But enough about golf. We're one day away from playoff time. This year, I'd like to pick a perfect playoff bracket. I came one series away last season, incorrectly choosing the Dodgers over the Phillies in the NLCS, so I think I'm ready. Without further ado, let's begin.
Reds vs. Phillies
I was digging up some stats yesterday and found that in 60 5-game playoff series' since the wild card round was instituted in 1995, the team winning game one has gone on to win the series 43 times. That's good for 72%. Teams who lose game one on the road have only come back to win the series 7 times.
Everything else aside, game one is in Philadelphia, and matches Roy Halladay against Edinson Volquez. Is there any way the Phillies drop this one? Any way in hell? I can't see it. Halladay has been a stud all year, and he's my pick for NL Cy Young. Volquez has 62 innings pitched for the entire season, and an ERA of 4.31. Granted, his last four starts have been excellent; since September 11, his ERA is 1.95 and his opponent BA is .183. He has 31 strikeouts in 27 innings.
But his opponents were not quality, and momentum aside, I don't like how he matches up against Halladay in Philadelphia. Game two isn't much better, with Roy Oswalt facing Bronson Arroyo. Again, the stats are heavily in Oswalt's favor. This is another game where it would surprise the hell out of me if Cincy won.
Offensively, these are the two best teams in the league in runs scored. The Reds are slightly better in every category, and on paper they're the tougher out. But pitching wins titles, and the slight differences in batting prowess won't tip the balance. When in doubt, always go with the pitchers, especially when they have home field edge. I'm predicting three early wins for Halladay, Oswalt, and Hamels.
The Pick: Phillies in a sweep.
Here's how the top 3 pitchers on the Braves stack up in ERA:
1) Tim Hudson, 2.83
2) Tommy Hanson, 3.33
3) Derek Lowe, 4.00
Here's how they're lined up for the Giants series:
Game 1: Derek Lowe
Game 2: Tommy Hanson
Game 3: Tim Hudson
Hanson and Hudson had to pitch on Saturday and Sunday, respectively, in order for the Braves to clinch. That means they're unavailable for game 1, which looks, on paper, like an advantage for San Francisco.
But maybe it's not. One strategy I've always thought of, but that's never been used, is to hide your #1 pitcher until game 2. Especially if the other team's ace is better than yours. Last year, for example, in the World Series, maybe Girardi could have decided that Cliff Lee was too good. So why waste your ace, CC Sabathia, on a game he can't win? Why not throw some wild card in game one, maybe your #4, hope for something great, and then have your ace ready for game 2? It also gives you a numerical edge for each game besides game one, using the pitching ladder. So after the lopsided #1 vs. #4 match-up, you have three straight games of advantage: your #1 vs. their #2, your #2 vs. their #3, your #3 vs. their #4 (or you force them to pitch their #1 again on short rest). Makes some gambling sense, right?
In last year's case, a good argument against the move is that it would have prevented CC from pitching three games. But in a 5-game series, the game 2 starter can pitch game 5 if it becomes necessary. Why not hold him back?
This year, the Braves are doing it by accident. Because Lowe has to pitch, their two best arms won't go until games 2 and 3, when they'll be facing starters who are lower on the rungs of the pitching ladder. Doesn't this feel like a series where they maybe drop game one, but come back hard and win the next 2? That puts the Giants in a really tough spot for game 4. Do they throw Lincecum again on short rest? Do they hold him back for game 5 and pray to steal one in Atlanta?
I think this scenario is highly, highly possible. With the Braves holding a distinct offensive advantage, and the Giants limping into the playoffs after nearly blowing their lead to San Diego, I'm casting my lot with the tomahawk chop.
The Pick: Braves in 4.
Rangers vs. Rays
Game one is so, so important for the Rays. Texas has a chance to come back if they lose the opener, but Tampa does not. With Cliff Lee sitting in wait for a potential game 5, and the Rangers holding a starting pitching edge, a loss at the Trop would spell disaster for the AL East champs.
And it all comes down to Price vs. Lee, which is going to be fantastic. The offensive comparison is basically a wash; Tampa has more runs and RBI, while Texas leads in hits, average, home runs, total bases, OBP, slugging, and OPS. Actually, looking at the stats, it's kind of amazing that Tampa somehow has more runs. The number that somewhat explains is this OPS+ with RISP, which is on-base percentage plus slugging with runners in scoring position as compared to the league. A number higher than 100 means you're doing better than the league average. Tampa Bay has 115, while Texas is at 99, just shy of the league average. So the Rays, despite trailing in most stats, are more opportunistic.
But the middle stretch of games will be tough for Tampa. After Price, their staff of Shields, Garza, and Davis have not been lighting the league on fire. Texas will trot out CJ Wilson for game 2, and Colby Lewis for game 3. Both men will hold a statistical advantage.
This series is really, really hard to pick for me. Tampa, like the Yankees, are limping into the playoffs. The Rangers clinched their division a long time ago, and are in the playoffs for the first time since they served as Yankee doormats in the late '90s. In the end, you have to really believe that Price can beat Lee not once, but twice, if you want to pick Tampa. I don't see it happening.
The Pick: Rangers in 5.
I spent a long time yesterday listing reasons why the Yankees can't win a playoff series. Here were my three main reasons:
1) Trends: The Yanks have only won 1 series against a team with a record above .500 since July.
2) Starting pitching: after CC, we're really up in the air.
3) RISP hitting: we're the only American League team in the playoffs with a negative split in RISP hitting average, meaning we hit worse with runners on base than when with the bases empty.
As for trends, I'm still very concerned. It just cannot bode well that we're 1-7-3 in series against 'good teams' over the last two months. But Minnesota, though they had a nice hot streak in August and early September, are 3-9 in their last 12. It's not like they're a red-hot comet trailing fire. Both teams have been unimpressive in the playoff approach. No distinct edge here.
As for starting pitching, Minnesota is just as unreliable as the Yanks. Their "ace," Liriano, isn't as strong as CC. Pavano will have an edge over Hughes or Pettitte in game 2, and ditto for Duensing in game 3. But it's not a huge advantage. And really, Blackburn vs. Burnett in game 4 could go either way. I still believe game 1 is paramount, but I'm not as strident in thinking we can't come back from an opening loss anymore.
As for RISP hitting, my argument was flawed. I relied exclusively on batting average, a dumb rookie mistake. I knew batting average was overrated in terms of individual performance, so why would I think it was useful to measure team RISP hitting? The folks on my Yankee message board showed me the error of my ways. When it comes to hitting with runners in scoring position, OPS+ and opportunities created are a much better measure of production. The Yanks have a split OPS+ of 109, while the Twins are at 108. We're actually better with runners in scoring position, and we create more opportunities, which is we've scored a league-high 859 runs to their 781. RISP hitting is no longer a big worry for me. Thanks, stats!
So, in light of yesterday's pessimism, I'm feeling much better. I have no reason to believe CC won't beat Liriano tomorrow night. I have no reason to believe our offense won't explode at least once in games 2-4. I have no reason to believe our experience and our history of beating Minnesota won't be worth its weight in gold. I have no reason to think the defending World Champions are going down without a fight. Also, why am I being a total coward? It's the postseason, baby, time to get my Yankee arrogance on! Check the pick, BEEYOTCH.
The Pick: Yanks in 4. FORGET ABOUT IT, Minnesota, you simpleton Scandinavian mouth-breathing yokels.