Asking -- and answering -- the 10 most important playoff questions
The real home-field advantage comes in having Game 1, not Game 5, at home
Reds' Dusty Baker, Yankees' Joe Girardi have tough decisions about pitchers
Giants and Rangers have a chance to end title droughts of at least 40 years
You've come to the right place. This is where you cut through the clutter. All you need to know to get ready for postseason baseball this year -- and the possibility for the most meaningful World Series matchup this side of Cubs-Indians -- is right here: the 10 most important postseason questions.
As an added bonus, you get the answers, too.
1. How important is home-field advantage?
Think it's all about having Game 5 at home? You're wrong.
Game 5 never even gets played 78 percent of the time in the Division Series -- and not at all lately. Baseball is 0-for-its-last-16 when it comes to getting a Game 5.
Overall, there have been only 13 Games 5s among the 60 Division Series in the wild card era -- and having the home field has meant nothing when we do get those rare gems. Home teams are 6-7 in Division Series Games 5s.
No, the real advantage is having Game 1 at home. Why? It's the most important game of the Division Series. The winner of Game 1 is 12-0 in the Division Series over the past three years and 21-3 since 2004.
So if your team loses Game 1, there is only one thing to do. Panic.
2. How will Reds manager Dusty Baker use Aroldis Chapman, the flamethrowing kid whose fastball readings resemble hurricanes and FM stations (105)?
Baker used Chapman out of the Cincinnati bullpen 15 times, but never for more than four outs. He prefers to use Chapman late (nine times in the eighth inning or later) and with a lead (seven times). Left-handed relievers always play a key role in stopping the Phillies (Rockies' Brian Fuentes, 2007; Yankees' Damaso Marte, 2009) because of the left-handed bats of Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Raul Ibaņez. According to game situations, could Baker expand Chapman's role to include an earlier entrance and for more than four outs?
Tie game? Sixth inning? Utley and Howard due? Do you let Chapman run for two or three innings? Interesting call.
3. Will Yankees manager Joe Girardi's pitching decisions pay off?
Girardi was under tremendous pressure because he had no obvious choice after CC Sabathia for Game 2 (which also would line up that pitcher for Game 5). Here were his options:
a) Andy Pettitte: Hasn't thrown more than 88 pitches in a game since July 8 and allowed a .361 batting average against since he returned from the DL.
b) A.J. Burnett: He is the worst starting pitcher in Yankees history among any pitcher given 30 starts (5.26 ERA). Since May 9 he is 6-15 with a 6.16 ERA. His swing-and-miss percentage was a career low.
c) Phil Hughes: In his final eight games he went 3-3 with a 5.30 ERA.
d) Four days of snow in Minneapolis.
Scratch d). The weather looks great in Minneapolis. On Tuesday morning, the Yankees announced that they would go with Pettitte for Game 2 and Hughes for Game 3, leaving Game 4 open for the time being. The best option might have been Hughes. In those past eight games, he at least has held batters to a .229 average, suggesting his stuff is there. But Girardi likely leaned toward experience, gambling that the former version of Pettitte, and not the current one, will help carry him past Minnesota.
4. What AL teams will survive Game 2 (not to mention Game 3)?
If this is The Year of the Pitcher, you wouldn't know it by the Game 2 starters of the AL playoff teams. You would expect postseason series to become out of whack around Game 3 or 4 when you get into dubious starting pitching choices (2009 LDS runs by game: 28, 26, 35).
But this year the fun in the AL begins early. The series get really unpredictable as soon as Game 2, when the Yankees can't feel too comfortable about their options, the Twins count on Carl Pavano, a finesse pitcher who is a bad matchup against lefties (.292 average, .453 slugging), the Rays give the ball to a slumping James Shields (0-4, 7.59 in his past six starts) and the Rangers call for the first career playoff game of C.J. Wilson (1-3, 5.85 since Sept. 1 while going way beyond his previous innings high).
5. Who has a bigger series in the head-to-head matchup of uber-rookies, Buster Posey or Jason Heyward?
Remember the battle between Will Clark and Mark Grace when the Giants played the Cubs in the 1989 NLCS? Though not rookies, Clark and Grace were both 25-year-old first basemen who would get MVP votes that year. Clark hit .650 and Grace hit .647 in a staggering display of hitting. Both the Giants' Posey (.118 in his last nine games) and the Braves' Heyward (.173 in his last 14 with one RBI) ended the season without much production, but both of them are not awed by the big moments and could put on a show.
6. What can the Rays expect from Evan Longoria?
The Tampa Bay third baseman, sidelined with a quad injury, is expected to return to the lineup for Game 1, but he will do so without having played in the previous 12 days. Longoria's bat is always important for the Rays, but especially so in Games 1 and 2 when they face left-handed starters Cliff Lee and Wilson.
7. What are the chances that the biggest surprise team in the playoffs makes it to the World Series?
The Reds, who lost 84 games last year, are the team least likely to have shown up at this party. They are the 31st team in the wild card era to reach the postseason in the year after a losing season. How did the other surprise playoff teams fare? Only six of the 30 (20 percent) reached the World Series. Half of the 30 surprise teams were one-and-done. The Reds get Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels on full rest. They have an uphill climb.
8. What playoff "rookie" will step up?
Posey, Heyward and Chapman probably have no idea how fortunate they are to find themselves in the postseason in their first big league season. But all they need to do is check out the bevy of veterans who logged many years to get their first taste of October: Mike Sweeney, 37 (1,454 games), Francisco Cordero, 35 (685), Michael Young, 33 (1,508), Aubrey Huff, 33 (1,479), Halladay, 33 (346) and Freddy Sanchez, 32 (844).
That's 6,316 combined games worth of patience.
9. Why are the sentimentalists rooting for a Giants-Rangers World Series?
Every generation of fans deserves the joy of a world championship. It's the charitable thing to do, and it would represent a continuation of a baseball's decade of allowing long suffering fans to die happy. The drought-busting trend began in 2002, the last palindromic year in 110 years. Here were the longest droughts without a championship that year, baseball's version of a Bucket List:
|Years Without a Title|
|Starting in 2002|
Since then, baseball has crossed off the White Sox, Red Sox and Angels from that Bucket List -- not to mention the modestly tortured Phillies (28 years), Cardinals (24 years) and Yankees (a whopping nine New York years). You want meaning? It was said that the death rate in New England spiked in the days and weeks after the 2004 Red Sox won the World Series.
Get your defibrillators ready. The updated Bucket List now looks like this:
So there you go. Giants-Rangers isn't exactly the cultural Armageddon that would be Cubs-Indians, but it's the next best thing we have.
10. Can a long-shot win the World Series?
No. But that's a trick question. There is no longshot this year. This is only the third year in the wild card era, and the first time since 2004, in which every postseason team won at least 90 games. Moreover, the eight teams are separated by only seven victories -- the closest bunching of teams in wild card era history.
Yes, of course the teams play different schedules, but when you have played 2,430 games and the eight playoff teams wind up within seven wins of one another for the first time in 16 years, you have yourself a fairly wide open tournament. Enjoy.