What we had on Monday night when the Rays and Rangers faced off was pseudo playoffs given its elimination status, but on Tuesday, when the Reds travel to Pittsburgh to take on the Pirates, we'll have officially kicked off the 2013 MLB postseason.
The Pirates are hosting a playoff round that didn't exist the last time they were in the postseason -- in fact, the round they're trying to advance to, the National League Division Series, was also unborn at the time. The Reds, on the other hand, are trying to reach their third NLDS since 2010, but, to be fair, the two franchises have won the same number of NLDS since the round's inception.
In short, this is going to be heartbreaking regardless of the victor, because only one of the two gets to be a playoff team past Tuesday. Better luck next year, future loser of the Wild Card round!
How did they get here?
For almost the entirety of the Pirates' multi-decade-spanning losing streak, they were a mediocre-to-horrific defensive team. Their pitching was poor as well -- try picking out the good arms the Pirates have produced or acquired since 1992 and you'll compile a pretty short list -- but they had no help at all from the defense behind them, either. Pittsburgh improved their pitching over the last couple of seasons, though, from a combination of promotions (Gerrit Cole) and acquisitions (A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano), and combined that with improved defenders afield. The result? Pittsburgh finished fourth in the National League in ERA+, and fifth in the majors in Defensive Efficiency, which measures the percentage of balls in play converted into outs.
This allowed them to win early on even when the lineup was ice cold, and helped prop up arms like Jeff Locke's in spite of his walk rate and penchant for allowing balls in play. A complete turnaround in their defensive abilities, coupled with the existence of major-league caliber arms, made all the difference in the world for the previously moribund franchise.
The Starter: Francisco Liriano
Liriano looked like a risky acquisition when he signed this past winter, but the Pirates needed to take risks to bring in free agents with upside. This one paid off, as Liriano was the Bucs' top pitcher on a rate basis this year, producing a 117 ERA+ with over a strikeout per inning in 26 starts and 161 innings. He's arguably the arm on the Pirates to start in a single-game, do-or-die elimination contest, and even though there is always the looming specter of a return to the Liriano that can't find the strike zone or command his fastball, the same upside that brought him to Pittsburgh to begin with makes him an intriguing option to kick off the first Pirates' playoff appearance in 21 years.
Strengths: Shutdown bullpen and Andrew McCutchen
The Pirates rotation is solid, but it's the bullpen that's been transcendent in 2013. As a unit, the pen owns a 2.89 ERA, held opponents to a line that was 20 percent worse than what the average relief corps achieved, and even threw 37 percent of Pittsburgh's total innings. The depth is a little crazy, as the five top arms all have sub-three ERA, led by Mark Melancon's 1.39 mark that slid into the closer role when Jason Grilli went down with an injury. Pirates starters might be lacking in length, but if the Pirates can lean on Grilli, Melancon, Justin Wilson, Tony Watson, Vin Mazzaro, and more, they could go deep into October.
As for McCutchen, he's arguably the best player on the field in this game, thanks to his impressive contributions at the plate (.317/.404/.508), on the bases (27/37 in steals), and defensively, where both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference credit him with roughly a win above replacement. Anything can happen in a single game, but having someone like McCutchen who can impact all facets of the game is, at the least, comforting to Pittsburgh.
Weaknesses: Well, here's the thing...
The lineup had holes, but after acquiring Marlon Byrd for the outfield, pushing Jody Mercer to shortstop to remove the execrable bat of Clint Barmes from the mix, and throwing Justin Morneau into the first base bin, the whole one through nine thing is working out well enough for the Pirates. In the playoffs, though, weakness is more a relative thing: while the Pirates lineup is fine and all on a day-to-day basis, it's certainly not great, and a high-quality arm could shut them down with ease. Unfortunately for the Bucs, they're facing a great arm in a single-game elimination contest, so we've found our possible weakness.
How did they get here?
The Reds won the NL Central in 2012, but then dropped the NLDS in five games to the eventual World Champion San Francisco Giants. They didn't have to do much to their roster to secure a playoff berth once more, at least in theory: it's a good thing they were proactive and acquired Shin-Soo Choo, because almost no one else on the 2013 Reds knew what to do with their bats anymore. They finished eighth in the NL in OPS+, but third in runs thanks to a quality performance with runners in scoring position.
The starting pitching was the real key for the Reds, as the six starters who took the mound most often in 156 of the Reds 162 contests all managed an ERA+ of at least 101, with rookie Tony Cingrani and Johnny Cueto both over 130, and Mat Latos at 121. Three of these six surpassed 200 innings, while Mike Leake just missed making four with his 192 frames.
The Starting Pitcher: Johnny Cueto
The aforementioned Cueto threw just 60-2/3 innings in 2013, but, as usual, they were dominant ones. The right-hander posted a 2.82 ERA that fit in snugly with his previous two seasons of work, and he allowed just one run in 12 innings after returning from a two-and-a-half-month layoff due to a latissumus dorsi strain. If he's feeling good, the Pirates could be in trouble: Cueto has a 154 ERA+ and 2.61 ERA dating back to 2011.
Strengths: Cueto, obviously, but Choo, Bruce, and Votto, too
As we mentioned with McCutchen, one player can swing things significantly in a game like this. Sure, any player can, given the whole anything can happen in baseball angle, but when you've got the best pitcher on either team on your side, as well as two of the NL's top hitters in Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto (with Jay Bruce riding shotgun), then you're coming from a pretty great place. The bullpen is great, just like Pittsburgh's, but if you had to bet on the driving force behind a win on Tuesday, it would likely be this group.
Weaknesses: The rest of the lineup
Jay Bruce was good, as per usual. Joey Votto hit .305/.435/.491, so no complaints there. Then there was Choo, who hit .285/.423/.462 for Cincinnati in his first (and possibly only) season in town. Other than these three, there wasn't a single above-average -- or even average -- regular in the lineup. Seriously, look at this:
That last column, sOPS+, is "split-adjusted OPS+". It's basically the same thing as OPS+ where average is 100, but position-specific in this case -- Reds catchers were at 78, ergo they were 22 percent worse than your average catcher. It's not a pretty lineup, despite what you might know of the history of the names in it, and that's why the importance of Choo, Bruce, and Votto can't be emphasized enough.