AL wild-card game preview: Orioles, Blue Jays bring power to playoffs
- Two of baseball's best offenses square off in Toronto, but which team will come out on top and earn a trip to the Division Series to face the Rangers?
The Blue Jays and Orioles both battled until the final day of the season to secure wild-card berths, with the former losing nine of their first 12 September games, costing them first place in the AL East; they went just 13–16 from Sept. 1 onward. The latter, on the other hand, went 17–12 in that span. Those arcs may attach themselves to convenient and entertaining narratives, but functionally it doesn't matter: Since the two-team wild card debuted in 2012, the team with the better September/October record has gone just 4–4 in the game itself. The Blue Jays have home field advantage on the basis of their 10–9 season series edge, but so far, home teams are 2–6 in the wild-card game. The right to play the Rangers in the Division Series will hinge on other matters.
Chris Tillman (16–6, 3.77 ERA) vs. Marcus Stroman (9–10, 4.37 ERA)
Managers Buck Showalter and John Gibbons both had tough choices to make. Of the two, the more surprising is Toronto's. For as mercurial as lefty Francisco Liriano can be, he pitched well down the stretch, with a 2.92 ERA, 3.98 FIP and 9.5 strikeouts per nine since being acquired from the Pirates. What's more, the Orioles hit just .234/.301/.392 against lefties, ranking last in the AL in OPS and in the bottom two in the individual slash stats. Chris Davis is anemic against same-siders (.217/.312/.400 in 199 plate appearances), and even righties Matt Wieters, Mark Trumbo, Adam Jones and Nolan Reimold were dreadful against lefties as well, with OPSes of .651 or lower. By contrast, the Orioles hit .263/.322/.461 for the league's second-highest OPS (.783) and slugging percentage against righties.
Liriano may still play a role in this game as a middle reliever, but it's Stroman getting the start. The 25-year-old righty did not post impressive full-season numbers, with an ERA+ of just 97. That said, his peripherals were better than that (3.71 FIP), but he was stung by a .310 batting average on balls in play. He was a much better pitcher in the second half (3.68 ERA, 3.49 FIP, 8.5 strikeouts per nine) than the first (4.89 ERA, 3.88 FIP, 6.4 K/9) and generated an AL-high 60.1% ground-ball rate that should serve him well in facing a team that led the majors in homers (253) and percentage of runs via homers (51.7%). Don't look for him to go too deep into the game, though: Like most pitchers, he tends to get raked over the coals his third time through the order (.281/.321/.515 this year).
As for the Orioles, the choice might have seemed obvious on the surface: Tillman is the only Baltimore starter to win more than 10 games and holds a 118 ERA+ that wasn't far off staff leader (and last Sunday's starter) Kevin Gausman's 123. That said, the 28-year-old Tillman endured a rocky final six weeks, missing three weeks due to shoulder soreness. Upon returning, he managed just 19 innings in his final four starts, with an average fastball velocity down 1.4 mph from what it was before his injury (91.7 vs. 93.1). What's more, Tillman's second-half ERA was over a run higher than the first (4.45 versus 3.45) even with similar FIPs (4.24 versus 4.20), and he whiffed just 6.4 per nine after the All-Star break compared to 7.8 per nine prior, though he did cut down his homer rate from 1.1 to 0.8 per nine.
The other choice for Showalter would have been Ubaldo Jimenez on four days' rest. The veteran righty was among the worst pitchers in all of the majors in the first half, with a Boeing-esque 7.38 ERA, but he posted a 2.45 ERA and 3.80 FIP over his final seven starts totaling 47 2/3 innings. When he gets his mechanics right—admittedly, it's not often—he's a more-than-serviceable pitcher. He'll be available out of the bullpen for Tuesday night's game, as will fellow righty Dylan Bundy (4.02 ERA, 4.70 FIP); Showalter could use either in a long man role if need be.
Both of these teams feature six players who hit at least 20 homers this season. The Orioles, as noted, led the majors in round-trippers, and the Blue Jays were third in the AL (221). The Jays were fifth in the league in scoring (4.69 runs per game), the Orioles were seventh (4.59 per game). The Jays were the most patient team in the league in terms of both pitches per plate appearances (4.03) and walks (632 and a 10.1% rate), and the Orioles were slightly below average in both areas (3.86 P/PA, 468 walks and a 7.7% rate).
The Blue Jays have power at every position save for centerfield, where Kevin Pillar was the only regular not to reach double digits in homers. Josh Donaldson (.284/.404/.549, 152 OPS+) and Edwin Encarnacion (.263/.357/.529, 133 OPS+) are the biggest bats, with Jose Bautista (.234/.366/.452 with 22 homers and a 117 OPS+) limited to just 116 games due to injuries. Toronto leans heavily to the right, particularly with Encarnacion at first base instead of weak-link switch hitter Justin Smoak; as a team, the Jays' .758 OPS against righties ranked sixth in the league. Ezequiel Carerra and Michael Saunders will likely be the only lefty-swinging starters, covering the outfield corners and designated hitter in some combination with Bautista. Carrera's numbers against righties were bad (.218/.307/.320 in 232 PA), but he's the hot hand, batting .304/.353/.457 in 53 PA in September/October, whereas righty-swinging platoon partner Melvin Upton Jr. scuffled (.156/.278/.244 in 54 PA over that same stretch). Saunders (.149 /.230/.224 in 75 PA) and Russell Martin (.161/.315/.310 in 108 PA) have been frigid lately as well.
Manny Machado (.294/.343/.533, 128 OPS+) and Trumbo (.256/.316/.533, 120 OPS+) are the Orioles' most productive hitters, but the latter tailed off dramatically in the second half (.214/.284/.470) and is one of five starters with an OBP below .320; platoon outfielder Hyun-soo Kim (.382) and Machado are the only regulars above .332. The choice of a righty starter means that lefty-swinging Pedro Alvarez (.249/.322/.504 for a 115 OPS+) will likely start, but he will be keyed on by a lefty reliever in the later innings, as he's hit just .205/.271/.334 in his career against southpaws.
Neither of these teams is much threat to run. The Jays stole just 54 bases with a 68% success rate; Pillar (14-for-20) was the only player in double digits, though Upton (7-for-10) ran relatively frequently given his limited role. Toronto looks like the second coming of Henderson and Raines next to the Orioles, though: Baltimore stole just 19 bases at a 59% clip, and team leader Joey Rickard (four steals) isn't even on the roster due to injury. Keep an eye, however, on reserve outfielders Michael Bourn (13-for-18 in steals with the Diamondbacks), and Drew Stubs (8-for-8 with two other teams), both Aug. 31 acquisitions.
Kim and Reimold are Showalter's top pinch-hitters; the latter, who's likely to be on the bench, went 4-for-12 with a homer in that capacity this year but is just 10-for-47 with two homers in his career. Smoak (3-for-13) was Toronto's only player besides Martin to get more than nine trips to the plate in a pinch-hitting capacity.
The Orioles' bullpen had the league's lowest ERA (3.40), though their peripherals were just middling. Closer Zach Britton had a season that's put him in the Cy Young discussion (a perfect 47-for-47 in saves, 0.54 ERA, 9.9 strikeouts per nine). He had seven outings of more than three outs, including a two-inning stint against the Blue Jays on July 31, so don't be surprised to see him in the eighth inning. Setup man Brad Brach made the AL All-Star team along with Britton but was roughed up in the second half (3.94 ERA, 1.2 homers per nine) after being nearly untouchable in the first (0.91 ERA, 0.5 HR/9). Bundy was effective out of the pen (3.08, 0.7 HR/9, 7.6 K/9 in 38 innings), and Mychal Givens missed a ton of bats (11.6 K/9 to go with a 3.13 ERA). Sidearmer Darren O'Day, a Showalter favorite, missed half the season due to hamstring and rotator cuff strains and saw his ERA swell to 3.77. Besides Britton, the lefties on the roster for this game are Brian Duensing and Donnie Hart, who totaled all of 31 2/3 innings between them. Small-sample-size theater: Lefties went just 5-for-38 with a double against Hart and 4-for-21 with two extra-base hits against Duensing.
The Blue Jays' bullpen ranked just 12th in ERA and struggled down the stretch, with a 4.80 ERA in September. Closer Robert Osuna had an excellent season (36-for-42 in saves, 2.68 ERA, 10.0 strikeouts per nine), but the rest of the unit looks vulnerable right now. Toronto's most efficient setup man, Joaquin Benoit, was lost due to a calf strain suffered during a benches-clearing brawl against the Yankees, and setup men Joe Biagini and Jason Grilli were both lit up for unsightly ERAs down the stretch. On the other hand, lefties Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup combined to whiff 18 and allowed just one run in 13 1/3 innings in that span, though of the two, Cecil (.258/.310/.364) was by far the more effective against lefties.
That's a definite disadvantage for the Blue Jays, but one thing worth noting is the defensive gap between the two teams: The Blue Jays led the AL in defensive efficiency (.703) and were third in defensive runs saved, and Pillar, Troy Tulowitzki, Martin and Donaldson are standout defenders. The Orioles, who have one of the greats in Machado and good ones in Davis and shortstop J.J. Hardy, nonetheless were just eighth in defensive efficiency (.688) and 12th in DRS (-29); outfielders Trumbo, Jones and Kim were a combined 34 runs below average via DRS. If Tillman allows hard-hit balls, we could be seeing a lot of those players’ backs.