After the Astros made quick work of the Yankees (nailed it!), the AL's playoff picture is settled to leave us with four teams that are ready to rewrite history. After all, the 4 franchises have gone a combined 159 years without a World Series title, as both Texas teams have never lifted the trophy and the other two combatants have featured long droughts.
With two riveting series set to begin, who will come out on top and reach the ALCS? Today we make our picks and predictions.
Rangers (86-76) vs. Blue Jays (93-69)
Game 1: October 8th @ Toronto
The first series pits two teams that followed similar paths to October, built on strong offenses to exploit hitting-friendly home parks. By the All-Star break, the Rangers were 42-46, while the Blue Jays were 45-46. Both of them were still pretty much in the hunt for a wild card, but aggressive midseason pickups and stumbles from their respective division foes helped Texas and Toronto run away with the West and East, respectively.
But even as they had similar situations, there is a reason why Toronto was 7 wins better than Texas. While the Rangers were third in baseball with 751 runs scored, that was still 140 fewer than Toronto's output, as the Blue Jays achieved a truly historic offensive season in their own right. Toronto led the AL in runs, homeruns, WAR, slugging, and even on walk rate, as their offense was way ahead of the pack in most of these categories. Texas was good following many performance rebounds, but still far behind what the Jays presented.
Even as it is always said that anything can happen in a short series, it is hard to not pay attention to the potential difference in each team's talent level. By run differential's expected wins, the Jays are a 102-win team, while the Rangers were lucky and should have won 83. By BaseRuns, Toronto was 10 wins worse than their record, while Texas was 5 wins better. With the Jays becoming the favorites to take the AL pennant, it would seem as if this series is just a step in their way.
However, the Rangers do have some weapons to counter what Toronto has to offer. It all starts with an underrated rotation, which finished 11th in the AL in ERA, but pitched much better at the second half of the season after acquiring Cole Hamels. Yovani Gallardo is slated to start Game 1 following his impressive bounce-back season, while the rest of the slate can be decided with arms like Martin Perez, Colby Lewis, and Derek Holland. All of them will be tasked with stopping the best offensive team of the last decade.
The Rangers also were the best road team in the AL, and have a rookie manager in Brian Bannister who is now a candidate for Manager of the Year after his unlikely guidance to a division title. It is important to remember that the Rangers improved by 21 wins despite missing ace Yu Darvish for the whole season, and that they essentially have nothing to lose going forward. With Shin-soo Choo, Adrian Beltre, Prince Fielder and Mitch Moreland leading the offense, the Rangers can at least go toe-to-toe if any game turns into a slugfest.
But when you compare these teams man to man, the Blue Jays come out on top almost every time. Toronto's rotation finished fifth in the AL in ERA for the year, but they jumped to second following the mid-season break and the acquisition of David Price. With Price pitching like an ace, RA Dickey regaining his devastating knuckleball, Marco Estrada becoming the team's unsung hero, and Marcus Stroman making a quick recovery in time for the playoffs, suddenly Toronto is no longer a one-dimensional team that relies only on its offense. The bullpen may be a bit untested, but the Jays have the rotation to provide many innings every game and limit what the replacements have to pitch.
At this point, rehashing the offense's accomplishments seems redundant. Instead, let's take time to recognize how cool it will be to finally see Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion playing in the postseason following a combined 2,756 regular season games without sniffing October. They will be flanked by MVP front-runner Josh Donaldson, the timely return of Troy Tulowitzki, and Russell Martin´s experience. Toronto´s lineup goes 9-deep in quality hitters, and they will be a tough task for even the best pitchers in the playoff field.
The Blue Jays led the season series 4-2, and it will be special to see Rogers Centre all fired up for playoff baseball after a 22-year drought that followed Joe Carter's memorable homer. The Rangers took advantage of many factors to win their division, but their underlying numbers suggest that they were a bit lucky to do it. Toronto has a different vibe and serious aspirations to go all the way. While I am always in favor of long, dramatic series, this will not be the case.
The Pick: Toronto in 3
Astros (86-76) vs. Royals (95-67)
Game 1: October 8th @ Kansas City
The Royals all but secured the AL Central title by late July, while the Astros stumbled in September, clinched a playoff spot in the final day of the season, and had to beat the Yankees only to secure their ALDS hopes. And yet, this matchup looks fascinating due to the contrast of styles between these teams and the front offices that run them.
The Astros are the ultimate all-or-nothing team, featuring the AL's highest strikeout rate, while also finishing second in homers and in slugging. On the other hand, the Royals struck out less often than anybody else in baseball by a considerable margin, and their 139 dingers were 91 fewer than what the Astros produced. And yet, the Royals only scored 5 fewer runs than the Astros, so both approaches worked in their own ways.
Also, while the Royals needed a decades-long rebuilding project that finally blossomed with a World Series run in 2014, the Astros took it to an extreme path that saw them lose at least 100 games every year from 2011 to 2013, improve somewhat in 2014, and then surprisingly become a contender in 2015 with the impressive collection of young talent that they had accumulated over the years of dreadfulness. The Royals have followed a more traditional old-school approach, while Houston has been a frontrunner in MLB's analytical revolution.
Their divergent paths have led them to this collision at the highest stage, where the Royals will try to prove that last season was no fluke. They have the advantage of clinching early and being able to set their rotation as they think it´s best. Game 1's assignment has been handed to the mercurial Yordano Ventura, who had a great second half after a rough start to the year. Game 2 falls on the hands of Johnny Cueto, who is auditioning for a big contract in the offseason and has to hope his late-season struggles are a thing of the past. Edinson Volquez will start Game 3, which may not guarantee much except for the fact that the Royals again have a super bullpen.
Even after closer Greg Holland was lost for the season, manager Ned Yost has an enviable amount of talent at his disposal. Kelvin Herrera and Ryan Madson would be closers anywhere else, Kris Medlen is a nice wild card to have for long relief situations, and Franklin Morales should be able to handle lefties, while Wade Davis is the new closer following two straight seasons with an ERA of 1 or below. Just like it happened last postseason, the Royals will surely rely on their starters giving them as little as five innings before handing the game to the relief corps, where they can shorten up any game better than anybody else.
The Royals also have a massive advantage on defense, where they were the best team in the AL by far (their 56.9 defensive rating was 33.9 points higher than second-place Cleveland), while the Astros ranked below average across the board.
Houston's rotation is yet to be officially announced, but it all seems set for Collin McHugh on Game 1, Scott Kazmir on Game 2, and ace Dallas Keuchel having to wait until the series goes to Houston following his impressive win in the wild card game. Considering Keuchel's domination at home, that sounds like a good idea. McHugh was solid with a 3.89 ERA, while Kazmir disappointed after he was traded to the Astros mid-season, but he still has the stuff to produce a quality outing.
Houston's bullpen did a good Kansas City impression for most of the year, but fell apart in September as the Astros came close to a collapse. In September, the relief corps posted a league-worst 5.63 ERA, losing 10 games as many of its most important contributors tired. If the Astros are to have any chance, the bullpen has to recoup its true level of play. Outside of Keuchel, it would be hard to envision any Astros starter going more than 7 innings, so the bullpen will come into play early and often for Houston.
The Astros won the season series 4-2, but they also posted a league-worst 33-48 mark on the road, while the Royals went 51-30 at Kauffman Stadium. In the end, that gap in performance may be too much to overcome for an Astros team that has virtually no playoff experience. The Royals are clear favorites after the solid season they just finished and what they did in last year's playoffs, and they should be able to advance. And yet, I don't think it will be easy. This series promises to be dynamic, with lots of offense, and bullpens ultimately deciding much of the outcome.
The Pick: Royals in 5