The Toronto Blue Jays might have won the AL Wild Card Game by scoring a run off of Zach Britton. They may have scored a run off of somebody else after Zach Britton left the game. All that matters now is that we get a rematch of last season’s ALDS between the Blue Jays and the Texas Rangers. No teams lack motivation during the MLB playoffs, but it’s safe to say that the intensity level will be cranked up a little bit in this one.
These teams have traded punches, literally and figuratively, over the last two seasons and this series last season provided us with the best bat flip in the history of bat flips. Texas will have home field advantage for this series because they finished with the best record in the AL on the strength of a 36-11 record in one-run games. Texas was only +8 in run differential, even though they finished 28 games over .500. They have a lot of doubters to prove wrong. Toronto struggled down the stretch with an 11-16 record on September, but won when it mattered and they’ve advanced past the winner-take-all Wild Card game and the Jays have a good chance to take down the Rangers.
Here are the pre-series odds for the World Series, AL pennant and the American League Division Series courtesy of BetDSI Sportsbook:
Toronto Blue Jays: +851/+358/+100
Texas Rangers: +540/+204/-120
Here is the schedule for the series:
Game 1 @ TEX: Thursday Oct 6, 4:38 p.m. ET (Estrada vs. Hamels)
Game 2 @ TEX: Friday Oct. 7, 1:08 p.m. ET (TBD vs. Darvish)
Game 3 @ TOR: Sunday Oct. 9, 7:38 p.m. ET (TBD vs. TBD)
Game 4 @ TOR: Monday Oct. 10, TBD (TBD vs. TBD)*
Game 5 @ TEX: Wednesday Oct. 12, TBD (TBD vs. TBD)*
* - if necessary; starters subject to change
Like I did last season, I’ll break the series down into four categories: Offense, starting pitching, bullpen, and intangibles (defense, manager, HFA, etc.).
There are a lot of similarities with these two offenses. One major difference is that the Blue Jays are a more right-handed-heavy lineup than Texas. The Rangers had a platoon advantage in 52 percent of their plate appearances. The Jays had one in just 40 percent of their plate appearances, but Toronto lucks out here in the sense that they will likely see two lefties in Cole Hamels and Martin Perez.
Toronto held a slight .003 edge in wOBA and was also better in wRC+ with a 102 mark compared to Texas’s 98. Walk rate had a lot to do with that. The Blue Jays were the second-most patient team in baseball and the most patient team in the American League with a 10.1 percent BB%. Texas was 28th at 7.2 percent. That could prove to be a very big factor here in this series, as you’ll read about later.
The teams were close in power production with Toronto holding a small edge in ISO, but a small deficit in slugging percentage. The Rangers were a much better baserunning team over the course of the season, but they were only a tick above average. You can look at small gaps at the margins with these two teams to try and find differences, but there aren’t a whole lot of them. Perhaps you can argue that the Blue Jays lineup is more experienced and more potent down the middle, while the Rangers are a deeper group.
If the Rangers were throwing three or four righties at the Blue Jays, this would be different. But, since the Blue Jays will have platoon advantages at the outset of Games 1 and 4, if the series gets that far, we’ll call it even for now.
One of the luxuries of winning the division is avoiding that Wild Card Game. The Jays had to burn Marcus Stroman, who wouldn’t be available until Game 3 at best. My best guess for the rotation for the Blue Jays is that they go with JA Happ in Game 1, Aaron Sanchez in Game 2, Marco Estrada in Game 3, and then Marcus Stroman in Game 4. The actual games may be subject to change, but that’s how I see it shaking out.
It’s crazy to think about, but the Blue Jays actually had four pitchers amass at least 3 fWAR per Fangraphs’s Wins Above Replacement Player calculations. Sanchez led the way with 3.9. Stroman was second with 3.6. Happ was third with 3.2. Estrada was fourth with 3.0. Estrada is the only one that posted a strikeout rate that was a considerable amount above average, which is surprising in and of itself, but this rotation is a great fit for the defensive composition of the team. Sanchez and Stroman both posted well above average ground ball rates. Happ is that neutral ground ball/fly ball lefty that can induce weak contact either way. Estrada is the extreme fly ball guy that has carried the tremendously low BABIPs.
This was actually one of the American League’s best rotations for most of the season. There are some concerns heading into the playoffs, though. Aaron Sanchez had his innings monitored as the Blue Jays went to a six-man rotation. He’s worked 192 innings this season after throwing 102 innings in 2015 across four levels. He worked 133 innings in 2014. Pitchers in the playoffs often run on adrenaline and he was in fine form in his last start, but it’s a consideration.
Marco Estrada has been hurt for some time, but he’s been pitching through it. One of the biggest indicators of injury is a drop in spin rate and technical advancements like Statcast have allowed us to have access to data like that. Estrada’s fastball spin rate was down significantly in September and that was after a DL stint. He became hittable before the DL stint and then came back and pitched well, but he hasn’t been working deep into games of late. Maybe it doesn’t matter because starters have short leashes in October anyway, but it’s something to monitor. Of all the pitchers going for Toronto in this series, he’s the one I’d look to fade. I don’t mind this matchup for Toronto overall.
Cole Hamels should get the ball in Game 1, although Jeff Bannister could pull a switch and send Yu Darvish out there. He’s in good hands either way. Hamels was solid over 200.2 innings of work this season with a 3.32 ERA, a 3.98 FIP, and a 3.85 xFIP. He had some home run issues early in the season, when he allowed 12 HR over his first 62 innings. After that, he allowed 12 HR over his next 138.2 innings of work. Right-handed batters did hit 20 of the 24 home runs and posted a .251/.326/.396 slash compared to a .209/.289/.315 from lefties. Hamels has one of the best changeups in baseball and is the most experienced playoff starter of anybody in this series, so maybe his poise will be an asset.
Yu Darvish is a terrible matchup for a lot of teams, but especially Toronto. Since he got his arm fixed, his strikeout stuff has come back, but his control has been even better. Darvish punched out 132 batters in 100.1 innings and only issued 31 walks. The 7.5 percent BB% was the lowest of his career and he didn’t sacrifice strikeouts to do it. He actually posted some reverse splits against righties, as they slugged .382 compared to .333 from lefties. Darvish gave up nine of his 12 home runs in 68.1 innings of work in August and September. He should still be fine.
It’s the back of the rotation that gives me hives. Colby Lewis and Martin Perez are expected to start some combination of Games 3 and 4. Lewis posted a 3.71 ERA, but his advanced metrics painted a much uglier picture with a 4.81 FIP and a 5.14 xFIP. Perez was a 4.39/4.50/4.77 guy. They are two very different pitchers, so maybe that helps, but Lewis is an extreme fly ball guy and Perez is an extreme ground ball guy. Both pitchers had some batted ball luck, which is essential because neither guy misses bats. The margin for error is so low with these two and in a one-game sample size, batted ball luck and sequencing luck could dictate any number of possible outcomes.
Toronto has the edge here from a depth standpoint. Texas’s top-heavy rotation features two bona fide workhorse-type starters. The Blue Jays are going to have an advantage in Games 3 and 4, which, coincidentally, they will have at home. It almost feels like Texas absolutely has to take a 2-0 lead north of the border, otherwise they will be in trouble.
Originally, Toronto would have had a pretty sizable edge in the relief department, but there are two really concerning injuries. Roberto Osuna left his appearance in the Wild Card Game flexing his shoulder. Postgame reports were encouraging, but I wouldn’t read too much into that. He’s damaged goods now. John Gibbons will have a reluctance to use him and it would be very surprising if he was ever allowed to work more than one inning. Osuna is the best weapon in the Toronto bullpen, so this development is worrisome.
Joaquin Benoit was hurt before the playoffs even began after posting a 0.38 ERA in 23.2 innings after being acquired. That will put a lot of pressure on Joe Biagini, who looked unhittable in the Wild Card game. He posted a 3.06/2.95/3.71 pitcher slash in 67.2 innings of work. Jason Grilli was the primary setup man according to when he came in the game. He’s probably the backup closer if Osuna can’t go. He’s been a little bit shaky, with a lot of home runs and a lot of walks since he joined the Blue Jays. Brett Cecil is still a very effective lefty and it seems like Francisco Liriano can be a really big playoff weapon if he can go at 100 percent for a couple of innings.
If Osuna is okay, the depth here is good enough to get Toronto by. We won’t really know until we see him on the mound because Toronto is saying all of the right things, but I’d be very cautious with him and with your projections of the Blue Jays pen.
The Texas bullpen has gone through a lot of changes through the season. There are a lot of hard throwers here, but not a whole lot of guys that miss bats. Matt Bush, the former first-round pick turned felon turned reliever, led the team in fWAR and posted a 2.48 ERA with a 2.74 FIP and a 3.33 xFIP. We’ll see how he treats the spotlight.
Sam Dyson is the unassuming closer. He doesn’t have the standard closer makeup with electric stuff and a lot of swing-and-miss. He’s actually a very extreme ground ball guy with a 65.2 percent ground ball rate. Many of the relievers in the Texas bullpen allow a lot of balls in play, but have high ground ball rates. It isn’t really a coincidence that the Rangers are here after allowing a team BABIP of .292. A lot of that comes from this bullpen, which has been fortunate with batted ball luck.
Jake Diekman is one guy that can miss bats and match up really well, though he won’t get many lefties to face. He did, however, hold righties to a .175/.288/.290 slash this season and a .212/.311/.348 slash last season. He’ll still get some high-leverage appearances. Alex Claudio is another regularly-used weapon that may not be very effective in this series. In 154 plate appearances, righties batted .306/.351/.401 off of him and lefties hit just .177/.190/.258. Tony Barnette missed time in September with an oblique injury, so he hasn’t worked much lately.
There aren’t a whole lot of gaps between these two teams with Osuna’s injury situation. In a personal sense, I’m always partial to bullpens that can miss bats and Toronto’s holds a slight edge in that department. I just don’t like the variance and volatility of balls in play in the late innings. With that, I’ll give an ever-so-slight lean to the Blue Jays.
Even though Texas has had a lot of pitchers outperform their FIP and xFIP metrics this season, the Blue Jays are actually the superior defensive team. That was on display against Baltimore, as Kevin Pillar and Troy Tulowitzki both had excellent defensive plays. Russell Martin is a tremendous pitch framer, though the Rangers improved in that area when they acquired Jonathan Lucroy.
The biggest difference defensively is that the Blue Jays are more top-heavy with Pillar and Tulowitzki. The Rangers only have one guy that really stands out in ageless wonder Adrian Beltre. Both of these teams have solid or above average defenders at just about every position.
One of the reasons I liked Baltimore in the Wild Card game was because I felt that Buck Showalter had a big edge over John Gibbons. Gibbons pushed all the right buttons and played his cards extremely well. Showalter embarrassed me. Despite Gibbons’s one-game showcase, I do feel like Jeff Bannister, who has gotten the most out of this team in two straight regular seasons, has a slight edge over Gibbons. It’s not as big as I thought the Gibbons-Showalter gap was, but it’s there.
The schedule format does not shake out well for either team, but especially Toronto. They’ll play Game 1 in Texas on Thursday afternoon, about 40 hours after winning the emotional wild card game. With the party that went into the night on Tuesday, they wouldn’t leave until Wednesday afternoon to get accustomed to the one-hour time change and get in some workouts. They’ll play a second game early Friday afternoon around noon local time. I have to think that’s an advantage for Texas, even though it’s a rare start time for the Rangers as well.
On the other hand, Toronto has already played a game. Those playoff jitters are non-existent for Thursday. Since the second Wild Card was added and the play-in game was established, four of the eight Wild Card game winners have advanced to the League Championship Series. In 2014, both Wild Card game winners made it to the World Series. Houston was four outs away from beating Kansas City last season. Losing a starter hurts, but it has not been a big detriment.
Series Pick: Texas in 5
The old adage is that you’re never in trouble until you lose a game at home. I don’t think either team loses a game at home in this series. The Blue Jays got shafted by the travel schedule and the game schedule for the first two in Arlington. I think they hold serve at home against two inferior pitchers. That would set up a winner-take-all Game 5 in Texas and the Rangers should prevail in that. I’d like it more if Darvish was set up to work Game 5 given Toronto’s right-handed nature, but I’d go to war with Cole Hamels in an elimination game.