MLB Playoffs 2022: X-factors for ALDS and NLDS, including Bryce Harper’s thumb and Yankees supporting cast

The first weekend of the 2022 MLB postseason is in the books. The new best-of-three Wild Card series only brought us a Game 3, but it was eventful and we also got to see a stunning seven-run comeback and The 15-inning game ends with a walk-off homer. All things considered, it was an excellent weekend of postseason baseball.

The four winners of the Wild Card Series advanced to the Division Series and will face the four teams that earned first-round byes – the division winners with the two best records in each league. Here are the games from the Division Series:

American League

National League

Travel is back in the Division series. Each game in the Wild Card Series was played on the home court of the higher seed. The usual 2-2-1 format returns for the Division Series, with Games 1 and 2, as well as a potential Game 5, being played at the higher season stadium. That means postseason baseball is guaranteed to be played in Seattle for the first time since 2001.

Here is the full postseason schedule. All four games of the Division Series begin on Tuesday, so it’s another full day of postseason action. Here are two X-factors — one obvious and one less obvious — for the four division series matchups. Let’s dive in.

Atlanta Braves vs. Philadelphia Phillies

Obvious X-factor: Harper’s thumb. An errant fastball broke Bryce Harper’s left thumb on June 25, and the break was severe enough to require surgery. Harper returned on August 26, but wasn’t himself, slashing .227/.325/.352 with just three home runs in 35 games the rest of the season. He went 2 for 7 with a home run in the Wild Card Series — the home run was his first pull in right field since the thumb injury — and it’s hard to see how the Phillies can beat the defending World Series champions without Harper as a key contributor. Hitting the ball over the fence isn’t the only way to help your team, but it certainly helps.

A less obvious X-factor: The Braves and the bottom of the zone. No surprise here, but the 101-win Braves were one of the best offensive teams in baseball this year. As a unit, their offense ranked eighth in batting average (.253), ninth in on-base percentage (.317), first in slugging percentage (.443) and second in home runs (243). Maybe the batting average and on-base percentage aren’t truly elite, but the power certainly is. Atlanta can mess with anyone.

Braves hitters are especially gifted at doing damage on pitches in the bottom third of the strike zone. It’s hard to get those pitches up and do more than hit a ground ball with the eyes. Here are the MLB averages in different parts of the strike zone:

Upper third

.243

.418

Middle third

.301

.523

Lower third

.268

.429

The high belt is the happy zone. The top of the zone is tough – that’s usually where hitters see the most velocity – and so is the bottom of the zone. But not for the Braves. Their hitters led baseball in batting average (.310) and slugging percentage (.528) on pitches in the bottom third of the zone, and by a lot. The Dodgers are second at .289 and .477, respectively.

Get down in the zone and the Braves will make you pay. And of course, the Phillies hit the zone more than any team in the postseason this year. Their pitchers threw 17.8 percent of their pitches in the bottom third of the zone during the regular season, or nearly one in five. A few Phillies individual teams pitch to the bottom of the zone even more often:

That’s two starters and two high-leverage relievers (Eflin has closed games since returning from a knee injury in September) who regularly attack the bottom third of the zone, a spot where Braves hitters thrive. What do you do if you are Phyllis? Ask your pitchers to trade and not do what got them to the NLDS? This sets your players up for failure. I’m not sure what the adjustment is, but Philly’s pitchers have had success throwing one way, and it just so happens that Atlanta’s hitters do well against that style of throwing.

Cleveland Guardians vs New York Yankees

Obvious X-Factor: Yankees hitters other than Judge. I don’t know how the Guardians plan to attack Aaron Judge, but he’s the closest thing we’ve seen to Barry Bonds since Bonds. I say that in the sense that Judge doesn’t have much to hit these days, but all he can hit is a laser. He lacks nothing. If Cleveland bypasses Judge, then Anthony Rizzo, Giancarlo Stanton, Gleyber Torres and others will have to make them pay.

A less obvious X-factor: Cleveland’s current play. No postseason team has stolen more bases (119) or attempted more stolen bases (146) during the regular season than the Guardians, and only the Dodgers have a higher stolen base percentage (84 percent to 82 percent) . Only the no-hitter Tigers hit fewer home runs than Cleveland during the regular season. Keepers rely on stolen bases to help generate offense because they rarely produce one big swing to put hits on the board.

The Yankees, meanwhile, were one of baseball’s most effective teams at shutting down the running game. They were one of the worst teams in preventing steals in 2021. but thanks to an effort led by third base coach Luis Rojas, the Yankees now hold the opposition in control of the bases as well as any team in the game. A few numbers:

SB allowed

86 (9th in MLB)

49 (fewest in MLB)

SB attempts vs

103 (8th place)

77 (third lowest)

Caught stealing percentage

17% (2nd worst)

36% (2nd best)

It will be power vs. power in the ALDS. This is an aggressive stolen base team against arguably the best team at limiting stolen bases. If Cleveland can break through and steal some bases, they will be in good shape offensively. If the Yankees shut down the running game, the Keepers could have serious trouble putting runs on the board given their lack of power.

Houston Astros vs. Seattle Mariners

Obvious X-Factor: Demons in Seattle’s Minute Maid Park. As the underseed, the Mariners must win a game in Houston to win the ALDS. And over the past three seasons, the Mariners are 7-20 — 7-20! — at Minute Maid park while being outscored 157-78. That’s an average of 2.93 runs per game. The Mariners went 3-7 in Houston this year (outrebounded 47-26), though I guess the good news is they were 3-4 in their last seven? This is something. For AL teams, the road to the World Series goes through Houston. The Mariners must find a way to break through and win (at least) one game at Minute Maid to advance.

Less obvious X-factor: Keeping the Astros grounded. Only four offenses had a lower ball rate than the Astros this season. Their 40.7 percent field goal percentage was comfortably below the league average of 42.9 percent, and some of their individual hitters had field ball percentages below 40 percent: Jordan Alvarez (39.1 percent), Alex Bregman ( 33.3 percent) and Kyle Tucker (34.1 percent). Hit the ball in the air and good things happen – ground balls don’t turn into extra base hits all that often – and the Astros hit the ball in the air more than a handful of teams.

The Astros hit a lot of fly balls and the Mariners pitching staff allows an awful lot of fly balls. Their team 39.8 percent ground ball rate allowed was the lowest in baseball. You have an offense that hits a lot of fly balls and a pitching staff that allows a lot of fly balls. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, Seattle had a 1.2 HR/9 rate against the Astros this year, their fourth-worst rate allowed against an individual team (minimum seven games played).

However, the pitching staffs change in October. Teams rely on their best pitchers in the postseason, and several of the best players on the ground in Seattle haven’t been with the club all season but will be in the ALDS. These pitchers and their ground ball rates:

  • Andres Muñoz (52.6 percent): A reliever who will be used in the biggest moments of the game.
  • Matt Brash (51.6 percent): Began 2022 as starter, went to Triple-A, returned as reliever in July.
  • Luis Castillo (46.9 percent): Acquired at the trade deadline.
  • Diego Castillo (46.2 percent): Another reliever who will primarily play in high-leverage situations.
  • George Kirby (45.5 percent): That’s a 47.7 percent ground ball rate since returning from Triple-A in July.

In general, Seattle’s pitching staff hasn’t gotten many ground balls this season. Their ALDS roster will feature several pitchers who are, however, quite good at getting ground balls, including three relievers (Brasch, Castillo, Munoz) who will be used in important situations. When push comes to shove, the Mariners will have someone on the mound who can get a ground ball, and against an offense that pitches as much as the Astros, that’s a necessity.

Los Angeles Dodgers Vs. San Diego Padres

Obvious X-Factor: Dodgers closer. It seems unlikely that Craig Kimbrel will be entrusted with a small lead in the ninth inning. He struggled most of the season, and the Dodgers removed him from the closer’s role in September. The team with baseball’s best record doesn’t do that often. Los Angeles intends to combine in the ninth inning and has good options (Evan Phillips, Alex Vecia, etc.), although the more buttons you have to push, the more likely you are to push the wrong one. Problems with the ninth inning could lead to a quick exit from the postseason.

Less obvious X-factor: Dodgers vs. top speed. Speed ​​reigns supreme in October. The average — average — fastball was 94.5 mph during the Wild Card Series and 26.1 percent of all fastballs were at least 97 mph. Those numbers were 93.1 mph and 10.4 percent, respectively, during the regular season. Speed ​​isn’t everything, but it’s definitely something. The faster the pass, the less time the attacker has to react. It really is that simple.

In terms of strikeout rate, only the Braves match the Dodgers. Los Angeles hitters posted a .263 batting average and .463 slugging percentage against 95 mph or better fastballs during the regular season. The Braves were hitting .264 and .473, respectively, and the MLB averages were .240 and .374, respectively. Get it up to 97 mph or better and the Dodgers hit .273. No other team was over .262. When it comes to top speed, almost no team can match the Dodgers.

Few teams can bring the heat like the Padres, and thanks to San Diego’s win over the Mets on Sunday, they now head to Los Angeles for the NLDS. Padres pitchers have thrown 18.3 percent of their pitches at 95 mph or higher and 6.6 percent at 97 mph or better this year. Only the Yankees had higher rates among postseason teams. San Diego’s bullpen is built around speed. Take a look at this average speed of their primary relievers at the end of an inning:

Blake Snell deserves a mention here because he is one of the hardest-throwing starters in baseball — his heater averaged 95.7 mph this year and 45.1 percent of his pitches were 95 mph or higher — but for heaven’s sake, san diego is going to throttle the other team’s throat in the late innings. Garcia, Hader and Suarez are manager Bob Melvin’s most trusted players at the end of the inning, and they all throw extremely hard. They throw extremely hard and extremely hard very often.

The Dodgers suffocated the Padres during the regular season, going 14-5 against them and outscoring them 109-47, and one reason was San Diego’s bullpen, which posted a 5.38 ERA during the season series. The Padres have built their bullpen around top speed, and hey, that’s cool. You want batters to struggle to make contact in the late innings. That said, the Dodgers have built an offense that excels at hitting top speed. This will undoubtedly be a factor in the NLDS next week.

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