Let's pick a listing of playoff probabilities. Here's one from our colleagues at FiveThirtyEight. Check out that right column. Pretty stark, right?
The numbers aren't significantly different from other leading forecasts and they create a vivid expectation for the playoffs which, incredible as it seems, begin next week. (Seems like spring training just ended.) The expectation I refer to is that we're going to see one of the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees or Houston Astros win it all. According to the numbers, there is a two-out-of-three chance that's going to happen.
Those three power teams have put themselves on a different tier from even the eight other teams still in the running. It has been that way all season. In my own power rankings system, the Dodgers and Astros have ranked among the top three every week. The Yankees have been there for the most part, though they've slid down to fourth or fifth a handful of times during their most injury-laden stretches.
Probabilities are one thing, but what about baseball? After all, the drama to come won't be resolved by a Monte Carlo simulation. The results will be determined by hundreds of discrete moments and managerial choices. The numbers might tell us what ought to happen, but we've all seen too much postseason baseball to view those calculations with any degree of certainty.
The interesting thing about analyzing teams for the postseason is that their universes shrink. The numbers the Yankees put up against the Orioles and Tigers count and in an indirect way, they play into this in terms of figuring into the projections. But we no longer care how the Yankees compare to those bottom-feeders. We only care how they compare to the other teams in the playoffs. And New York has used 53 players to navigate the regular season, but we no longer care about more than half of those names. All that matters is the 25 players the Yankees deem as eligible in each playoff round.
What we're going to look at is a hierarchy of preferred opponents for each of these power teams as they wind their way along their respective paths to the World Series. While doing so, we might seem to get a little hung up on minutiae, but let's not lose sight of the fact that, by and large, the toughest opponent the Yankees will see in the American League bracket, should they meet, is the Astros. After that, it's the Minnesota Twins, and so on. This pecking order has been born out by more than six months of competitive baseball. However, by looking at the strengths and weaknesses of each team, it might give us a notion of the finer points that will play out within each matchup.
I'll be referring to some numbers as the "best" or "worst" and such, which seems self-evident, but keep the context in mind. What I've done is generate simple player-by-player projections for everyone I think will make each team's postseason roster. The projections are based on the past three years of data, all of which I downloaded from TruMedia. If I say something like, "The Astros' collective exit velocity is the second-lowest in the AL," I'm referring only to the teams in the postseason (or still in the running, as the Tampa Bay Rays, Cleveland Indians and Oakland Athletics battle for the two AL wild-card spots). And I'm only making those calculations based on the players most likely to actually appear in the playoffs.
Let's dive in.