When I was 12, the team I grew up rooting for, the St. Louis Cardinals, made the first of three World Series appearances in a six-year stretch. It was 1982. At the time, I couldn’t imagine any team being better than the clubs Whitey Herzog put together.
Their speed was what everyone knew them for — the ridiculous number of stolen bases, infield hits, and dudes sprinting their way to extra bases. It was perhaps the greatest display of athleticism Major League Baseball has ever seen. With Willie McGee running down almost everything hit to the middle of the outfield and Ozzie Smith playing the greatest shortstop the game has seen, they flustered opponents by taking away so many hits.
It hurts to admit, but the Cardinals of the 1980s wouldn’t have made it very far in today’s MLB postseason. Smaller stadiums, with natural grass, have encouraged teams to try to hit balls over the defense rather than through it. Big data studies on where hitters hit the ball, and the resulting shifts, have eliminated the advantage of having acrobatic, free-ranging infielders. Advances in limiting teams’ running games has made stolen bases largely irrelevant.
The postseason’s new winning formula
The recipe most successful in the postseason now has been pretty well established, at least until a new set of rule changes — or perhaps a different composition of the ball itself or a new way of cheating — changes everything.
Teams that don’t strike out much, but which hit home runs, have done well in this era of postseason baseball. The exemplar of the modern approach to winning in October was the 2017 world champion Houston Astros, who finished second to the Yankees in home runs while having the lowest strikeout rate (17.3%) in the major leagues. Yeah, OK, so they may have been stealing signs electronically and all that, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t otherwise have the right traits for modern October baseball, with its high-octane pitching.
Teams have been desperately trying to copy Houston’s formula ever since, and it’s evident in this field of playoff teams. By the way, the Astros still do it better than anybody. They finished with the fourth-most home runs in the majors and the second-lowest strikeout rate. They also won 106 games and, like three other teams, are enjoying a first-round bye.
Since run prevention is a mirror image of run scoring, it’s a good guess to say the best-equipped pitching staffs for this postseason are those that can prevent home runs while striking out plenty of batters. In this era of high-spin, high-velocity pitching, stringing together three singles just isn’t the way to score any longer.
Introducing the ‘Stros Index
So, with all that in mind, let’s come up with a new playoff predictor called the ‘Stros Index, in which we simply combine the rankings of each lineup and pitching staff into one number. Remember: The lower the number, the more dangerous the team should be this postseason.
For example, the Astros’ ‘Stros Index this season on the hitting side would be six. The Astros pitching staff allowed the second-fewest homers while having the No. 1 strikeout rate in the game. That means Houston’s overall ‘Stros Index for 2022 was nine. That will prove hard to beat, as we’ll soon see. In fact, that number is so good that Houston seems like a good play at +425 (at DraftKings) to win the World Series despite being the second favorite behind the Dodgers (+340).
Now, let’s break down each of the four wild card series using the ‘Stros Index as our rough guide to the future (with odds also from DraftKings):
No. 6 Philadelphia Phillies at. No. 3 St. Louis Cardinals
Phillies ‘Stros Index: 33
Cards ‘Stros Index: 44
The Phillies’ biggest weakness is that they’re generally mediocre at preventing home runs. Their pitching staff allowed the 15th most in the majors. The Cardinals have an even more glaring hole in their pitching staff. They don’t really strike anybody out. They finished 28th in the majors in K-rate (19.6%), meaning they could be worrying about a lot of contact in this series.
However, keep in mind that teams often are built with synchronicity in mind. The Cardinals knew they had an issue getting whiffs, so they’ve assembled an astonishingly good defense to account for all that contact they allow. In 2021, they became the first team ever to land five Gold Gloves. This season, they rank fourth in the majors in Outs Above Average. And the Phillies aren’t necessarily going to have to worry about using the pitchers who struggled with the long ball, particularly if Zach Wheeler and Aaron Nola pitch well.
The Phillies look like a live longshot here, given that they’ll play all three games at Busch Stadium, an extreme pitchers’ park that should diminish their tendency to allow home runs. However, two factors make this far from clear. The Cardinals got back their best strikeout pitcher, Jack Flaherty, just in time for the postseason, and they’ll look to use him in creative ways — likely out of the bullpen for multiple innings if one of their starters struggles.
Expect this series to be perhaps the highest-scoring of the wild card round. It feels like the Cardinals will win if the Phillies make a costly fielding mistake or two and the Phillies will win if they can find holes in a stingy Cardinals defense. Given how close it is, we prefer taking the plus odds.
The play: Phillies +115
No. 5 San Diego Padres at No. 4 New York Mets
Mets ‘Stros Index: 41
Padres ‘Stros Index: 54
The Mets could have made life so much easier on themselves if they’d just added a little more power at the trade deadline. This is a marvelous team, with two of this era’s greatest starting pitchers anchoring a staff that led the majors in strikeout rate (26.3%). But the lack of pop — New York ranks 15th in home runs — makes you wonder if they’ll be able to hang with some of the big-boy offenses they’ll eventually run into.
The Padres, of course, did plenty to help themselves at the deadline, bringing in one of the game’s best hitters, Juan Soto, and one of its best relief pitchers, Josh Hader. Both players started slowly in San Diego, but they hit their stride as the postseason approached. Still, the blow of losing Fernando Tatis Jr. to a drug suspension was real. This Padres team finished 21st in hitting home runs with a pitching staff that also has a tendency to give up long balls.
It’s tough to say, because Padres fans deserve better, but this looks like one of the most lopsided matchups, at least on paper (and according to the ‘Stros Index).
The play: Mets -175
No. 6 Tampa Bay Rays at No. 3 Cleveland Guardians
Rays ‘Stros Index: 70
Guardians ‘Stros Index: 50
This series matches the two lowest-payroll playoff teams, and despite really smart front offices, the lack of resources is evident on both rosters. Both teams have strengths — the Indians will keep bringing out hard-throwing, no-name relievers until the cows come home and the Rays use their excellent pitching in creative ways — but this series has the potential to be a snoozer with a bunch of 2-1 games.
There’s really only one hyperbolic trait for either team, which is Cleveland’s ability to put the ball in play. The Guardians struck out just 18.2% of the time, lowest in MLB. Otherwise, both offenses are in the mediocre to sub-par range and the pitching really isn’t as good as it first appears.
Neither of these teams appears to be a threat for a long postseason run, but for the purposes of this exercise we’ll side with the club that is a bit healthier and at least can hang its hat on one particular trait: an ability to avoid whiffs. Tampa just doesn’t have the power or the overall depth to hang against a good team.
The play: Cleveland -125
No. 5 Seattle Mariners at No. 4 Toronto Blue Jays
Mariners ‘Stros Index: 63
Blue Jays ‘Stros Index: 46
Both pitching staffs had their share of issues this season, particularly in the areas we’ve noted tend to matter most in the postseason. The Mariners, for example, allowed 186 home runs. Only six teams allowed more. The Blue Jays, too, got burned by the long ball, allowing 180.
On the other hand, both teams can hit. The difference is the Blue Jays have the potential to be the best offense in the playoffs. They struck out fewer than all but four teams and hit more home runs than all but six. And that’s with a big chunk of their talented young roster having sub-par seasons by their lofty standards.
The postseason is a new season, and I’d rather have a team of great hitters who underachieved than a team of decent hitters who had career years. Unless Toronto falls into one of its periodic slumps, this one should be a relatively easy call.
The play: Blue Jays -170
Photo: Brett Davis/USA TODAY