If any team should be happy just to be here, it’s the Baltimore Orioles. Readers of THT are likely to be familiar with their miniscule season run differential and their unsustainable records of 16-3 in extra inning games and 28-9 in one-run games. Ironically, but not surprisingly, it is for their anomalous and continued defiance of statistical norms that they receive so much praise.
But as we embark on another postseason, another mathematical truism is brought to bear. We are now dealing with small sample sizes. If they didn’t regress over the previous 162 games, there’s nothing impelling them to regress right now.
It doesn’t matter how you got here; if you’re in it, you can win it. So, let’s look at some strengths and weaknesses.
- The Orioles can hit the long ball, having deposited the second-most souvenirs in AL grandstands this season. Power is spread throughout the lineup. Unlike the Tigers, for example, Baltimore does not look like it was constructed with a “stars and scrubs” blueprint. The O’s have lots of players who can hurt you deep from either side of the plate.
- Baltimore shortens the game by trotting out five relievers (including the closer) who have pitched to a 150 or better ERA+.
- The Orioles are who they are… even if they’re not what we thought they were. Consistency has been a hallmark of this season. They play very well on the road and haven’t been below .500 all season. Their biggest power threats don’t suffer from extreme opposing pitcher handedness splits.
- I’m not one who values experience too much, or worries exceedingly about lack thereof. But, Baltimore will be playing with no pressure. The Rangers drag the burden of back-to-back World Series losses into this postseason. The Yankees bring the anxiety of several seasons of disappointing early postseason exits. The Tigers know they will be looked at as underachievers if they don’t at least advance to the ALCS. Only Oakland and Baltimore can truly go out there and just play.
- Looking at this starting staff on paper, it’s amazing this team is even above .500. Baltimore clearly lacks an ace to match a Justin Verlander or CC Sabathia. Further, the O’s boast only two pitchers who have thrown more than 100 innings with a league average or better ERA+. Moreover, they do not have a single starter who averages six innings per start. Their elite middle relief corps is also a bit light on reliable lefties.
- Looking at the “manufacturing runs” recipe, the O’s were near the bottom of the league in steals, strikeouts and batting average, and only middle of the pack in walks. The team’s overall .314 OBP is a problem.
- While their bullpen corps is strong, closer Jim Johnson’s 5.5 K/9 is a bit unsettling. Set-up wise, Pedro Strop has been extremely good overall this year, but is prone to bouts of extreme wildness.
I’ve resisted the urge to make this whole post about Baltimore’s refusal to regress, but it can’t be ignored. According to Pythagorean wins, this team is nowhere near good enough to be here.
…So, when’s the parade?
For the Tigers, the key to this season hasn’t changed since the moment Prince Fielder touched pen to paper on his huge deal. With Cabrera playing third and less than optimal defensive situations essentially around the diamond, the team’s front office was somewhat cognizant that the Tigers left something to be desired in the field. The question is whether the team’s offense is good enough to make up for those defensive shortcomings.
If Detroit is going to win it all, it will certainly be on the backs of its stars. On offense, Miguel Cabrera and Fielder lead the way. Austin Jackson has had a breakout year and benefited from the presence of both stars, as he’s been hitting at the top of the lineup and on base regularly for them to drive in. Jackson’s 103 runs scored are fourth in the AL, despite his playing only 136 games.
The story is similar on the mound, where Justin Verlander has a strong case to take home his second consecutive Cy Young this season, although he won’t pull off the incredible feat of outpacing the game’s everyday players to take the MVP as he did last year. Verlander is the best pitcher in the game right now. He’s the definition of an ace. If you asked me to take one guy to start Game Seven of the World Series tomorrow, I’m not gonna hesitate, and Jim Leyland is lucky to be in a position to call on Verlander should that time come.
While the team’s stars can match up with any club in baseball, the rest of Detroit’s lineup doesn’t pack nearly the same potency. While all three offensive stars finished the season nearly at or above the five-win mark, no other offensive player outproduced Jhonny Peralta’s 2.6 wins. While the team’s offense is productive (sixth in the AL), it’s not by any means a juggernaut. This especially comes into play when considering that the team made some serious sacrifices on defense to sign Fielder, pushing Cabrera to third.
While that does allow the Tigers to get some more potent bats in the lineup, their team defense has suffered by nearly every metric. Their -28.1 UZR is superior only to Cleveland’s defense, while the .308 BABIP allowed by their pitchers is second worst in the AL to the Royals’ .311.
Similarly, the rotation after Verlander contains a number of question marks. Max Scherzer finished second to Verlander in the AL in strikeouts. When he’s throwing strikes, he has the stuff to be dominant, but his maddening inconsistency keeps him from earning the ace label Verlander defines. Scherzer hurt his ankle during the post-clinch celebration, which is just one more thing to think about for a staff that doesn’t need anything else to think about. Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello are serviceable starters, but unlikely to dominate, so Detroit must count on its offense to overcome its run-prevention shortcomings.
The team’s bullpen can make things an adventure at times. While Jose Valverde has been effective, he’s looked shaky at times. His setup man, Joaquin Benoit, has been the anchor of the bullpen, making 73 appearances and striking out more than 10 batters per nine innings. Octavio Dotel is a strong veteran presence, and at 38 has been a member of productive bullpens for nearly 15 years. Brayan Villarreal and Al Alburquerque combine excellent strikeout stuff with some wild tendencies.
When Victor Martinez returns next season, he could be a key piece to put Detroit’s offense over the top, but an offense that is simply good rather than great won’t make up for below-average defense and a middle-of-the-road pitching staff.
While a Detroit team missing its third-best bat is a longshot for a run to a championship, the Verlander factor presents quite a compelling argument. The team will need huge performances from its stars, but if Verlander can get in a Christy Mathewson-in-the-1905 World Series type of groove, anything is possible.
New York Yankees
The Yankees came into the 2012 season as arguably the second best team in the American League (of course you can make cases for other teams ahead or below them, but that’s where I had them) and they’ve essentially held true to that. With 95 wins, they had the best record in the league despite a plethora of injuries. Derek Jeter and Ichiro Suzuki, each at age 38, have had amazing resurgences (I’m talking about Ichiro as a Yankee), Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte have helped stabilize the starting rotation to a certain extent, and Rafael Soriano has done a better job than anyone could have hoped replacing Mariano Rivera as the closer.
Lineup: There’s no questioning the firepower the Bombers bring to the table on offense. As a team, they have hit .264/.336/.451 (.340 wOBA, best in the majors). Combine this with the fact they have gotten a lot healthier in the last month by adding Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez back to the middle of the lineup along with Brett Gardner to their bench. Robinson Cano, Suzuki, and Nick Swisher are also red hot entering the ALDS.
Starting rotation: This may seem a little weird because the starting pitching has been pretty streaky all year, but they match up pretty well with most teams. CC Sabathia has been pitching well very well of late (24 IP, 13 H, 4 R, 4 BB, 28 K in his last three starts), Kuroda has been rock solid all season, and Pettitte has also been very good since returning from a fractured ankle. Phil Hughes may be a bit of a question mark in the No. 4 slot, but he’s about as good as anyone a team will run out in that spot.
Middle relief: Manager Joe Girardi relies heavily on bullpen guys Soriano, David Robertson, Boone Logan and Joba Chamberlain. All four have been used in late game situations, so what if a starter can’t go deep into a game, and the skipper is forced to use other arms to patch things together? Well, he has OOGY’s Cody Eppley and Clay Rapada, rookie David Phelps, and shaky Derek Lowe. Lowe has been big in pinstripes, but it would tough to trust him a very tight spot.
As the one-seed with 95 wins, you could say they are the “favorites,” but the Athletics and Orioles have also been red hot and the Rangers are always dangerous. They have as a good a chance as any team to go deep and win it all. With the small samples in play here, if they can get a few rolls and calls to go their way, they could easily come away with the chip.
Dear lord, where to start?
The A’s traded away three All-Star pitchers for a handful of rookies, preparing themselves for a season of rebuilding hibernation. The plan was to forget all about the pricey veterans and the 72-point font trades, letting rookies take their lumps now in preparation for a bright season a few years down the road. So of course they ended up winning the division. Baseball’s a crazy game sometimes.
It’s not over yet, obviously. The A’s still have a lot of work to do if they want to write the perfect end to a narrative worthy of a bestselling novel. The American League playoffs are going to be a very tight race, and while the A’s are by no means the favorites, they’ve got more than a few aces up their sleeves.
- The starting pitching. Yes, the A’s have five rookie starting pitchers right now. They also have a four-man playoff starting pitching staff that has a combined season ERA under 3.50 in Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin, Tommy Milone and Dan Straily. Throw veteran Brett Anderson into the mix—he’s ahead of schedule in returning from an oblique strain—and that ERA mark falls under 3.40. Despite their lack of experience, the A’s starters are more than capable of going toe to toe with their higher-priced and star-studded opponents.
- The power. The A’s are ranked fourth in the American League in isolated power, which is an immense improvement from last season’s 12th-place showing. Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick and Brandon Moss are 2012 newcomers who have hit 20 home runs or more. Reddick and Moss are left-handed pull hitters who will be able to take advantage of a few of the short right field fences in the AL playoffs, like those in Texas and New York.
- The bullpen. Oakland relievers have a combined ERA below 3.00. Closer Grant Balfour has the third-highest collection of Shutdowns in the majors. Former closer and 2012 All-Star Ryan Cook lost his closer job in mid-August after a string of poor outings, but he allowed two runs in the entire month of September. Sean Doolittle was a first baseman just a year ago, but he’s earned a prominent position in manager Bob Melvin‘s pecking order as well. The bullpen has the lowest ERA of any playoff qualifier in the American League, which is an enormous help to an inexperienced pitching rotation.
- The offense in general. Yes, they have a well-deserved reputation for delivering timely hits, and they can certainly knock the ball out of the park with ease, but the offense as a whole isn’t performing up to the high standard of your typical playoff contender. The A’s offense actually was a tick below average over the whole season as measured by the park-adjusted and league-adjusted wRC+. As we all know, batting average certainly has its limitations, but the A’s are hitting .238 as a team. Since the start of the modern playoff era in 1969, no team has ever qualified for the postseason with a team batting average that low.
- The inning loads. A lot of writers are talking about postseason pressure and how the A’s and their rookie pitching staff will handle it, but I’m far more worried about their inning loads. Parker has already cleared the 200 inning mark between Triple-A and the majors this year. His previous high was 136.1 last season, and he had Tommy John surgery three years ago. A.J. Griffin threw 160.2 innings in 2011 across four levels of the minors. He’s north of 180 going into the postseason. Milone has flirted with the 160-inning mark for the past few years, and he’s at at 190 and counting. When pitchers are tired, they lose velocity and miss their spots, and with the high-powered offenses in the AL playoffs this year, the A’s have no margin for error.
The A’s will get a lot of press for the home runs they hit, but it’s the pitching staff that’s the key here. If the rotation holds together, they absolutely have the potential to win it all. If not? It could all come crumbling down in a hurry. Bob Melvin, if you’re reading this, buy a couple hundred rolls of bubble wrap. Then get even more champagne.
The Rangers have made their third straight trip to the playoffs and are hoping for a third straight trip to the World Series. This time they will look to finish the job, after losing to the Giants in 2010 and barely losing to the Cardinals last year. The pieces are there for a championship run, but as for every other team, things have to go right in October.
The Rangers’ strength is their offense. They lead all of baseball in runs because they are in the top three in the majors in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. Unlike their American League West division mates and fellow playoff-bound Athletics, the Rangers don’t care much for taking their walks. But they also don’t strike out as much as the A’s do. As a result, they put the ball in play and have enough power to constantly put pressure on opposing pitchers. Josh Hamilton and Adrian Beltre are the primary sluggers, but Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz, and Mike Napoli have the ability to break a game open as well.
Napoli has not been as deadly as he was last year, when he hit a surprising .320 to accompany a not-so-surprising full season total 30 home runs. In 2011, he carried a red hot second half of the season into the playoffs, where he hit .328 with three home runs and 15 RBIs. The Rangers will hope for, but not count on, a repeat; Napoli has been inconsistent for the most part of 2012 (and hurt for a small part). Since coming off the disabled list Sept. 15 after a strained quadriceps, the Napster has hit .295/.392/.818 and is setting himself up for another big postseason.
One area of vulnerability for Texas’ offense is Michael Young. Young raked last year, posting a .338/.380/.474 line. But this season, his BABIP is down and that’s probably because this season he has hit more ground balls and fewer line drives, which also probably explains why his slugging percentage for 2012 is a career-low .370. For a plus-defender his offensive numbers wouldn’t be awful. As a designated hitter, with arguably better options available on the team, he looks to be Texas’ weakest link on an otherwise sturdy chain.
It has to be the pitching. First off, it’s not a rotation filled with stoppers. Despite the addition of Yu Darvish, Ryan Dempster and Roy Oswalt, the Rangers’ team ERA of 3.99 puts them at about major league average. It is perhaps more notable that every other postseason team has a better regular season ERA than Texas. Darvish in particular has the stuff to shut down an opponent, but he can just as easily lose his command and start to walk everyone in the park.
During the regular season, Texas’ bullpen had to be considered a strength, but injuries threaten to cause concern. Setup man Mike Adams is dealing with an injury now and Robbie Ross is not pitching as well as he did before recently spending time on the DL. So, Rangers manager Ron Washington will have to build that ever important bridge to the closer. His main options are Alexi Ogando and Koji Uehara, who have been better than Adams anyway.
If Uehara can keep pitching like he has since he came off the DL (1.35 ERA), the bridge may hold as well as it has all year. The Rangers just need their starters to keep them between the ditches until they get to it.
It may be tough to make it back to the Series. Texas is built for the long haul. The Rangers have enough pitching to stay in games, and given enough games will likely outhit anyone they match up with. But the playoffs are not long match-ups and the importance of the starting pitcher is paramount.