AL Division Series Preview

The American League is where the heavyweights are. The Red Sox, Astros and Yankees are all 100-win teams. The Indians are just two years removed from an AL pennant and have a two-time World Series winner in Terry Francona in the dugout. Two really good teams are going to go home early with a bad taste in their mouths. Here’s a look at the AL Division Series matchups of Yankees-Red Sox & Indians-Astros…

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Red Sox (1) vs. Yankees (WC)
The sheer star power in the everyday lineups is the first thing to stand out. Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez, the fabulous Boston combo are likely to finish 1-2 in the MVP voting. Each finished with on-base percentages over .400 and slugging percentages that cleared .600. Xander Bogaerts & Andrew Benintendi both lurk as players who can take over a short series.

On the Yankee side, Aaron Judge is healthy and rolling, as his two-run homer that got the wild-card win over the A’s demonstrated. Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks, Miguel Andujar and Didi Gregorious round out the elite talent.

Whose big hitters will perform better in a short series is anyone’s guess, and an X-factor with these two teams is which relatively obscure player or past-prime veteran will make an impact. On the Boston side, Brock Holt has a .362 on-base percentage and has been an invaluable utility player all year. Eduardo Nunez seems to have a clutch gene in him. Jackie Bradley Jr. already dominates defensively and has the ability to hit better than his regular season numbers indicate.

New York has 34-year-old Brett Gardner, whose numbers are in decline and who has seen his playing time decrease. He’s also about the last person that Red Sox fans (like myself) would want to see hit in a close game late. Gleyber Torres, the talented second baseman can take over a series with his bat and glove. Luke Voit, another wild-card hero, hit 14 home runs in 39 games and rescued the Yankee first base job from the disappointment that is Greg Bird.

But ultimately, this series likely comes down to the pitching matchup between the Boston rotation and the New York bullpen. The Red Sox come at you with Chris Sale, David Price and Rick Porcello and Craig Kimbrel to close Fourth starter Eduardo Rodriguez has generally pitched well in the Bronx. The Yankees have no less than three pitchers (Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Zach Britton) in their bullpen with lights-out stuff. David Robertson and Chad Green round out a pen that will be consistently emptied by manager Aaron Boone.

The statistic that overrides everything else in this series is 5.26. That’s the combined postseason ERA of Sale, Price, Porcello and Kimbrel in over 120 innings of work. The second-most important statistic is “2”, which is the number of playoff wins the Red Sox rotation has. The most Red Sox Nation can latch onto is that about 75 percent of that October failure is on Price. Maybe somebody’s going to prove themselves this postseason. But I wouldn’t bet on it. New York wins this in four games.

Astros (2) vs. Indians (3)
From a standpoint of media coverage, this will be the “other” American League playoff series, but from the standpoint of baseball, this is a heavyweight fight from a pair of proven teams. These are the last two pennant winners. The pitching battle of Justin Verlander for Houston against Cleveland’s Corey Kluber for Game 1 is positively mouth-watering and it looms again later in the series.

The Indians made some valuable pickups at the trade deadline (Josh Donaldson, Brad Hand) and got Andrew Miller healthy..The Astros are the smart money choice this October, a 7-2 betting favorite to win a repeat World Series title.

The biggest thing that stands out is the number of quality players in this series who didn’t have very good regular season numbers. Most notably, Houston shortstop Carlos Correa struggled to a stat line of .323 on-base percentage/.405 slugging percentage. Marwin Gonzalez was off. Even Jose Altuve, whose stat line of .386/.451 was good, can do more. On the Cleveland side, Jason Kipnis was a train wreck early on and his final numbers of .315/.389 are putrid, but he did stabilize as the year went on.

This is significant, because while regular season performance in a single year impacts how these teams are perceived going into the playoffs, they are not the best indicators of what a player is likely to do going forward. The best predictor of that is a multi-year evaluation and all of these players are good bets to lift their games in October.

Both teams have stacked rotations behind Verlander and Kluber and both have deep bullpens. The difference? The Astro pen, a big liability last year, is now a strength and exceptionally deep. And while the 2 thru 4 spots in each team’s rotation are good, Houston has a pair of potential #1s there, in Gerrit Cole and Dallas Keuchel. There’s just too much talent on this Astro team to ignore. The games are all going to be good, but the ultimate ending will be lopsided. Houston sweeps.