It took an extra day of the regular season, plus the usual wild-card games, but Major League Baseball’s division series have finally arrived. The National League is up first, on Thursday, with two Game 1s, but the most compelling matchups will be in the American League.
The difference between the leagues is stark: The Yankees won 100 games and still could not win the American League East. But in the National League, no team hit the century mark. It took only 90 wins for the Atlanta Braves to win the weak N.L. East. In any other year, the division series clashes between the Houston Astros and the Cleveland Indians or the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox would suffice for a satisfying A.L. Championship Series.
Having the best regular-season record is often a curse, as it has often meant little in the playoffs. But last year, the Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers met in the World Series in a showdown of teams with two of the best three regular-season records. The year before, the Chicago Cubs claimed the best record and ended their 108-year World Series title drought.
This fall, could that mean a Red Sox-Milwaukee Brewers World Series?
We’ll see. Baseball is hard to predict. Managerial orthodoxy used during the 162-game season is thrown out the window. Starting pitchers come out of the bullpen. Sputtering players are given less leeway in a five-game series. Strategy and urgency are paramount.
Of the eight teams remaining, the Colorado Rockies, in existence since 1995, have appeared in one World Series, in 2007, and did not win. The Brewers’ lone World Series visit was in 1982, when they were in the A.L. and lost to the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Indians fell to the Cubs in seven games in the thrilling 2016 World Series, and their last championship was 1948. Since then, every other team remaining in this year’s playoffs has won the World Series at least once.
American League Division Series
Yankees (100-62) vs. Boston Red Sox (108-54)
The reasons the Red Sox set a franchise record with 108 wins are obvious: They possess the highest scoring offense in baseball, a strong starting rotation, a capable bullpen and solid defensive play, which is particularly exceptional in the outfield. Designated hitter J.D. Martinez (1.031 on-base plus slugging percentage) may be the team’s most valuable player, but right fielder Mookie Betts (1.078 O.P.S.) may win the A.L. Most Valuable Player Award.
Despite so much regular-season success, the Red Sox face some questions. Chris Sale, their ace starting pitcher, returned from a nagging shoulder injury late in the season only to see his velocity drop alarmingly in his final start before the playoffs. David Price has unconquered playoff demons. The bullpen regressed in the second half. Few relief pitchers proved to be a reliable bridge from the starting pitcher to closer Craig Kimbrel (42 saves).
With the Red Sox and the Yankees facing each other in the postseason for the first time since 2004, count on this series to be another memorable clash of heavyweights. In 19 regular-season meetings, the Yankees handed the Red Sox nine losses. With right fielder Aaron Judge rounding into form after a wrist injury, the Yankees’ offense is just as potent. Bullpens are even more important in October, and the Yankees have shown a willingness to lean heavily on their star-studded bullpen, which includes Dellin Betances, Aroldis Chapman, Zach Britton and David Robertson. That might be the difference in this highly anticipated matchup.
Cleveland Indians (91-71) vs. Houston Astros (103-59)
Just like the Red Sox-Yankees matchup, this matchup feels unfulfilling as a division series. The Astros are the defending World Series champions and returned basically the same team (but with more pitching talent). In the regular season, they scored 263 more runs than their opponents, which was the best run differential in the major leagues and is traditionally a strong indicator of a team’s talent.
With the off-season acquisition Gerrit Cole (2.88 E.R.A.) supplementing Justin Verlander (2.52 E.R.A.), Dallas Keuchel (3.74 E.R.A.) and others, the Astros had the best rotation E.R.A. in baseball. With the addition of Hector Rondon and Roberto Osuna, whose July trade to Houston drew criticism because of a pending domestic violence case, the Astros’ bullpen also posted baseball’s best E.R.A. Injuries slowed several Houston stars — second baseman Jose Altuve, shortstop Carlos Correa and outfielder George Springer — but they are all back for the playoffs.
The series will feature some of the best position players in baseball, from Houston third baseman Alex Bregman (31 home runs, 103 runs batted in) to Cleveland infielder Jose Ramirez (39 home runs, 105 R.B.I.) and shortstop Francisco Lindor (38 home runs, 92 R.B.I.). Cleveland’s Achilles’ heel, its bullpen, improved in the second half, but the Astros still hold the edge there, and most everywhere else.
National League Division Series
Colorado Rockies (91-72) vs. Milwaukee Brewers (96-67)
Based on advanced metrics, these teams’ pitching staffs were basically even, which is hard to believe given the well-known difficulties of pitching in Denver’s high altitude. But through trades, international signings and drafts, the Rockies built a rotation around Kyle Freeland and German Marquez that provided the third-most innings during the regular season. The Brewers, on the other hand, massaged just enough out of their rotation after injuries and turned often to a dazzling bullpen led by Jeremy Jeffress, Corey Knebel and Josh Hader (.132 batting average against).
The Rockies, who recovered from a Game 163 loss to win the N.L. wild-card game, are intriguing because they are led by a powerful left side of the infield: shortstop Trevor Story (37 home runs, 108 R.B.I.) and third baseman Nolan Arenado (38 home runs, 110 R.B.I.), one of baseball’s best all-around players. The Brewers, however, are deeper.
Their offense is driven by outfielder Christian Yelich (36 home runs, 110 R.B.I.), who fell just short of winning the triple crown and is a front-runner to win the N.L. Most Valuable Player Award. His supporting cast includes first baseman Jesus Aguilar (35 home runs), infielder Travis Shaw (32 home runs), left fielder Ryan Braun (20 home runs) and center fielder Lorenzo Cain (.308 average).
A stellar bullpen, a solid rotation and a lineup that can score many different ways may combine to make the Brewers too well rounded to stop.
Atlanta Braves (90-72) vs. Los Angeles Dodgers (92-71)
The Dodgers are a known commodity: They have won six straight N.L. West titles and hope to win their first World Series title since 1988 after falling in seven games to the Astros last year. These Braves are not. After a roster overhaul, they are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
The Braves have youth: outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. (26 home runs), second baseman Ozzie Albies, third baseman Johan Camargo, first baseman Freddie Freeman (.892 O.P.S.), starting pitchers Mike Foltynewicz (2.85 E.R.A.) and Julio Teheran, relief pitchers Arodys Vizcaino and Jesse Biddle (.218 batting average against) are all 29 or younger. They also have a sprinkling of experienced players, from right fielder Nick Markakis to starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez, and one of the best defenses in baseball.
The Dodgers are more playoff-tested, but somehow arrive in the playoffs as an underperforming team that had the best run differential in the N.L. (+194) but needed a Game 163 to claim the division. Their lineup might be more balanced (seven players hit at least 20 home runs, not including the trade acquisition Manny Machado) and their pitching staff deeper (Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-jin Ryu and Walker Buehler posted E.R.A.s under 3.00 despite injuries). But there is something about the energy of the Braves that might prove ripe for an upset.