Thursday, October 2, 2014

Joey's Soapbox: My 2014 Not-So-Biased Division Series Picks

Hey, everyone!  This is Joey Beartran and I'm already exhausted after watching the two wild card games.  First, the Royals won a four-hour, 45 minute marathon on Tuesday that was a thrill a minute.  Then the Giants and Bucs played a snoozefest in Pittsburgh on Wednesday.  But don't worry.  I'm not ready to hibernate just yet.  I still have some prognosticating to do.

Today, it's time for my division series picks.  And we've got four intriguing matchups to dissect.  And speaking of dissecting, has anyone seen my plastic knife?  I need it to cut two slices of cake for myself.  One slice is to celebrate the Royals' victory (which I correctly predicted) and the other is to console myself after making a boo boo with my pick of the Pirates over the Giants.  Oops!  Now, it's on to the division series picks!

American League Division Series

Detroit Tigers vs. Baltimore Orioles

The Tigers have been regulars in the postseason, winning their fourth consecutive AL Central title in 2014.  Meanwhile, the Orioles won their first division crown since 1997 and are making just their second postseason appearance since that last AL East championship.

Detroit's Achilles heel over the past three playoff runs has been its bullpen, and this year it's been no different.  The Tigers' relief corps posted a 4.29 ERA and 1.48 WHIP during the 2014 season.  Both numbers ranked near the bottom of the league.

As bad as their bullpen has been since 2011, their starting pitchers have been the exact opposite.   Going into the postseason, the Tigers boast the last three American League Cy Young Award winners in Justin Verlander, David Price and Max Scherzer.  Scherzer was outstanding once again in 2014 (18-5, 3.15 ERA, 252 Ks), but Verlander was unimpressive (15-12, 4.54 ERA, 1.40 WHIP), striking out just 159 batters after five consecutive seasons with 200+ strikeouts.  And Price was a .500 pitcher for Detroit with an ERA nearly half a run higher than his career mark with Tampa Bay.  Why is this so important?

Because Baltimore has bats.  Lots and lots of bats.

The Orioles led the major leagues with 211 home runs, which was 25 more than their nearest competitor in that category.  Seven players reached double digits in homers, and four of them made it to 20 dingers.  One of those players (Nelson Cruz) was the only player in baseball to reach 40 long balls.  Simply stated, Baltimore can rake.  A lot.  And when they're facing a team with a subpar bullpen and underachieving starting pitchers, things could get ugly faster than you can say Willie McGee.

All that playoff experience for the Tigers and still no championships since 1984.  The drought will continue into next year.

Prediction:  Orioles in 4.

Kansas City Royals vs. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Picking this series is a toss-up.  The Royals and Angels split their six games against each other, with each team winning two of three in its home park.

The Angels have announced their rotation for the series, using Jered Weaver (who did not face the Royals in 2014) in Games 1 and 4.  Although Weaver led the league with 18 victories, he posted a 3.59 ERA - his highest since 2009.  Assuming the series doesn't end in a sweep, Weaver's start in Game 4 will come on three days rest.  Short rest does not agree with Weaver, who has a 6.75 lifetime ERA when he pitches on fewer than his normal four days rest.

Matt Shoemaker would also get two starts in the series (Games 2 and 5), which on paper looks divine for the Angels, as Shoemaker went 16-4 this season, including a 14-3 mark as a starting pitcher.  There's just one problem.  One of his three losses as a starter came to the Royals.  His other start against Kansas City did not result in a decision, but ended in another loss for the Angels.  In fact, in his two starts versus the Royals, Shoemaker combined to pitch nine innings, allowing 11 runs (10 earned) and 21 base runners (19 hits, two walks).  For all you kids out there, that's a 10.00 ERA and 2.33 WHIP.  How bad is that?  It's worse than what former Royal Jose Lima put up for the 2006 Mets (9.87 ERA, 2.02 WHIP).  And Shoemaker would face the Royals twice, including a do-or-die fifth game.

Kansas City will be going with Jason Vargas in Game 1, followed by Yordano Ventura and James Shields.  Manager Ned Yost will decide who his starters for Games 4 and 5 will be if the Royals make it that far.  The threesome combined to go 39-28 and pitched a total of 597 innings between them.  That bodes well for the Royals, who could use long outings from their three starters to take them to their three-headed relief monster of Wade Davis (9-2, 1.00 ERA), Kelvin Herrera (4-3, 1.41 ERA) and Greg Holland (46 saves, 1.44 ERA).

The Angels will have to score early and often against the Royals to prove that their 98-win season wasn't a fluke.  But even if they do, their starting pitchers are going to have to pitch well, and with Weaver allowing more runs in 2014 than he had in five years and Shoemaker sucking more than a starving vampire against the Royals, it could be hell for the Angels in this series.

Prediction:  Royals in 5.

National League Division Series

St. Louis Cardinals vs. Los Angeles Dodgers (not of Anaheim)

Last year, these two teams faced each other in the NLCS, with the Cardinals prevailing.  It was the 25th consecutive season without a pennant for the Dodgers - the longest such streak in franchise history.  The victory over Los Angeles allowed St. Louis to advance to its fourth World Series in ten seasons.

But this year's playoff rematch boils down to one man.  And that man is Clayton Edward Kershaw.

Kershaw made just 27 starts this season, but still managed to go 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA and 239 strikeouts.  In doing so, Kershaw became the first pitcher in major league history to win as many as 21 games in as few as 27 appearances.  The only thing Kershaw failed to do in 2014 was get Major League Baseball to change the name of the award for the league's best pitcher to the Clayton Kershaw Award.  To summarize Kershaw's performance this year, he was i-ight.

But the soon-to-be three-time Cy Young Award winner will only get a chance to win two games in the best-of-five series.  If the Dodgers are to advance to the NLCS, they'll need someone to win that third game.  Will it be Zack Greinke, whose 17 wins, 2.71 ERA and 207 strikeouts would have led most teams, but not the Los Angeles Kershaws?  What about Hyun-jin Ryu, who made just 26 starts, but still managed to win 14 of them?

The answer is none of the above.  The third game will be won by Dee Gordon's legs (MLB-leading 64 steals), Adrian Gonzalez's bat (41 doubles, 27 HR, MLB-leading 116 RBI) and Yasiel Puig's pieces of flair.  And if you've ever watched Office Space, you know how important those extra pieces of flair can be.

Prediction:  Dodgers in 3.

San Francisco Giants vs. Washington Nationals

The Giants came up huge against the Pittsburgh Pirates behind the arm of Madison Bumgarner and one big swing by shortstop Brandon Crawford.  Although Bumgarner won't be available to pitch against Washington until Game 3, his fellow moundsmen are more than capable of pulling out at least one win in Washington before his turn in the rotation comes up.

Jake Peavy will be key for the Giants.  After an awful first half with the Red Sox (1-9, 4.72 ERA, 1.43 WHIP), Peavy was dominant as a Giant, going 6-4 with a 2.17 ERA and 1.05 WHIP.  In his last ten starts of the season, Peavy was Kershaw-esque, posting a 1.64 ERA and allowing a .288 on-base percentage.  Because Bumgarner will only get one start in the division series, that means Peavy will get two.  And the second of those two starts could be the one that sends the Giants into the league championship series.

Also key for the Giants will be Hunter Pence (.333 batting average in seven games vs. Washington), rookie Joe Panik (.417 average, 1.128 OPS in a late-season series against the Nats) and Pablo Sandoval, who kung fu'd Washington pitchers to the tune of a .455 average in seven games.  Those three players - along with the always dependable Buster Posey - will need to continue to feast on the likes of Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Stephen Strasburg to give the Giants a fighting chance.

Speaking of Strasburg, this will be his first time in the postseason spotlight, as he had been shut down by the organization prior to the Nats' brief visit to the playoffs in 2012.  Prior to 2014, Strasburg had never pitched more than 183 innings in a single season.  This year, he has logged 215 innings, with more to come against the Giants in the division series.  How will his arm hold up against the playoff-tested Giants?

Washington may have finished with the best record in the league for the second time in three seasons, but that may not be enough to get them to the National League Championship Series for the first time since moving to our nation's capital.  As the saying goes, Washington is first in war, first in peace, and really crappy when it comes to winning the division series.  Or at least that's how I think it goes.

Prediction:  Giants in 4.

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