ALDS preview: Blue Jays, Rangers meet in unexpected showdown
Once upon a time—July 28, to be exact—the thought of a 2015 playoff series involving either the Blue Jays (50–51, eight games back in the AL East) or the Rangers (47–52, eight back in the AL West) appeared to be a longshot. One involving both teams as division champions? That might be grounds for a breathalyzer test.
Yet thanks to the aggressiveness of general managers Alex Anthopoulos and Jon Daniels, Toronto and Texas both received significant upgrades just before the July 31 deadline—the former via blockbuster trades for Troy Tulowitzki and David Price, the latter with a similarly headline-worthy deal for Cole Hamels. Through those moves and others, the two teams raced to the league’s top two records down the stretch, with the Blue Jays going 43–18 to earn their first postseason berth since 1993 and the Rangers going 41–22 to return to the playoffs after a two-year absence.
Led by a trio of sluggers—Josh Donaldson (41 homers), Jose Bautista (40) and Edwin Encarnacion (39)—the Jays' juggernaut bashed out 5.50 runs per game, the majors' highest rate since 2009. They led the league with 232 round-trippers and a .458 slugging percentage, but this is hardly a one-dimensional group. Toronto's 570 walks and .340 on-base percentage were also first in the AL, its .269 batting average was second, and the team's 88 stolen bases were fourth (with an AL-best 79% success rate). If there's a knock to be had, it's that the Jays grounded into more double plays (140) than all but one team, but even that is a function of getting runners on in the first place.
Relative to the league, the Jays received above-average offense from every position except leftfield (97 sOPS+—that's split OPS, indexed to the league's production just as regular OPS+ is) and centerfield (95 sOPS+). The team posted the league's top OPS against both lefties (.818) and righties (.790); each of those performances was good for a 118 sOPS+. The team's lefthanded presence consists primarily of deadline pickup Ben Revere (.319/.354/.381 after being acquired), switch-hitting first baseman Justin Smoak, second baseman Ryan Goins, backup catcher Dioner Navarro and backup outfielder Ezequiel Carrera. That isn't a particularly imposing group.
On the other hand (literally), the Jays are awash in the seemingly rare commodity that is righthanded power. Donaldson, Bautista, Encarnacion, Russell Martin (23 homers), Chris Colabello (15 in a platoon with Smoak), Kevin Pillar (12, not to mention some of the most entertaining outfield defense this side of Mike Trout and Kevin Kiermaier) et al combined to set a major league record with 200 homers, 10 more than the 1996 Athletics and 12 more than the 2010 Blue Jays, who featured Bautista’s 54-homer breakout.
Tulowitzki hit only five homers in his 41 games for Toronto with a modest .239/.317/.380 line, but with his 17 homers overall, he's one more righty power source who can't be overlooked. The 30-year-old shortstop is not free of the pain caused by the cracked left shoulder blade that cost him three weeks in September, but he is on the roster after going 3-for-8 with a pair of doubles in two games against the Rays over the final weekend of the season.
As for the Rangers, their 4.64 runs per game ranked third in the league, but some of that was a function of their hitter-friendly ballpark; the team's 98 OPS+ is 20 points lower than that of the Blue Jays. Their 172 homers and .413 slugging percentage ranked seventh, though their 503 walks were fourth, and their .325 on-base percentage and 101 steals were both third. Admittedly, Texas' numbers look a whole lot better once you wave off the team's combined .210/.293/.318 showing during an April in which it went 7–14 and averaged 3.57 runs per game. They've come a long way, baby.
Indeed, the lineup's most productive hitters proved their resilience, relative either to their abysmal starts, last year's injury-plagued campaigns or both. Shin-soo Choo rebounded from a .427 OPS in April to finish the year at .276/.375/463 with 22 homers and a 125 OPS+. Prince Fielder, who lost most of 2014 to neck surgery, hit .305/.378/.463 with 23 homers and a 126 OPS+. Future Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre dug himself out of an early-season hole to finish with a 110 OPS+. Rougned Odor came back strong from a five-week detour to Triple A, hitting .292/.334/.527 with 15 homers in 367 PA from June 15 onward.
Then there's Mitch Moreland, who emerged as a legitimate offensive threat. On the year, he hit .278/.330/.482 with 23 homers (tied with Fielder for the team high) and ranked as the league's second-best hitter in terms of Championship Win Probability Added (cWPA), which is the percentage by which a hitter increases or decreases a team's odds of winning the World Series, based upon both game and season leverage; his 3.9% mark is smack-dab in between those of MVP candidates Donaldson and Trout (4.1 and 3.8%, respectively).
Other players who either weren't with the team to start the season or weren't expected to take on key roles followed similar arcs. August acquisition Mike Napoli hit .295/.396/.513 with five homers in 91 PA as a platoon complement to Moreland and occasional leftfielder. Delino DeShields, left unprotected in the Rule 5 draft by the Astros due to issues involving his effort level, claimed the centerfield job and hit .261/.344/.374 with 25 steals. Josh Hamilton, who mostly struggled (.253/.291/.441 with eight homers in 182 PA between injuries) after being traded back from the Angels, closed the season on a high note by shivving the team that ran him out of town on a rail. Manager Jeff Banister is hoping that Hamilton can serve as the team's regular leftfielder in the Division Series, though the Rogers Centre turf could be a factor with regards to his surgically repaired left knee; Napoli and fellow trade pickup Will Venable are the alternatives if he needs a breather.
Beyond those stories of redemption, it's worth noting that the Rangers do list significantly to the left side via Choo, Fielder, Moreland, Odor and Hamilton, most of whom scuffled at least somewhat against same-siders—a factor when Price is on the mound, if nothing else. That said, the team's sOPS+ of 105 versus righties and 104 versus lefties suggests that platoon issues won't be as big a factor as their overall challenge of keeping up with the Jays. EDGE: Blue Jays.
Beyond the addition of the much-needed aces, in-season improvements allowed these two teams to set aside their tomato-can rotation fillers along the way. Citing their overall rankings in ERA and FIP is largely irrelevant, as the likes of Drew Hutchison, Mark Buehrle, Wandy Rodriguez or Ross Detwiler won't be taking turns.
Still, the Jays do appear to have a significant edge. Price, their Game 1 starter, led the AL with a 2.45 ERA overall and was more dominant in his 11 starts after being acquired from the Tigers (2.30 ERA, 2.22 FIP, 10.5 K/9) than before (2.53 ERA, 3.06 FIP, 8.5 K/9) thanks to better infield defense (.296 BABIP before the trade, .283 after) and a slight uptick in velocity. While his overall postseason resume is spotty (4.50 ERA in 40 innings), he was strong in his lone ALDS start for the Tigers last year.
Game 2 starter Marcus Stroman made a nearly unprecedented in-season return from a torn left ACL suffered in March thanks to a cutting edge approach to his rehab. He posted a 1.67 ERA in four starts totaling 27 innings, but struck out just 6.0 per nine; within the small sample sizes, it's worth noting that he used an approach that was far more sinker-slider-changeup oriented than last year's four-seamer-cutter-curve attack, and it made him more efficient. He generated a 64% ground-ball rate and needed just 3.59 pitches per plate appearance, compared to last year's 53.8% ground-ball rate and 3.90 P/PA.
Estrada's improvement may well be an illusion, as his home-run rate rose from an already gaudy 1.06 per nine to 1.34 after the break and his BABIP fell from .252 to an insanely low .182, but don't overlook the team’s defensive improvements wrought by the arrival of Tulowitzki and the more regular play of Goins. The team's BABIP as a whole dropped 29 points after the All-Star break, from .293 to .264. Platoon-wise, Dickey is the one starter whose 2015 body of work against righties (.745 OPS, 119 points higher than Estrada) is cause for concern. As in 2014, he was actually more effective against lefties (.666 OPS), which could mean more Napoli in Games 1 and 4 than 2 and 3.
At this writing, Banister has only officially announced his Game 1 and 2 starters, Yovani Gallardo and Hamels, who would have been on three days' rest for the opener. In his first year as a Ranger, Gallardo was solid, with a 3.42 ERA (124 ERA+) and 4.00 FIP, but his once-impressive strikeout rate fell precipitously for the third straight year, from 9.0 to 7.2 to 6.8 to 5.9. What's more, his quality-start rate plummeted to a career-low 36%, as he didn't pitch more than six innings in any of his 17 turns from July onwards, and he posted a dramatic ERA split: 2.62 before the All-Star break, 4.69 after. One reason for optimism: He threw 13 2/3 scoreless innings in two starts against the Blue Jays, one on June 27, the other on Aug. 27. Pessimism: He was a punching bag in September, thumped at a .347/.396/.556 clip in six starts.
As for Hamels, his overall numbers (3.66 ERA, 3.47 FIP, 9.1 K/9) were a step backwards from his typical brilliance, but he was a dependable plow horse, particularly after being acquired, averaging seven innings per turn and never failing to last six. With a 3.09 ERA and 8.5 K/9 in 13 October starts, he's as battle-tested as they come. Given his stamina relative to Stroman, Hamels’s start is where the Rangers have the advantage; their path to an upset depends heavily upon his turn.
Regarding the balance of the rotation, Banister has tabbed lefty Martin Perez for Game 3, leaving the choice for Game 4 between lefty Derek Holland and righty Colby Lewis, with the other pitching out of the bullpen. All three were below-average in run prevention, but of the last two, Lewis, who pitched a team-high 204 1/3 innings, albeit with a 4.66 ERA (91 ERA+) and a 4.17 FIP, would seem to have a stronger case for a start. Perez returned from Tommy John surgery and posted a 4.66 ERA but 3.40 FIP in 14 starts overall; in six September starts, he managed a 3.60 ERA and 3.68 FIP. Holland returned from a 2014 largely lost to microfracture surgery on his left knee and then a shoulder strain suffered during the first inning of his '15 debut to make 10 starts with a 4.91 ERA and 5.03 FIP, but was rocked for a 6.19 ERA in six September starts. Both Perez and Holland were lit up by righties (.777 OPS and .848, respectively), with the former stronger by a wide margin against lefties (.537 OPS to .740). EDGE: Blue Jays.
Both of these bullpens underwent considerable evolution over the course of the season, such that their overall rankings don’t mean much. Twenty-year-old rookie Roberto Osuna emerged as Toronto's closer in late June and converted 20 out of 22 save opportunities, posting a 2.58 ERA, 3.02 FIP and 9.7 strikeouts per nine. Aaron Sanchez is the top righty setup man; as a reliever, he pitched to a 2.39 ERA and 3.10 FIP, aided by an eye-opening 67.6% ground-ball rate. Lefty Brett Cecil, whom Toronto manager John Gibbons said “could be the most worked and overworked guy in the postseason if things go our way,” showed a minimal platoon split, whiffing 11.6 per nine en route to a 2.48 ERA and 2.34 FIP.
Gibbons opted to take another lefty for matchup purposes in Aaron Loup, who posted an unimpressive 4.46 ERA accompanied by a 6.6 K/BB ratio (9.8 strikeouts and 1.5 walks per nine). He held lefties to a .704 OPS, not allowing a homer to any of the 76 such batters he faced, compared to an .825 OPS and six homers allowed to 110 righty batters. Of the other righties, former starter Liam Hendriks is the one most likely to notch a strikeout. Adding a few ticks of velocity in reinventing himself as reliever, he whiffed 9.9 per nine and walked just 1.5 per nine, holding righties to a .499 OPS against. Old hands Mark Lowe and LaTroy Hawkins, who helped stabilize the bullpen after being acquired in late July, both saw their strikeout rates drop upon joining the Jays but were generally solid. Including his time in Seattle, Lowe pitched to a 1.96 ERA and 2.57 FIP; Hawkins, who arrived with Tulowitzki, was at 3.26 via both marks.
For the Rangers, Shawn Tolleson became the closer in mid-May and went 35-for-37 in saves, pitching to a 2.99 ERA and 3.44 FIP with 9.5 strikeouts per nine. Setup man Sam Dyson, who posted a 30/4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 31 1/3 innings after being acquired from the Marlins, hasn’t allowed a run over his past 17 appearances and hasn’t allowed an inherited runner to score in his past 29 appearances. Twenty-two-year-old rookie Keone Kela, who posted a 2.39 ERA with 10.1 strikeouts per nine, hasn’t allowed a run since July 30, a span of 19 appearances, but he has battled elbow soreness lately, which might prevent him from working on back-to-back days.
Also a relative newcomer but now one of Banister’s trusted high-leverage relievers is lefty Jake Diekman, acquired in the Hamels trade. He’s gone from a 5.15 ERA in 36 2/3 innings with his old club to a 2.08 mark in 21 2/3 innings with Texas. While he showed a reverse platoon split this year, he’s generally been more effective against lefties than righties.
As for the rest of the bullpen, righties Ross Ohlendorf and Chi Chi Gonzalez will join Perez. Absent from the majors in 2014 due to back woes and hampered by a recurrent groin injury this year, Ohlendorf threw just 19 2/3 innings for the Rangers this year, and wobbly ones at that. Gonzalez (67 innings covering 10 starts and four relief appearances, with a 3.90 ERA but a 4.97 FIP and more walks than strikeouts) doesn’t inspire tremendous confidence, either. EDGE: Blue Jays
The Pick: Blue Jays
While Toronto appears to have an advantage in each area covered above, this isn’t necessarily going to be a rout, particularly given the presence of Hamels and the vulnerabilities of both Estrada and Dickey. Still, it’s tough not to be impressed by the damage that the Jays’ top-line talent can do.