The Wild Card Games are here, with all of the excitement and inherent cruelty that comes along with reducing a 162-game season to a one-game series. Even the two teams that tied for the worst record in baseball this year, the Giants and Tigers, won almost 40% of their games. So, yeah, predicting who's going to win a best-of-one series is always going to be a fool's errand. But we're here to do what we can and at least look at both league's games and find some things to pay particular attention to during the games.
- New York Yankees (91-71) vs. Minnesota Twins (85-77)
The Twins are certainly the Cinderella story of this postseason, the one team that truly surprised everyone, even if there were plenty of reasons not to be all that surprised. That they have to face the Yankees in the Wild Card game seems particularly cruel. Anyone without any Yankees' rooting interest in this game will surely be hoping for the underdog upset, but it doesn't look particularly promising. The Yankees were a far better team than their record shows, as BaseRuns has them as a 102-win team and their Pythagorean record has them as a 101-win team. The Yanks won the season series 4-2, thanks to a three-game sweep of the Twins in September at Yankee stadium and, on paper, it's hard to find an area where the Twins have any sort of an advantage.
Luis Severino is taking the ball for New York and that's got to be reassuring for them. He's been one of the best starters in baseball, with a 2.98 ERA, 3.07 FIP and 10.71 K/9 that will surely earn him some Cy Young votes. The overall numbers belie the fact that Severino hasn't availed himself against the Twins' hitters, who hold a .385/.429/.385 line against him, even if he's managed to limit the damage by holding them to singles. Those numbers come over a very small sample size of 13 total ABs, so we're probably better off looking at Severino's greater body of work this season, which is one of the reasons the Yankees are here in the first place. The Twins' starter, Ervin Santana, certainly hasn't been as good as Severino this year, with a 3.28 ERA, 4.46 FIP and 7.11 K/9, and the Yankees' lineup has a career .270/.316/.478 line against him.
The Yankees also have the best bullpen in baseball this season (9.2 fWAR), so it's not clear that things will even get easier if the Twins are able to work Severino out of the game relatively early. Chad Green, Aroldis Chapman, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle and Dellin Betances make for a terrifying group of relievers and give manager Joe Girardi a plethora of options for dealing with the Twins' offense. The Twins' bullpen, on the other hand, ranked 22nd in MLB (2.2 fWAR). The Yankees' offense was also the third best in baseball by fWAR (27.9), while the Twins' clocks in at 9th with 24.2 fWAR. The news that the Twins will be without their best hitter in Miguel Sano doesn't help either.
There's basically no logical reason to pick the Twins to win the game, as the Yankees were by far the better team during the regular season. But logic and everything else goes out the window when you're talking about a single game, and despite the long odds against them, there are still reasons to believe that the Twins could shock the world and send the Yanks packing.
One area where the Twins have a firm advantage over the Yankees is on the basepaths. Per Fangraphs, Minnesota was the best team in MLB on the bases (14.2 BsR). This could come into play because Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez, while he might be the best hitting catcher in all of baseball this season (.278/.345/.531, 130 wRC+), has some issues with blocking balls. He's tied for the worst record in MLB with the Dodgers' Yasmani Grandal for passed balls (16) and leads MLB with 58 wild pitches. So, one of the Yankees' weaknesses plays right into one of the Twins' strengths and could make things interesting whenever a Twin makes it to third base. In a best-of-five or best-of-seven series, a small advantage like that probably wouldn't make a difference. In the Wild Card Game, though, you never know.
- Arizona Diamondbacks (93-69) vs. Colorado Rockies (87-75)
Arizona won the season series 11-8, scoring 5.3 runs per game while allowing only 3.6. However, they were 5-5 at home, and 6-3 in Colorado, so it doesn't seem like they're going to get much in the way of a home field advantage. Then there's the fact that, since the second wild card was instituted in 2012, the second wild card team is 7-3. So home field advantage doesn't seem to accomplish much (even if that's really thanks to the everlasting joys of small sample sizes…).
Zack Greinke will be starting for Arizona, and he's bounced back from his lackluster 2016 to the tune of a 3.20ERA, 3.31 FIP and 9.56 K/9. At home, he's been even better, with a 2.87 ERA, 10.2 K/9, 0.96 WHIP and has held opponents to a .207/.249/.382 slash line. The current Rockies lineup has a .272/.302/.463 career slash line against him. One particular Rockies hitter to keep an eye on is Jonathan Lucroy, who has absolutely owned Greinke, hitting .636/.667/.818 in 11 ABs. While Lucroy had been struggling (.246/.303/.342) before moving to Colorado prior to the trade deadline, he's hit .310/.429/.437 since then and could be a huge determining factor in how long Greinke is able to stay in the game. Trevor Story has also had continued success against him, with a .333/.360/.875 line over 24 ABs.
The Diamondbacks also have a not-so-secret weapon in the form of Archie Bradley (1.73 ERA, 2.61 FIP and 9.74 K/9). Manager Torey Lovullo has used him in more of an Andrew Miller-style role this season, as he's averaged more than three outs per appearance and has come in anywhere from the fifth to the ninth inning. In the event that Greinke isn't dominating Rockies' hitters, Lovullo a fallback plan. Bradley has a .267/.330/.367 career line against the Rockies' hitters, but there are a handful of hitters who don't have any problem hitting him very small sample sizes, especially Story (.600/.667/1.000 in 5 ABs). The fact that Fernando Rodney (4.23 ERA, 4.23 BB/9) will likely come in to close the game for the Diamondbacks isn't going to inspire boatloads of confidence, but there's at least some solace to be found in the fact that Rodney has a .226/.293/.264 career line against the Rockies' hitters.
On the Rockies side of the ledger, Jon Gray (3.67 ERA, 3.18 FIP and 9.14 K/9) is starting. The best news for Colorado fans has to be Gray's ability to absolutely flummox Arizona's best hitter. Paul Goldschmidt hasn't yet figured out how to get on base against Gray and has five strikeouts in 11 ABs. He also hit .171/.250/.305 in September and has been dealing with some sort of elbow issue, so there's reason to be concerned about his ability to contribute tomorrow. There are, however, plenty of frightening at bats waiting for Gray throughout the D-Backs' lineup, who hold a .330/.351/.544 career slash line against Gray. Arizona has to be hoping that David Peralta, who owns a .462/.462/.615 line against Gray in 13 PAs, is able to get over the back soreness that took him out of Saturday's game and kept him off the field on Sunday.
While the Diamondbacks' lineup (19.8 fWAR) has the edge on the Rockies' (13.7 fWAR), the Rockies have a slight advantage in the bullpen department, even if the D-Backs can lean on Bradley, thanks to the depth that they have with quality bullpen arms Greg Holland, Chris Russin, Jake McGee and Pat Neshek.
The NL Wild Card Game is certainly less lopsided than its AL sibling and it's not a stretch to say that either of these teams could walk away with it. The Diamondbacks are certainly the favorites, but the Rockies probably aren't going to make it easy for them.