Tonight, the Major League Baseball playoffs begin with the National League Wild Card Game, a Game which will not include the St. Louis Cardinals, who won the National League Central division. In case you hadn’t heard.
For any Cardinals fan, those particular games are going to be the highlights, the times where you schedule your life around watching, attending, or listening to games and hope that The Scheduling Gods give you games that aren’t in the middle of a weekday (so far, things turned out could’ve-been-worse, with Thursday’s game scheduled at 4 or 5, depending on tonight’s outcome, and Friday’s starting around 3:30). But the entire postseason tournament is thrilling. Last year, even with the Cardinals absent and the Boston Red Sox winning their 857th championship since 2004, it was still fun. Here is my prediction for how the playoffs unfold.
NL WILD CARD GAME: Milwaukee Brewers at Washington Nationals. There was a perception down the stretch that the Milwaukee Brewers were literally unbeatable, that they had developed magical powers that left them immune from baseball defeat. And then they got swept by the Colorado Rockies. This doesn’t make the Brewers a suddenly bad team, but it demonstrates that weirdness happens and the best you can do when making predictions is pick the strongest, most likely option. And given the choice between a loaded Nationals lineup with two MVP-caliber players in Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto, with arguably baseball’s best pitcher in Max Scherzer, and a Brewers lineup lacking MVP Christian Yelich and with Ryan Braun, Mike Moustakas, and Lorenzo Cain struggling with injuries and starter Brandon Woodruff strong but not quite Scherzeresque, it’s hard not to pick the Nationals. Anything can happen but the mere threat of chaos isn’t enough to pick against Max Scherzer.
AL WILD CARD GAME: Tampa Bay Rays at Oakland Athletics. The co-aces of the Houston Astros (more on them later) have obscured the excellent season of Rays starter (and former Astro) Charlie Morton, who should find himself on Cy Young ballots this year. Athletics starter Sean Manaea has been awesome as well—in five starts. While I would probably give Oakland the slight edge in terms of lineup, and their home field is underratedly hostile for big games, I’m a sucker for whichever team has the ace, hence I’m picking the Rays.
NLDS1: Washington Nationals at Los Angeles Dodgers. Hoo boy, now THIS is a first round series. No team can compete with the sheer depth of the Dodgers—in addition to presumptive MVP Cody Bellinger and a laundry list of above-average position player starters, they have viable names like Chris Taylor and Our Old Friend David Freese waiting on the bench—but in terms of starting potency, the Nationals come close. The Nationals, by virtue of the Wild Card Game, can’t pitch Max Scherzer on full test twice this series, but the drop off to Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin can be weathered. That said, the Dodgers can roll out Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, and Hyun-Jin Ryu. It’s close but it’s hard to not pick the Dodgers.
NLDS2: St. Louis Cardinals at Atlanta Braves. One of the weirdest tropes I saw on Sunday was the volume of people who didn’t want Jack Flaherty pitching in order to save him for one of the potential one-game playoffs (either for the NL Central title or the Wild Card Game). As a result of the decision to pitch him (his typically excellent performance probably didn’t impact the end result of a Cardinals division title), however, he gets two starts in the NLDS, neither of which is against the best pitcher on the Braves, Mike Soroka, who has already been slated for Game 3. And while Dallas Keuchel, Mike Foltynewicz, Max Fried (Flaherty’s high school teammate, a fun fact you’ll get sick of hearing), and Julio Teheran aren’t pushovers, Flaherty is better, and I like the Cardinals lineup relative to a Braves lineup that has three potential land mines in Freddie Freeman, Josh Donaldson, and Ronald Acuna, but otherwise is somewhat average. This won’t be an easy series for the Cardinals, but in a short series, I’m usually inclined to pick the team with the best pitcher, so I’m taking the Cardinals.
ALDS1: Tampa Bay Rays at Houston Astros. While anything can happen in the playoffs, sometimes you just have to play the percentages, and the Houston Astros employ Zack Greinke, a top ten pitcher in baseball this season, as their third starter. Even when the Rays get to deploy their ace, Charlie Morton, or defending Cy Young winner Blake Snell, neither will be the best pitcher going that day. Even if the Astros had a mediocre lineup (they, um, don’t), the Rays with the possible exception of Austin Meadows aren’t in the same offensive class as what Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Greinke bring on the other side. Astros win.
ALDS2: Minnesota Twins at New York Yankees. The Yankees have had an interesting season, as they’ve been carried by wildly unexpected performances (if you saw Gio Urshela coming, I commend you) but still managed 103 wins. But in the case of the Yankees, they may, somewhat paradoxically, have too much depth. Having 25 good position players is not particularly helpful once the playoffs start, when nearly half of them won’t get a sniff of the roster. The Yankees have an excellent bullpen, but the starting rotation for the Yankees is shockingly ordinary. Meanwhile, the Twins have the kind of quick-strike offense that can punish the mediocre starters. The Twins won 101 games, have eight 22+ home run hitters, and have arguably the two best starters in the series in Jose Berrios and Jake Odorizzi. History says the Yankees destroy the Twins in October, but those were different teams. In a mild upset, I’m taking the Twins.
NLCS: St. Louis Cardinals at Los Angeles Dodgers. If I picked the Cardinals to win it all, you’d call me a homer. If I picked them to get throttled by the Braves, you’d call me a performative fatalist. So take the fact that I’m picking the Dodgers as a sign that, hey, the Cardinals are going to the NLCS! Flaherty can still steal a game or two for the Cardinals, but I can’t in good conscience pick Dakota Hudson, Adam Wainwright, or Miles Mikolas to outduel any of the Dodgers’ big three.
ALCS: Minnesota Twins at Houston Astros. Remember a few years ago when the Astros emerged and their pitching was an afterthought? In 2019, their lineup has become almost forgotten, despite the fact that their lineup is unfathomably strong. The Astros have easily baseball’s best infield (its worst hitter, Yuri Gurriel, had a higher wRC+ this year than Nolan Arenado or Ronald Acuna), and the emergence of Yordan Alvarez has taken the Astros to a whole new level in 2019. I’m picking a 2017 World Series rematch.
WORLD SERIES: Los Angeles Dodgers at Houston Astros. While I would, subjectively, prefer to see the Cardinals in the Fall Classic, this series should be amazing. This matchup already produced one of the better recent editions of the World Series two years ago. And if all goes according to plan, if the series goes seven, 10 of the 14 starting pitchers will have been in the top dozen pitchers in baseball this season by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement. And that doesn’t even include Clayton Kershaw, who is still moderately great. This is a series we have earned for the boring superteam regular seasons. My personal preference would be for the Dodgers to win their first title in 31 years (St. Louis has a more recent title in three of the four major sports; I feel bad for LA), but everything the Dodgers do well (and they do a lot well), the Astros do better. The Dodgers had an MVP candidate emerge in Cody Bellinger; the Astros got an even better season out of potential AL MVP Alex Bregman. The Dodgers have a terrific young shortstop in Corey Seager; Carlos Correa found his stroke again in 2019. The Dodgers have Kershaw-Buehler-Ryu; the Astros have Verlander-Cole-Greinke. This Astros team might be the best baseball team I have ever seen. I can’t not pick them.