After six months of regular season baseball, we are down to only 10 teams and a month to determine the 2015 World Series champion. And yet, in a matter of two days that select list will be reduced to two squads following the winner-take-all Wild Card games in each league. Even as this format is still controversial and a bit cruel, there is no way to deny that the drama of each game is riveting and a great start to the postseason, as we get to see a couple of Game 7-like vibe from the teams trying to advance to the real playoffs.
2015 will be just the fourth year under this format, which has already produced its share of memorable moments. Home teams are 2-4 in Wild Card games, with a -14 run differential. Out of the six teams that have advanced from the Wild Card to the Division Series, three lost promptly, one more advanced to the Championship Series (2012 Cardinals), and two made the World Series. Of course, those two came in 2014, when the Royals first defeated the A's in one of the most dramatic games in recent memory, and then the Giants shut out the Pirates in the game that started the legend of Madison Bumgarner.
After San Francisco won it all last season, could one of our current 4 wild cards go all the way? That may be too early to tell, as it all begins with two must-watch contests that seem compelling and very evenly matched. While every playoff series deserves a detailed analysis of team-wide stats and trends, the Wild Card round provides the benefit of focusing on a single game and make a quick prediction while prioritizing the probable starting pitchers.
Today we begin our 2015 playoff coverage with our analysis and picks for the Wild Card round. By the way, the end of the season made my preseason over/under picks go 16-14, 10-5 in the National League and 6-9 in the American League, so let's hope the playoff predictions go a little bit better.
Astros (86-76) @ Yankees (87-75)
Dallas Keuchel vs. Masahiro Tanaka
Tuesday, 8PM Eastern
To begin the postseason, we have a matchup that few would have predicted when the season began. The host Yankees were projected to be a .500 team in a tough AL East, but instead rode surprising comebacks from many veterans to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2012. The Astros were called to have another development year in their ambitious rebuild, but instead found precocious performances to make the playoffs for the first time since 2005. The unlikely pairing poses the winningest team in baseball history against one of the few franchises that is yet to win a World Series.
One of the storylines for this game is how both teams stumbled to the finish line, as the Yankees went 15-16 after August, while the Astros almost blew the whole thing with a subpar 13-16 September/October. A strong final week secured New York's home-field advantage for this game, while the Astros staved off the Angels for the final spot in the American League. Both teams were able to save their best pitcher for this matchup, as it pits two of the most intriguing pitchers in the Junior Circuit.
The Yankees will start Masahiro Tanaka, who had a tough sophomore year in the majors, but still posted above-average results despite pitching the season with an elbow injury. Tanaka's workload was administered to have only 24 starts and 154 innings, which should prove beneficial if the Yankees can advance and make a playoff run. Tanaka saw his strikeout numbers decline and his ERA jump a bit, but he was still New York's most valuable rotation piece and is a deserving starter for this game. The Japanese righty went 7-4 at home with a 3.51 ERA, but he had a tough time on the only start against the Astros (which came in Houston), a no-decision coming off six runs allowed over 5 innings.
The Astros counter with Cy Young candidate Dallas Keuchel, who led the AL in wins, innings, ERA+, and WHIP. After posting a strong 2014, the 27-year-old produced one of the biggest leaps of 2015, with his steady mix of ground balls being aided by a good defense and a revamped strikeout rate. Keuchel earned his first All-Star nod and finished 2015 as the third-most valuable hurler in the AL. He was much better at home (15-0, 1.46 ERA) than on the road (5-8, 3.77 ERA), but he dominated the Yankees in two starts against them, with 16 scoreless innings and 21 strikeouts.
The Yankees do have a clear advantage considering that they went 45-36 at home, while the Astros posted the worst road record among playoff teams (33-48), which actually doubles as the worst road record in the American League. The season series between the teams ended with Houston going 4-3, with the Astros winning two out of three in Yankee Stadium.
With the Yankees presenting a lineup without Mark Teixeira and with clearly diminished bats like Alex Rodriguez and Brian McCann, I'm picking the Astros to take advantage of their healthy and young offense to overcome the lore of Yankee Stadium and the hard times they went through in September. Even as Houston is probably not ready to make a deep playoff run, they have the talent and the better pitcher to set up a date with the Royals.
The Pick: Houston
Chicago Cubs (97-65) @ Pittsburgh Pirates (98-64)
Jake Arrieta vs. Gerrit Cole
Wednesday, 8PM Eastern
The Pirates will host their third straight Wild Card game, while the Cubs are back in the postseason for the first time since 2008. Any kind of Cubs playoff appearance comes with the possibility of breaking the century-long curse, but paired with the 2015 Back to the Future premonition, a pitching matchup for the ages, and division rivals pitted against each other, this game holds the promise of being the most anticipated Wild Card game since the concept was created.
The other interesting aspect of this game is that we are seeing the second and third-best teams in terms of record from all of baseball, but they were relegated to the Wild Card because of their status as NL Central teams that had to play behind the 100-win Cardinals. Even as it all may seem unfair, we can enjoy what promises to become a memorable game that could be decided by the smallest of details.
The Cubs start Jake Arrieta, who could be the front-runner in the NL Cy Young conversation. The right-hander led the NL in wins and innings pitched, but that undersells just how dominant he has been in the second half of 2015. In 15 starts after the All-Star break, Arrieta went 12-1 with a 0.75 ERA and a 0.727 WHIP. He pitched a no-hitter at Dodger Stadium, while his lone loss came when the Cubs were no-hit by Cole Hamels. This run is one of the most dominant in recent baseball history, and it should be equally scary for the Pirates that Arrieta went 3-1 with a 0.75 ERA against them over 5 starts. Even as the Cubs have a suspect bullpen, Arrieta could be expected to go the full game to give Chicago the best chance to win.
The Pirates counter with Gerrit Cole, who looked like a Cy Young candidate early on and ended up settling as a top-10 pitcher in baseball on his age-24 season. Cole's development has led him to become Pittsburgh's definitive ace and the clear choice for the must-win game. He finished with career-bests in ERA, WHIP, innings, and walk ratio, and he presented no visible split between his performance at home and on the road. Cole was also solid versus the Cubs in 2015, with a 2-1 record and 2.13 over 4 starts.
This matchup is so evenly matched that it all comes down to what you believe is more important in this kind of game. The Cubs may have the hotter pitcher, but the Pirates have a much more experienced roster than Chicago, who has rode a precocious lineup full of talent, but who are also untested in October baseball. The Pirates also have a much better bullpen in case Cole runs into any problem, while both managers also are regarded as some of the best in the business. The Cubs won the season series 11-8,
The more I see this game, it looks a lot like the 2012 NL Wild Card that had Atlanta starting Kris Medlen and his scorching hot second-half run against the Cardinals. Medlen just couldn't replicate his performance in the biggest stage, and even as the Braves were felled by the infamous infield fly rule fiasco, much of the blame was shouldered upon Medlen. With a raucous crowd in PNC Park and the possibility of exacting revenge on the Cardinals in the NLDS, I like the Pirates to pull the mild upset in a low-scoring affair. The Cubs are building a possible perennial contender, but their time in 2015 is about to end.
The Pick: Pittsburgh