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The lights shine brighter during the MLB postseason, which can sometimes expose a fatal flaw.
Whether it’s a weak spot in the lineup, a struggling starter or a leaky bullpen, everything is amplified in October, when every out is an all-out battle.
The Boston Red Sox, Houston Astros, Los Angeles Dodgers and Milwaukee Brewers are the four teams left standing as the ALCS and NLCS are set to begin.
Those four teams combined to win 399 games during the regular season, but they aren’t without out potentially fatal flaws.
Below is a look at two notable areas that could derail each of the four remaining contenders in their quest for a World Series title.
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Most of the time, a standing ovation from the home crowd during pregame introductions is a special moment.
Unfortunately for Boston starter David Price, his standing ovation came in New York, as Yankees fans applauded him on the heels of another rough postseason outing in Game 2.
The Yankees chased Price after only 1.2 innings, and the big left-hander with the $217 million contract now has a 6.03 ERA in 10 career playoff starts. He’s allowed 63 hits, 40 earned runs and 13 home runs in 59.2 innings in a starting role, tallying only four quality starts.
“I know I’m more than capable of winning games as a starter in October,” Price told reporters after his disastrous Game 2 start. “That’s what I look forward to doing.”
To his credit, Price did pitch well in a relief role last October after dealing with injuries for much of the second half, racking up 6.2 scoreless innings in his two appearances, but the Red Sox are counting on him to fill a rotation this October.
Nathan Eovaldi (7.0 IP, 5 H, 1 ER) and Rick Porcello (5.0 IP, 4 H, 1 ER) both pitched well in their ALDS starts, so manager Alex Cora could do some shuffling for the ALCS. But even Price’s his next start is pushed back, the Red Sox will need to call on him for at least one start in the ALCS.
At that point, they’ll need the guy who went 16-7 with a 3.58 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 177 strikeouts in 176 innings during the regular season to show up.
“He pitched great the second half and down the stretch,” Red Sox slugger J.D. Martinez told reporters. “He’s a huge piece of our success and why we’re here. I still have confidence, I think everybody has confidence in David. It’s one of those things where he made a couple mistakes and that was that, really.”
For the Red Sox to knock off the Astros, Price needs to avoid those mistakes against a dangerous lineup.
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The Red Sox finished ninth in the majors in bullpen ERA (3.72) during the regular season, but closing out games was not always a walk in the park.
Setup relievers Matt Barnes (21 G, 6.41 ERA) and Joe Kelly (30 G, 4.50 ERA) both struggled in the second half, and the team became increasingly reliant on rookie Ryan Braiser in high-leverage situations.
Closer Craig Kimbrel was once again one of the best in the business at slamming the door in the ninth with 42 saves, but he wasn’t immune from struggles, either. He blew five saves and his ERA (1.43 to 2.74), WHIP (0.68 to 1.00) and walk rate (1.8 to 4.5 BB/9) all moved in the wrong direction.
He converted both of his save chances during the ALDS, but both proved to be an adventure. He allowed two hits, two walks and three earned runs in his 2.1 innings of work for a gaudy 11.57 ERA.
Kimbrel was able to tightrope his way out of danger against the Yankees, but he might not be so lucky against Houston. The Astros finished third in the majors with 190 runs scored in the eighth inning or later.
Red Sox pitching coach Dana LeVangie thinks his All-Star closer can make some tweaks, as he told Rob Bradford of WEEI.com after Game 4 of the ALDS:
“We talk about some things that I feel like he does when he’s pretty consistent. He got away from it a little bit tonight. There was extra effort and energy, which you could all see. But he does one thing that I feel like in his delivery that kind of locks him in and allows him to ride the slope down, he wasn’t doing it tonight, so we’ll talk about it moving forward.”
The Red Sox have the high-powered offense to build an early lead, but they’ll need the bullpen to do their part in protecting it.
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The Houston Astros have already announced Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole as the Game 1 and Game 2 starters in the ALCS, respectively, which comes as no surprise.
Dallas Keuchel got the nod in Game 3 of the ALDS and threw the ball well, allowing four hits and two earned runs in five innings for a no-decision. He’ll assuredly get another start in the ALCS, but the Astros will still need a fourth starter for the first time this postseason.
On paper, Charlie Morton is the obvious choice after he turned in a career year. The 34-year-old went 15-3 with a 3.13 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 201 strikeouts in 167 innings to earn his first All-Star nod. But if his next start comes in Game 4 on Oct. 17, he’ll have thrown only four total innings over the past month.
He left his Sept. 23 start after just one inning with shoulder discomfort, although he returned with three scoreless innings on Sept. 30 with no further issues. That’s a long layoff, but the veteran doesn’t sound worried.
“I’ve done plenty of throwing this year, so I don’t need to do a whole lot,” Morton told Jerome Solomon of the Houston Chronicle, who noted that he will throw a 40-pitch simulated game Thursday to try to stay fresh.
To his credit, Morton has a 3.71 ERA in 47 career starts when he’s pitched on six or more days of rest—significantly lower than his 4.23 career ERA.
The Astros are not counting on Morton to be anything more than their No. 4 starter, but he could still prove to be a major X-factor. If he’s chased early, it could change the complexion of the series.
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The Houston Astros led all of baseball in batting average (.282), OPS (.823) and runs scored (896) on their way to a World Series title in 2017.
This year’s lineup has still been dangerous, finishing sixth in the majors in runs scored (797), but it hasn’t been the same lethal top-to-bottom group that we saw a year ago.
Alex Bregman and Tyler White enjoyed breakout seasons, Jose Altuve was his usual productive self and George Springer picked up right where he left off last postseason with three home runs in the ALDS.
However, a number of other key players notably declined:
- Carlos Correa (2017): .941 OPS, 24 HR, 84 RBI
- Carlos Correa (2018): .728 OPS, 15 HR, 65 RBI
- Marwin Gonzalez (2017): .907 OPS, 23 HR, 90 RBI
- Marwin Gonzalez (2018): .733 OPS, 16 HR, 68 RBI
- Yuli Gurriel (2017): .817 OPS, 18 HR, 75 RBI
- Yuli Gurriel (2018): .751 OPS, 13 HR, 85 RBI
- Josh Reddick (2017): .847 OPS, 13 HR, 82 RBI
- Josh Reddick (2018): .718 OPS, 17 HR, 47 RBI
- Catchers (2017): .785 OPS, 33 HR, 103 RBI
- Catchers (2018): .673 OPS, 19 HR, 62 RBI
It could wind up being a non-factor, as the Astros had no trouble generating offense during the ALDS with 21 runs in three games. Still, it could emerge as a potential flaw.
There’s no question the Astros have the pitching to make a serious run at defending their title. That’s critical, because this is not the same offensive juggernaut we saw a year ago.
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The Los Angeles Dodgers led the National League in runs scored (804), OPS (.774) and home runs (235) during the regular season, and they plated 20 runs in four games against the Atlanta Braves in the NLDS.
However, their clutch hitting numbers are less than stellar.
During the regular season, they batted .253 with runners in scoring position—13th in the majors—and those numbers don’t necessarily paint an accurate picture of how things currently stand.
Matt Kemp did most of that damage (42-for-119, .353 BA, 64 RBI), but he cooled off considerably in the second half and now finds himself in a platoon-role facing almost exclusively left-handed pitching. The rest of the team hit .243 with runners in scoring position, which would have been 24th in the majors.
Furthering that point, the Dodgers then hit only .179 (5-for-28) with runners in scoring position during the NLDS.
Again, we’re talking about the highest-scoring offense in the NL.
Scoring chances figure to be few and far between against the Brewers in the NLCS. If they fail to capitalize, it could spell disaster.
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It speaks to what a revolving door the Dodgers late-inning relief situation has been that only two pitchers—Tony Cingrani and Scott Alexander—tallied at least 10 holds during the regular season on a 92-win team.
Manager Dave Roberts went with the following six relievers around closer Kenley Jansen and long man Alex Wood during the NLDS:
- Scott Alexander
- Pedro Baez
- Caleb Ferguson
- Dylan Floro
- Ryan Madson
- Kenta Maeda
He also has a few alternatives to consider for the NLCS roster:
- Tony Cingrani
- Josh Fields
- Ross Stripling
- Julio Urias
Dodgers relievers finished eighth in the majors with a 3.72 ERA during the regular season. However, there’s no Brandon Morrow among this year’s relief corps—a setup reliever the team turned to in all seven games of last year’s World Series and 14 times total during the postseason.
Madson has been a dominant setup option in the past, Maeda has seen his stuff play up out of the bullpen and Baez has been a reliable eighth-inning guy in past seasons, so the Dodgers have no shortage of options at their disposal.
Still, if there’s one thing that could stand in L.A.’s way of a return trip to the World Series, it’s the bullpen.
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If the 2018 postseason ends with a Brewers championship, there will be no title winner in MLB history less reliant on starting pitching.
An easy comparison can be made between this year’s Brewers and the Kansas City Royals squads that reached back-to-back World Series in 2014 and 2015, with a lights-out bullpen being the most obvious common thread.
The three-headed monster of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland was lethal for the Royals and helped pave the way for the current bullpen revolution.
However, those 2015 champions also got huge performances from starting pitchers:
- ALDS Game 5: Johnny Cueto (8.0 IP, 2 H, 2 ER)
- ALCS Game 1: Edinson Volquez (6.0 IP, 2 H, 0 ER)
- ALCS Game 6: Yordano Ventura (5.1 IP, 4 H, 1 ER)
- WS Game 1: Edinson Volquez (6.0 IP, 6 H, 3 ER)
- WS Game 2: Johnny Cueto (9.0 IP, 2 H, 1 ER)
- WS Game 5: Edinson Volquez (6.0 IP, 2 H, 1 ER)
It’s hard to envision anyone on the Brewers staff pitching into the eighth inning.
Their bullpen-centric approach has worked to this point, so it’s hard to poke holes in the plan. But until we’re shown otherwise in the form of a World Series run, the narrative that a team can’t win a title without quality starting pitching will live on.
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The Brewers are in danger of burning out their all-world relief corps in the pressure-packed, high-stress postseason environment. That goes hand-in-hand with the previous point on the starting rotation’s limited impact.
The Milwaukee bullpen (15.1) tallied more innings than its starters (12.2) during the NLDS, and that trend will likely continue.
The question is: How much further they can be stretched?
Josh Hader led all NL relievers with 81.1 regular-season innings, and Jeremy Jeffress was close behind with 76.2 frames. Fellow setup reliever Corey Knebel tied for the NL lead with 15 September appearances.
Rookies Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff are also in uncharted territory regarding frequency of use, as both were primarily starting pitchers before this season.
The Brewers will go as far as their bullpen takes them. The unit is good enough to lead a title push, but if the relief corps run out of gas, it could also derail Milwaukee’s World Series aspirations.
All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted.