While other contenders jockey for playoff position, the Yankees, Astros and Dodgers have clearly established themselves at the top of the standings -- and as the teams everyone will be trying to knock off come October. We asked Bradford Doolittle, Sam Miller and Jeff Passan to go deep on this year's Big Three by picking which of the trio is the team to beat, identifying potential postseason weaknesses and choosing between the three -- or the rest of the playoff field.
Which of baseball's Big Three is best built for October: the Yankees, the Dodgers or the Astros?
Sam Miller: I'll go with a very specific angle here: In October, the percentage of pitches faster than 95 mph just about doubles (better pitching staffs, more innings going to the best pitchers on the staff, more innings thrown in relief). The Dodgers are hitting .305/.398/.563 against such pitches, the best slash line in baseball. They have the second-best contact rate on those pitches, and they have the lowest chase rate. The Astros have a good contact rate but so-so chase rate and terrible slash line, and the Yankees have a great slash line but a so-so contact rate and terrible chase rate. When I've looked in the past, this has appeared to be a real skill for hitters -- not just a fluke split that swings wildly from year to year -- so I'm taking this one at face value: I think the Dodgers' offense is ready to hit October pitching in a way that no other team's is.
Bradford Doolittle: The Astros' post-deadline roster is pretty close to perfect, whether it's for October or any other month. Playoff baseball is always uncertain, but I'd take Houston's roster against anyone right now.
Jeff Passan: My head says the Astros. My head also says the Dodgers. Both can mash. The Astros have more top-end talent. The Dodgers are deeper. Both have (slight) questions about their bullpens -- L.A. slightly more than Houston. The Dodgers are a better fielding team, and the Astros are no slouches. Even though 49.7% of October innings last year came from bullpens, which is the sort of thing that could give the Yankees some hope, the Yankees' starting pitching prevents it from standing shoulder to shoulder with Houston and L.A. And between them, the answer is -- (flips coin because the randomness of October and the almost dead-evenness of these juggernauts renders any guess about as good as metal spinning in the air) -- tails. I mean, the Dodgers.
Which of the three will finish the regular season with the best record?
Miller: Probably the Astros. At Baseball Prospectus, there's a more complex version of run differential called third-order winning percentage, which measures a team's underlying offensive and defensive performances to estimate what percentage of games it "should" win. Through Sunday, the Astros and Dodgers were tied with the best third-order winning percentage since at least 1950, which is as far back as third-order winning percentage goes. Both are relatively healthy, and either is a great answer here, but the Astros have the second-weakest remaining schedule in all of baseball. They should be able to pile up wins against out-of-it teams.
Doolittle: The Astros are playing like a team that might just about be finished losing. They have the best roster and the easiest remaining schedule among the three. Got to go with Houston.
Passan: The Dodgers. Because they're really good, yes, but also because they play in the National League, and it's really not, and now that I think about it, I'm glad the coin went for the Dodgers because the path to the American League pennant is absolutely treacherous compared to the Dodgers'.
Do you think the Yankees and Dodgers will regret not making a deadline splash like the Astros did?
Miller: The obvious, unhelpful answer is that they won't if they win the World Series, and they will if they don't. But both teams have a recent history of making big additions at the trade deadline. The fact that they didn't make big moves this year isn't cowardice or an overly risk-averse philosophy, but, presumably, it shows that the pieces that would have helped them were simply too expensive and too costly to the likely World Series runs in 2020 and 2021. I'm sure each team knew exactly what it was losing by being inactive but made the choice with all the information available. So I'll say no.
Doolittle: I'm not too worried about the Yankees, but if they had known Greinke-to-Houston was a possibility, subverting that would have been a worthy goal. The Dodgers have arms with which to work, but since Kenley Jansen isn't throwing like a back-of-the-pen anchor these days, the L.A. bullpen is a giant question, and it's pretty shocking that wasn't more thoroughly addressed before the deadline.
Passan: The Yankees' starting pitching is a real liability, and their not supplementing it leaves them open to reasonable second-guessing. The only place the Dodgers needed to upgrade was their bullpen, and, well, wait a couple of questions, and you'll see why it's just fine.
Is the Yankees' starting pitching enough of a weakness to doom them in October?
Miller: It might turn out that way, but isn't enough of a weakness to guarantee doom. Just a few months ago, Paxton/Severino/Tanaka/German would have looked like one of the best rotations in the majors, and I'm not down on recent developments enough to say it won't look like that again a couple of months from now. Anyway, with their bullpen, the Yankees will need to get only about 12 outs per game from their starters. I actually like the Yankees' pitching situation going into October.
Doolittle: Yes and no. If the Yankees lose, it figures to be because the starters struggle and New York isn't able deploy its powerful bullpen in service of protecting leads. But the starters New York has are good enough to win -- or at least there's enough track record to believe that they are.
Passan: Possibly. Aaron Boone is smart and creative enough to work around the deficiency with his bullpen, though of the Big Three's hitting, fielding, starting pitching and relief pitching, the Yankees' starting pitching is almost certainly the single weakest facet. Their best starter this season has been Chad Green ... and he's an opener. Among the classic starters, Domingo German leads the staff with a 3.96 ERA, Masahiro Tanaka is the likeliest to start Game 1 and sports a 4.64 ERA, and James Paxton -- the presumed third starter among the available options -- is allowing 1.74 home runs per nine. Which, by the way, is still better than CC Sabathia and J.A. Happ, who are at more than two homers per nine apiece. The return of Luis Severino would be a blessing; it's also increasingly difficult to see him getting properly stretched out in time for the postseason. And Deivi Garcia, the Yankees' next big thing? If he joins the team, it's going to be in relief.
What about the Dodgers' bullpen?
Miller: It might turn out that way, but the Dodgers have so much depth -- organizationally and in the major league starting rotation -- that it won't surprise me when they end up with seven reliable bullpen arms in October, including, say, Dustin May and Kenta Maeda and Ross Stripling. The other thing to keep in mind is what the Red Sox did last year: aggressively using starters on their throw days or at the start and end of each series. The Dodgers have so much talent to throw at any situation and are so creative about using their depth that I have a lot of confidence they'll find somebody who can work must-win innings in any must-win game.
Doolittle: Can Julio Urias and Dustin May be fashioned into multi-inning hammerlocks? If so, can Kenley Jansen provide end-of-game certainty? Will Pedro Baez ever just throw the damn ball? A team as good as this just shouldn't have this many questions regarding a key ingredient of October success. But all you have to do is look at last year's Red Sox to see how far you can go with a shaky bullpen if you're willing to be creative.
Passan: Kenley Jansen is not the Kenley Jansen we've long known and marveled at. But the idea that the Dodgers' bullpen is going to be a liability in October just doesn't compute. Kenta Maeda and Rich Hill are likely to join it, especially if Dustin May continues to look good in the rotation. If he reaches an innings cap and needs to move to a relief role, Tony Gonsolin or Ross Stripling could take the fourth-starter spot behind Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler and Hyun-Jin Ryu. Julio Urias will find himself in the mix somewhere, as should Pedro Baez. And watch out because Joe Kelly since June 1: 21⅔ innings, 32 strikeouts, one home run, 1.66 ERA. Plus, there's Casey Sadler (who has been excellent since coming over from Tampa Bay), Yimi Garcia, Scott Alexander, Adam Kolarek and Victor Gonzalez. That's 14 non-Kershaw, non-Buehler, non-Ryu guys -- in other words, plenty for the Dodgers to mix, match and exploit.
And the Astros. Umm, nothing? Does Houston have a weakness that we're not noticing yet?
Miller: Even their best pitchers allow a lot of home runs? Home run rates in small samples are inherently a little bit fluky and can disproportionately affect the outcomes of games? A couple of warning-track fly balls could go 4 extra feet, shift a couple of games and knock the better team out of a five- or seven-game series? That's probably the easiest way to imagine this team losing. Say Verlander has an outing like he had on June 12 (seven innings, four hits, three earned runs, zero walks, 15 strikeouts, three homers allowed) and Cole has one like he had on July 12 (6/5/4/2/13 with three homers allowed), and each takes a loss despite absolutely dominating most of the game.
Doolittle: If Houston makes the World Series, it can then slot the rotation so that Zack Greinke (.883 OPS this season) starts in the NL park. The Astros would even have THAT advantage -- a better hitting pitcher. No. Apparent. Weakness.
Passan: Perhaps it's too early to call this a weakness, but considering his spectacular meltdown in Game 3 of the ALCS last year, it's at least worth mentioning Roberto Osuna's struggles of late. He has allowed runs in six of his past 11 games -- just one apiece in the first five before a three-run implosion against Baltimore. He has yielded six home runs -- more than in the past two seasons combined. Really, this is nitpicking, especially because Ryan Pressly is a perfectly acceptable option should Osuna falter, but if there's one potential issue with the Astros, this is it.
With three teams that are so close at the top, who is one October difference-maker on any of the three that people might not know about yet?
Miller: Gio Urshela started the year in Triple-A, with a career major league OPS just south of .600. That's about what he's slugging this year. We all keep waiting for this to correct, but after he homered on Monday, the Yankees' unexpected third baseman was hitting .387/.418/.871 in the second half.
Doolittle: I don't know that there are any under-the-radar players on these teams. Even the Yankees' voodoo magic with their injury fill-ins has gotten so much attention that now the Gio Urshelas and Mike Tauchmans are widely known. I guess because he's a rookie, fans might not have quite gotten into Houston's Yordan Alvarez. What he has been doing at the plate as a 22-year-old is borderline criminal.
Passan: It took well over a century for a player who called himself Will Smith to ascend to the major leagues. Among those given the birth name William Smith, there was Bill Smith, who played for the winless 1873 Baltimore Marylands, and another Bill Smith, who got three at-bats for the Cleveland Blues in 1884, and one more Bill Smith, whose best year came with the pedestrian 1962 Philadelphia Phillies. Finally, in 2012, along came Will Smith, left-handed reliever, and he has been a beacon for William Smiths everywhere. But in truth, he was just a placeholder because Will Smith -- the 24-year-old who in the middle of a potentially historic Dodgers season brute-forced his way into the starting catcher position -- is the goods. He hit two more home runs with his powerful right-handed swing Tuesday, upping his career total to nine in 71 at-bats and continuing to earn every bit of the Fresh Prince nickname bestowed on him.
Also: Yordan Alvarez is awesome, and he needs to be in the Home Run Derby next year, please.
Given the choice between the Big Three or the entire rest of the field in October, which would you take?
Editor's note: Caesars Sportsbook currently has this bet at Yes -280 (one of the three will win it all) and No +240 (someone other than the three teams will win it all).
Miller: The Big Three. FanGraphs' odds have their combined World Series chances at about 60%, and that doesn't factor in that none of the three has to face either of the other two until at least an LCS.
Doolittle: From a probabilistic standpoint, it would be one of these three teams. The current combined chance (per FiveThirtyEight) for these teams to win the Series is 66%. That said, we've seen the power seeds largely play up to form the past few Octobers. In a way, we might have started to forget just how much of a crapshoot the postseason really is. This might be the season when a hot team such as the Indians or (cough, cough) the Mets shocks us all.
Passan: Math says take the Big Three. It's great when math agrees with instinct. Sorry, field.
If a team other than the Astros, Yankees or Dodgers wins it all, which is the most likely champion?
Miller: The best pick has to be an NL team, just because an AL team will quite possibly have to defeat all three of these teams to win it all. Give me the Nationals' starting rotation and a miraculously improved bullpen (miracle still to come) as the best alternative -- if they can get past the wild-card game.
Doolittle: From an overall talent standpoint, you'd point to Atlanta. I still like the additions the Braves made to their bullpen, even if they have backfired so far. It seems like there are too many quality arms in that organization for the Braves to not be able to piece together a coherent October staff. Anyway, all of the likely top seeds in the NL have bullpen questions, and one of them has to emerge. The Braves are my sleeper pick.
Passan: The Braves' pitching concerns me. The Cubs' unsteadiness remains troubling. I'm not buying the Mets. Any AL team is going to need to beat the Yankees and the Astros, and that's a herculean task. That leaves the Nationals, whose lineup and starting pitching match up awfully well with the Big Three. Yes, Washington's bullpen long has been made of Zippos and gasoline, and the trade deadline helped only slightly, but the Nats might well be the best of the rest.