The Hinson Angle: an MLB playoff preview

Fall’s here, and that means one thing: postseason baseball.

Oliver Hinson

     A lot of folks are thankful they’re not in 2020 anymore, and as a baseball fan, I can definitely say I belong to that crowd. Not only did our beloved sport get its season shortened to 60 games, but the playoffs took on a whole new format, with double the teams and, frankly, double the mess. Baseball’s strengths lie in tradition, and the return back to a 162-game schedule and an eight-team playoff bracket signifies a joyful transition into normalcy. If this news isn’t enough to get you out of your seat, though, here’s a couple more things to enjoy this October.

National League: A Californian Battle

     Forget about the Yankees and Red Sox. They’ve had their fun. This postseason is all about the Dodgers versus the Giants, a rivalry that in the grand scheme of things, none can truly match. From their early days in Manhattan and Brooklyn to the “Shot heard ‘round the world” by Bobby Thomson, no two teams have given us so many moments in history. This year, the matchup takes on even more importance, as the two teams are easily the two best in the entire league, with San Francisco finishing the regular season at 107-55 and Los Angeles at 106-56. Only 22 teams have ever won 106 games in a season, and 19 of those teams have made it to the World Series. No division in MLB history has ever featured two teams with 105 wins, and for those two to be matched up in the first round of the playoffs is circumstantially ludicrous, if not a little bit disappointing for both fanbases. 

     In Los Angeles, success is what most have come to expect. The Dodgers dominated the NL West during the last decade, winning the division for eight straight years. In 2020, they kicked it up a notch, tying the 2001 Mariners for the best winning percentage in the regular season and winning the World Series against the Rays, but the fun didn’t stop there. Last offseason, they flexed their financial muscles, signing star pitcher Trevor Bauer to a three-year contract worth over $100 million, and at this year’s trade deadline, they acquired Max Scherzer and Trea Turner from the Nationals, both of whom have made a strong case for MVP so far. This year, they boast the largest run differential in all of baseball, sitting at a +269, while the second-place Giants (of course) are nearly 60 behind at +210. 

     San Francisco, though, is a powerhouse in their own right; not only did they win their division for the first time in nine years, but they did it while making baseball analysts look silly. During their preseason predictions of the MLB standings, Sports Illustrated picked the Giants to place 3rd in the West with a 79-83 record. Fast forward 6 months, and things look a little different. Kevin Gausman had an excellent season seemingly out of nowhere, winning 14 games on the mound with an era of 2.81, while perennial All-Star Buster Posey continued his reign of dominance, batting .304 with 18 home runs. First baseman Brandon Belt had arguably his best season in terms of power, hitting 29 homers on the year (11 more than his second-best), and trade deadline acquisition Kris Bryant added some late-season pop to the lineup, contributing 22 RBIs down the stretch. With an 8-2 record in their last ten games, the Giants carry a considerable amount of momentum into the series, but can they top Los Angeles? The Dodgers just beat the Cardinals in the Wild Card game with a Chris Taylor walk-off that will go down in baseball history, and they’ve won their last eight games. Buckle up, Californians. This is gonna be a heck of a ride.

American League: New faces in the spotlight

     It’s hard to be a fan of any American League team, mainly because it comes with the acceptance that the Yankees will break your heart at some point. The repetitiveness of historical dominance by teams like New York, Boston, and Detroit often turns away even the most dedicated of fans, but fear not: it appears the status quo is done for. The Yankees and Red Sox made the postseason, yes, but both had to settle for a Wild Card spot, as neither could top the Tampa Bay Rays, who essentially present themselves as baseball’s new heroes. Since the franchise’s inception in 1998, they’ve had a turbulent run of things, but in the past couple of years, they’ve started to make a name for themselves, and in 2021, they put it all together to win 100 games and the AL East, despite losing their ace Blake Snell to the Padres during the offseason. Tampa still has one of the MLB’s premier pitching staffs, and they won’t be slowing down anytime soon. In fact, the Rays will make history in the ALDS by starting three rookie pitchers in their first three games: Shane McClanahan, Shane Baz, and Drew Rasmussen. McClanahan established himself well this year, winning ten games during the regular season, but Baz has only appeared in three major league games in his entire life, and now the Rays would like his fourth to be in the playoffs. Frankly, baseball has never seen something like this before, and ultimately, their inexperience could be their undoing; teams this young often show their inexperience in the playoffs, leading to an early exit. From what they’ve done in the regular season, though, I’d be hazy to write them off. After all, they won the hyper-competitive AL East, a division that featured four teams with at least 90 wins, and their youthfulness certainly didn’t hurt them during last year’s AL pennant run. Some may be wary to bet on them right now, but they’re the favorites for a reason. 

     Meanwhile, in the Central division, the White Sox have put together a similarly impressive display of talent, beating out the second-place Indians by 13 games to take the division title for the first time since 2008. Jose Abreu and Luis Robert both had fantastic years, with the former contributing the second-most RBI in the American league and the latter hitting .338 over the course of the season. In terms of youth, Chicago rivals Tampa Bay as well; both Robert, 24, and Yoan Moncada, 26, are before their primes, and they will keep getting better as the years go by. After a long period of the Indians dominating the division, there’s a new sheriff in town, and they’re not going away for quite a while. The Sox had a 44-32 record against their own division this year, and if that continues, they should be a fixture in the postseason for years to come. 

     The only real competition that they, as well as the Rays, face is the Houston Astros. The AL West champs have a plethora of experienced veterans, like Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve, all of whom have played in multiple World Series. With some young teams filling up the postseason bracket this year, I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes a team with some experience to push through to the Fall Classic. As long as they’re removed from their garbage can-banging days, they should be a force to be reckoned with. In the end, the AL should be a dogfight. All three division winners have made their mark this year, and it’s time for one of them to make it big.