October 5, 2012
American League Wild Card Game (UPDATED)
Both the Rangers and the Orioles had a chance to capture a division title up until the final day of the regular season, but they couldn’t have arrived at that point any differently. The Rangers have been accumulating superstars and spending money for years now, and the club is coming off two straight World Series appearances. Baltimore, meanwhile, is in the bottom half of the league in terms of payroll and hasn’t made the postseason—or even finished above .500—since 1997. The O’s weren’t even a .500 team this year in terms of 3rd Order Winning Percentage, but in just a single-game series, it’s entirely possible their Cinderella run will continue.
The Orioles possess the worst offense among AL playoff teams in terms of both TAv and actual run-scoring. Exacerbating this deficiency is the September loss of leadoff hitter Nick Markakis. The team did add Thome, Machado, and (gulp) McLouth late in the season, though, and Reynolds finally began to hit, so they won’t be quite as hapless as the numbers indicate. Davis and Jones established themselves as legitimate middle-of-the-order threats this season, and the O’s do figure to keep the lineup lefty-righty balanced, never hitting two hitters of the same hand back-to-back. In totality, though, Baltimore simply lacks the punch and star power of the Rangers.
Texas scored more runs than any other team in baseball this season and ranks second among AL playoff contenders in terms of TAv. Its offense is a juggernaut. The Rangers’ one through six and number-eight hitters all have All-Star appearances on their resumes. They lose a bit of offense by starting Soto (Darvish’s personal catcher) over Moreland (who rarely plays against lefties anyway), and they could lose a bit more if Gentry starts in place of Murphy, but they still best the quality of the O’s by a wide margin.
The Rangers easily have the two best bench options in the series, and a deep one to boot. Gentry is a terrific defensive outfielder who can get on base and run. Moreland offers both contact and power hitting and could be particularly useful versus a righty-heavy Baltimore bullpen. He can also play a solid first base if the team pinch-hits for Geovany Soto late and shifts Napoli to catcher. Alternately, they’ll have Luis Martinez to catch and provide additional flexibility in this regard. We’re unlikely to see Profar or Martin unless they’re used to pinch-run.
The Orioles’ bench is nowhere near as good as that of the Rangers, and it will be limited in depth by their decision to go pitcher-heavy with their extra roster spots for the series. It seems unlikely we’ll see many of these guys for more than a brief moment, either as late-inning defensive replacements (Chavez, Quintanilla) or pinch-runners (Chavez, Ford). They don’t have a single pinch-hitting option to be excited about, though it’s possible Showalter could play the match-ups and attempt to give Andino or Ford an at-bat versus a lefty reliever.
It’s been quite the up-and-down season for Saunders, going from the odd man out in Arizona to being trusted by the Orioles to start with their season on the line in a one-game playoff. While he’s actually been quite good with the O’s, we’re looking at some good luck in a small sample size, driven by an 8.8 percent HR/FB. Indeed, mediocre is a far more common adjective used to describe Saunders. The southpaw has plus control, but his stuff is below average. His fastball sat just over 88 mph in Baltimore, and he lacks a true out pitch.
One could think of Darvish as almost the exact opposite of Saunders. Laden with hype all season long, Darvish possesses average-at-best control but compensates with terrific stuff and multiple out pitches. By our count, he throws at least eight different pitches (none worse than average), keeping hitters off balance and generating tons of strikeouts. He’s gone through some rough patches adjusting to the majors this year, but he’s been very good of late and gives the Rangers a huge edge over the O’s and Saunders.
Bullpen (IP, ERA, FIP)
The Orioles posted the second-best bullpen ERA among AL playoff teams this season (and fifth-best in baseball), although it’s been more of a team effort than the result of having any truly elite options. Johnson had a breakout campaign as the team’s closer, but as good as he’s been, he doesn’t fit the shut-down closer profile, relying more on control and grounders than he does on whiffs. With the ability to keep starters Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, and Chris Tillman off the one-game wild-card roster, the Orioles have said they will lean toward stocking their roster with extra pitchers. As a result of this strategy and the sharing-is-caring nature of Baltimore’s pen, their relievers may have a short leash if Saunders—who ought to have a short leash himself—doesn’t pitch deep into the game. Keep an eye on O’Day, whose submarine delivery makes him particularly effective against righties, which the Rangers’ lineup is stacked with.
The Rangers will be without set-up man Mike Adams, but they still possess several elite options that the O’s can’t match, starting with closer Nathan, who was second among all AL relievers this season in xFIP. Uehara has been excellent since returning from the DL and will have no problem taking on more high-leverage responsibility in front of Nathan. He’ll be helped in this regard by former starter (and former closer candidate) Ogando and his 97-mph fastball. With a couple of Baltimore lefties due up, Ross could be utilized as well. Unless Darvish gets chased from the game early, however, it’s unlikely we’ll see anyone besides these four on the mound for Texas.
Texas ranks 17th in defensive efficiency and 20th when it’s park-adjusted, highlighting what is likely their biggest weakness. And they’ll be worse off than this, even, if they go with the lineup I projected earlier: Napoli over Moreland at first, Young playing third for an injured Beltre, and a Murphy/Hamilton LF/CF pairing instead of Hamilton/Gentry.
Buck Showalter may be well-known for wearing out his welcome in the clubhouse, but he hasn’t yet in Baltimore and is a superior tactician to Washington. As I alluded to earlier and Ben Lindbergh noted yesterday, Showalter’s ability to manage his pitching staff could prove crucial to Baltimore’s chance of winning this game.