The playoffs feature a different game than the regular season. Not that different a game, but all the things that make the playoffs feel special — the days of rest between each game, the short series, the high stakes — shift ever so slightly the little incentives and pressures that make baseball what it is.
The upshot is that a team can be better in the postseason than it is in the regular season, and not just because it gets lucky. We see this every year at the deadline, when teams make trades that don’t make much sense for the regular season but fill a gap for October. The game changes in a predictable fashion, and playoff teams do their best to plan for those changes.
And that can lead to some surprises in the postseason, when a team that seemed like a juggernaut looks vulnerable, or a team that looked weak cuts through the field like butter. So in an effort to prepare you for some of those surprises, what teams are most or least prepared for the different game that is playoff baseball? Who has the biggest gap, either positive or negative, between who they are now and who they will be in October?
There are two basic answers to that question, focusing on the starting rotation and the bullpen. Offense doesn’t really change in the postseason; teams don’t get to bat their best hitter twice per lineup rotation, or sub a bench bat in and out at will. The playoffs change the way pitching works. Who is most prepared for those changes?
Rotation — the Boston Red Sox
This can be traced directly to one factor, or more specifically, to one person: Chris Sale.
Most teams with even a sliver of a shot at the playoffs have a decent rotation, and the Red Sox are no exception. Both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus project them as the third best for the rest of the regular season; what’s unique about them is not how good they are, but how much of that ability is concentrated in a single player.
Boston’s playoff rotation will probably look something like: Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello, and Drew Pomeranz. Eduardo Rodriguez could slot in for either of the last two. But in a five-game series, Sale will make two starts if it’s anything other than a sweep, and in a seven-game series, he could make three. In the regular season, 20 percent of the Red Sox’s starts are made by a guy with a projected ERA 3.00, while 80 percent are made by pitchers with an average projected ERA just over 4.00. Come October, that shifts to something like 40 percent/60 percent. That’s a big deal.
And while every team gets to steer more of their starts toward their best pitcher, few have the gap between the front and middle of the rotation that the Red Sox do. The will Dodgers have the best pitcher in baseball taking the lion’s share of their starts, but behind him, they’ve got Yu Darvish, Alex Wood, and Rich Hill. Corey Kluber is backed up by Carlos Carrasco. Max Scherzer has Stephen Strasburg. The topheaviness of Boston’s rotation comes with risk, of course — should Sale get injured, their playoff chances will take an enormous hit — but if he can stay healthy, they’ve got a lot to gain from the postseason format.
Bullpen — the New York Yankees
Now, it’s not a guarantee that the Yankees make the playoffs, and there are other teams whose bullpens will look downright terrifying come October. But the Yankees are so far ahead of the pack that they deserve a mention. This is already a great bullpen; FanGraphs projects them for 2.0 WAR to close out the season, good for first place leaguewide by a large margin. But what’s notable about this group is how many stone-cold, ultra-reliable “bullpen aces” it’s made up of.
Aroldis Chapman is the first, and little needs to be said about him. His 3.06 ERA might make 2017 appear to be a step backward, but his 1.93 FIP and 2.92 DRA aren’t very different from what he’s displayed in past seasons. Dellin Betances is next, and while Chapman is probably better on a per-batter basis, Betances might be even more frightening in the postseason, given his ability to go multiple innings with ease. Then there are the two relievers the Yankees acquired at the deadline. David Robertson has a long track record of excellence out of the bullpen, and is in the midst of a resurgent season, with a 2.44 ERA/3.07 FIP/2.32 DRA. And Tommy Kahnle has none of the track record, but is now two-thirds of a season into a full-fledged breakout, with a 2.38 ERA/1.44 FIP/2.10 DRA. Any one of those pitchers could easily be the best reliever on any number of the teams vying for a playoff spot, and the Yankees have all four of them.
That means that, in basically any high-leverage spot, Joe Girardi will have his choice of top-notch reliever to turn to. The Cubs used just eight relievers in the entire 2016 postseason, seven if you don’t count Jon Lester coming in for the marathon Game Seven of the World Series. Cleveland used nine, and again, several of them were conscripted starters (Danny Salazar) or subpar relievers deployed in mop-up duty. The Yankees will be able to steer a massive percentage of their relief innings — sixty? seventy? — to the fearsome foursome of Chapman/Betances/Robertson/Kahnle. Other teams have good bullpens, but nobody else will be able to avoid the risky parts of their bullpens like the Yankees will.
That doesn’t mean either the Yankees or Red Sox will be unstoppable in the playoffs, or even favorites to advance. Either team could still get bounced from the playoff picture; the whole point of this analysis is that they’ll be better in the postseason than they look in the regular season. But if they do make the playoffs, the Red Sox and Yankees will get to tweak their approach to maximize their rosters in a way few other teams can mimic. Don’t be too surprised if one or both of them end up looking better than expected come October.
Henry Druschel is the co-Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.