In this era of baseball parity, the one thing that anyone can say with certainty is that no one knows which team will win the World Series in a given year. The regular season provides hints and eliminates some possibilities, but when the calendar fades from September to October, predictability goes with it.
Each year before the playoffs begin, ESPN gathers a few dozen experts to predict the outcome of the Fall Classic. This year, it seems the only thing they could agree upon was that neither the Indians nor the Rays had a shot at winning the World Series (they’ll certainly be right about the Indians, who fell in last night’s American League Wild Card game). Every other team was tapped by at least one pundit: Red Sox (10), Tigers (8), Dodgers (5), Athletics (5), Cardinals (3), Reds (2, though both of them would certainly like to take that back now), Pirates (1) and Braves (1).
Part of the explanation for this playoff parity — aside from more competent front offices and greater revenue sharing in the last decade — is the brevity of the postseason. Of course, this is nothing new. The 162-game season has been a part of baseball since 1961 and the three-round, 5-7-7 playoff format has been in effect since 1995. But the growing sense that the league’s best team is often not the one to emerge as World Series champion has given rise to a new complaint about playoff formatting — namely that the five-game first round is too short. But with the all-important, do-or-die Wildcard game having been added just one year ago, it seems that any plans to change baseball’s method of crowning a champion, even the rather far-fetched ones, are a ways away.
So where does that leave us? Attempting to predict the unpredictable. In lieu of offering an official World Series forecast, here are six players that will play a significant role in determining whether their team can run what A’s GM Billy Bean calls “the gauntlet of randomness.”
1. Zach Greinke, Dodgers. The Dodgers’ #2 starter missed a significant portion of the season with a broken collarbone after this epic basebrawl with the Padres’ Carlos Quentin, but has been one of baseball’s best pitchers in the second half (and even better than teammate and surefire Cy Young-winner Clayton Kershaw). Greinke has a 1.85 ERA and .98 WHIP with a better than 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio since the All-Star break, but struggled mightily in his lone postseason appearance in 2011, posting a 6.23 ERA and 1.62 WHIP in three starts. If second-half Greinke shows up for the series against Atlanta, he and Kershaw will form a 1-2 punch that even the powerful Braves (whose 181 home runs were the most in the National League) may not stand up to.
2. Justin Upton, Braves. If the Braves are going to overcome the Dodgers’ formidable starting pitching (which also includes Hyun-Jin Ryu and Ricky Nolasco), Upton will need to be the hitter he was in April and August (.298 BA, .382 OBP, 20 HR) and not the one he was the rest of the year (.247/.327/7). And the Braves won’t be able to rely on his long-lost cousin for any added lineup support. The younger Upton will be especially crucial as the Braves move forward without the highest-paid player on their roster, power-hitting second baseman Dan Uggla. Uggla has been one of the worst position players in all of baseball this year (along with Upton’s older brother B.J., who somehow made the NLDS roster), amassing an OPS of just .671 while fielding at an equally unimpressive level. Without Uggla or the elder Upton in the lineup, the Braves still have Freddie Freeman, Brian McCann, Jason Heyward and Chris Johnson — all of whom have proven solid, dependable hitters throughout the year (at least while fit) — but Upton will likely prove the most crucial of the bunch.
3. John Lackey, Red Sox. Just one year ago, Lackey was an afterthought for the Red Sox. After an abysmal 2011 season, he missed all of 2012 with Tommy John surgery. Lackey was also tied to the beer-and-fried-chicken-in-the-clubhouse “scandal” that torpedoed Terry Francona’s managerial tenure in late 2011. All of this is by way of saying that if the Red Sox got anything out of their $82.5 million pitcher, it would be considered a success. Instead, he gave them 29 starts, a 3.52 ERA, a 1.16 WHIP and a better than 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2013. If Lackey can continuing pitching at that level, he, John Lester and Clay Buchholz would form what should be the strongest playoff rotation in the American League. Well, unless a certain former Cy Young-winner has something to say about it…
4. Justin Verlander, Tigers. For the first time since 2005, Verlander was not the ace of the Tigers’ rotation. Instead, that distinction went to likely AL Cy Young Award-winner Max Scherzer (21-3, .97 WHIP) in 2013. But make no mistake: Detroit will need Verlander to regain Cy Young form if they intend to return to the World Series. Verlander finished the season with a 3.46 ERA and 1.32 WHIP in 34 starts — well off the remarkable numbers he posted in the previous two seasons. The Tigers have one of the league’s best lineups, but likely AL MVP Miguel Cabrera has slowed his torrid pace in September, and slugging first baseman Prince Fielder has had his worst season since his first full season in the majors. A top-form Scherzer-Verlander tandem would give Detroit a serious advantage over Oakland in the first round and would give the Tigers an opportunity to stifle the potent Red Sox offense if the two teams were to meet in the ALCS.
5. Coco Crisp, Athletics. The speedy outfielder is far from the Athletics’ best hitter (by virtually any metric, that distinction belongs to Josh Donaldson), but Crisp has been the sparkplug that’s carried Oakland to the AL West crown. He hadn’t hit more than 11 home runs in a season since 2005, but he finished the regular season with 22, including 12 in August and September alone. His continued potency will be crucial if the A’s hope to keep pace with Boston and Detroit (who own the best offenses in the league). Crisp doesn’t get on base all that often (a .335 OBP this season), so in order for him to contribute for the A’s, he’ll need to continue hitting for power and playing above-average defense in centerfield.
6. Carlos Beltran, Cardinals. Fun fact: Carlos Beltran is the best playoff hitter of all time. Seriously. Go take a look at the numbers, I’ll wait. See that? Yeah, we’re talking .363/.470/.782 splits. Those aren’t Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds numbers, those are better than Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds numbers. Beltran has the best all-time OPS in postseason history (an astronomical 1.252). This is all to say that if there were any justice (or Beltran had ever played in a World Series), Reggie Jackson would have to find a new nickname. Beltran plays for the Cardinals, who somehow always seem to over-perform in October, so it’s a rather fitting pairing. He hit .296/.339/.491 in 2013, which means it hasn’t been nearly the best season of his career, but still pretty impressive for a 36-year-old outfielder. Oh, and he’s probably only the fifth-best hitter on St. Louis, so if he can perform up to his usual October standards, the Cardinals will likely wipe the floor with Pittsburgh before moving on to the NLCS.
But this is still October baseball, which means that really anything can happen between now and the end of the month. Hot players turn cold, and cold players turn hot — all seemingly without explanation or any sort of notice. There’s a reason that the “gauntlet of randomness” moniker has stuck: it’s true. It’s also part of what makes the MLB postseason so special. No long, drawn-out season of attrition to wade through, no dog days of summer to endure. Just 11 games (an even dozen for wildcard teams) and you’re the World Series champions. Let’s get to it.