The teams remaining in the playoffs are similar on the surface, so it's as difficult as ever to project a winner even without getting into the sample-size issues and randomness the playoffs present. The Tigers and Cardinals had essentially the same offense in 2011, finishing fourth and fifth in Baseball Prospectus's True Average, and according to Fangraphs' wRC+, the Rangers, (113), Cardinals (111), and Tigers (109) are all in the same neighborhood, with the Brewers (105) just down the street.
Defensively, the Brewers, Cardinals, and Tigers are all about average, converting about 30 percent of balls in play into outs -- essentially allowing a .300 BABIP. None of the rotations are as frightening as those of departed teams such as the Rays or the Phillies, as they all have weak points: Rick Porcello, Randy Wolf, Derek Holland, and Kyle Lohse are capable, but don't exactly instill fear in the hearts of their opponents.
The Rangers are the one team to stand out in multiple areas in the playoffs, as they had the second-best defense in the majors according to Defensive Efficiency, and led the majors in True Average. Most importantly, though, might be their bullpen, as we saw in Monday night's Game 2 against the Tigers.
In an 11-inning game where starter Derek Holland failed to get out of the third frame, the Texas bullpen combined for 8-1/3 innings, striking out eight Tigers while walking just two, giving up four hits and no runs. They effectively threw a starter's workload -- and then some -- to hold the Tigers at bay and give their offense a chance to flip the Tigers bullpen on its back and strike its weak point for massive damage.
This wasn't a typical result in the regular season for the Rangers -- by reliever FIP, they were easily the worst of the playoff clubs, sitting alongside awful clubs like the Twins and Astros at the back of the league. The playoff pen and the regular season version are different creatures, though. For one, Mike Adams and Koji Uehara, two shutdown relievers acquired at the trade deadline, weren't on the team for the first four months of the season. Uehara threw 18 innings of relief for the Rangers down the stretch, striking out 23 batters while walking one. Adams showed he was no product of Petco Park, tossing 25 frames while striking out 8.8 per nine and walking just five batters.
That alone makes the bullpen a completely different than the one we see by looking at their season stats, but there's more. Alexi Ogando, who started 29 games and threw 169 innings in the regular season with a 127 ERA+, is now in the pen, as the former reliever started to tire down the stretch. While he found success in the rotation this year, his limited repertoire works even better in relief.
Ogando isn't the only starter working in relief, either, as Scott Feldman, who missed most of 2011 while recovering from microfracture surgery on his knee, is also in there. Feldman was responsible for just over half of the bullpen's innings in Game 2, throwing 4-1/3 innings of one-hit ball with four punch-outs, bridging the gap between Holland and the standard relievers.
That's three pitchers they can expect to carve through opponents, and a fourth in Feldman who can take the ball as a swingman when necessary, and all before you even get to closer Feliz, who pitched much better down the stretch as the team's closer than in the first half of the year, or old-but-effective lefty Darren Oliver. While the club also has Mike Gonzalez (acquired from Baltimore), the pen is deep enough that using him outside of emergencies like last night's, when the starter barely pitched, is unnecessary.
While the Cardinals also revamped their bullpen, and the Brewers have done a quality job with theirs especially after adding Francisco Rodriguez, no other playoff team has the depth in both shutdown arms and lengthy, quality ones that Texas does. General manager Jon Daniels turned the team's greatest weakness into a strength at the end of July, and the club's incredibly deep starting pitching made a stronger bullpen even tougher once playoff rosters were submitted. The playoffs are as random as ever, of course, but it's likely that this pen, when combined with the Rangers' other advantages, will be what separates this team from both last year's club, and this year's opponents come World Series time.