Despite multiple COVID-19 scares, the MLB was able to complete the full, albeit shortened, regular season. Players now face a quick turnaround to the postseason, getting one day to travel before the beginning of the first round on Tuesday, September 29th for the American League. Here’s what you need to know about each of the first round matchups in the American League:
In the first round, games will be held solely at the stadium of the higher seed. For the following rounds, the MLB opted to follow the NHL and NBA in having a postseason bubble to prevent any coronavirus outbreaks among its players. The league did not originally plan for this, but after scares with the Miami Marlins, St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies, Commissioner Rob Manfred believed a bubble was necessary to ensure the completion of postseason games.
The American League Division Series (ALDS) will take place in Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California and in Petco Park in San Diego, California. The winners of these series will face off in the American League Championship Series (ALCS) in San Diego. The AL champions will face the champions of the National League in the World Series at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.
Will there be fans allowed?
Commissioner Manfred has publicly stated that the league is hopeful to have fans at the NLCS and the World Series in Arlington. No fans will be allowed in the home stadiums in the first round of the playoffs. This is likely to prevent any team from getting an unfair advantage, as limitations in crowd sizes might vary from city to city. Regulations such as these are also likely the reason that fans will be allowed at the NLCS and not the ALCS, as California’s laws regarding COVID-19 are some of the most strict in the country.
In short, yes, it is possible that fans will be allowed, but you have to hope that your team makes it far enough to be able to see them in action. The MLB needs as many lines of revenue as possible with so much being limited in the pandemic, so they could benefit tremendously from selling tickets to as many games as they are allowed.
The MLB expanded the playoffs from 10 to 16 teams this postseason, so more teams have made the playoffs than usual this year, including one team whose regular season record is below .500 (Houston Astros 29-31). The top eight AL teams were matched up by seed and will play a three game series at the home stadium of the higher seed. Below are the matchups with a brief preview of each.
1. Tampa Bay Rays (40-20) vs 8. Toronto Blue Jays (32-28)
The Blue Jays were one of many surprises this season, as the rebuilding team was able to take advantage of the expanded playoff format to clinch a postseason berth. However, they drew a difficult matchup against the Rays, who won 10 of their last 13 games. After being widely considered the second best team in the AL East, the Rays went 40-20, which amounted to the second best record in the league and the best in the AL. The Rays are 20-9 at home this season, but only 6-4 against the Blue Jays.
The Rays will start Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow and Charlie Morton on the mound in the three game series, likely in that order. This is a daunting top 3 group of starting pitchers, as they combined for 196 strikeouts in 145.1 innings pitched during the regular season. Following a loss to the Houston Astros in the ALDS last year, the Rays will be motivated not to repeat that result.
Toronto is led by a weaker pitching staff but better power bats than the Rays. Their pitching staff is headlined by their offseason signing Hyun Jin Ryu and his 2.69 ERA. Young stars Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio lead the batting lineup, which outscored the Rays 48-44 in their regular season matchups. While the Rays have the advantage, don’t count out the Blue Jays, who may still have a surprise up their sleeve.
4. Cleveland Indians (35-25) vs 5. New York Yankees (33-27)
The Yankees disappointed this season, as they were widely considered to be the best team in the AL, if not the MLB. However, the Yankees went just 33-27, ending the regular season winning just one of their last eight. The Yankees had an extensive list of injuries before and during the season, with RP Tommy Kahnle and SP Luis Severino suffering season ending injuries early on, RF Aaron Judge, LF Giancarlo Stanton, and SS Gleyber Torres missing extensive time, and CP Aroldis Chapman and 2B DJ Lemahieu missing time due to positive COVID-19 tests. Unfortunately for the Yankees, their minor leaguers didn’t step up as much as they did last year while their stars were injured. However, Luke Voit proved to be the franchise 1st baseman, as he led the majors in home runs with 22. DJ Lemahieu won the batting title, awarded to the player in each league with the best batting average. He became the first player to ever win it in both the NL and AL, as he also won it in 2016 as a member of the Colorado Rockies. Voit and Lemahieu became the first pair of teammates since Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews in 1959 to lead the league in home runs and batting average. With a healthy batting order, a deep bullpen and a starting pitching rotation led by 2019 Cy Young nominee and former World Series Champion* Gerrit Cole, the Yankees can pose a threat to any team.
With that being said, the Indians are one team that could shut down the explosive Yankees batting order. SP Shane Bieber holds a 1.63 ERA and will likely win the AL Cy Young. He will square off with Gerrit Cole in what will be one of the best pitching duels of the season. SPs Carlos Carrasco and Zach Plesac will also face the Yankees, holding a 2.91 and 2.28 ERA, respectively. If there was a pitching staff to hold the Yankees in check, the Indians are the one.
The winner of this series will face the winner of the Rays-Blue Jays series.
2. Oakland Athletics (36-24) vs 7. Chicago White Sox (35-25)
The White Sox were another surprise, as they held the one seed in the AL for a good portion of the season. They are appearing in their first postseason since 2006. However, the White Sox limped to the end of the season, winning just three of their final 12. They may also be missing a key hitter in LF Eloy Jiminez, who missed the last three games with a midfoot sprain. If Jiminez can’t play, there will be a glaring hole in the White Sox order. However, the White Sox still have MVP candidate 1B Jose Abreu, who is hitting .317 this season with 19 home runs. They can also lean on their starting pitchers and deep bullpen to keep them in games. SPs Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel are having great seasons, as Giolito threw a no hitter on August 25th against the Pirates and Keuchel holds a career low 1.99 ERA. The White Sox also recently called up RP Garrett Crochet, who was drafted 11th overall this past June. He has pitched six innings, giving up zero runs and averaging 100.1 mph on his fastball. Crochet could prove to be a valuable weapon for the White Sox, as his lack of usage in the regular season does not allow opponents to prepare detailed scouting reports for their hitters.
The Athletics benefited greatly from the exposure of the Astros cheating scandal, as they became the front-runners in the AL West with the Astros sudden lack of hitting. The A’s are missing superstar 3B Matt Chapman as he is done for the year due to a hip injury he suffered earlier this month. They will also be missing two relievers from a strong bullpen that only lost five games in the regular season. The A’s will be starting Jesus Luzardo on the mound in Game 1, who had a 4.32 ERA and struggled at times this season. Luzardo, a lefty, will be facing a White Sox lineup that is 14-0 against left-handed starting pitchers this season, becoming the first team in history to go undefeated in an entire regular season against southpaws. This series is very evenly matched despite what the seeding may suggest.
3. Minnesota Twins (35-24) vs. 6. Houston Astros (29-31)
Last offseason, an MLB investigation revealed that the Houston Astros used cameras hidden in center field to relay the opposing team’s signs to their dugout, allowing the players in the dugout to then warn the batter at the plate what pitch was coming. The Astros won a World Series in 2017 and appeared in the World Series in 2019 while cheating. The MLB vacated future draft picks and suspended the team’s manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow for their roles in the scandal. Hinch and Luhnow were later fired by Astros ownership.
There has been a significant change in the Astros from last season to this season: They stink. Jose Altuve, 2017 AL MVP, has a career low batting average of .219, a whopping 79 points lower than his .298 average from last season. Altuve hit just five home runs this season, a pace of less than 20 home runs in a 162 game season, compared to his 31 last season. It’s not just Altuve who has significantly worse hitting stats this season. At least six other players have lower batting averages than last season. The Astros winning percentage dropped from .660 in 2019 to .483 in 2020. The Astros and Milwaukee Brewers are the first teams to make the playoffs with a sub-.500 winning percentage.
The Astros are without SP Justin Verlander, who was lost early this season to Tommy John surgery early this season. They lost SP Gerrit Cole in the offseason, as he signed a 9 year, $324 million deal with the Yankees. Since the Astros are without key pitchers and strategically placed cameras and trash cans, they will have a hard time beating a Twins team that is 24-7 at home this season.
*Won with the 2017 Houston Astros, who were convicted of stealing signs. This does not diminish Cole’s performance, as this cheating only influenced the performance of the Astros hitters.