The Best Team In Baseball Is Still Playing Baseball

We overanalyze the playoffs. And, yeah — in part it’s because we overanalyze everything. It’s the whole reason this place exists. But we always dig deep into October, because we all understand that playoff baseball is a different animal, a different twist on a familiar sport, and we want to wrap our minds around it. We’ve tested theories inspired by the Royals. We’ve tested theories inspired by the Giants. We’ve tested theories inspired by winners, because we want to know if we can better identify winners, before they win. Every October, we search for the key to the tournament. We search, as if there’s anything to find.

There’s not. Oh, sure, there are subtle things, but a playoff series is a coin flip, determined by a sequence of coin flips. The key is for one team to be a better baseball team than the other. Then the coin won’t flip so perfectly even. But so much of this is random. So much of this is random, that it can be hard to believe it’s not *completely* random. We’ve become so conditioned to saying the best teams aren’t always rewarded. When you have one great team, the overall odds are against it.

The overall odds were against the Cubs. If you were trying to figure out the NL pennant, it would’ve been smarter to bet on the field. That’s the reality of having to win two series in a row. But, bless these playoffs. Bless these playoffs, because at least in one of the leagues, there’s restored faith that October can be just. The Chicago Cubs were very obviously the best team. They get to keep playing another handful of ballgames.

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Sunday Notes: DH Dilemma, Indians, Gallardo, Glasnow, HoF Managers, more

The Cleveland Indians have two sluggers on their roster. Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana each hit 34 home runs in the regular season. They did so while splitting time between the first base and designated hitter positions, which will pose a problem come the middle three games of the World Series. Unless Cleveland gets creative — and bold — one of them will be out of the lineup.

Given the importance of their bats, Terry Francona may want to find a way to make it happen. As Paul Swydan pointed out on Thursday, this was The Lowest-Scoring ALCS in History. Furthermore, the Cubs turn batted balls into outs better than anyone. It’s not easy to string together hits against best defensive team in baseball.

The Indians have scored 27 runs so far this postseason, and 15 of them have come via the long ball. Napoli and Santana have combined to hit just three of the club’s 11 home runs, but they remain the biggest power threats. There is also on-base to consider. The duo finished one-two on the team in walk rate during the regular season, and Santana’s .366 OBP was bettered only by Tyler Naquin’s .372. Napoli has eight seasons of postseason experience and is the de facto team captain.

How to get both in the lineup when the Series shifts to Wrigley Field? Read the rest of this entry »

The Best of FanGraphs: October 17-21, 2016

Each week, we publish north of 100 posts on our various blogs. With this post, we hope to highlight 10 to 15 of them. You can read more on it here. The links below are color coded — green for FanGraphs, brown for RotoGraphs, dark red for The Hardball Times and blue for Community Research.
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Fall League Daily Notes: October 21

Eric Longenhagen is publishing brief, informal notes from his looks at the prospects of the Arizona Fall League and, for the moment, the Fall Instructional League. Find all editions here.

Braves 2B Travis Demeritte has looked tremendous at second base this fall. Not only has he made several acrobatic plays but he’s handled some bad hops and sucked up errant throws on steal attempts as well. While his hands remain somewhat rough, Demeritte’s range and athleticism have forced me to reckon with the idea of plus-plus defense at second base — as well as to remember if I’ve ever put a 7 on a second baseman’s glove before. I don’t think I have, and I suppose it’s worth asking if such a thing even exists, as one might wonder why a 70 or 80 glove at second base couldn’t play shortstop in some capacity. I think the right concoction of skills (chiefly, great range and actions but a poor arm) can churn out a plus-plus defender there. I’d cite Ian Kinsler, Brandon Phillips and Dustin Pedroia, and Chase Utley as examples from the last eight or 10 years. It’d be aggressive to put a future 7 on Demeritte’s glove right now because his hands and arm accuracy are too inconsistent, but those are things that could be polished up with time.

Tigers RHP Spencer Turnbull was up to 94 and mixed in five different pitches last night. Nothing was plus and Turnbull doesn’t have especially good command but I liked how he and Brewers C Jake Nottingham sequenced hitters and how to and that Turnbull was willing to pitch backwards and give hitters different looks each at-bat. He and Rays RHP Brent Honeywell have the deepest repertoires I’ve seen so far in Fall League.

Giants righty Chris Stratton sat 89-92 last night with an average mid-80s slider that is good enough to miss bats if he locates it, and last night he did. I think the changeup is average, as well, while Stratton’s curveball is a tick below but a useful change of pace early in counts. He looks like a back-end starter.

Quite a few defenders got to air it out last night. Here are some grades I put on guys’ arms:

Dawel Lugo, 3B, ARI: 6

Miguel Andujar, 3B, NYY: 6

Pat Valaika, INF, COL: 5

Gavin Cecchini, INF, NYM: 45

Christin Stewart, OF, DET: 4

Angels CF Michael Hermosillo, who was committed to Illinois to play running back before signing with Anaheim after the 2013 draft, displayed tremendous range in center field last night. He looks erratic at the plate but he hit well at Burlington and Inland Empire this year and is an obvious late-bloomer follow as a two-sport prospect from a cold weather state.

Jon Lester Should Have Madison Bumgarner’s Reputation

Last night, Jon Lester took the mound for the Cubs, and for most of the game, the conversation was about he can’t do: hold runners on. The Dodgers danced and pranced off first base, taking leads they wouldn’t take against any pitcher, and daring him to throw over to first base. But you know what the Dodgers didn’t do against Jon Lester? Score runs.

Okay, fine, they got one, but for most of the night, Lester just shut the Dodgers offense down. Because that’s just what he does in October.

You know about Madison Bumgarner‘s postseason dominance by now; that’s a well-told story at this point. So, just for fun, here’s a table of some numbers that might surprise you.

Lester and Bumgarner, Postseason
Postseason IP BB% K% HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA- FIP- xFIP-
Lester 119 6% 21% 0.9 0.248 83% 60 86 94
Bumgarner 102 5% 22% 0.7 0.236 84% 57 85 93

Lester has been basically identical to Bumgarner in the postseason, once you account for the league and run environment differences of their postseason opportunities. Even their underlying numbers are almost identical across the board. Lester, though, has now been this dominant in 17 extra playoff innings, so you could argue that his October resume is actually even more impressive.

For all the talk about the Giants ace as the dominant postseason hurler of his time, Lester is in that conversation ,too. And after another great outing last night, he’s one of the big reasons the Cubs are now one win away from the World Series.

Starting Pitching Is Important, Too

It seems a bit silly to write a piece extolling the virtues of starting pitching in the playoffs. Everyone knows starting pitching is important. Those guys pitch three times as many innings during the regular season as their relief counterparts. They win almost all the Cy Young awards — and sometimes MVPs, as well. The narrative this postseason, however, has seen the importance of starters take a back seat to a collection of guys who — either because they’ve lacked the ability to pitch every five days or, otherwise, proved unable to turn over a lineup — have been subsequently moved to the bullpen. Relievers are great — and they’re obviously exerting a tremendous influence on the current postseason — but the starting pitcher’s impact on a game is still great, no matter how early the bullpen comes in to save the day and earn our praise.

Earlier this week, Dave Cameron discussed how bullpen usage was killing offenses this postseason. Teams were shaving off more than an out per game from the starters, who were averaging a little over five innings per start. Going to good relievers earlier and avoiding pitching fatigued starters without having to use the typical below-average long man has kept offense down. On the other hand, five innings of work still represents more than half the outs in a baseball game and it’s the starters who are recording those outs.

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Let’s Make the Bullpen Catcher the Emergency Catcher

This postseason has featured plenty of interesting baseball with all sorts of compelling performances. Without diminishing Javy Baez‘s tags or Clayton Kershaw’s brilliance, it’s probably fair to say that the two main storylines have concerned bullpen usage and the impact of replay. Perhaps we’ve reached a bullpen tipping point, but it seems almost certain that this postseason will lead the league to revise exactly how replay is applied to split-second base detachments.

While most people have latched onto these stories, I’ve had my eye on something different. The Cubs and Dodgers both carried three catchers for at least one series and have both used three catchers in a single game during these playoffs. Admittedly, this is a less important and obvious development than bullpen changes and replay controversies, but it sets up a discussion I’ve been wanting to have about a potential rule change.

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Jeff Sullivan FanGraphs Chat — 10/21/16

Jeff Sullivan: Well geez everybody

Jeff Sullivan: Let’s Friday baseball chat

Bork: Hello, friend!

Jeff Sullivan: Hello friend

TBJESE: Jon Lester is so weird!

Jeff Sullivan: In entirely unusual ways he has to be the most awesome player in baseball to overanalyze

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Contract Crowdsourcing 2016-17: Day 10 of 10

Free agency begins five days after the end of the World Series. As in other recent offseasons, FanGraphs is once again facilitating this offseason a contract-crowdsourcing project, the idea being to harness the wisdom of the crowds to the end of better understanding the giant and large 2016-17 free-agent market.

Below are links to the final six ballots for this year’s free agents, including all relief pitchers.

Other Players: Pedro Alvarez / Erick Aybar / Jose Bautista / Carlos Beltran / Joe Blanton / Billy Butler / Andrew Cashner / Santiago Casilla / Brett Cecil / Aroldis Chapman / Bartolo Colon / Rajai Davis / Ian Desmond / R.A. Dickey / Edwin Encarnacion / Doug Fister / Dexter Fowler / Carlos Gomez / Jeremy Hellickson / Rich Hill / Greg Holland / Matt Holliday / Austin Jackson / Jon Jay / Matt Joyce / Colby Lewis / Brandon Moss / Mike Napoli / Ivan Nova / Angel Pagan / Steve Pearce / Wilson Ramos / Colby Rasmus / Josh Reddick / Michael Saunders / Kurt Suzuki / Mark Trumbo / Justin Turner / Chase Utley / Luis Valbuena / Edinson Volquez / Neil Walker / Matt Wieters / C.J. Wilson.


Kenley Jansen (Profile)
Some relevant information regarding Jansen:

  • Has averaged 62 IP and 2.3 WAR over last three seasons.
  • Has averaged 2.5 WAR per 65 IP over last three seasons.
  • Recorded a 3.2 WAR in 68.2 IP in 2016.
  • Is projected to record 2.9 WAR per 65 IP**.
  • Is entering his age-29 season.
  • Made $10.7M in 2016, after avoiding arbitration in January.

*That is, a roughly average number of innings for a starting pitcher.
**Prorated version of final updated 2016 depth-chart projections available here.

Click here to estimate years and dollars for Jansen.

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The Math Behind Jon Lester’s Harmless Oddities

Jeff Sullivan wrote a post this morning about Jon Lester and the running game. He mentioned that I’d also be writing a post about Jon Lester and the running game, but with a greater emphasis on the numbers side of it. This is that post.

Before we get to the actual numbers, a note about Jon Lester himself. In a way, for much of his career, Lester almost been consistent to a fault. To the point where his greatness borders on boring, or forgettable. In nine years since taking on a full workload, he’s made between 31 and 33 starts in each season, always 191 and 219 innings. He had a three-year run of his ERA- being 71, then 73, then 75, and four of his nine FIP- have been between 73-76. His fastball has sat between 91.8 and 93.5 miles per hour — right at or below average — in each of those nine years. Lester’s had his two best seasons by ERA in the last three years, but even then, his FIP- figures have read: 75, 75, 82. Just consistent ol’ Jon Lester. Nothing remarkable here.

And yet, somehow, the longer Lester remains consistent, the more we realize he’s one of the most fascinating and unique specimens in the game. We realize he simply refuses to attempt a pickoff throw to first base, and that’s because when he’s forced to field a ground ball and make an overhand throw to first, he just literally can’t do it. The pitcher just cannot throw. We realize that he’s maybe the worst hitter, ever, like in MLB history. And so we watch each one of his starts with amazement, as the gifted, elite athlete is unable to hide his inexplicable ineptitudes, and as the opposition just… fails to exploit them?

Give the Dodgers credit. They sure as hell tried. Kind of. At the very least, they sure as hell put put all of Lester’s bizarre quirks front and center stage in their 8-4 NLCS Game 5 loss on Thursday night. It’s just, none of it mattered.

The Dodgers wasted no time letting Lester know that they knew. This was the first pitch Lester threw:

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Why They Don’t Run Like Mad On Jon Lester

In Game 5, the Dodgers stole two bases against Jon Lester, out of two attempts. Stretch that over, say, a 33-start season, and you’ve got a pitcher who’s given up 66 steals in 66 chances. That pitcher, we’d say, was historically bad at controlling the running game. It would be a huge, distracting problem. The Dodgers did take a little advantage of Lester, which was a part of their plan, and though in the end it wasn’t enough, it was something worth trying.

Yet the Dodgers could’ve pushed it further. And this was a topic of much discussion. The Dodgers danced around, taking incredibly, unprecedentedly aggressive leads, but still they didn’t seize every chance to put the game in motion. Even though Lester clearly has the yips, and everyone knows it, Dodger baserunners still exercised some amount of caution. A seventh-inning screenshot I took will stick with me:


You — you might remember Enrique Hernandez.

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Job Postings: Detroit Tigers Baseball Analytics Manager, Data Architect and Intern

To be clear, there are three postings here.

Position: Detroit Tigers Manager, Baseball Analytics

Location: Detroit
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Defense Is At Its Best In October, Too

Hello! Do you like baseball posts about how the playoffs are different? You have come to one of the right places.

Let’s go over some easy stuff. The playoffs, just by being what they are, select for the best baseball teams. Playoff rosters are selective for the best hitters, and they’re also selective for the best pitchers. Because of the nature of the series, and with all the off days, you see bullpens used more aggressively. We wrote about that yesterday, and everyone has written about that on every day, for the past few weeks. The Indians are in the World Series, and they mostly have their bullpen to thank, and, yeah, that’s the big story in the AL as we wait to identify the other half.

I want to talk briefly about how defense factors into this. Maybe it’ll surprise you, or maybe it won’t, but come playoff time, even batted balls themselves more often meet a negative fate. Strikeouts tend to go up, and homers tend to go down, but even when you concentrate on plays where hitters knock the ball fair, you still see things favoring run suppression.

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Prime Ball-in-Play Traits of the 10 Playoff Teams, Part 2

The playoffs roll on, with subplots galore, most of them involving pitching-staff usage patterns that are long overdue. Meanwhile, let’s conclude our two-part series examining macro team BIP data for the 10 playoff teams, broken down by exit speed and launch angles. (Read the Part 1 here.) We’ll examine what made these teams tick during the regular season and allowed them to play meaningful October baseball. It’s more or less a DNA analysis of the clubs that made it to the game’s second season.

First, some ground rules. For each club, all offensive and defensive batted balls were broken down (first) by type and (second) by exit speed. Not all batted balls generated exit speed and/or launch angle data; just over 14% were unread, most of them weakly hit balls at very high or low launch angles. How do we know this? Well, hitters batted .161 AVG-.213 SLG on them, a pretty strong clue.

BIP types do not strictly match up with FanGraphs classifications. For purposes of this exercise, any batted ball with a launch angle of over 50 degrees is considered a pop up, between 20 and 50 degrees is a fly ball, between 5 and 20 degrees is a line drive, and below 5 degrees is a ground ball. For background purposes, here are the outcomes by major-league hitters for each of those BIP types: .019 AVG-.027 SLG on pop ups (5.7% of measured BIP), .326 AVG-.887 SLG on fly balls (30.9%), .658 AVG-.870 SLG on liners (24.4%) and .238 AVG-.260 SLG on grounders (39.1%).

As you might expect, there are massive differences in production within BIP types based on relative exit speed. If you hit a fly ball over 100 mph, you’re golden, batting .766 AVG-2.739 SLG. If you drag that category’s lower boundary down just 5 mph, however, you get to the top of the donut hole, where fly balls go to die. Hitters batted just .114 AVG-.209 SLG on fly balls between 75-95 mph. All other fly balls — yes, even including those hit under 75 mph — fared much better, generating .387 AVG-.786 production.

Line drives tend to be base hits at almost all exit speeds. All the way down to 75 mph, hitters bat over .600 on batted balls in the line-drive launch-angle ranges; down to 65 mph, hitters still bat around .400 range in each velocity bucket. At 65 mph and higher, a liner generates an average .673 AVG-.889 SLG line. Under 65 mph, liners tend to land in infielders’ gloves; hitters batted just .170 AVG-.194 SLG on those. On the ground, hitters batted a strong .423 AVG-.456 SLG on grounders hit at 100 mph or higher. Under 85 mph, however, the hits dry up almost totally, with hitters producing a .107 AVG and .117 SLG. Between 85-100 mph, hitters bat closer to the overall grounder norm, at .267 AVG-.294 SLG.

With that as a backdrop, let’s conclude our look at each playoff club’s offensive and defensive BIP profiles. Last time, we profiled the Orioles, Red Sox, Cubs, Indians and Dodgers; today, we’ll look at the other five, in alphabetical order:

New York Mets
Two of the 10 playoff teams played well over their true talent this season, at least based on my BIP-centric method of team evaluation. Both will be covered today. First, the Mets hit significantly more pop ups than their opponents (+69), not including untracked ones in that 14% “null” group. On the positive side, the Mets hit 160 more fly balls than their opponents; they were a whopping +86 vis-à-vis their opponents in the 95-105 mph buckets. This explains why they hit 66 more homers than their opponents.

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Against the Idea of the Blue Jays Rebuilding

The 2016 Blue Jays are finished, having been killed off by a playoff-specific mutation of a pitching staff. If it’s any consolation, 97% of all baseball team-seasons end with some sort of disappointment. But seasons end abruptly, even the good ones, and the focus has already shifted. The 2016 Blue Jays aren’t really to be discussed anymore. From this point forward, it’s all about the 2017 Blue Jays, and beyond.

There’s no possible way you’ve missed that this is going to be a challenging offseason. The resurgent Blue Jays in large part built their identity around Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion. Two of those players are about to become free agents, and both of them are likely to leave. It’s hard to picture the Blue Jays without them, and it’s a hell of a lot less fun to picture the Blue Jays without them. The Jays were pure baseball entertainment, and Bautista and Encarnacion became area icons.

With them probably gone, it makes you wonder if the Jays should rebuild. The roster isn’t particularly young, and earlier today Dave laid out the argument for why the Blue Jays should take an intentional step back. I’m here to argue *not* for that. Dave and I didn’t set out to do this on purpose, but it just so happened that we have differing perspectives. You can choose to go along with whichever one you prefer.

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Despite Postseason, Bullpen Revolution Not Imminent

Relievers, and their usage, have been at the forefront of nearly every playoff conversation this year. Many articles have been written about Andrew Miller. He’s entered games in the fifth, he’s pitched multiple innings every time out, and he is the best reliever on his team. Kenley Jansen has come in during the seventh, didn’t close out the game, and his team won in nine innings. Aroldis Chapman has come in multiple times with runners on base in high-leverage situations. This type of use has been called for in some corners for quite some time, and it would be nice to think some sort of a trend has started that will carry over to future years. Don’t hold your breath.

Two years ago, Kansas City used a collection of mediocre starters and a knockout bullpen to advance to the World Series and it seemed, at the time, that thoughts were changing about relievers. And that might have been the right reaction. It wasn’t just necessary to have a good closer. To shorten the game, great relievers could be used in the seventh and eighth innings to make up for a lack of starting pitching. With starting pitchers generally earning greater annual wages (and deservedly so), teams could more easily acquire relievers. And teams proceeded to do so: after a total of 21 free-agent relievers signed multi-year contracts in the four seasons prior to the Royals’ first run to the Series, 17 similar contracts have been signed in the last two years alone, per the Transaction Tracker at MLB Trade Rumors. Teams weren’t just paying for saves, either.

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The Blue Jays Should Rebuild

Earlier than they wanted to confront this reality, the Blue Jays are now in offseason mode. Their 2016 campaign was laid to rest yesterday by a rookie with Mark Buehrle‘s fastball and a reliever with an unhittable slider, so today is day one of the remaking of the Blue Jays roster. And perhaps more than any other team this winter, they’ve got some big decisions to make.

You know about the two big ones; Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion are both eligible for free agency, and in a thin market, both are going to be looking for significant raises. The Blue Jays almost certainly won’t bring back both; they might not bring back either one. Toronto’s potent lineup is going to change, and the 2017 Blue Jays are going to have to take on a different identity than the teams that slugged their way to the ALCS in consecutive seasons.

But the decisions don’t stop at whether to re-sign one of their sluggers; the Jays probably have to decide how aggressively they want to push in on the short term, and whether they’re going to try to keep their current window open, or pivot more towards a long-term outlook that might make 2017 a lesser priority. Bautista and Encarnacion aren’t going to be the decisions; what the team does with those two will be the result of the organization’s larger decision. And in looking at their options, I think there’s a strong case to be made that the Blue Jays should not just tweak the roster this winter, but intentionally take a step back next year.

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So You Want to Beat Andrew Miller: A Walkthrough

Congratulations, [National League champion], on winning the National League pennant and advancing to the World Series! By this point, no matter what happens, you’ve had a hell of a year. You fought through [early-to-midseason adversity], [previously unheralded player] stepped up and made a name for himself, [star player] cemented his status as one of the true greats in the world, and [famous front-office executive or manager] really has a group to be proud of here. This has truly been a run to remember.

And now you’ve got one more task before you can put a bow on this season once and for all: the Cleveland Indians. The Indians didn’t have as rocky a road as you did to get here; they swept the Red Sox in the ALDS, nearly swept the Blue Jays in the ALCS, and have won 10 of their last 11 games dating back to September 30. And, while there’s a lot of praise to go around for those victories, you and I both know you biggest individual challenge that awaits you in the World Series: the 6-foot-7 swamp monster that comes out of their bullpen the moment they get a lead by the name of Andrew Miller.

He just won the ALCS MVP. In this postseason, he’s thrown 20 scoreless innings, striking out 31 with just three walks. The last time he gave up a run was more than a month ago, on September 7. He’s recorded more than three outs in every one of his postseason appearances. In every game he’s pitched, the Indians have won. If you want this World Series, that might mean conquering Miller at least once, so, since you asked, I put together that comprehensive walkthrough you wanted. This wasn’t easy.

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Eno Sarris Baseball Chat — 10/20/16

Eno Sarris: this is not a comment on any baseball player or team, I just like this song
Art Vandelay: Well, I lost my first shipment beer in the four years I’ve been trading. Unfortunately, it was a bottle of Ensorcelled I picked up for my brother-in-law! Even more strange is that fedex repacked all the other beers and sent them back to me!
Eno Sarris: That is super strange!
Buck Saltwater: Should the Jays offer a QO to Saunders?
Eno Sarris: Yes.
Not Ryan Merritt: World Series odds currently on Playoff Odds page:

Dodgers – 35.4%
Indians – 32.9%
Cubs – 31.7%

Even if the Indians are the underdogs to both the Dodgers and Cubs, shouldn’t they be a little closer to 50%?

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This Was the Lowest-Scoring ALCS in History

You might have heard offense has been down this postseason. I think one or two articles have been written about it. After the Blue Jays were shut out for the second time in the American League Championship Series, I wanted to see how much it’s been down. What I found: this ALCS was one of the lowest-scoring in history.

First, a little refresher. The ALCS has existed since 1969. From ’69 until 1984, it was a best-of-five series. Since, it’s been a best of seven. You probably already knew that, but just in case, now you definitely know. And knowing

Anyway, there were 20 runs scored in this series — 12 by Cleveland, eight by the Blue Jays. This makes it the lowest of any ALCS since it moved to a best-of-seven format. The only series that comes close is the 1990 ALCS, when the A’s scored 20 runs to the Red Sox’ measly four. It’s also easily the lowest of any series in terms of runs per game.

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