(1) Tampa Bay Rays -215 vs (8) Toronto Blue Jays +185
Here’s a matchup that features two teams who may have surprised some people, albeit for different reasons. With the emergence of Tampa’s pitching staff last year, they were able to win 96 games. That was good enough for a berth in the wild card game, which they won, but they would eventually fall to Houston in a do-or-die Game 5 in the ALDS. Returning most of their roster, the Rays were expected to once again be a competitive team, but they have far surpassed those expectations. They’ve followed up an impressive 2019 season with an even more impressive 2020 campaign. With a 2:1 Win/Loss Ratio, the Rays finished with a record of 40-20, which earned them the #1 seed in the AL and is the 2nd best record in baseball, trailing only the Dodgers. While the bats haven’t been quite as productive, the pitching staff has stayed true to form, finishing top 5 in both ERA & WHIP. They face a young Blue Jays team who may have progressed a little faster than some expected. Their youthful lineup has taken them from the bottom 10 to top 15 in most major batting categories. Tampa’s pitching vs Toronto’s bats will be the matchup to watch. Both teams come into the playoffs playing well, each going 4-1 in their last 5 games. The two teams played each other 10 times this season, with Tampa going 6-4 vs Toronto. Toronto, however, outscored Tampa 48-44 in those games. I think Tampa’s pitching will outmatch a solid, but inexperienced Toronto lineup and most likely allow them to win this series. That being said, you just can’t ignore how closely these teams have played each other. With 8 of the 10 games being decided by 2 or less runs, it’s hard to not like the underdog with such a lopsided line.
Take Toronto +185 for a small value play.
(2) Oakland Athletics -115 vs (7) Chicago White Sox -105
This is a series where I believe the new COVID-19 induced postseason format will directly impact the outcome. The White Sox have some pop in their bats, finishing 3rd in home runs and 5th in Slugging %. That power is complemented by a formidable pitching staff who may have exceeded expectations, in part due to the acquisition of Dallas Keuchel who finished the year with a 1.99 ERA, good for 3rd best in the majors. They face a gritty A’s team who constantly find ways to win games. Their 6 extra inning wins were the most in the MLB. Outside of a pitching staff with a top-5 ERA, they are middling in most other major statistical categories. It’s worth noting that their batting stats took a hit when they lost Gold Glove winning, All-Star 3B Matt Chapman to a season ending injury. They’ve since filled the hole at third by acquiring 3B Jake Lamb prior to the trade deadline. Despite some of those mediocre numbers the A’s were still able to win the AL West with a record of 36-24. I believe the deciding factor in this series will be the A’s home field advantage. Oakland had 22 home victories which was tied for 2nd most in the majors. 7 of those victories came in walk-off fashion. On top of that, the A’s play in a notoriously pitcher-friendly park which should help limit the White Sox power. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the MLB created a new playoff format which dictates that every Round 1 game is played at the higher seed’s ballpark. This puts Chicago at a distinct disadvantage.
Take Oakland -115.
(3) Minnesota Twins -155 vs (6) Houston Astros +135
First off, let’s address the elephant in the garbage can. For the past year, when discussing the Houston Astros, it has been near impossible to not bring up the sign stealing scandal that tarnished their 2017 World Series championship. I have no interest in sitting here and writing a paragraph berating them for cheating. They’ve been bashed by almost every sports commentator, writer and fan outside of Houston for a year now, so I’m not sure what else I could add. What I am interested in is how becoming the most hated team in America has affected them mentally prior to this postseason. Do they come into these playoffs with a chip on their shoulder, wanting to show the world they can win a title “for real”? Or have they been told that they can’t win without cheating so many times that it’s now stuck in the back of their minds, gnawing at their subconscious during every at-bat to the point that they have begun to believe it themselves? Maybe. Maybe not. After all, these are professional athletes with an abundance of focus and discipline. However, they are aware of what people have been saying about them, especially in this age of social media. That has to be a distraction at the very least, no matter how much focus you have. That distraction may have manifested itself during the regular season, resulting in a disappointing record of 29-31, which is the first time they’ve finished below .500 since 2014. You could place a large chunk of blame for this year’s regression on the departure of 2019 AL strikeout & ERA leader Gerrit Cole and the loss of reigning Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, who hasn’t pitched since the Astros opener on July 24 due to a season ending injury. The fact remains though that the talent in their lineup, coupled with playing in a weak division, should have been enough to finish with a winning record. This makes it hard to have confidence in them when they take the field to play a very complete Minnesota Twins team. With the Twins, the first thing that comes to mind is their bats. Last season they shattered the MLB single season home run record with 307 bombs, breaking the previous record of 267. That power has carried over into 2020 with the Twins hitting 91 homers, good for 6th best in the majors. This may overshadow their pitching staff. Some people may be surprised to learn that as a team the Twins pitching staff finished 4th in ERA (3.58) and 4th in WHIP (1.20), respectively. There’s some value in the Astros at +135, especially in a best-of-3 series, but it’s hard to bet against a team with no clear weaknesses.
Take the Twins -155.
(4) Cleveland Indians +130 vs (5) New York Yankees -150
It’s becoming hard not to think of the Dallas Cowboys when it comes to the New York Yankees. That isn’t meant to be a knock on either team. That also isn’t a direct comparison, but there are certainly some parallels. Both are the most recognizable brand in their respective sport. Both are estimated to have the largest fan base in their sport. Both have rosters littered with stars. And in recent years both have been falling short of their lofty expectations. Could the Yankees extravagant spending finally pay off this year? It wouldn’t be surprising. They finally added a long-desired ace in the previously mentioned Gerrit Cole. Not to mention their high-powered lineup is finally healthy. The rotation isn’t, however, losing Luis Severino and James Paxton to injury. The potency of the lineup could be enough to power through it though. Could be. The fate of the Yankees will depend on their ability to continue to hit vs elite pitching. Cue the Cleveland Indians. Their pitching staff has been just that. Elite. Boasting a 3.29 ERA and 1.11 WHIP, they led the AL in both categories. The bats, on the other hand, have been taking on water since 2019, when they finished the season as a middle-of-the-pack lineup. They’ve since fallen to the bottom 10 in most major categories. So, is the pitching staff enough? I don’t think so. As great as Cleveland’s rotation is, the Yankees are going to score runs, even if it is a limited amount. They just will. Even with a top-tier rotation, you still need to score to beat the Yankees. Cleveland won’t.
Take New York -150.
*All odds via Bovada