Sports alert! A beginner’s guide to the baseball playoffs

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Our statisticians believe there is a roughly 100% chance the Red Sox won’t win this year’s World Series

As you probably were (not) aware of, the Major League Baseball playoffs begin tonight with a play-in game between the Kansas City Royals and Oakland Athletics. They continue tomorrow with the other play-in game (San Francisco Giants-Pittsburgh Pirates) before the real series start on Thursday.

If none of that made any sense, fear not! Blog is here to explain things.

All you need to know about the way the playoffs work is this: five teams in each league (American and National) make it. The two worst in each league–the ones already named above–play a single game against each other to determine who goes on and who goes home. Then the remaining eight teams are paired off into four “Division Series” in which the first team to win three games wins. Then the remaining four teams are paired up in “Championship Series” in which the first team to four games wins. Then the last two teams–the winners of the American and National Leagues, respectively–play in the World Series, which is also won by the first team to four games. The winner of the World Series wins everything!

But, you ask, which team should I root for? Or, more accurately, which teams are playing? Or perhaps, most accurately, why should I care? The final question we can’t answer, besides that baseball is, uh, our national pastime.

But consider: despite all the talk about the demise of baseball, revenues are at an all-time high and local TV ratings are (generally) very strong. So other people care, which means you should too! Now, to answer the other two questions, here’s a beginners rundown of the teams competing this October:

American League

Kansas City Royals

eric-hosmer-alex-gordon-mlb-tampa-bay-rays-kansas-city-royals1

Sports are fun!

Two-sentence bio: The Royals are among the lovable underdogs of the year, having made their first playoffs in 29 years (29 years!!!!). Unfortunately, they’re not actually that good, having made it in despite one of the worst offenses in the league; they’ll rely on pitching and defense to advance past the play-in game and truly break their playoff-free streak.

Informed-sounding comment: “Boy, those Royals sure get going on the basepaths, don’t they?” [This is a reference to the team’s ability to steal a lot of bases.]

Players to name-drop: Starting pitcher James Shields; Closer Greg Holland; Left fielder Alex Gordon [above left]; Catcher Salvador Perez.

Most fun name: Mike Moustakas (third baseman).

Uniform quality: The Royals recently brought back their baby blue shirts to great effect, making them one of the more well-dressed teams around.

Should you root for them? Probably, yeah. Everyone loves a Cinderella story.


Oakland Athletics

Sports are so silly!

Baseball players are so silly.

Two-sentence bio: The A’s were the best team in the first half of the season and were expected to be even better after mid-season trades for three prominent pitchers. As it turned out, they stumbled their way through the second half and took until the last day of the season to clinch a playoff berth, setting themselves up for the do-or-die game with the Royals.

Informed-sounding comment: “Gosh, the A’s just really aren’t the same team without Cespedes, are they?” [An incorrect but popular reference to the team’s trade of power-hitting outfielder Yoenis Cespedes.]

Players to name-drop: Starting pitcher Jon Lester; Third baseman Josh Donaldson [above, with pie in face]; Starting pitcher Sonny Gray; Closer Sean Doolittle.

Most fun name: Jeff Samardzija (starting pitcher).

Uniform quality: The A’s are the only team in the league to wear green and one of only two to wear yellow, so they’ve got that going for them.

Should you root for them? Some feel that they’ve been covered enough (think Brad Pitt-starring Moneyball) but, as a diehard A’s fan, I say yes.

Los Angeles Angels

mike trout

Mike Trout is barely older than you.

Two-sentence bio: As their division-rival Oakland fell apart, the Angels caught fire and rocketed to the top seed in the American League behind one of the league’s best offenses. New face of baseball Mike Trout (pictured above) leads the attack, alongside aging sluggers Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton.

Informed-sounding comment: “Sure, the Angels can hit, but I’m not sure they have the pitching to carry them through October.” [A comment on the Angels’ relative dearth of quality starting pitchers.]

Players to name-drop: Center fielder Mike Trout; First baseman Albert Pujols; Left fielder Josh Hamilton; Starting pitcher Jared Weaver.

Most fun name: Collin Cowgill (left fielder).

Uniform quality: The Angels’ standard white-and-red jerseys won’t blow anyone away, and have to be continually redesigned as the team changes its name from the California Angels to the Anaheim Angels to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

Should you root for them? Probably not–they won a World Series in 2002, they’re a rich team, and they play in Orange County. Blech.

Detroit Tigers

Sports are social!

The Tigers mull the deep questions in life during timeouts.

Two-sentence bio: They weren’t as steady as many expected, but the Tigers were ultimately able to beat out Kansas City and capture their fourth straight division title. Their lineup features superstar Miguel Cabrera and a number of other excellent hitters, while their pitching rotation includes big-name starters Justin Verlander and David Price, both of whom have struggled of late.

Informed-sounding comment: “Sure, the Tigers are good, but that bullpen’s going to be a big problem.” [A reference to the Tigers’ lack of good relief pitchers and continued reliance on truly shitty closer Joe Nathan.]

Players to name-drop: Starting pitcher Max Scherzer; Starting pitcher David Price; First baseman Miguel Cabrera [above, right]; Second baseman Ian Kinsler [above, second from left].

Most fun name: Joba Chamberlain (relief pitcher).

Uniform quality: The Tigers seem to have entirely ditched their old orange trim for a dull but classy navy-and-white look. Meh.

Should you root for them? It depends whether your pity for bankrupt Detroit overrides your dislike of star-studded, high-payroll mega-teams. If yes, then by all means; otherwise, steer clear.

Baltimore Orioles

Sports are patriotic!

The Orioles are patriotic, so you have to like them.

Two-sentence bio: Perennial underdogs in the American League East Division, which also includes the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, the Orioles captured their first division title since 1997. They’ll be without slugger Chris Davis, who’s serving a suspension for Adderall abuse (maybe the MLB should check out the Ivy League…), but still boast a strong offense thanks to a number of no-name contributors.

Informed-sounding comment: “How did those Orioles win so many games? I can’t name one pitcher on their team!” [This comment allows you to sound informed while being uninformed, as Oriole starting pitchers are neither especially famous nor especially good.]

Players to name-drop: Center fielder Adam Jones; First baseman Steve Pearce; Designated hitter Nelson Cruz; Third baseman JJ Hardy.

Most fun name: Jonathan Schoop (second baseman).

Uniform quality: The Orioles recently brought back their cute cartoon-bird logo, rounding out an unusually playful orange-white-and-black kit.

Should you root for them? They’re a fairly nice underdog, provided you can get over Davis’ Adderall thing, designated hitter Nelson Cruz’s 2013 steroid suspension, and third baseman Manny Machado’s dickishness.

National League

San Francisco Giants

Sports are relaxing!

Baseball is totally a sport.

Two-sentence bio: The Giants played the season in the shadow of their biggest rival, the Los Angeles Dodgers, who set a record for spending on player contracts this year on their way to beating the Giants out for the National League West Division title. Still, San Francisco grabbed a Wild Card spot and faces the Pittsburgh Pirates on Wednesday for a chance to add to their 2012 and 2010 World Series victories.

Informed-sounding comment: “Just imagine how good the Giants would be if Cain and Lincecum could still pitch!” [A reference to the decline in performance of former star pitchers Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain.]

Players to name-drop: Starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner; Catcher Buster Posey; Third baseman Pablo Sandoval [pictured]; Right fielder Hunter Pence.

Most fun name: Madison Bumgarner (starting pitcher).

Uniform quality: The Giants orange-and-black routine is similar to Baltimore’s, but they lack the fun bird logo on their hats.

Should you root for them? They’ve won two of the last four World Series, so probably not, unless you’re from San Francisco or really, really hate Los Angeles.
Pittsburgh Pirates

Sports are friendly!

Everyone loves Andrew McCutchen!

Two-sentence bio: The Pirates were last year’s Royals, a perennial loser finally breaking into the playoffs after decades of futility (the Pirates didn’t have a winning season between 1992 and 2013). Now, led by Andrew McCutchen (pictured above), one of baseball’s bright young stars, they’ll try to improve on last year’s Division Series loss–but first they’ll have to beat the Giants in the play-in game.

Informed-sounding comment: “McCutchen’s great, of course, but the real key to the Pirates season is the emergence of Josh Harrison.” [An acknowledgement of National League batting average leader Josh Harrison, a previously obscure utility player.]

Players to name-drop: Center fielder Andrew McCutchen; Third baseman Josh Harrison; Catcher Russell Martin; Left fielder Starling Marte.

Most fun name: Vance Worley (starting pitcher).

Uniform quality: The Pirates wear the black and yellow shared by all three Pittsburgh sports teams, a classic but aesthetically unappealing combination.

Should you root for them? Yes–with their minuscule payroll and otherwise dismal recent history, the Pirates remain the sentimental favorite.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Sports are goofy!

It’s easy to have fun when you make $15 million a year.

Two-sentence bio: The Dodgers have become baseball’s new powerhouse, with a payroll that makes the Yankees seem poor and a penchant for buying any star they choose. But homegrown pitcher Clayton Kershaw and enigmatic Cuban import Yasiel Puig have risen above the collection of pricey free-agent signees to become the faces of the team.

Informed-sounding comment: “We know the Dodgers can hit, but I don’t know if they have the pitching or fielding depth to take it all the way.” [A comment on the Dodgers’ subpar defense and lack of healthy, good pitchers behind Kershaw and fellow starter Zack Greinke.]

Players to name-drop: Starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw; Center fielder Matt Kemp; Right fielder Yasiel Puig; Shortstop Hanley Ramirez.

Most fun name: Darwin Barney (second baseman).

Uniform quality: The Dodgers’ blue and white LA logo is classic, but it’s not particularly exciting.

Should you root for them? If you’re the type of person who also roots for the Yankees, the Dallas Cowboys, and the Los Angeles Lakers, then have at it. Otherwise, absolutely not.
Washington Nationals

Sports are exciting!

The Nationals celebrate a meaningless win.

Two-sentence bio: The Nationals bounced back from a disappointing 2013 by dominating the National League East and ended the season on a terrific note with pitcher Jordan Zimmermann’s no-hitter (above). Many baseball analysts consider them the most complete team–with elite hitting (5th-best of 30 teams), pitching (1st), and fielding (11th), the Nationals have no clear weakness–and thus, are the favorite.

Informed-sounding comment: “Sure, the Nationals are stacked, but can they really compete with the Dodgers’ star power?” [Kind of a dumb thing to say, since the Nationals’ players are probably better whether or not they’re more famous, but most fans will eat it up.]

Players to name-drop: Starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann; Starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg; Right fielder Bryce Harper; Third baseman Anthony Rendon.

Most fun name: Asdrubal Cabrera (second baseman).

Uniform quality: Their red, white, and blue scheme is patriotic, but lacks tradition (the team moved from Montreal in 2005) and visual appeal.

Should you root for them? Sure, why not? The Nationals are young, exciting, and talented, and no Washington baseball team has won a title in over a century.
St. Louis Cardinals

This is so Cardinals

This is so Cardinals.

Two-sentence bio: The Cardinals have become known as baseball’s model organization, with a stunning record of successful personnel moves and player development in the new millennium. They’ve piled up nine National League Central Division titles, four National League pennants, and two World Series championships since 2000, and continue to succeed around a strong core of solid, long-tenured players.

Informed-sounding comment: “If the Cardinals really want to be the perfect organization, they shouldn’t have signed Peralta.” [An allusion to free agent signee and top hitter Jhonny Peralta’s 2013 steroid suspension.]

Players to name-drop: Starting pitcher Adam Wainwright; Shortstop Jhonny Peralta; Second Baseman Matt Carpenter; Catcher Yadier Molina.

Most fun name: Peralta for his weird first-name spelling, I guess. Weak field.

Uniform quality: More dull red and white, but St. Louis has a little bird sitting on a bat on their jerseys, if you’re into that.

Should you root for them? No. The only people who root for the Cardinals are Cardinals fans.

Interest piqued? Of course it is! Tune in tonight to TBS at 8:07 for A’s-Royals, and tomorrow at the same time to ESPN for Giants-Pirates.

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