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AL Wild-Card Preview

After a season that made very little sense, we predict the Baltimore Orioles will continue to defy reason and beat the Texas Rangers.

J.J. Hardy

Every sport needs a mechanism in place to promote parity, to prevent the same teams from beating up the same cellar-dwellers year after year. The NBA has the draft, a force so powerful that they have to use a lottery to regulate it. The NFL promotes parity by tying strength of schedule to a team’s record. Both leagues have salary caps in place.

In contrast, all Major League Baseball has is the sheer randomness of a short series. And in baseball, that’s enough.

The sport that gave us the term “small sample size” is the sport in which any team can win a short series. There’s a reason Billy Beane said, a decade ago, “My shit doesn’t work in the playoffs.” Because after asking teams to play 162 games in the regular season, a postseason consisting of best-of-five and best-of-seven affairs is a great way to ensure that the best team doesn’t always win. Relative to the number of games in the regular season, baseball has the shortest postseason of any pro sport.

And the gap between the worst and best teams in baseball is smaller than any other sport. Last season, six NFL teams won more than two-thirds of their games, and seven teams lost more than two-thirds. In the NBA, four teams had a winning percentage under .333 last year and four teams were over .667. But every MLB team in the last eight seasons has won between one-third and two-thirds of its games. Furthermore, home-field advantage means less in baseball than in any other sport, depriving the better team of yet another edge.

This is why baseball doesn’t need an artificial mechanism to prevent the same teams from winning year after year. In the postseason, talent is no substitute for luck. In a short series, an 83-win team can defeat teams that won 88, 95, and even 97 games, like the St. Louis Cardinals did to win the World Series in 2006. In even the most lopsided playoff matchups, the better team has no better than a 65 percent chance to win a best-of-seven series.

Friday night, the Texas Rangers and Baltimore Orioles won’t play a best-of-seven to determine who advances to the next round. They’ll play a best-of-one.

If trying to predict the outcome of a best-of-seven series is folly, trying to predict the outcome of a best-of-one is insanity. It’s one game. Even the Astros won 55 best-of-ones this year.

Look at it this way: The Minnesota Twins, who had the worst record in the AL this year, played the Yankees, who had the best record in the AL, seven times this season. They went 3-4.

Over the past 10 years, here is how the worst team in the league fared against the best:

Over the past 10 years, when the worst team in the AL faced the best team, the worst team had a .268 winning percentage. Alex Rodriguez hit .272 this year. In one game between the best and worst team in the league, the worst team has roughly the same odds of winning as A-Rod has of getting a hit in his next at-bat.

If that’s what happens when the worst team in the league plays the best, what happens when two teams with identical 93-69 records play? Anything. Anything can happen. Nothing can be considered surprising when the Rangers and Orioles get together Friday night. Which is for the best, because both teams exhausted every element of surprise in just getting here.

For the Rangers, the surprise is that they’re one game away from having their season end before it was even supposed to start. Back in June — hell, back on September 24 — the Rangers were expected to waltz to the AL West title, clinch the no. 1 seed, and watch Friday’s tiebreaker game with popcorn and a remote control. Instead, they’re here, after becoming the first team in major league history to blow a five-game lead with fewer than 10 games left in the season. The two-time defending AL pennant winners will have to win three consecutive short series to earn a third straight trip to the World Series.

For the Orioles, the surprise is … everything. They went 69-93 last year, the sixth straight year they lost at least 92 games. They had one of the weaker farm systems in the game. They played in the AL East, which is the SEC West of baseball divisions. Their biggest offseason moves were trading their ace, Jeremy Guthrie, to the Colorado Rockies for Jason Hammel, and replacing Guthrie with Wei-Yin Chen, a Taiwanese pitcher no one had heard of.

Naturally, they went 93-69. In one-run games, they went 29-9, the best record in one-run affairs since 1900. They’re on a streak of 16 consecutive extra-inning wins, the longest streak since the 1949 Cleveland Indians won 17 in a row. They called up 20-year-old Manny Machado to play third base in August, and 19-year-old Dylan Bundy to pitch in September. The world’s largest known oil reserves were discovered directly underneath Camden Yards. Adam Jones won American Idol. Matt Wieters defeated WOPR in tic-tac-toe, thus saving the world from global thermonuclear war.

Not everything in the previous paragraph is true, but this is: By making it this far, the Baltimore Orioles are probably the most unlikely team to qualify for the playoffs1 since the 1969 Mets. You know, the Miracle Mets.


1.

Two of the most surprising playoff teams in recent years — the 1984 Chicago Cubs and the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays — were not so surprising to sabermetric types. Bill James all but predicted the Cubs’ first-place finish in his 1984 Baseball Abstract. In 2008, Nate Silver projected the Rays to win 88 games and contend for a playoff spot.

The Rangers and Orioles finished with identical records; they’d be playing this game even if MLB had not added a second wild-card team to the playoffs this year. But on paper, it’s a mismatch. The Rangers have averaged 93 wins each of the past three years; the Orioles just finished their first winning season in 15 years. The Rangers outscored their opponents by 101 runs this year; the Orioles outscored their opponents by 7. The Rangers won five of seven head-to-head matchups against Baltimore this year, and therefore will be playing this game at home.

But as the Orioles have proven all season long, they don’t play baseball games on paper. Let’s take a deeper look at the matchup.

Starting Pitchers

The Orioles haven’t announced who will start the game for them yet, but they are deciding between Joe Saunders and Steve Johnson. Saunders is a crafty veteran left-hander out of central casting. Baltimore acquired him from the Arizona Diamondbacks for a reliever after he passed through waivers, and he has naturally responded with a solid 3.63 ERA in seven starts. Johnson, a little-regarded prospect who had a 5.56 ERA in Triple-A last year, made his major league debut in July, and in 38 innings, the right-hander has struck out 46 batters and has a 2.11 ERA. Naturally.2


2.

Johnson is the son of Dave Johnson, who made 14 starts for the Orioles in 1989, who finished two games behind the Blue Jays for the AL East title after leading the division most of the summer. The 1988 Orioles famously lost their first 21 games and finished 54-107, meaning the 1989 Orioles were two games from being the most unlikely playoff team in the history of sports.

Meanwhile, the Rangers plan to start Yu Darvish, who is probably the greatest pitcher in the history of Japan, and who in a Mike Trout–free universe would be the easy choice for AL Rookie of the Year.

And yet here’s the funny thing: Darvish’s ERA this year (3.90) is higher than Saunders’s and Johnson’s. Yeah, yeah, Rangers Ballpark is a hellish place to pitch, and Saunders had a higher ERA with Arizona, and Johnson has started four games in his major league career. But it just reinforces the narrative: The Rangers bring talent to the table. The Orioles bring magic.

Bullpens

The Rangers’ bullpen, like the rest of their roster, is deep and effective. Joe Nathan, in his second season after Tommy John surgery, has rediscovered the form that made him one of the elite closers in baseball from 2004 to 2009. While Mike Adams is out with thoracic outlet syndrome, Alexi Ogando is a capable middle reliever able to go two or three innings if need be, and setup man Koji Uehara (three walks, 43 strikeouts, 0.639 WHIP) might be the most underrated reliever in baseball. Michael Kirkman and Robbie Ross chip in quality relief from the left side.

The Rangers have better top-line relievers, but they can’t match the Orioles for depth. Five Orioles pitched in 50 or more games this year, and all five ended with ERAs between 2.28 and 2.64. Jim Johnson is hardly a traditional closer. He’s a sinkerball specialist who finished with more saves (51) than strikeouts (41), but he gets the job done. Darren O’Day is the Orioles’ secret weapon, a sidewinder who gives right-handed hitters fits.

If the game goes extra innings, the Orioles should have the edge, and not just because they have depth. The Orioles threw 60 innings from the 10th frame on, and allowed five runs, for a 0.75 ERA. Basically, after the ninth inning, Orioles relievers all pitched like they were Mariano Rivera in the postseason. It might be a random fluke, but I suspect the Rangers don’t want to find out.

Lineups

They’ll probably look like this:

(That’s the Rangers’ lineup against right-handed pitchers. If Saunders starts, Geovany Soto may replace Moreland in the lineup, with Napoli moving to first base.)

The Rangers have the clear edge on offense. They led the league in runs scored, due in large part to the jet stream in Arlington that turns ordinary fly balls into home runs. (The Rangers finished just sixth in the AL in runs scored on the road.) Josh Hamilton (.285/.354/.577) and Adrian Beltre (.321/.359/.561) are as formidable as any 3-4 combination this side of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.

If there’s an Achilles’ heel to the Rangers lineup, it’s Michael Young, who started 71 games at DH even though he can no longer hit (.277/.312/.370), and started at all four infield positions even though he can no longer field. By Wins Above Replacement, Young was the second-worst player in the major leagues this year — only Jeff Francoeur was worse — and he’s the primary reason the Rangers are in this play-in game in the first place. Manager Ron Washington has been steadfast in his commitment to Young all season, but his loyalty has been misplaced. With Beltre nursing a sore shoulder, Young likely replaces him at third base, which is a substantial defensive downgrade as well.

The Orioles’ lineup is a patchwork of flawed stars and overachieving role players. Adam Jones is the only guy who hit better than .270 this season, and no one in the starting nine had an OBP of even .350. As a team, the Orioles were average or below in essentially every offensive category, with one exception — they were second in the league with 214 home runs. Every hitter in their lineup averaged at least one homer for every 30 at-bats, which comes out to 20 homers in a full season. It’s a lineup tailor-made for their home ballpark, but it is also well-suited to launch big flies in the cozy confines of Rangers Ballpark.

The Rangers have the better starting pitcher and a significantly better offense, and the Orioles’ bullpen advantage is modest. But the Orioles do boast one significant edge …

Managers

The Rangers’ Ron Washington has a reputation for being a fantastic manager of persons and personalities — few people in the game are better at running a clubhouse and commanding the respect of their players. Unfortunately, as a manager of game tactics, he kinda sucks. It’s not an exaggeration to say that his tactical missteps cost the Rangers a world championship last season — his decisions in the pivotal Game 6 are already legendary.

Baltimore manager Buck Showalter, whom Washington replaced as the Rangers manager in 2007, had the opposite reputation: a brilliant field general, a master of the X’s and O’s, but a gruff and abrasive personality that rubbed his players the wrong way over time. (The Yankees and Diamondbacks famously won the World Series the year after they fired him.) But 20 years and three teams after he was first hired by the Yankees as a 36-year-old wunderkind, Showalter has learned to soften his rough edges. He has pushed every right button this season and seamlessly integrated dozens of new additions — the Orioles used 53 different players this season.

More to the point, Showalter runs tactical circles around Washington. In a winner-take-all game, that matters. It matters especially so given the loophole in the roster rules for this game — both teams are required to submit 25-man rosters, but since it’s only a one-game series, there’s no need for either team to carry more than one starting pitcher. For that matter, there’s no need for either team to carry more than nine pitchers total, which gives a manager looking for every tiny edge the opportunity to carry seven bench players. In a perverse way, the Orioles’ weakness could be their strength — their need to use so many players to get through the season gives Showalter a well-stocked bench.

Showalter will have one other advantage in his bullpen. Look at the lineups again — while the Orioles don’t have any left-handed or right-handed hitters batting back-to-back, the Rangers will likely have six right-handed hitters in their lineup, including five of the first six. Expect Darren O’Day and his Frisbee delivery to be deployed against the Rangers in the late innings, with devastating effect.

Verdict

Five years ago, the Rangers beat the Orioles 30-3, breaking the all-time American League record for runs scored in a game. I doubt we’ll see a reprise of that game. Pretty much anything else could happen.

But two outcomes seem most likely. The Rangers have a better starting pitcher and a superior lineup. They could easily blow open an 8-1 lead by the fifth inning and coast from there. But if the game remains close into the seventh inning, the Orioles’ advantages in the bullpen and in the manager’s chair become paramount.

And for whatever it’s worth, on Wednesday afternoon, the Rangers had the look of a team that was just trying to get its season over with, kicking the ball all over the field while the A’s scored four runs in the eighth to put the AL West title on ice. Maybe Washington can get them to regroup from that, but he wasn’t able to get his team to regroup after they came within one strike of a world championship last year. After blowing Game 6, they went quietly in Game 7.

So we’re throwing caution to the wind here. We went through the looking glass on the Orioles’ season a long time ago. Nothing about this Baltimore team has made sense all year long, so why should it start now? The Orioles win, and then set their sights on the Yankees. If I were Jeffrey Maier, I’d be very afraid right now.