On paper, it sure looks like the Philadelphia Phillies will be the National League representative in the Fall Classic. For fans outside the Northeast, it’s a good thing the game isn’t about who’s best on paper. As the San Francisco Giants proved last year, you don’t need to have an all-star lineup to deliver in the postseason. What you do need is dominant starting pitching and a lights-out bullpen going into and during the playoffs, which the Giants had over all playoff teams last year.
Before the postseason started in 2010, I picked the Giants over the Rangers in the World Series simply by looking at which staffs were both hot and consistent from top to bottom going down the stretch. The Giants’ staff was dominant in September, posting an 18-8 record, 1.74 ERA and a downright nasty .182 BAA for the month. Being a believer that good pitching always beats good hitting, it seemed like a safe bet, and the Giants didn’t disappoint me.
As we head into the dog days of summer, it will be interesting to see if the current contenders will hold serve and move forward. If the playoffs started today, the Phillies, Braves, Brewers and Diamondbacks would represent the NL and the Red Sox, Yankees, Tigers and Rangers would lead the way for the AL. Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Atlanta have all but clinched their trips to the postseason, and the only real surprise so far is Arizona, which mostly has benefitted from San Francisco’s up-and-down season.
The Giants would be a serious threat to repeat – but only if they win the NL West. It’s hard to believe they’re even struggling given the competitiveness of their division rivals. But when you’re at the bottom of the heap in offensive productivity, it’s much harder to win games over the long haul.
What about Philadelphia, you say? Currently, the Phillies lead the majors with a 3.09 ERA, 78 quality starts and 1.17 WHIP. The Giants are second in all three categories with a 3.19 ERA, 77 QS and a 1.22 WHIP. The Phillies have the fourth-best BAA in baseball at .241, and the Giants lead the majors at .230. And while the overall bullpen stats favor the Giants, the Phillies have the best save percentage in baseball, with only three blown saves in 39 opportunities (92%). It’s pretty close to a toss-up when you look at the stats. The reason the Giants aren’t in the same dominating-team conversation as the Phitin’s, is they have one of the worst offenses in all of baseball. Which, as they proved last season, doesn’t necessarily hurt you once you make it to the dance. If the Giants survive the regular season, I’d put them near the top of my title-contenders list. Given the extremely poor run production, though, that’s a mighty big if.
So, if not the Phillies or Giants, who makes it to the World Series in the NL? Don’t count out Milwaukee. Since the All-Star break, the Brewers (19-8) have the second-best record behind the Phillies (20-7) and own the best team ERA at 3.04. They are currently the hottest team in baseball, winning 14 of their last 16 heading into Saturday’s game with Pittsburgh, and they’ve outscored their opponents 88-45 in the process.
And for all you Braves fans out there, I’m not counting Atlanta out. Strong pitching is the key to Atlanta’s success thanks to an oft-injured and inconsistent offense. The Braves bullpen is one of the best in baseball, but they will only be successful in the playoffs if the starters go deep. In the first half of the season, Atlanta had an MLB second-best ERA — 3.11 to Philly’s 3.02 — but since the break, the staff has a meandering 19th-best 4.29 ERA. If the Braves bats perk up and the starters settle back into first-half form, they have a legitimate chance to shine in the postseason.
There’s still plenty of time for teams to get hot or cool off, but I’ll always stick to the “pitching wins in the postseason” mantra. Whatever team dominates on the mound in September will be the best bet to represent the NL in the World Series. Right now, my money is on the Phillies, but I won’t be surprised if Milwaukee sneaks in the same way the Giants did last year.