One playoff team has punched its ticket to the World Series, two continue to battle for the other spot and seven have seen their Octobers end in unceremonious fashion. With the month just past its halfway point, it's time to answer 20 questions about what has been a most excellent MLB postseason -- and take a slight look ahead to what should be just as fascinating a winter.
Let's get right to the point. Who's the favorite to win the World Series?
The Houston Astros. They hold a 2-1 lead in the American League Championship Series over the New York Yankees, boast a pair of star starting pitchers in Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander, run out an extraordinarily deep lineup and have enough relief options. As good as the Yankees are -- and they're really good -- Wednesday's Game 4 rainout takes arguably their greatest strength, a dominant back end of the bullpen, and places enormous strain on it.
All that said: The Washington Nationals are not pushovers. The longer the ALCS goes, the better the chance for the Nationals, whose National League Championship Series sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals put them in an enviable position. The Nationals get to set their rotation, meaning Max Scherzer can start Games 1 and 5 on full rest and Stephen Strasburg can do the same with Games 2 and 6. Between that and a week of rest for a thin bullpen, the Nationals bought themselves quite the cushion by dispatching the Cardinals in such painless fashion.
But ... but ... but ... the Nationals are going to be rusty, right?
Ah, rust. A time-tested October narrative. Is it real? Does it exist? The answer is: Of course it can. But that doesn't mean it will. And that especially doesn't mean teams like the Nationals, who will have six days off after the NLCS, can't avoid it.
Just last year, the Boston Red Sox went into the World Series on four days' rest while the Los Angeles Dodgers entered with two. The Red Sox won the series in five games. It broke a nine-year streak in which the team with less rest had won a championship. Which came after a 14-year stretch in which the team with more rest captured the World Series. Since the wild card came into existence in 1995, there have been 24 World Series. The team with more rest has won 12 times. The team with less rest has won ... 12 times.
As for those with six days or more of rest: the '95 Atlanta Braves, '96 New York Yankees and '08 Philadelphia Phillies won, and the '06 Detroit Tigers, '07 Colorado Rockies and '09 Philadelphia Phillies lost.
So, yeah. Rust unquestionably exists in granular form, with individual players, but in terms of an entire team oxidizing simultaneously? No. If the Nationals lose, it won't be because of the layoff.
I bet you have another interesting factoid prepared to reveal, don't you?
How did you ever know! As the crack staff at ESPN Stats & Information pointed out, since the league championship series became a best-of-seven affair in 1985, eight teams have swept the round. Their record in the World Series: 1-7. The winner was the 1995 Braves -- and of course that was the only year out of 14 consecutive division titles that they won the championship. The losers: '88 A's, '90 A's, '06 Tigers, '07 Rockies, '12 Tigers, '14 Royals, '15 Mets.
So what is Washington rooting for?
Utter chaos in the ALCS. A seven-game series. Extra-inning games. Offense, offense and more offense. For whichever pitching staff emerges victorious to enter gassed.
A Yankees win on Thursday in Game 4 would be a nice start. The chain of events that sets into motion can be a little complicated, so let's tease out the possibilities:
Yankees win Game 4, win Game 5: Panic time for the Astros. With their season on the line, they likely move up Cole to start Game 6 on three days' rest to save their season.
Yankees win Game 4, lose Game 5: The Astros head back to Houston with a 3-2 lead. Game 6 almost certainly would be a bullpen game. If they lose it, they could throw Cole on full rest in Game 7.
Yankees win Game 4, win Game 5, lose Game 6: Zack Greinke would be on two days' rest, Verlander on one and Cole on none. Which would mean: bullpen game for the Astros to save their season.
Yankees win Game 4, lose Game 5, win Game 6: Assuming manager AJ Hinch goes with his bullpen for Game 6, this leaves Cole for Game 7. For the Nationals, it doesn't matter if Cole goes in 6 or 7. Either situation would keep him out of the World Series on full rest until Game 3. If Cole goes in Game 6 of the ALCS, Hinch could bring him back on short rest again for Game 2 of the World Series, then give him five days' rest before Game 6.
Worth noting: Cole never has started on short rest.
Uh, Passan. You know, the Yankees are still in this series. What about their pitching?
Sorry to give them the short shrift. If they were ahead in the series their outlook might look a bit better. As you'll see in the same scenarios outlined above -- with one additional possibility -- it's not great.
Yankees win Game 4: New York manager Aaron Boone on Wednesday said he plans to start James Paxton in Game 5. Now, if the Yankees are going to win this series, they're going to need to pitch at least one bullpen game too. Unlike Hinch, Boone can't postpone his until Game 7 because he won't start Luis Severino on short rest. So does he feint and go with his bullpen in Game 5 -- or perhaps act like he's going to in starting Chad Green, only to use him as an opener and bring in Paxton? Probably not, but it's not an impossibility, either.
Yankees win Game 4, win Game 5: This one is easy. Bullpen game in 6, Severino on full rest in 7.
Yankees win Game 4, lose Game 5: Outside of losing Game 4, this is the worst scenario. Remember, because of Wednesday's rainout, the teams are scheduled to play four consecutive games. Even if Masahiro Tanaka and Paxton pitch well, Boone presumably will need at least four innings out of his bullpen -- after which he'd need nine in Game 6. Among J.A. Happ, CC Sabathia, Jonathan Loaisiga and Luis Cessa, the Yankees have pitchers who can provide length. The balance is length vs. quality, and it's a perilous one to strike. It would be a shame to have the season on the line with a bullpen game, which is why if the Yankees do win Game 4, Boone has to at least consider using it in 5.
Yankees win Game 4, win Game 5, lose Game 6: This one is set: Severino.
Yankees win Game 4, lose Game 5, win Game 6: Same. Though -- and this applies as well to the above -- depending on how many pitches Tanaka throws in Game 4, perhaps he can return to offer an inning of relief.
How does the rest of the Nationals' rotation line up?
Scherzer in 1, Strasburg in 2, Patrick Corbin in 3, Anibal Sanchez in 4, Scherzer in 5, Strasburg in 6, Corbin in 7, all on full rest. If the Nationals are down 3-0, perhaps Scherzer returns on three days' rest. Or if Nationals manager Dave Martinez sees an opportunity to grab a win and burns a starting pitcher to do so. Martinez's nimbleness with his bullpen this October has been impressive.
Why are you taking up so many questions with starting pitching?
Because it's back, baby! Through 27 games this postseason, starting pitchers have thrown 57% of all innings. Last year, that number dipped to 50.3%. In 2017, it was 53.5%. In 2016, just under 57%.
To what is it owed? Well, it being back is an exaggeration. The teams with the two best rotations happen to remain alive. Had the Tampa Bay Rays beaten the Astros in the division series, the numbers might have looked much different.
So about that. The Rays really almost beat the Astros?
This is supposed to be conversational. You don't have to answer yes-and-no questions with a literal yes or no.
Just answer the stupid question.
Fine. The Rays pushed the Astros because they managed to match them in nearly every fashion. Their offenses were similar with runners in scoring position, similar in hitters' counts, similar in pitchers' counts. Their pitching statistics were nearly identical, except for one area: Houston's starters excelled, Tampa Bay's bullpen was phenomenal. And in the deciding Game 5, Cole was masterful and Tyler Glasnow surrendered four runs in the first inning.
I said it before the series: Whoever won the wild-card game between the Rays and Oakland A's was going to give the Astros trouble. They were similar teams with similar strengths and a similar ability to make the Astros look mortal. The Rays are primed to join the Yankees and Boston Red Sox in the upper echelon of the AL East for the next half-decade, and Oakland is going to be a thorn in the Astros' side next year, particularly if Cole leaves.
Hold on. The Astros would actually let Cole leave?
When he's pitching his way into the largest pitcher contract in baseball history, yeah, it's certainly a possibility. Here's a reasonable way to put it: Cole could return to Houston, but the Astros would need to either increase their payroll significantly or get awfully creative in moving money.
This season, their payroll is somewhere in the $170 million range, factoring in the $24 million they received in the Greinke trade as a lump sum. Even after losing Cole, ace reliever Will Harris, starters Wade Miley and Collin McHugh, and relievers Joe Smith and Hector Rondon to free agency, the Astros are staring at more than $156 million alone for Greinke, Verlander, Jose Altuve, Michael Brantley, Alex Bregman, Josh Reddick, Ryan Pressly and Yuli Gurriel.
George Springer could make the case for upward of $20 million in arbitration. Roberto Osuna could get a bump to the $10 million range. Carlos Correa will be around $7 million. MLB Trade Rumors projects all of the Astros' arbitration-eligible players to earn more than $60 million.
Which means before even considering signing Cole, the Astros on salaries alone could be in excess of the luxury-tax threshold.
So what's Cole going to cost?
Put it this way: The last time a free agent had anything close to as good a walk year as Cole was Greinke in 2015. Let's compare them:
Greinke: 222⅔ innings pitched, 40 walks, 200 strikeouts, 14 home runs allowed, 1.66 ERA, 2.76 FIP, .187/.231/.276 opponent slash
Cole: 212⅓ innings pitched, 48 walks, 329 strikeouts, 29 home runs allowed, 2.50 ERA, 2.64 FIP, .186/.237/.343 opponent slash
A few things worth noting: The league-average ERA in 2015 was 3.96, and this season it's 4.51, so this is a far more difficult environment. Dodger Stadium was the 23rd-hitter-friendliest park in the major leagues in 2015, whereas Minute Maid Park was seventh this year. And -- here's the big factor -- Greinke was 32 years old in 2015, while Cole is 29.
Greinke received $206.5 million over six seasons. With deferrals factored in, the deal was valued at approximately $194 million -- a little more than $32 million a year. If a 32-year-old with inferior stuff performing in a far better environment is worth $32 million, how much is a 29-year-old with a high-octane repertoire who conquered the superball worth?
That's what I'm asking.
Eight years, $250 million.
That's not a question.
No free-agent pitcher has received eight years since Colorado gave $121 million to Mike Hampton nearly 20 years ago. Perhaps it never will be offered again. But if David Price at 32 years old warranted a seven-year, $217 million deal, Cole -- a better pitcher, a younger pitcher -- warrants something bigger. Could be that teams just offer a higher per-year value. But considering the need for starting pitching and the paucity of front-line types today, if it takes the extra year or those extra dollars to get Cole, one would have to believe at least one team will go there if it means getting the player.
Well, that's good. At least it means teams are going to be spending now, right?
Executives, agents and personnel from the league and union all have adopted some serious gallows humor with regard to the coming market. Consider:
1. For years now, teams have turned a wait-and-see strategy into policy. It angers the players, often forces them to accept lower-valued deals than they anticipated and, truthfully, is a strategy that all but the most valuable players have difficulty avoiding.
2. What do Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon, Stephen Strasburg, J.D. Martinez, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Marcell Ozuna, Nicholas Castellanos, Dallas Keuchel and Mike Moustakas have in common? Two things: They comprise nearly half of the top 20 potential free agents this winter, and they're represented by Scott Boras. While Boras isn't against signing players before the new year, he is perfectly content to wait out the market. And, increasingly, teams are perfectly content to wait with him. If the most desirable free agents do not sign early, teams may be loath to commit money elsewhere, which could clog the rest of the market.
But I thought all the oldest teams in baseball are really successful. Shouldn't that mean teams start recognizing the value of old players?
Certainly the pendulum has swung excessively in the other direction, and some reassessment is warranted. But come on. Do we really need to go over causation and correlation again? Just because age and success exist side by side doesn't mean the age is prompting the success. The Nationals are winning because they have -- drum roll -- good players! And, yes, some of those good players are old. Max Scherzer, who is a clear Hall of Famer, is probably not the best example. Anibal Sanchez, who signed this winter for two years and $19 million, was a phenomenal deal and a good reminder that pitchers in their mid-30s aren't all lost causes. (Just most of them.)
Oh, and if you're going to note how old the Nationals are, please at least acknowledge that two of their starting outfielders combined are the same age (42) as one of their relievers. The greatest equation this October: Juan Soto + Victor Robles = Fernando Rodney.
Who is the breakout star of October?
Gleyber Torres is 22 years old, a member of the New York Yankees and has been arguably the best player this October. He hits big home runs. He works at-bats. He is slashing .417/.481/.958 in the playoffs. And as he showed this season, he can play a capable shortstop, which could allow the Yankees to let Didi Gregorius walk this winter and use any money earmarked for him to make a run at Cole.
What's the most impressive thing you've seen so far this October?
Randy Dobnak's Uber rating.
What's the most impressive thing you've seen on the field so far this October, you dolt?
Aside from Cole? Here are a few, in no particular order:
-- Rendon, the rejoinder to Torres' arguably-the-best-player-this-postseason claim
-- Tanaka looking to stake his claim as the best Japanese pitcher ever to come to MLB
-- Strasburg's competitiveness -- and his changeup is purty, too
-- Bregman's plate discipline
-- Sanchez's two changeups, which together sound like an indie-band record name: The Splitter and The Butterfly
-- Soto and Robles and the knowledge that for the next five years Washington gets to see them side by side
-- DJ LeMahieu hitting the ball tremendously hard with just as tremendous consistency
-- Howie Kendrick's grand slam
-- Mike Soroka's sinker
-- Will Harris showing off his diploma from the Kirby Yates School of Sneaky Elite Relievers
-- Diego Castillo's everything
-- Walker Buehler's energy
-- Adam Wainwright's implicit confirmation that the Fountain of Youth exists
-- Jesus Luzardo frightening the other four teams in the AL West with 46 pitches
-- Tyler Glasnow's fastball at 100 with cut
-- Daniel Hudson's slider against Corey Seager in Game 2 of the division series
-- Mike Shildt's speech, which was completely wrong, which makes it all the more hysterical
-- Drew Pomeranz, reborn as an overpowering, Andrew Miller-style lefty reliever
-- Max Muncy's quality at-bats
-- Nick Anderson's breaking ball
-- Ronald Acuña, fully engaged, which leaves zero room for criticism because it's so, so good
-- Jose Altuve, made for October: As ESPN Stats & Info notes, Altuve's 12 home runs over the last three postseasons are tied for second most over a three-way playoff span and two shy of Nelson Cruz's record
While we play the postseason, seven manager jobs and one GM job are open. What does that say about the state of the game?
Managers are fungible. They are cheap, easy to criticize and often underappreciated. It's like scapegoat bingo.
At the same time, let's recognize this is cyclical. There almost certainly won't be eight managing jobs open at this time next year. But as the New York Post's Joel Sherman pointed out, the managerial deluge of 2019 could bleed into a GM overhaul in 2020. Among the teams: the Angels, Padres, Rockies, Mariners, Tigers, Reds, Pirates, Phillies, White Sox, Mets -- and, considering the unpredictability of the season, some surely will join the list while others may win themselves off.
You are 3,000 words into this and you still haven't addressed the Dodgers. What's wrong with you?
I honestly don't know.
Fine. We'll figure that out another day. What happened to the Dodgers, and what can they do about it?
Baseball happened, man. I don't mean to get all philosophical about it here, but five-game series are potential nightmares for the better team. And if in a five-game series you happen to be going against a team with really good starting pitching, it multiplies the trouble.
Yes, plenty went wrong in the series. The Dodgers' hitting never really showed up. Beyond Walker Buehler, their pitching wasn't great. And they still led 3-1 going into the eighth inning of Game 5. Then Dodgers manager Dave Roberts made a number of strategic errors, Clayton Kershaw blew the lead and that was their season.
Right now, the Dodgers have Kershaw, Justin Turner, Kenley Jansen (who can opt out), A.J. Pollock, Joe Kelly and Kenta Maeda signed for 2020 at around $111 million. Add in another $50 million in arbitration salaries, and ... the Dodgers have plenty of room to sign Cole or Rendon. Or, if they really wanted, both. Because they're the Los Angeles Dodgers, and they should not be bowing out before the NLCS, even if the randomness of baseball sometimes causes such havoc.
Remember, if the regular-season ball is in play, Will Smith's drive to right field off Hudson goes over the fence, and instead of all this talk about the Nationals, the Dodgers are the ones beating the Cardinals and getting ready to face the Astros or Yankees.
Speaking of the ball, what is up with it, and what can MLB do about this constant storyline?
The drag on the ball is down, which means air resistance is holding it back more than it did during the regular season. Why? How? Huh? All of those questions have not been answered.
MLB has a panel of scientists studying the ball. Again. Perhaps instead of telling us what's happening, as the last report did, this one can answer the why and how. Until then, a little bit of transparency goes a long way. If MLB is going to say handmade products can have manufacturing imperfections, the logical thing is to streamline the manufacturing process, build a better ball (from scratch if need be) and restore the credibility in the scoreboard that the ball has bastardized.