0% vs. A’s; 34.7% vs. Indians; 31.9% vs. White Sox; 31.2% vs. Rays; 31.0% vs. Twins
How they could go far: The key for the Brewers could hardly be more simple: They have to get the ball to the back of the bullpen with a lead. Of course, the goal might be simple, but the steps to reach it are impossibly complex. Milwaukee’s starters have to get the ball to Josh Hader and Devin Williams against the unsolvable Dodgers’ offense. The good news is that they’ll be able to deploy Brandon Woodruff in one of the wild-card games. The bad news is that they won’t be able to do the same with co-ace Corbin Burnes, who is laid up with an oblique strain. And even if Milwaukee’s pitching can string up zeroes, a team that hit .223 as a unit has to put up some runs against an elite pitching staff. — Doolittle
How they could go home before you’re done reading this: Given the Brewers’ offensive struggles, one early three-run homer allowed by a starter could sink them and take their high-powered bullpen out of high-leverage possibilities. Who is most likely to provide the needed lead? That would be former MVP Christian Yelich, who is coming off his worst season. It’s not going out on a limb to call the Brewers a flawed team. After all, they made the playoffs with a losing record. But there seem to be few scenarios in which Milwaukee goes on a Cinderella run without a suddenly resurgent Yelich. — Doolittle
Most likely October hero: OK, maybe it will be Yelich or Ryan Braun in what could be his swan song in Milwaukee (he has a club option for 2021 that might not be picked up), but let’s go with Daniel Vogelbach to become a Milwaukee legend and lead the under-.500 Brewers to their first World Series. Sure, the Mariners sent him to the Blue Jays for cash, and the Blue Jays waived him after a couple of games, but he’s hot, hitting .328/.418/.569 in 19 games with the Brewers. — Schoenfield
Matchup to watch in Round 1: Hader and Williams versus Dodgers hitters. Really, Craig Counsell will have to work his two ace relievers as hard as reasonably possible — including using them earlier than the eighth inning if the game is on the line. In fact, if the Brewers are up after five innings in the opener, he shouldn’t shy away from trying to use both of them for two innings apiece if the game is on the line. Remember, there are at least three off days between the final game of the wild-card series and the first game of the NLDS, so you can use them heavily for three games. — Schoenfield
Their only-in-2020 stat: The Brewers’ offense was terrible — only their right-fielders hit better than league average for their position — but they still managed to score enough runs to make the playoffs. Their trick? They hit much, much better with men on base, clustering their few hits enough to score runs. Only one team this century — the 2013 Cardinals — had a bigger bump in their offense with runners on base than the Brewers, which helped them finish a slightly respectable 13th in the NL in scoring this year. — Miller
One bold prediction: One bold prediction: The Brewers won’t upset the Dodgers, but relievers Josh Hader and Devin Williams will at least put a scare in the heavy favorites if Milwaukee hands the dynamic bullpen duo a late lead along the way. — Dan Mullen
40-20 | AL East champs | 8.8% World Series odds
Odds by round
WC: 64.8% vs. Blue Jays
ALDS: 54.9% vs. Yankees; 54.9% vs. Indians
ALCS: 66.3% vs. Astros; 56.5% vs. A’s; 52.1% vs. White Sox; 51.1% vs. Twins
WS: 76.9% vs. Marlins; 68.8% vs. Brewers; 68.2% vs. Reds; 62.7% vs. Cardinals; 61.5% vs. Cubs; 55.8% vs. Braves; 46.3% vs. Padres; 30.6% vs. Dodgers
How they could go far: You don’t really prescribe that a team play lots of close games, but that remains a game type that seems to favor the Rays. They pitch. They catch. They hit timely homers. Tampa Bay always seeks to maximize discrete matchups, but when you look at four possible rounds of the playoffs, and the number of injuries that have sapped the Rays’ pitching depth, it does seem for Tampa Bay to make it to the finish line, it will need to get some length from its starters. If Charlie Morton, Tyler Glasnow and Blake Snell are both effective and efficient, look out. — Doolittle
How they could go home before you’re done reading this: The Rays see a lot of pitches and, as a group, don’t chase much. When they swing, only one club makes a lower percentage of contact. But when contact is made, damage is done. Only three teams have a higher slugging percentage on contact than Tampa Bay. Whether it’s hard stuff, soft stuff or breaking stuff, the Rays seek to force a pitcher into the zone, then they jump on him. Alas, patience can lapse into passivity, and when you go against postseason-ready pitching staffs, it can become a vice. The Rays need to balance aggression and patience before called third strikes start leading to a string of zeros. — Doolittle
Most likely October hero: No team wants to face Glasnow in the postseason, even if his 2020 ERA didn’t match the 1.78 figure he put in 12 starts in 2019. Still, here’s the number that stands out: 14.6 K’s per nine innings. Whoa. Yeah, when you’re 6-foot-8 and average 97 mph with a high-spin fastball and wipeout breaking ball, you’re going to rack up the K’s. He did give up some home runs, his command was shaky at times and the Rays were careful with his pitch count (more than 100 pitches only twice), but he is the swing-and-miss type pitcher who can dominate for a month. — Schoenfield
Matchup to watch in Round 1: Strikeouts versus strikeouts. Rays pitchers led the AL in strikeouts — as Kevin Cash alluded to after Aroldis Chapman threw at the Rays in an early September game, the Rays “have a whole damn stable of guys who throw 98 mph” — but only the Tigers struck out at a higher rate across MLB. The offense also had one of the highest walk rates, however, as the Rays have morphed into a real “three true outcomes” type of lineup. — Schoenfield
Their only-in-2020 stat: The Rays rarely let their starters face batters three (or more) times in a start, and their own hitters show the reason why: Tampa Bay hitters have slugged over .560 against starters the third time around. Rays hitters are collectively 47% better the third time through the order than they are overall, which is the AL’s biggest third-time-through bump since 2000. — Miller
One bold prediction: Reliever Nick Anderson will win ALCS MVP. — Passan
36-24 | AL West champs | 4.8% World Series odds
Odds by round
WC: 49.0% vs. White Sox
ALDS: 60.2% vs. Astros; 46.8% vs. Twins
ALCS: 64.9% vs. Blue Jays; 50.0% vs. Yankees; 49.9% vs. Indians; 43.5% vs. Rays
WS: 72.7% vs. Marlins; 64.0% vs. Brewers; 63.4% vs. Reds; 57.6% vs. Cardinals; 56.3% vs. Cubs; 50.5% vs. Braves; 38.7% vs. Padres; 26.2% vs. Dodgers
How they could go far: A long run in the postseason for Oakland would seem to require two things: a competent performance from the Athletics’ middle-of-the-pack rotation, and third baseman Jake Lamb continuing his impressive Matt Chapman imitation. The rotation question has plagued Oakland through its run of success in recent years. This time around, there are good options, even if we don’t quite know how things will set up. Chris Bassitt, Jesus Luzardo and Sean Manaea all figure to be key parts of the puzzle. As for Lamb, who was set adrift by Arizona, he actually has hit better than Chapman did before the latter’s season was cut short by injury. He also has played a mistake-free third base, albeit without Chapman’s all-world zeal at the position. — Doolittle
How they could go home before you’re done reading this: The A’s led the majors with a sub-2.50 bullpen ERA and feature one of the game’s best closers in Liam Hendriks. But as mentioned, the rotation is more competent than spectacular, and the offense likewise has been middling. If Oakland can take leads into the middle innings, it will be a tough out for any opponent. Otherwise, it’ll be up to a .220-ish hitting offense to save the day. Getting lots of early leads seems like the surer path. — Doolittle
Most likely October hero: There’s no obvious answer here, but let’s go with Hendriks, who has basically been lights out now for two seasons. The bullpen is the team’s strength, so if the A’s win it will be because the pen locks down every lead they get. Bob Melvin has used Hendriks more than one inning in only a couple of outings, but he did do it regularly last season, so he’s certainly couple of four- or five-out saves. — Schoenfield
Matchup to watch in Round 1: A’s hitters versus breaking balls. The A’s were middle of the pack against four-seam fastballs, but only the Rangers and Reds had a lower batting average than Oakland’s .173 mark against curveballs and sliders. Matt Olson and Marcus Semien both hit under .150 against breaking balls. — Schoenfield
Their only-in-2020 stat: No matter how you split it up, the A’s bullpen looks pretty good — the team had, after all, the league’s best bullpen ERA. But the relievers were especially good with one day of rest, with a 1.52 ERA that’s the best by any bullpen since 1988. The bad news is that, with urgency of October baseball and this year’s compressed postseason schedule, Oakland might not have the luxury of having many days of rest. — Miller
One bold prediction: The A’s best hitter this postseason will be catcher Sean Murphy, who has been under-the-radar excellent in his first taste of full-time duty and is a burgeoning All-Star. — Passan
36-24 | AL Central champs | 8.7% World Series odds
Odds by round
WC: 62.5% vs. Astros
ALDS: 56.1% vs. A’s; 52.3% vs. White Sox
ALCS: 69.7% vs. Blue Jays; 55.4% vs. Yankees; 55.3% vs. Indians; 48.9% vs. Rays
WS: 77.0% vs. Marlins; 69.0% vs. Brewers; 68.3% vs. Reds; 62.8% vs. Cardinals; 61.6% vs. Cubs; 55.9% vs. Braves; 44.0% vs. Padres; 30.7% vs. Dodgers
How they could go far: Minnesota doesn’t have the most diverse offense of teams in the postseason. Not only do the Twins lean heavily on long hits to score runs, they do the majority of that damage against right-handed pitchers. The Twins led the American League in overall home run percentage. They also led the league in HR% off righties, and it wasn’t particularly close. The numbers were polar opposite against left-handers: Minnesota finished dead last in the AL in HR% off lefties. Thus the Twins have two choices: solve southpaws, or avoid them. The strengths of several of Minnesota’s possible playoff obstacles suggest taking the former path. — Doolittle
How they could go home before you’re done reading this: As we all remember, the Twins set the team home run record during the 2019 season. This season, they are among the leaders in team homers but are just one of the top-tier clubs, not above them. Yet, the Minnesota attack has been more dependent on homers for scoring than any other team on the AL side of the tournament, with 51% of the Twins’ runs coming via the long ball. Conversely, no team in the AL — playoff entrant or not — has scored fewer runs per game by non-homer means. The Twins need to go deep during games to go deep into the tournament. — Doolittle
Most likely October hero: Nelson Cruz was not only the best hitter on the Twins during the regular season, but he has been one of the best sluggers in postseason history. He has hit .287/.354/.659 in 44 postseason games, with 17 home runs and 35 RBIs, most memorably hitting six home runs in the 2011 ALCS for the Rangers. Granted, most of that came earlier in his career (he has played in only one postseason since 2014), but he’s arguably better than ever at the plate. — Schoenfield
Matchup to watch in Round 1: Twins batters versus Zack Greinke. After a hot start, Game 1 starter Greinke gave up at least three runs in each of his final seven starts (5.73 ERA). Batters hit .321 and slugged .536 against Greinke’s four-seamer — the pitch he throws most often. The Twins best hitters against four-seam fastballs: Cruz slugged .868 and Miguel Sano slugged .635. — Schoenfield
Their only-in-2020 stat: There are a lot of things that separate the teams at the top of the AL Central from the bottom, but here’s one: When a runner gets to third base with fewer than two outs this year, Tigers pitchers have been able to strike out the batter 10% of the time. The Twins, meanwhile, have struck that batter out 30% of the time, best in baseball. — Miller
One bold prediction: The Twins will win a playoff game. That’s not bold, you say? Considering they have lost their past 16, I’d posit that it more than qualifies, thank you very much. — Passan
35-25 | second place, AL Central | 6.5% World Series odds
Odds by round
WC: 52.1% vs. Yankees
ALDS: 64.3% vs. Blue Jays; 45.1% vs. Rays
ALCS: 62.7% vs. Astros; 48.2% vs. White Sox; 50.1% vs. A’s; 44.7% vs. Twins
WS: 73.8% vs. Marlins; 65.3% vs. Brewers; 64.6% vs. Reds; 58.9% vs. Cardinals; 57.7% vs. Cubs; 51.9% vs. Braves; 40.0% vs. Padres; 27.3% vs. Dodgers
How they could go far: The Indians keep opponents off the scoreboard as well as anyone. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there isn’t much they do well on offense beyond draw walks. It’s possible that red-hot star Jose Ramirez keeps raking and carries the attack, and is even joined by his infield star cohort, Francisco Lindor. Beyond them, Indians hitters need to keep drawing free passes, move runners and come through in scoring situations, which they did not do well during the regular season. — Doolittle
How they could go home before you’re done reading this: If the starters falter, particularly Shane Bieber, Cleveland is doomed. This is pretty straightforward. The Indians lean on their rotation as much as any team in baseball. As a group, Cleveland pitchers have given up the fewest runs per game on home runs — a key metric for the postseason. But they also led the majors in limiting runs allowed by means other than the long ball. The Indians are just hard to score against. Any lengthy Cleveland run involves those trends continuing after the October leaves have turned. — Doolittle
Most likely October hero: If you’re picking one pitcher to go all Madison Bumgarner this postseason, you have to pick Bieber, the most dominant pitcher in the regular season. I don’t know if Terry Francona (or acting manager Sandy Alomar Jr.) would consider using him on short rest at any point the way he did with Corey Kluber three times in the 2016 postseason, but if the Indians go deep into October, it’s probably because Bieber is winning some low-scoring games. — Schoenfield
Matchup to watch in Round 1: Indians “power” hitting versus Yankees pitching. Cleveland ranked just 26th in the majors in isolated power — but Yankees pitchers gave up 83 home runs, fifth worst in the majors and the most of any playoff team. Gerrit Cole (14 in 73 IP), Masahiro Tanaka (nine in 48 IP) and J.A. Happ (eight in 49⅓ IP) were all vulnerable to the long ball. — Schoenfield
Their only-in-2020 stat: Cleveland’s catchers have the worst offensive production of any team’s catchers in at least 100 years. But Roberto Perez, Austin Hedges and Sandy Leon might be the best defensive catchers any team has ever gathered, and they have coaxed Cleveland’s pitching staff to the league’s best ERA+ in at least 100 years. Cleveland’s catchers have the American League’s best caught-stealing rate, the fewest passed balls (zero!) and are close to the bottom in wild pitches. Perez and Hedges are also both elite-level pitch framers. Their collective batting line — .128/.242/.189 — is almost impossible to believe, barely better than pitchers used to hit. But depending on how much of the pitching staff’s success you credit to the batterymates, it might be worth it. — Miller
One bold prediction: In a postseason game, Bieber will give up more runs than he has in any of his other 2020 starts. (The target number: four or more. Yes, Bieber, he of the 1.68 ERA, limited opponents to three or fewer runs in all 12 of his starts this season.) — Passan
33-27 | second place, AL East | 5.0% World Series odds
Odds by round
WC: 47.9% vs. Indians
ALDS: 64.2% vs. Blue Jays; 45.1% vs. Rays
ALCS: 62.6% vs. Astros; 50.0% vs. A’s; 45.6% vs. White Sox; 44.6% vs. Twins
WS: 73.8% vs. Marlins; 65.2% vs. Brewers; 64.6% vs. Reds; 58.8% vs. Cardinals; 55.1% vs. Cubs; 49.3% vs. Braves; 39.9% vs. Padres; 27.2% vs. Dodgers
How they could go far: The Yankees don’t have a completely one-dimensional offense, but we’ve seen what they do best: club the ball over the fence. After injuries cast their season into temporary peril, the Bombers got mostly healthy and the homers started piling up like tote bags at a literary festival. And yet, established sluggers Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez haven’t added much to the long-ball surge. Sanchez might be on the outs, but if Stanton and Judge both get hot, there might be no one who can outscore the Yankees. — Doolittle
How they could go home before you’re done reading this: Given the explosiveness of the offense and the depth of the fireballing bullpen, the Yankees’ starters don’t have to work deep. There is one exception to that in Gerrit Cole. Cole hasn’t been quite as dominant as he was in 2019, but he has been pretty good and the Yankees need him to be at his best in the weeks to come. With four rounds to traverse and no rest days during series, Cole is going to have to be a one-man breather for the relief staff, going at least seven innings and shortening games. If Cole isn’t quite himself and gets bitten by the long-ball bug as he has at times during the regular season, it’ll be hard for the Yankees to survive the rugged AL bracket. — Doolittle
Most likely October hero: Cole is the easy choice and he looks locked in heading into October, but let’s go with DJ LeMahieu, who might have a claim for AL MVP honors if not for a two-week stint on the IL. LeMahieu is the kind of hitter who can excel in the postseason not only because he’s a high-average hitter with some pop, but because he doesn’t strike out. Only Tommy La Stella among qualified regulars had a lower strikeout rate. — Schoenfield
Matchup to watch in Round 1: So how do you beat Shane Bieber? He doesn’t give up many hits, walks about two batters per nine innings and averaged 14.2 K’s per nine. You can try to run up his pitch count — he had two five-inning starts this year with 103 and 98 pitches. But if you try to work the count and get to two strikes, batters hit just .096. He did give up seven home runs in 77⅓ IP, but even then they came off four different pitches, so it’s not as if he’s particularly vulnerable to a 1-0 fastball or something if he falls behind in the count. His least effective pitch was his cutter, against which batters hit .289/.325/.474. So, umm, yeah, we don’t know how you beat him either. — Schoenfield
Their only-in-2020 stat: Since 1993, the 20 largest splits between a team’s offense at home and its offense on the road: 19 Rockies seasons, and this year’s Yankees. Sanchez’ OPS is 300 points higher at home than on the road; Luke Voit‘s is 400 points higher at home; LeMahieu’s is 500 points higher. Unlike those Rockies splits, the difference isn’t offset on the pitching side, as Yankees pitchers have given up 1.75 fewer runs per game at home. Alas, they’ve played their final home game of 2020. — Miller
One bold prediction: The Yankees will not go to the World Series, marking 11 consecutive years and tying the second-longest drought in franchise history. The darkest time for the franchise: The 13 years from 1982 to 1995 during which champions were crowned and the Yankees weren’t once in the picture. — Passan
29-31 | second place, AL West | 1.5% World Series odds
Odds by round
WC: 37.5% vs. Twins
ALDS: 39.8% vs. A’s; 36.2% vs. White Sox
ALCS: 52.4% vs. Blue Jays; 37.4% vs. Yankees; 37.3% vs. Indians; 33.7% vs. Rays
WS: 61.2% vs. Marlins; 51.6% vs. Brewers; 50.8% vs. Reds; 44.8% vs. Cardinals; 43.6% vs. Cubs; 37.9% vs. Braves; 29.3% vs. Padres; 18.6% vs. Dodgers
How they could go far: As simple and crude as it sounds, the Astros will start to resemble the Astros who have rolled through the American League in recent years if they start hitting the ball over the fence. Overall, Houston ranks in the middle of the pack in scoring. Only 39% of its runs have been scored on homers, and the Astros rank 20th in runs per game via the long ball. At its best, we know the Houston attack is a robust assault that features plenty of contact, line drives into the gap and daring on the basepaths. Even during this down season, only three teams have averaged more runs per game by means other than homers. If the likes of George Springer, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve find their home run strokes, the team many don’t want to see back in the later rounds could end up back in the later rounds. — Doolittle
How they could go home before you’re done reading this: However the offense fares, it might not matter if what necessity has turned into one of baseball’s youngest pitching staffs isn’t ready for the bright lights of bubble baseball. Houston does have a few proven arms to lean on, like Zack Greinke, Ryan Pressly and Lance McCullers Jr. But there will be more unproven pitchers facing high-leverage playoff situations than in the past few years, and any high-leverage spot can be the fulcrum on which a team’s fortunes tip one way or the other. The spotlight is about to shine on Andre Scrubb, Blake Taylor, Jose Urquidy and Cristian Javier, among others. — Doolittle
Most likely October hero: The Astros’ offense was, umm, a little under the weather in 2020 — especially Altuve and Bregman — but Springer matched his career norms and has been a guy who has produced before in the postseason, most notably in the 2017 World Series when he won MVP honors. Over his past 33 playoff games, he has hit .292/.382/.650 with 13 home runs. He could have a big postseason, then earn a big deal in free agency. — Schoenfield
Matchup to watch in Round 1: Astros hitters versus Twins pitching. The Astros actually had the lowest strikeout rate in the majors — although they finished just 14th in runs per game. Twins pitching ranked sixth in strikeout rate, with relievers Trevor May and Tyler Duffey leading the way, but Game 1 starter Kenta Maeda had a career-best 32.1% K rate. Let’s see if the Astros put-the-ball-in-play offense works better than it did in the regular season. — Schoenfield
Their only-in-2020 stat: The Blue Jays played more extra-inning games than the Astros’ nine, but the Astros played much longer extra-inning games, with the only two 13-inning games in baseball this year. A cause for those long games: Houston hit a dismal .170/.254/.189 after the ninth inning, and consequently went only 2-7 in extras. It was an all-around disappointing regular season for the defending AL champs, but it would have been very easy for them to win three or four more games in extra innings alone. — Miller
One bold prediction: While the “can’t do it without the trash can” narrative is giddily peddled by those who wish ill upon the Astros, Springer and Bregman will perform as they have in postseasons past, even if it won’t be enough to overcome Houston’s paucity of pitching. — Passan
35-25 | AL seventh seed | 6.0% World Series odds
Odds by round
WC: 51.0% vs. Athletics
ALDS: 63.8% vs. Astros; 47.7% vs. Twins
ALCS: 68.9% vs. Blue Jays; 54.4% vs. Yankees; 54.3% vs. Indians; 47.9% vs. Rays
WS: 76.3% vs. Marlins; 68.1% vs. Brewers; 67.5% vs. Reds; 61.9% vs. Cardinals; 60.6% vs. Cubs; 55.0% vs. Braves; 43.0% vs. Padres; 29.9% vs. Dodgers
How they could go far: The White Sox hitters have to be disciplined against elite pitching and that has not been a strength of a moderately diverse Chicago attack. White Sox batsmen rank in the bottom five in the majors in both chase rate and contact rate, and they don’t make up for those shortcomings by taking pitches. But when they do make contact, they hit it hard, from gap to gap and over the fence. It’s a dossier that seems vulnerable to pinpoint pitching — the kind you typically see in the playoffs. Still, Chicago is a top-10 scoring offense and any hopes the White Sox have of going deep rest on the hitters creating leads that a potentially solid back of the bullpen can protect. — Doolittle
How they could go home before you’re done reading this: The White Sox will be in trouble if their hitters don’t pass the baton, so to speak, and instead try to do too much against top-flight hurlers. That would result in the club playing uphill, especially if Chicago’s tepid rotation can’t string together zeros. Because the White Sox are collectively so aggressive at the dish, not only can they be exploited by good pitchers but those same pitchers can find themselves cruising into the middle innings with low pitch counts. If Chicago finds itself going against an ace starter or two who hands the ball directly to a couple of good high-leverage relievers, it could be a brief return to the postseason for the still-green White Sox. — Doolittle
Most likely October hero: A pitcher is usually the best bet here and Lucas Giolito is lights out when he’s on, but Jose Abreu has been locked in all season and has actually performed better against good teams. Plus, after spending his first six seasons with the White Sox on losing teams, you would love to see him excel in the postseason. He’ll chase out of the zone but has destroyed fastballs better than ever this season. — Schoenfield
Matchup to watch in Round 1: White Sox hitters versus the strike zone. Not only do they have one of the highest strikeout rates in the majors (24th), but they were next to last in chase rate. Luis Robert‘s 40% chase rate led to a mammoth slump in September and Tim Anderson has managed to excel despite a similar rate. Eloy Jimenez is also above 35%. Will the better pitchers of October exploit their aggressive approach? — Schoenfield
Their only-in-2020 stat: The White Sox are second in the American League in runs per game and OPS+, and what’s especially remarkable about that is how little offense they’ve gotten from traditionally offensive positions: Their right fielders were the AL’s worst, and their designated hitters and third basemen were the AL’s second worst. Indeed, the White Sox got about 10% more production at “defense-first” positions — catcher, the middle infield and center field — than offensive positions. (First base, with Abreu, is the exception.) Since 2000, only five American League teams have gotten a more disproportionate share of their offense from defensive positions. — Miller
One bold prediction: Rookie Nick Madrigal, he of the comically low strikeout rate, will fight off pitches in a long at-bat and deliver a run-scoring single that ties a game or puts the White Sox ahead. — Passan
32-28 | AL eighth seed | 1.1% World Series odds
Odds by round
WC: 35.2% vs. Rays
ALDS:: 35.8% vs. Yankees; 35.7% vs. Indians
ALCS: 47.6% vs. Astros; 35.1% vs. A’s; 31.1% vs. White Sox; 30.3% vs. Twins
WS: 60.1% vs. Marlins; 49.7% vs. Reds; 43.6% vs. Cardinals; 47.9% vs. Brewers; 40.0% vs. Cubs; 34.5% vs. Braves; 26.2% vs. Padres; 16.3% vs. Dodgers
How they could go far: Charlie Montoyo is tasked with putting together a playoff bullpen on the fly on an evolving Toronto roster. The Blue Jays had two rookie pitchers who raised eyebrows during the season, reliever Jordan Romano and starter Nate Pearson. Both were injured and on the sidelines for the Blue Jays’ stretch run. Pearson was activated late in the campaign and should work in a bullpen role. Romano is aimed at getting back in action for the playoffs, though it’s not a sure bet. When you look at a rotation that needs the best from its top two of Hyun-Jin Ryu and Taijuan Walker just to keep Toronto in games, it seems like a surprise Blue Jays run could be fueled by Romano and Pearson coming together in a dynamic ad-hoc October bullpen. — Doolittle
How they could go home before you’re done reading this: The Toronto offense is fueled by talented young bats, but the offense has been an uneven, feast-or-famine outfit for most of the campaign. After a ragged start, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has been mashing of late. Unfortunately, after carrying the Toronto offense in the opening weeks, Bo Bichette and Teoscar Hernandez have been so-so after returning from injury. The Blue Jays’ defense rates from below average to terrible, depending on the metrics you view. The pitching staff remains an area of flux even as the high-stakes games begin. For Toronto to surprise, the young hitters all must be clicking. — Doolittle
Most likely October hero: Hernandez has a lot of swing-and-miss in his game, but when he connects few batters hit the ball harder as he ranked in the 98th percentile in hard-hit rate and the 99th percentile in expected slugging percentage. He’s the kind of hitter who might be exposed by the better postseason pitching, but he has been terrific all season and could go on a long-ball hot streak. — Schoenfield
Matchup to watch in Round 1: The Rays had the third-highest average fastball velocity in the majors, with Game 1 starter Blake Snell averaging 95.0 mph and Game 2 starter Tyler Glasnow averaging 96.9. The Blue Jays were not a great fastball-hitting team, however. They ranked 12th in the majors in overall wOBA, but just 25th against fastballs. Hernandez (.388, 1.291 OPS) and Bichette (.333, .967 OPS) were their best hitters against fastballs. — Schoenfield
Their only-in-2020 stat: As a backup catcher on the Blue Jays’ taxi squad this year, Caleb Joseph has traveled with the club, and his role has mostly been leading the postgame win celebrations — “senior clubhouse vibe coordinator,” he called his role. He has played only three games, starting two of them, batting nine times. Those nine plate appearances were notable because they were the only plate appearances by any Toronto hitter over 31 years old. Even the rebuilding teams have used far more oldsters: The Pirates have had 15 games started by older hitters, the Orioles 21, and every other team far more than that. Joseph homered in one of his two starts. — Miller
One bold prediction: Rookie right-hander Pearson, pitching out of the bullpen, is going to throw a fastball harder than 102 mph — and it will be the single fastest pitch delivered in 2020, topping the 102.2 mph fastball thrown by Kansas City rookie Josh Staumont. — Passan
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