From April to September, it is pretty easy to see what creates a good baseball team. While wins and losses fluctuate over the course of the 162-game marathon, teams with good on-base percentages (yes, teams down with OBP) have the best offenses and teams whose pitching staffs minimize walks and home runs have the best defenses.
But the playoffs are a 19-game sprint and the game changes. There are good reasons for this. Baseball offenses soar during warmer months; all those 3-1 games in April become 7-5 affairs in July and August. It's a lot easier to hold a bat and swing at a hard, small object coming at your body at incredibly high speeds when you're not freezing. Also, the playoffs aren't a microcosm of the league; it's a short list of the league's best. That means teams have No. 3 starting pitchers who are in the Cy Young discussion (like the Cubs' Ryan Dempster). They have set up men that better than the closing pitchers on most teams (like the Dodgers' Jonathan Broxton). The scouting reports are longer and in greater detail, which is why a good hitter during the regular season might lose his stroke come October. It's not the pressure—elite athletes have known pressure since they were very young—instead, some scout noticed a minute weakness and found a way to exploit it.
The best example of this is the 2001 playoffs. During that season, the Seattle Mariners won 116 games to tie a record for the most wins in the regular season. The Mariners did it with an offense that seemed to lead off every inning with men already on base. They scored 927 runs, an astonishing total given that they played 81 of their 162 games at Safeco Field, one of the league's best parks for pitchers. Their high on-base percentage overshadowed the fact that the Mariners were middle of the pack in hitting for power, extra base hits and home runs. Safeco's spacious dimensions limited the number of home runs, but the team was dangerously close to average in the number of doubles they hit, too. With the exception of Edgar Martinez and Ichiro Suzuki, those Mariners fielded a lineup full of average players having exceptional years, and their pitching staff was cut from the same cloth. Only Freddy Garcia and Jamie Moyer have played key roles on contenders since then.
After winning an extraordinary 116 games during the regular season, the Mariners eked past the Cleveland Indians in a five-game first round series and fell hard to an inferior New York Yankees team in the League Championship Series. Those Yanks then lost the World Series to the Arizona Diamondbacks, a team with a pair of shut-down pitchers, Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson, and a lineup that could hit for power. Arizona's 208 home runs ranked them third in the National League. The moral to the story wasn't lost on baseball men and women. Winning in October requires shut-down starting pitching and power hitting.
Most of the teams that have held victory parades since then have followed that model. How do this year's contenders stack up?
The Chicago Cubs are built to make history. They were head and shoulders above the competition in the National League this year, and they are poised for an, ahem, unusually long postseason run. They rank first in the National League in slugging percentage, a metric that measures the number of bases per plate appearance—it's a good shorthand for measuring power hitting. And they have three pitchers, Dempster, Carlos Zambrano and Rich Harden, capable of piling up the three-up-and-three-down innings. I don't put much stock in the stories about jinxes and curses causing Chicago's long record of postseason futility, but if this Cubs team can't make it to the World Series this year, which would be their first trip since 1945, then it will be time to reconsider that position.
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are a smart ballclub. They were in the midst of running away with their division title this summer, when they traded for Mark Teixeira, the best power hitter on the market. They have shut-down starting pitching, a great bullpen and power hitting, thanks in particular to Teixeira and outfielder Vladimir Guerrero. They should be a slight favorite in the American League.
The Tampa Bay Rays may be at this juncture a year early. Three of their top starting pitchers, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza and James Shields, are very good, but they are young and still honing their skills. Their best pitcher, David Price, only joined the club this month after tearing through the minor leagues. The Rays rank eighth in slugging percentage. This year's postseason appearance is probably a preview of a long and perhaps even dominant run at the top for Tampa.
The Boston Red Sox are the sleepers here. Their inability to find a consistently effective fourth and fifth starter and the injuries to slugger David Ortiz, caused a slight drop off this year. However, the Red Sox have a fearsome trio of starting pitchers and an offense that ranks second in the league in slugging percentage. The Red Sox are the defending World Series champs, and this will spark talk about their championship heart, but really it is their championship level ability that will make them tough in the postseason.
As we tumble into the final weekend of the regular season, all of the other teams in the mix have key flaws. None of the other National League contenders have deep enough starting pitching. The Chicago White Sox have the hitting, but two of their three best starting pitchers are probably a year away from being in the elite. The Minnesota Twins are almost always overachieving, but championships are usually won by teams playing at a level consistent with their level of talent.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.