There’s a lot of baseball left to be played in 2017. But plenty of teams have already pulled out ahead and given the rest of the league something to chase. So, when the league improves, what will the current MLB playoff teams need to improve on if they’re going to hold their ground?
What do the Yankees have to do to continue this dream season? Teams like the Brewers, Twins, and Rockies are off to surprisingly strong starts. What’s most likely to trip them up?
What weaknesses do the Astros and Nationals have? If the Indians and Cubs are to reach the World Series again, what would they need to overcome?
What are the most glaring flaws of the current MLB playoff teams?
Note: Unless otherwise noted, stats and records noted are accurate through Sunday, June 4.
AL East leader: New York Yankees
The Yankees are a very good team. They can probably use some depth in the bullpen to get through the dog days of July and August. But in truth, New York’s present relievers are good enough to win a World Series. Offensively, Aaron Judge has grabbed headlines. But top to bottom, the Yankees have a ferocious lineup. Opposing pitchers don’t relish going against the Bronx Bombers.
But it’s hard to look past the starting pitching.
Statistically, it’s not terrible. Through Sunday, June 4, New York’s starters had a 4.13 ERA, ninth best in baseball. The problem comes when we start comparing the Yankees top four starters to some of the other best teams in the junior circuit.
In a playoff series, how would New York match up to a team like the Astros, or Red Sox?
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) June 5, 2017
Mind you, those numbers don’t even include Collin McHugh for Houston, or David Price for Boston.
Now, we do have to account for the likely possibility that Masahiro Tanaka will improve. He’s not a 6.34 ERA/1.52 WHIP type of pitcher. But at the same time, don’t we also have to say that Michael Pineda (3.76/1.16) and especially Luis Severino (2.90/1.07) are due for at least some regression?
The Yankees are a good team. But if we’re going to feel good about their chances of making it through the American League playoffs, we’d like to see another starter make his way to the Bronx.
NL East leader: Washington Nationals
To win in the playoffs, you need a good bullpen. With the off days, it doesn’t need to be an especially deep bullpen. But it’s hard to imagine any team going on a deep October run without at least three or four solid relievers that it can depend on.
The Nationals don’t have that. Their bullpen is bad. And we’re not talking about bad for playoff team standards, either. Washington’s relievers have been just dreadful throughout 2017.
— #Voteland 5 x Daily (@Athletics) June 5, 2017
Nats relievers sport a 5.15 ERA, which is the worst mark in all of baseball. A case could be made that that ineptitude is offset at least partially by the fact Washington’s relievers have thrown fewer innings than any in baseball.
It’s true. When you have guys like Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg going deep into games, a deep bullpen isn’t that much of a necessity. A bad bullpen is also less significant when your offense is going as strong as the Nationals bats are going.
But in the playoffs, games get tighter. You’re not facing No. 5 starters anymore, nor are you dealing with mop-up relief pitchers. So, as good as Bryce Harper and company are, Washington can’t rely on its offense to overwhelm in October.
Likewise, opposing offenses will be more likely to get to Scherzer, Strasburg, and the rest of the Nationals starters. If nothing else, Dusty Baker’s hand might be forced into pinch hitting for one of them after only five or six innings. What happens then? Can this bullpen be trusted to carry the load for three-to-four innings or more in a close game?
As presently constructed, it’s hard to imagine. Mike Rizzo has done a good job constructing this team to be a regular season monster. But if he wants a team that can finally win in the playoffs, he’ll need to shop hard for relief pitchers.
AL Central leader: Minnesota Twins
If we’re looking at the Twins as an honest playoff team, their problem is pitching in general. The starting rotation ranks 14th in ERA (4.30) and their bullpen ERA (5.14) is only marginally better than Washington’s.
But that’s not the real problem in Minnesota.
No, the problem is that while the Twins have some good, young talent, they don’t have the firepower to hang with the Indians for four more months. Minnesota might have the better team in future years, but in 2017, Cleveland has a better roster. The Twins have had a good start to the year, but they’ve failed to gain any real separation on the Indians.
That’s really the problem for Minnesota. The Twins couldn’t take advantage of the Indians when Corey Kluber was hurt. The struggles of Danny Santana haven’t been enough for the Twins to keep Cleveland off of their heels, either.
Minnesota can’t just fix this problem with a good move or two. While the Twins currently have the better record, their run differential (-19) is significantly worse than the Indians’ (+26). Sure, another starter and at least one more reliever would help the cause. But ultimately, Cleveland just has the better team — and it’s not that close.
The Indians have had a lackluster start but sit only one game behind Minnesota in the American League Central standings. If the Twins had a lead of four or five, we could view them more credibly as a playoff threat. But as things stand now, it’s hard to shake the feeling that they’re just placeholders.
NL Central leader: Milwaukee Brewers
The National League Central leaders have a similar problem to their American League counterparts. At the outset of 2017, it appeared as though Milwaukee was in for another rebuilding year. But the Brewers have started strong and sit at 30-27.
But despite that and a major World Series hangover from Chicago Cubs, the Milwaukee is only one game ahead of the champs. That’s a problem.
Which nucleus are you going to take for the next four months? Eric Thames, Travis Shaw, Domingo Santana, Ryan Braun, Chase Anderson and Jimmy Nelson? Or would you go with Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks?
Door No. 2 looks a lot more promising.
If the Cubs didn’t exist, we could point out that the Milwaukee has a shaky bullpen. It’s not quite as bad as Washington’s or Minnesota’s, but a 4.01 ERA is not ideal from your relievers.
Another problem with the Brewers is that they strikeout a lot. Milwaukee’s 558 strikeouts are second in the majors and first in the National League. Teams that thrive in the playoffs tend to put balls in play, pressuring the defense.
But really, we expect the Brewers to be done in by the lack of separation they’ve gained from the Cubs. Chicago has had an awful lot go wrong in 2017, including a recent winless road trip through Southern California.
The Cubs may not be quite the juggernaut that they were a season ago. But by the end of the year, we expect them to be good enough to make up the one game that the Brewers have on them, with room to spare.
AL West leader: Houston Astros
The Astros are loaded. We don’t know how the remainder of the season will play out. But right now it would be fair to say that any team other than Houston winning the World Series would be an upset.
— Climbing Tal's Hill (@astrosCTH) June 5, 2017
Finding flaws on this team is not easy. But let’s do it in another way. Let’s all pretend that we have crystal balls that look into October and can tell that some team will upend the Astros. What’s most likely to have gone wrong to make that happen?
Houston may rely too much on power.
The Astros have stolen only 29 bases, tied for 13th in baseball. As we’ve already gone over, hits and walks can be hard to come by in the playoffs. The depth of starting rotations and bullpens is just not tested as much in the regular season.
Every base runner is a potential rally. If the Astros are going up against a top pitcher having a strong day and manage to get someone on base, can they get that guy around? It’s at least something to wonder about. If nothing else, Houston’s hitters should spend some time through the season’s final four months trying to be more aggressive on the bases.
Now, if you see that and think we’re just nitpicking, know that you’re not entirely wrong. But the Astros are well on their way to the playoffs. We’re now trying to figure out how they can win a World Series. When that’s the goal, nitpicking is a necessity.
NL West leader: Colorado Rockies
In a way, the Rockies are not unlike the Twins and Brewers. They’ve had a surprisingly hot start to the year but have next to no distance between themselves and the Dodgers, who have won the National League in each of the last four seasons.
But Colorado is on track to win 98 games right now. And even if we assume that Los Angeles will eventually win the NL West, the Rockies remain comfortably ahead in the Wild Card race. So, we can treat them like a more legitimate playoff team.
The problem is that, despite playing at Coors Field, Colorado is only 13th in baseball in OBP (.325). Hitting isn’t the problem, either, as the Rockies are fourth in batting average (.267). The problem is that the Colorado hitters can get a little impatient at the plate. They strike out too often and don’t draw enough walks.
The Rockies are 24th in walks (164). Some of that can be attributed to the opposition. After all, if the opposing pitcher is throwing strikes, you’re not going to draw walks.
But Colorado ranks seventh in strikeouts (503). That’s more indicative of the hitters being too aggressive and not swinging at the right pitches.
Now, the lack of walks isn’t always such a killer when the playoffs roll around. Teams that are too dependent on the walk tend to struggle in the playoffs against pitchers that have good command. But hitters who strike out a lot will have similar struggles against those pitchers.
It will be important for the Rockies to become more disciplined. If nothing else, it will get more pitches out of the starters, testing the depth of the opponent’s bullpen. In Coors Field, that’s a recipe for a lot of runs.
AL No. 1 Wild Card: Boston Red Sox
Traditionally, the Red Sox have hit for power. Even when Boston hasn’t been very good, it’s had more than enough power in the lineup to keep opposing pitchers up at night.
But in 2017, the Red Sox are dealing with a power shortage. They rank 29th in baseball with only 53 home runs.
Now, in recent years, a lack of power hasn’t always been a big problem. Teams like the San Francisco Giants have won World Series with anemic power numbers. But the Giants play in the traditionally pitcher friendly AT&T Park and play a good portion of their road games in places like Petco Park and Dodger Stadium. Boston, meanwhile plays at Fenway Park, and has road games at stadiums like Camden Yards and Yankee Stadium.
It’s hard to have a lot of long-term success in places like that when you’re not hitting for power.
Most of these teams can use a good pitching upgrade. That certainly wouldn’t hurt the Red Sox. It’s impossible to have too much pitching.
But if Boston is really going to improve its team, adding some thump into the lineup is the way to do it.
NL No. 1 Wild Card: Los Angeles Dodgers
Statistically, the Dodgers have a good starting rotation. It ranks third in baseball with a 3.52 ERA. But perhaps more than any other team, the success of Los Angeles’ rotation hinges on one guy, Clayton Kershaw.
Does Los Angeles have a great starting rotation, or simply a great No. 1? pic.twitter.com/6YU3kYodef
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) June 6, 2017
It’s not that the Dodgers fall off of a cliff without Kershaw on the mound. The 3.95 ERA would be good enough for sixth best in the league. But since Zack Greinke’s departure, Los Angeles has lacked the solid co-ace that so many other teams have.
The Nationals have Scherzer and Strasburg. The Cubs have Lester and Arrieta, with Hendricks looming. Kershaw can match up to any one of those guys. But who matches up with the No. 2? What happens if Kershaw doesn’t win his start?
It’s not a problem that the Dodgers are unfamiliar with. But if they want to be a team that not only gets to the playoffs but wins once there, Kershaw needs a running mate.
AL No. 2 Wild Card (Tie): Baltimore Orioles
Los Angeles has some starting rotation depth issues but has a real ace atop the rotation. So, if the Dodgers do have to resort to the NL Wild Card Game, they have a better than average chance to advance. The Orioles aren’t quite so lucky.
Who do you fear in this rotation? Which Baltimore pitcher can tell his teammates “Relax guys, I got this?”
Chris Tillman has been the ace in recent years. But he’s having an abysmal season. Dylan Bundy has had a great season. But he’s never thrown more than 109.2 innings in an MLB season. Is he really the guy that the Orioles can depend on through the dog days of summer and into the postseason?
Baltimore is going to have a hard enough time making the playoffs. But to enjoy any success once there, the O’s are going to have to take a chance and bolster the front end of their rotation.
Otherwise, they won’t be playing much (if any) postseason baseball.
NL No. 2 Wild Card: Arizona Diamondbacks
Arizona is not unlike Los Angeles. Greinke is a legitimate No. 1 starter, but after him the rotation is a question mark. The discrepancy isn’t quite as wide with the Diamondbacks. Still, it’s not a rotation with a lot of reliable arms after the No. 1. That could be problematic against some of the more star-studded rotations in the National League.
But Arizona has another lingering issue. The Dodgers can use another starter. But even if that doesn’t happen, they have one of baseball’s best bullpens to lean on. But while Los Angeles ranks second in bullpen ERA (2.70), the Diamondbacks rank 10th (3.72).
That’s not bad by any means. As we’ve already detailed, teams like the Nationals would love to have that. But in a hypothetical playoff series between the two teams, Washington would depend on its starters. Arizona, however, would need a borderline dominant performance from its bullpen.
Does it have that kind of potential?
The good news for many of these teams is that bullpen help tends to be available at the trade deadline. So, there will be opportunities for the Diamondbacks to bolster their bullpen. Arizona’s front office can’t let those chances go.
AL Wild Card (Tie): Cleveland Indians
As we’ve detailed, we expect the Indians to win the American League Central. At the very least, a Wild Card spot certainly seems likely. But this is certainly not a flawless team.
The biggest issue with Cleveland is its offense, and unfortunately, we can’t just single out one area. The Indians are 18th in batting average (.248), 16th in OBP (.324), 14th in slugging (.419), 19th in both home runs (65) and steals (26).
That’s a lot of mediocrity for a team that nearly won the World Series a season ago.
Some of this can be attributed to Edwin Encarnacion, who has been a disappointing signing thus far.
Edwin Encarnacion with runners in scoring position in 2017:
4 double-play groundouts
.106/.259/.234 slash line (5-for-47 overall)
— Zack Meisel (@ZackMeisel) May 27, 2017
But the Indians stole an American League leading 134 bases a season ago. Encarnacion was never going to help in that regard.
Cleveland’s offense dealt with an abundance of injuries in 2016 but still found a way to be formidable. When Plan A didn’t work, the Indians went to Plan B.
In 2017, the offense has been stagnant. It’s hard to imagine what Plans B-Z even are. Cleveland has a lot of talent. But for more than two months (or one-third) of the season, nothing that’s been especially dependable.
Other: Chicago Cubs
We couldn’t not feature the Cubs here. They’re very close to the playoffs and, of course, are the defending World Series champions. While Chicago doesn’t currently hold a playoff spot, it has to be considered a “playoff team.”
The good news for the Cubs is that things seem to be heading in the right direction.
This weekend was the first time the Cubs swept the Cardinals at Wrigley Field since July of 2006. pic.twitter.com/NMVNKXkhKJ
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 5, 2017
The bad news is that before that sweep was a completely underwhelming two months of baseball.
Offensively, Chicago has dealt with many of the same problems as Cleveland in 2017. But the Indians have been able to depend on a lights-out bullpen that has, by far, the best ERA in all of baseball.
The Cubs have had a good bullpen, but it’s been far from overwhelming. The starting pitching has been well below average, especially given the names it features.
Things may be heading in the right direction in Chicago. But the Cubs have a long way to before they can match 2016’s level.