First Pitch: The Importance of the Best Players in the Playoffs

A week ago I broke down the 2020 season production from the Rays and the Dodgers.

The teams were largely the same, outside of two players. The Rays and Dodgers had similar pitching production this year, only if you remove Clayton Kershaw from the Dodgers. They had similar offensive production this year, only if you remove Mookie Betts.

As we’re seeing so far in this series, those are massive keys for the Dodgers.

Kershaw has now won two of the four games the Dodgers need for the World Series win. He beat the Rays with one run allowed over six innings last week, and gave up two runs in 5.2 innings last night.

Betts went 2-for-5 with a homer in that first start, picked up a key double and a run in Kershaw’s second outing, and went 2-for-5 with an RBI in the Dodgers’ other win.

It reminds me of the saying about Billy Beane, about how his shit doesn’t work in the playoffs. The Rays have a team similar to the successful Athletics teams. There are no stars, but there are good players. Some of those players might end up being great. But there’s no Kershaw or Betts.

This type of team can get you to the playoffs by virtue of being one of the best teams over the marathon of the regular season. The playoffs are a different game.

If you have Clayton Kershaw in a best-of-seven series, you’ve essentially made it so that you need two wins in five games to win it all. That’s a sizeable advantage that is only countered if the opposing team can break Kershaw’s serve, which isn’t an easy task. It’s almost easier for the Rays to win four of the other five games.

When you’ve got a guy like Betts leading a powerful and talented offense, it makes it difficult for the other team to win those four games needed, and makes it easier for the Dodgers to win two of the five non-Kershaw starts.

Thinking about this in terms of the Pirates, I could see them being able to build a team like the Rays or Athletics, where they can dominate during a regular season, then have a nearly impossible matchup against a team like the Dodgers. The Pirates pretty much had this from 2013-15, especially in 2015.

They can get back to that point. But how can they beat the Dodgers to get to the World Series, and how can they beat the Yankees in the World Series?

They will need to find their own version of Kershaw. The Rays will find out tomorrow if Blake Snell can be their equalizer, capable of neutralizing Kershaw and making this a best-of-three series. The Pirates currently don’t have a guy like that. They have guys in the system who can be that pitcher, but we’ll have to see if they can develop that type of guy with the talent they have, or with the potential talent coming from the 2021 draft — which is an argument in favor of a guy like Kumar Rocker.

It would help to have their own version of Betts to lead the offense, but I don’t think their offense is even close to Rays level at this point. They’ll need someone for a Betts type player to lead before they need to worry about the Betts type player. They have less high-upside offensive talent than they do high-upside pitching talent, and that will be a focus for them going forward.

I can see an easier path for the Pirates ending up in a similar situation to the Rays. There’s still a gap between the Rays and Dodgers, and it will take the Pirates another jump to get from “they can make the playoffs” to “they can advance in the playoffs” to the final “they can win it all.”

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First Pitch