The best month of the sports calendar is October, and a big reason why starts Friday with the newly-minted best-of-three Wild Card Series for the MLB playoffs. We’ve gone from a one-game, winner-take-all format to a short series hosted by the higher-seeded team.
MLB (not surprisingly) made a pretty big faux pas with its new postseason format. Rather than re-seed after the wild-card round, the league went with a bracket-style format in which No. 1 plays the No. 4/5 winner and No. 2 plays the No. 3/6 winner. The No. 3 seed is automatically the division winner with the fewest wins, a team that will often be weaker than the top wild card, so that’s a bummer for the No. 1 seed.
In the National League, the Dodgers could very well get a 101-win Mets team in the NLDS as opposed to the winner of the Cardinals-Phillies series. Maybe the Padres can pull an upset, which would also be ripe with storylines after the Juan Soto acquisition, but the Mets are big favorites.
No. 5 San Diego Padres (+ 145) at No. 4 New York Mets (-175)
The Mets are priced anywhere from -165 to -175 (with DraftKings at -175) in a series they never should have been in. The Mets spent 175 days in first place this season but blew a 10.5-game lead and were swept by the reigning World Series champion Braves in the final week of the season to lose the NL East.
Not only do the Mets now have to deal with the Padres, starters Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom could be called into action here rather than in the Division Series, which would severely impact their World Series chances.
It’s not like the Mets played poorly in the second half. They were third in team fWAR (FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement) and first in weighted runs created plus (wRC+ ) at 124, meaning they were 24% better than league average offensively. They were also eighth in team ERA and second in team FIP. It’s just that the Braves went nuclear and were able to win the season series 10-9.
The Padres were also a solid ballclub in the second half, though not on the level of the Mets. They had about a league-average pitching staff with a 3.80 ERA and a 3.85 FIP, which ranked 14th in both categories. Offensively, they had a 108 wRC+ , so 8% above league average in a statistic that is park-adjusted, meaning it accounts for Petco Park being unfriendly to hitters.
Middle relief will be really important in this series because both teams have good rotations (though the Mets clearly have a better one) and solid closers. Edwin Diaz has been the most dominant reliever in baseball, and Josh Hader has gotten back on track in September and October, allowing just one earned run in his last 10.1 innings with 13 strikeouts against two walks,
Rather than lay -175 on the Mets outright, you could play them to sweep the series at + 160. That was how I was going to play it until Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported that the Mets are mulling over a plan that would include Max Scherzer in Game 1 but hold back Jacob deGrom until the NLDS.
My thought is the Mets might try to go up 1-0 with Scherzer, then save deGrom for either Game 3 or the NLDS, which means Chris Bassitt in Game 2. I still think the Mets can win this series 2-0 without using deGrom, plus skipping deGrom is not at all set in stone.
A unit on the Mets to win the series exactly 2-0 at + 160 and a half-unit on the Mets to win exactly 2-1 at + 270 isn’t a bad approach. I’m still not convinced that the idea of skipping deGrom is anything more than gamesmanship. Wait for more clarity and then decide how to bet this.
No. 6 Philadelphia Phillies (+ 115) at No. 3 St. Louis Cardinals (-135)
Generally speaking, postseasons are heavy with strikeouts. Good teams usually have a lot of power pitchers with above-average to elite stuff who are able to limit run-scoring chances. The Cardinals, however, are very reliant on their defense for run prevention, particularly with Adam Wainwright and Miles Mikolas, who have strikeout rates that are well below average. One saving grace is that Busch Stadium is a tremendous pitcher’s park and the Redbirds have home field.
This is an interesting series because the Phillies, despite struggling their way to the postseason, don’t match up badly with the Cardinals. The Phillies were a top-five offense against lefties, which leaves St. Louis with some interesting decisions on Jordan Montgomery and Jose Quintana. Montgomery has the most upside of anybody in the rotation and Wainwright and Mikolas strike me as being a bit iffy in the postseason.
Mikolas had a 2.38 ERA with a .247 wOBA against in 94.2 innings at home, but he had a 4.10 ERA with a .305 wOBA against in 107.2 innings on the road. Wainwright had even more pronounced home/road splits with a 2.98 ERA and a .286 wOBA against at home versus a 4.73 ERA with a .333 wOBA against on the road.
Depth is a major issue for the Phillies, but the top of their rotation is strong with Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler. In an era in which starting pitchers don’t go deep into games, Nola threw 205 innings with spectacular numbers, including a 2.58 FIP that ranked fifth behind Carlos Rodon, Kevin Gausman, Shohei Ohtani and Justin Verlander. Wheeler missed a month of the season from Aug. 20 to Sept. 21 but returned to allow a combined one run on nine hits over his final three starts.
The Phillies bullpen took a lot of flack again this season, but that unit has a lower FIP than the Cardinals. Their retooled relief staff with Zach Eflin as the closer and trade-deadline acquisition David Robertson in the mix has been much stronger than what we’ve seen in the past.
St. Louis has a top-heavy bullpen with flamethrowing closer Ryan Helsley and an excellent setup man in Giovanny Gallegos. I give a slight edge to the Cardinals bullpen because I like the way manager Oliver Marmol handles that group — he’s not afraid to let guys throw multiple innings — and Helsley is the best reliever in this series.
I do think the Phillies are very live here. They’re not exactly built for 162 games, but in short bursts, they have comparable talent at the top of their roster to any team in the league. I’d like Nola in Game 1 versus Wainwright (even with Wainwright’s home splits), so my thought is to figure out if I want the Phillies for the series or just in Game 1 once the Cardinals announce their starter. Frankly, I may like Nola no matter who the Cardinals open with.
(Author's note: I'm surprised that the Phillies are throwing Zack Wheeler in Game 1 over Aaron Nola, but even more surprised that Jose Quintana is the Game 1 starter for the Cardinals. St. Louis has a bunch of multi-inning pitchers on the roster, so I don't think Quintana turns the lineup over more than once, but it does add an interesting wrinkle to the series.)
I do think this series has a good chance of going three games, so Over 2.5 is a decent look. I think you could also start with a Phillies position at plus money in hopes they win Game 1.
Pick: Over 2.5 Games (-110)