The day after the American League starts with their sets of division series, we get the chance to watch the National League, where most of MLB's dominant teams played in 2015. The Senior Circuit featured the only 100-win team from the season, while also posting two really strong wild cards that would have been worthy division champions anywhere else. It is safe to say that whoever emerges with the NL Pennant has the talent to overcome the fact that the AL has home-field advantage in the World Series.
After the Cubs rode Jake Arrieta's red-hot momentum, the field is set in the NL. Today we make our traditional picks and predictions for what should be two fascinating series.
Mets (90-72) vs. Dodgers (92-70)
Game 1: October 9th @ Los Angeles
On paper, a matchup like Dodgers-Mets is everything we hope for when the playoffs arrive. There are 3,000 miles between franchises that have very little in common, except for the fact that they both have some of the best pitchers baseball has to offer. However, while the Dodgers are built on their largesse and the league's most bloated payroll, the Mets emerged from obscurity to surprise everybody and win a division that they weren't supposed to contend for. Both franchises are built to win for many years, but for very different reasons.
And as we will be able to feast on the historic backdrop of Dodger Stadium and the faux-retro sights of Citi Field, these teams will battle for the chance to advance to the NLCS and a possible title that has been denied for both of them since the late 80's. The Dodgers have to shake off many years of coming up short in the NLDS, while the Mets are probably just happy to be here for the first time since 2006, evoking memories of Carlos Beltran's called strike three.
If we hold back to the adage that pitching wins championships, both of these teams should be well-suited to have high expectations. For starters, the Mets finished seventh in baseball in pitching WAR, with the fourth-best ERA, and ninth-best strikeout rate. In those same categories, the Dodgers ranked second, fifth, and fourth, respectively. Just looking at the probable pitching matchups for the first 3 games of the series makes every baseball fan salivate with excitement:
Outside of Anderson, who is mostly an above-average but limited lefty, the other five guys on the list are legitimate stars at the least and transcendent pitchers at their best. To make things even more riveting, we have the storylines to match the hype. The Matt Harvey innings limit drama looms over the Mets, who also will get the chance to test all of their young aces at a precocious age in their development. On the other hand, Kershaw gets another crack at breaking his playoff demons, while Greinke just posted a Bob Gibson-esque ERA and too has postseason matters to solve.
With two teams so evenly matched on the pitching side, a lot of the fate of their chances will have to rely on a couple of offenses that were uneven for most of the season. By weighted runs created, the Dodgers were the third-best offense in baseball, while the Mets were 12th. Los Angeles was blanked 12 times by their opposition, while the Mets were shut out 15 times and even suffered a couple of no-hitters against them. Playing mostly in pitcher parks, LA hit 187 homers, while the Mets hit 177, even as that number was boosted by a memorable second-half run.
This is the point where the Mets can stake a claim for a real advantage over the Dodgers, as their season numbers are mostly dragged down by what used to be a bad offensive squad at the beginning of the year. After the All-Star break, the Mets hit the fourth-most homers in all of baseball, with a top-5 offense fueled by the acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes, the eventual return of David Wright and Travis D'Arnaud, and the promotion of prospect Michael Conforto. The Mets went 43-30 in the second half due to this resurgence, while the Dodgers fell a bit behind in the offensive department as the season progressed.
Los Angeles was 13th in runs scored among NL teams in the second half of the season, while being sixth in homers and fifth in weighted runs created. It will be interesting to see how the experienced bats of Adrian Gonzalez, Chase Utley, and Justin Turner blend in with the young guns that are Corey Seager, Joc Pederson, and the potential return of Yasiel Puig to present a serious threat to New York's power pitching.
Both teams should be even in terms of their bullpens and their managers, so while the Dodgers have a slight advantage with their two uber-aces, the Mets can claim to have the better offense. The Mets won the season series 4-3, but the Dodgers were tied for MLB's best road record at 55-26, and they of course have home-field advantage, while New York went a middling 41-40 on the road. Having said that, the last two months of the season showed the Mets at their very best and with a special kind of magic that cannot be explained. On the other hand, the Dodgers show up to the playoffs with their yearly set of heavy expectations, and the pressure to finally deliver what their lofty payroll calls for.
It may seem foolish, but I'm going with the intangibles in what should be a memorable series. It is time for the end of LOL Mets.
The Pick: Mets in 4
Cubs (97-65) vs. Cardinals (100-62)
For the third time in the past five seasons, the Cardinals get to face a fellow NL Central team in the postseason, and this comes after the franchise posted its first 100-win season since 2005. They seized control of the Central since mid-April and spent 175 days in first place, all but securing a playoff spot by late July and finishing the season in strong fashion to stave off the Pirates. The Cardinals did not excel in a single category or have a candidate for any major award, but they were certainly the best at being constant.
St. Louis only had 5 losing streaks of at least 3 games, but never lost more than 4 in a row. They went 32-23 in one-run games and 22-16 in games decided by at least five runs. They won 55 games at home and 45 on the road, and won at least 15 games each calendar month of the season. They had a winning record against each team they faced at least six times, except for the Padres and Braves (which is just plain weird). They finished ninth in baseball in position player WAR, and sixth in pitcher WAR, but they also had the only staff with a sub-3 ERA. All in all, the Cardinals were probably a bit lucky in terms of sequencing and expected record, but they also set themselves in favorable positions all year long.
Now they get to face the red-hot Cubs, who went 23-9 in September/October, beat the Pirates in the NL's play-in game, and have the hottest pitcher on the planet. The Cubs may have the momentum, but they also won't have Jake Arrieta ready to start Game 1. While that means that they resort to Jon Lester as a Plan B, it just can't give Chicago the same level of confidence as having their Cy Young candidate. As it stands today, Arrieta should be available for Monday's Game 3 at Wrigley Field, while Lester, Kyle Hendricks/Jason Hammel, and a bipolar bullpen try to steal at least one game at Busch Stadium.
That will be the key for a team that still has to rely too much on its enviable cast of rookies. Kyle Schwarber was the offensive force that pushed Chicago in the wild card game, while Kris Bryant made a couple of nifty plays after shifting back to third base. The win served as the perfect microcosm of everything the Cubs do well: hitting for power, avoiding mistakes, and power pitching. Chicago finished fourth in offensive WAR and first in pitching WAR, so they are sure to give the Cardinals a tough battle that is built on familiarity.
2010 was the last time the Cubs took the season series from St. Louis, as again in 2015 the Cardinals went a solid 11-8 against the Cubs yet again. And even with their decades-long rivalry, this is the first time that they will face each other in the postseason. This series promises to be full of history, multiple storylines, and a great match of wits between the progressive Joe Maddon on one dugout and old-school Mike Matheny on the other. Even as the Cardinals will lose iconic catcher Yadier Molina for the playoffs, they have more than enough talent across the roster to maintain their October dominance.
Seeking for a fourth straight trip to the NLCS, St. Louis counters Chicago's top-heavy rotation with a stream of steady above-average arms that include John Lackey, Michael Wacha, Lance Lynn, and Jaime Garcia, along with an experienced and versatile lineup that knows how to win in October, and a home-field advantage that was tied with the Dodgers as the best in baseball. The Cubs have the talent and the inspiration, but they remain untested at this stage and get to meet their historical nemesis. Much like it happened with the Red Sox against the Yankees, maybe they need to lose bitterly a few times before getting over the hump.
The Pick: Cardinals in 5