Things got dicey for the Tigers down the stretch, but they earned a win in Game 162 to claim their fourth straight AL Central title. The Orioles, meanwhile, won the East for the first time since 1997, cruising to the second-largest lead of any division winner. The Tigers took the season series, 5-1; who will win the matchup between two clubs that enjoyed an extra day of rest instead of playing a wacky wild-card game?
Speaking of wacky wild-card games: Having outlasted the A’s, the Royals get to relax, take a deep breath, and try to build (and burn) some boats against the team with the best record in baseball, with whom they split a six-game season series.
Let’s break it all down.
Detroit Tigers vs. Baltimore Orioles
(Game 1: Thursday at 5:37 p.m. ET on TBS)
|Orioles Projected ALDS Starting Rotation|
|1||RHP Chris Tillman||3.34||4.01||207.1||17.2||7.6|
|2||LHP Wei-Yin Chen||3.54||3.89||185.2||17.6||4.5|
|3||RHP Miguel Gonzalez||3.23||4.89||159.0||16.5||7.6|
|4*||RHP Bud Norris||3.65||4.22||165.1||20.2||7.6|
|Tigers Projected ALDS Starting Rotation|
|1||RHP Max Scherzer||3.15||2.85||220.1||27.9||7.0|
|2||RHP Justin Verlander||4.54||3.74||206.0||17.8||7.3|
|3||LHP David Price||3.59||2.44||248.1||25.6||4.7|
|4*||RHP Rick Porcello||3.43||3.67||204.2||15.4||4.9|
Orioles starters (including season regulars Kevin Gausman and Ubaldo Jimenez) posted a 2.98 ERA in the second half, third best behind the Indians and the Nationals. That’s surprising, since the names in their rotation don’t leap off the page: While three of the Tigers’ starters have won a Cy Young Award, no one in the Orioles’ rotation has earned a single Cy Young vote. Their success is even more perplexing if we dig past the surface stats. The Orioles’ rotation had baseball’s eighth-lowest full-season strikeout rate, sixth-highest walk rate, second-lowest ground ball rate, and sixth-highest home run rate. All the components of run prevention by which we usually judge pitchers indicate that the O’s were closer to the bottom of the league than the top, and not only because of Jimenez.
Only Reds starters had a bigger gap between their collective ERA (how many runs they actually allowed) and their collective FIP (how many runs their peripherals suggest they “should” have allowed) than the Orioles’ 0.56. Baltimore’s 108 FIP-1 is the worst of any playoff team since the 83-win 2006 Cardinals — who won the World Series, a useful reminder that pitching isn’t always what wins championships.
A park- and league-adjusted version of FIP where 100 is average and below 100 is better than average.
So how can we account for the Orioles’ ERA? Their defense solves some of the mystery: Baltimore’s fielders ranked fourth in the majors in Defensive Efficiency, a measure of the rate at which teams turn batted balls into outs. And while the Orioles’ ALDS incarnation lacks Manny Machado, who suffered a serious knee injury for the second straight season, losing the third baseman’s excellent glove hasn’t hurt the team’s overall defense as much as one would assume. The Orioles were better at converting grounders into outs with Machado than without him:
|Orioles Defense Against Ground Balls, With and Without Machado|
However, the O’s have a fly ball staff, which means fewer fielding opportunities for infielders. And since Machado’s injury (and Chris Davis’s Adderall suspension), they’ve made some other changes — most notably, adding Alejandro De Aza into the Delmon Young–Nelson Cruz–Steve Pearce platoon in left field — that have boosted their stats against fly balls and line drives to the point where their overall defensive performance on the year has actually been better without Machado, in an almost same-size sample.
|Overall Orioles Defense, With and Without Machado|
It also helps that the O’s had Caleb Joseph, a fine framing catcher, to fill in for the injured Matt Wieters.
Defense doesn’t explain the entire effect, though. For that, we need the concept of cluster luck, a term coined by author Joe Peta and quantified by Grantland contributor Ed Feng. Orioles pitchers have avoided allowing hits in bunches, distributing them in a way that leads to much less damage but tends not to be consistent from season to season. According to Feng’s calculations, cluster luck saved the staff 53.5 runs, the most in the majors this season. There’s a simple way to see this in familiar stats: Typically, pitchers perform significantly worse with runners in scoring position, but the Orioles excelled in those situations.
|Opponent Performance With Bases Empty and With Runners in Scoring Position, MLB vs. Orioles|
|MLB (Bases Empty)||.245||.303||.379|
|Orioles (Bases Empty)||.241||.308||.379|
Most of the difference was attributable to a lower BABIP when it mattered most, though it also didn’t hurt that Baltimore’s staff had the third-highest double-play rate in baseball despite generating few grounders.
After Baltimore defied most pundits’ pessimistic projections in 2012 to end its playoff drought, then beat the odds again this year, you’re probably tired of seeing “luck” and “the Orioles” cited in the same sentence. I’m not here to harp on Baltimore’s record in one-run games.2 Luck aside, the 2014 Orioles are one of baseball’s best teams — check out Game 1 starter Chris Tillman’s stats down the stretch for evidence that their starters have some skill — but to win 96 games in a season of unusual parity requires the right dice rolls. Near-perfect timing served the Orioles well, but it probably can’t continue.
Even though it was 32-23.
The controversy here, in light of the regression that awaits the other arms, is Gausman’s absence from the Orioles’ playoff rotation. Inning-for-inning, Gausman may have been Baltimore’s best starter in his first pro season spent exclusively in that role, posting a lower FIP (3.41) than any of the foursome above. However, he topped his previous professional high by more than 30 innings, and while he’s not officially on an innings limit, the O’s might be worried he’ll hit one whether they impose it or not. He had a higher velocity and strikeout rate in relief last season, and he’ll be a weapon whenever he does get into games.
Meanwhile, when the Tigers traded for David Price, many speculated that Justin Verlander would spend October in the bullpen, where he might recover some of his lost velocity and effectiveness. Instead, Anibal Sanchez will work in relief, because he didn’t have time to build up his endurance after a strained pectoral muscle sidelined him for six weeks in August and September. Verlander’s season suffered from reduced velocity that declined further late in the season and robbed him of some of his ability to miss bats. He finished on a high note, with two of his best four starts by Game Score coming at the end of the year, but two strong outings against the Royals and White Sox haven’t really reassured anyone. The Tigers will likely treat Sanchez as a caddie for their former ace and be ready to hook Verlander if he can’t channel his former postseason self.
The rest of the starting staff looks strong, albeit thinner than it was two months ago. As it turns out, Price wasn’t merely a luxury item that cemented a super-rotation, but rather the only thing standing between manager Brad Ausmus and a postseason start by Kyle Lobstein. Price led the majors in innings pitched (248.1) and strikeouts (271) and posted the third-best K-BB rate among qualified starters, while Max Scherzer matched last year’s Cy Young showing minus a higher 2014 BABIP. Rick Porcello’s decreased use of his sinker, a pitch with a medium platoon split, allowed him to handle lefties and go deeper into games than ever before, and it cost him only a few grounders — not a steep price to pay when pitching in front of Detroit’s shoddy defense. On the whole, Tigers starters have recorded the lowest home run rate in the league, which should come in handy, because …
|Orioles Projected ALDS Lineup|
|1||RF Nick Markakis||L||.276/.342/.386||106||710|
|2||LF Alejandro De Aza||L||.252/.314/.386||94||528|
|3||CF Adam Jones||R||.281/.311/.469||117||682|
|4||DH Nelson Cruz||R||.271/.333/.525||137||678|
|5||1B Steve Pearce||R||.293/.373/.556||161||383|
|6||SS J.J. Hardy||R||.268/.309/.372||90||569|
|7||3B Ryan Flaherty||L||.221/.288/.356||79||312|
|8||C Caleb Joseph||R||.207/.264/.354||72||275|
|9||2B Jonathan Schoop||R||.209/.244/.354||65||481|
|Tigers Projected ALDS Lineup|
|1||2B Ian Kinsler||R||.275/.307/.420||102||726|
|2||RF Torii Hunter||R||.286/.319/.446||113||586|
|3||1B Miguel Cabrera||R||.313/.371/.524||147||685|
|4||DH Victor Martinez||S||.335/.409/.565||166||641|
|5||LF J.D. Martinez||R||.315/.358/.553||153||480|
|6||3B Nick Castellanos||R||.259/.306/.394||94||579|
|7||C Alex Avila||L||.218/.327/.359||97||457|
|8||SS Andrew Romine||S||.227/.279/.275||56||273|
|9||CF Rajai Davis||R||.282/.320/.401||102||494|
The Orioles have an all-or-nothing offense, which is OK as long as the “all” keeps coming. The nothing is limited to the bottom of the lineup: With Machado, Wieters, and Davis out, the bottom third is a formula for easy innings. Only the Royals, Rockies, Diamondbacks, and Mariners walked less often than the O’s, and only the Rockies chased a higher percentage of pitches outside the strike zone. However, Baltimore led the majors in home runs by a comfortable margin, which partially excuses the club’s lack of selectivity.
As I noted in the piece I linked to earlier on postseason myths, the O’s score a higher percentage of their runs via the homer than all but one other playoff team in the wild-card era, but the belief that homer-reliant teams have a particularly tough time scoring in October doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. With Oakland eliminated, the Orioles are the worst baserunning team still alive, so they’re better off waiting for the big blast. Earl Weaver would be pleased.
Steve Pearce leading the Orioles’ offensive attack along with home run champion Nelson Cruz and the ultra-aggressive Adam Jones3 is no easier to explain than the pitching staff’s cluster luck. It’s hard to make a case that the O’s saw his breakout coming, since they released him in late April before later reacquiring him, but there’s no reason they should have: Pearce is enjoying the most out-of-nowhere success since integration. Orioles fans who’ve been burned by Davis’s foolishness know better than to count on Pearce being one of baseball’s 10 best batters for long. As usual, though, constantly tinkering GM Dan Duquette has also received some ridiculous small-sample production from the rest of his collection of cast-offs, including Young, Kelly Johnson, Jimmy Paredes, and De Aza.
Who walked less often than any other qualified hitter but Ben Revere.
Meanwhile, though the Tigers gave themselves a makeover last winter, they ended up looking like a team cut from the same cloth. In the AL, only the Angels can rival them for the title of best-hitting team, and only the Twins can claim to be inferior fielders. Astros exile J.D. Martinez almost miraculously made himself into a middle-of-the-order hitter, modeling his new mechanics after, and then outhitting, Miguel Cabrera (on a per-PA basis). Victor Martinez became not only one of baseball’s best hitters, but also one of its most extreme statistical outliers: He was one of only two qualified hitters to walk more often than he struck out this season, and there was as much distance between his walk-to-strikeout ratio and second-place Jose Bautista’s as there was between Bautista’s and the two guys tied for 63rd. Martinez is the first hitter to post a BB-K ratio above 1.50 since Albert Pujols in his last MVP year, and the only player in the last 10 seasons other than Pujols and Barry Bonds to do it while hitting 30 homers.
Oddly, Martinez doesn’t succeed by being selective: He succeeds by making more contact outside the zone than anyone else. His MLB-leading 89 percent O-Contact rate dwarfs the 64 percent league average and eclipses anyone in the PITCHf/x era other than Dustin Pedroia and slap hitters Juan Pierre and Marco Scutaro. Cabrera and the two Martinezes make up baseball’s best heart of the order, taking three of the top eight spots on the wRC+ leaderboard among AL hitters with a minimum of 450 PA. Orioles fans should fear them.
They have less to fear from the Tigers defense. Although trading Prince Fielder, acquiring Ian Kinsler, moving Cabrera to first, and letting Jhonny Peralta (an underrated defensive shortstop) walk was supposed to help the Tigers catch baseballs better, they’re as bad or worse than they were last season, according to every team-level metric.4 Nick Castellanos and Torii Hunter rank among the four worst fielders in baseball according to DRS and UZR, both of which rank the Tigers third-worst overall. Last year, though, Detroit’s pitching staff had baseball’s highest strikeout rate, which reduced the damage. This season, the Tigers’ staff strikeout rate (which has improved since swapping Drew Smyly for Price) is almost exactly league average, which resulted in an increase of 256 batted balls. For the Tigers, more so than most teams, batted balls are very bad.
It didn’t help that slick-fielding shortstop Jose Iglesias missed the whole year.
The starters-in-exile are the ones to watch out of the pen. Sanchez has the lowest FIP of any starter with 300 innings pitched from 2013 to 2014 not named Clayton Kershaw. In short bursts, he should be a monster, assuming he doesn’t have any mental blocks about being in the bullpen. Ausmus, who acknowledged in September that Sanchez would probably have the best stuff in the pen, also said he would be willing to use him “at any point in the game,” so it’s anyone’s guess whether he’ll go multiple innings or settle into a standard high-leverage, late-inning role if he’s not needed to bail out Verlander. With five offerings, Sanchez will have to figure out which to drop from his repertoire; in his lone relief appearance this year, he threw less hard than he had as a starter, but he likely wasn’t airing it out.
Gausman, conversely, relies on a four-seamer and a splitter with a smattering of other pitches, all of which he throws less often than Sanchez throws any of his third through fifth options. It’s a small sample, but Gausman has allowed a .595 OPS in his first trips through the order this season, compared to .755 and .771 in his second and third times around. That’s a larger-than-average gap between results in the first and second trips — not unusual for a pitcher with a limited arsenal — which suggests that his stuff could play even better in the pen.
Starters aside, Baltimore has a substantial advantage in the bullpen, boasting a deep group led by extreme ground-baller Zach Britton, the ever-effective Darren O’Day, and the unhittable Andrew Miller. In the other pen, Tigers closer Joe Nathan remains, as I wrote in July, a worthy successor to the Tigers’ “Todd Jones–Fernando Rodney–Jose Valverde scary-closer conga line,” Joba Chamberlain joined him in the second half, and Al Alburquerque isn’t as good as his ERA indicates. While the return of Joakim Soria gives Ausmus a theoretically reliable arm, the situation is uncertain enough that Detroit would be happy to have one of the Orioles’ second-tier relievers, such as Tommy Hunter or Brian Matusz. The Tigers lack a lights-out lefty, but Baltimore is the perfect opponent in that respect: The O’s have only three left-handed hitters in their regular lineup, and none of them requires a specialist.
Neither bench is scary, but the O’s have the edge in that area, too, particularly if Tigers center fielder Rajai Davis’s groin injury prevents him from seeing meaningful time. Baltimore can call on Young, the former playoff hero, against a lefty to try for his 10th postseason homer, and Quintin Berry (who’s 25-for-25 in his big league steal attempts) supplies the speed.
Baltimore has home field, but Detroit has a deeper lineup and two starters who are better than any the Orioles can throw. Using Sanchez in the pen instead of in the rotation will delay the conclusion, but the Tigers will take it in five.
Kansas City Royals vs. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
(Game 1: Thursday at 9:07 ET, TBS)
|Angels Projected ALDS Starting Rotation|
|1||RHP Jered Weaver||3.59||4.19||213.1||19.0||7.3|
|2||RHP Matt Shoemaker||3.04||3.26||136.0||22.8||4.4|
|3||LHP C.J. Wilson||4.51||4.31||175.2||19.8||11.2|
|Royals Projected ALDS Starting Rotation|
|1||LHP Jason Vargas||3.71||3.84||187.0||16.2||5.2|
|2||RHP Yordano Ventura||3.20||3.60||183.0||20.3||8.8|
|3||RHP James Shields||3.21||3.59||227.0||19.2||4.7|
|4*||LHP Danny Duffy||2.53||3.83||149.1||18.7||8.8|
Though losing starters Tyler Skaggs and Garrett Richards seemed to make the Angels more powerful in the regular season, they’d be a much more formidable foe with Richards on the roster. As it is, the rotation is the Angels’ Achilles’ heel, the one area in which they’ll always have the disadvantage this October. The blindingly obvious comparison is to the 2002 Angels, a team whose “ace” was Jarrod Washburn.
Even that comp might be charitable, though: The 2002 club had four above-average starters, whereas the 2014 team is down to two or (if you’re feeling really generous) three — one of whom, Matt Shoemaker, hasn’t pitched in a game since he hurt his oblique on September 15. Regardless, the ’02 rotation produced two quality starts in the postseason and averaged little more than five innings, and the Angels still went all the way, scoring 6.3 runs per game and working their bullpen hard. They might have to follow the same formula to succeed in 2014.
The soft-tossing Jered Weaver excited everyone with a velo spike on September 14, but he didn’t sustain it in his next two starts. Throwing 87, he’s now more innings-eater than ace. Weaver is one of the AL’s most extreme fly-ballers, and Shoemaker leans the same way. Theoretically, that should benefit the grounder-hitting Royals; in the same way that batters do better against pitchers who throw from the opposite side, they also do better against pitchers with the opposite batted-ball profile.
The Royals are at a small but significant disadvantage because they had to go through the wild-card game to get here, much of it stemming from the fact that they can’t use James Shields twice in the series. Danny Duffy isn’t quite the stud his ERA suggests, and he may not even pitch, but the fly-balling Jason Vargas is a good fit for Angel Stadium, his old haunt.
|Angels Projected ALDS Lineup|
|1||RF Kole Calhoun||L||.272/.325/.450||125||537|
|2||CF Mike Trout||R||.287/.377/.561||167||705|
|3||1B Albert Pujols||R||.272/.324/.466||124||695|
|4||2B Howard Kendrick||R||.293/.347/.397||115||674|
|5||SS Erick Aybar||S||.278/.321/.379||101||641|
|6||3B David Freese||R||.260/.321/.383||106||511|
|7||LF Josh Hamilton||L||.263/.331/.414||113||381|
|8||DH C.J. Cron||R||.256/.289/.450||113||253|
|9||C Chris Iannetta||R||.252/.373/.392||126||373|
|Royals Projected ALDS Lineup|
|1||SS Alcides Escobar||R||.285/.317/.377||94||620|
|2||RF Nori Aoki||L||.285/.349/.360||104||549|
|3||CF Lorenzo Cain||R||.301/.339/.412||111||502|
|4||1B Eric Hosmer||L||.270/.318/.398||99||547|
|5||DH Billy Butler||R||.271/.323/.379||97||603|
|6||LF Alex Gordon||L||.266/.351/.432||122||643|
|7||C Salvador Perez||R||.260/.289/.403||92||606|
|8||2B Omar Infante||R||.252/.295/.337||76||575|
|9||3B Mike Moustakas||L||.212/.271/.361||76||500|
The Angels have 7-8-9 hitters, but they don’t have a bottom of the order in the traditional sense. Theirs is a Lake Wobegon lineup, where all the batters are above average. Nine Anaheim hitters who made at least 250 plate appearances posted OPS+ marks of 100 or better, the most of any team this season; fourth outfielder Collin Cowgill, who finished with an OPS+ of 98, barely missed making it 10. And while there’s only one truly star-level talent on the list, that talent is Mike Trout.
The great unknown is Josh Hamilton, whose shoulder and rib cage problems have kept him out of action since September 16, and who hadn’t hit above par for his position for months before that. After receiving a dozen or more injections to control the symptoms, Hamilton has pronounced himself ready to play. “There’s always pain, but the point is that I’m not having muscle spasms,” he said on Tuesday, in one of the season’s least encouraging quotes. Hamilton will DH or play left if he’s able; however, he’s been a barely above-average hitter for two and a half seasons now — and could be worse when he’s rusty — so if he suffers a setback, it won’t be a big loss.
The Royals, meanwhile, are the playoff previewer’s best friend, because they rarely change their lineup. I covered their mediocre offense in-depth on Tuesday, shortly before their victory over Oakland in an incredible wild-card showdown. I whiffed with the line about the stage being set for a low-scoring game, or maybe the Royals whiffed in fulfilling it; instead, they scored nine runs, tied for their sixth-highest single-game total of the season.
True to form, though, the Royals managed only two extra-base hits against the A’s, neither of which went out. They eliminated Oakland on the strength of the one thing they do better than anyone: run. In a convincing demonstration of that skill, the Royals tied a playoff record with seven steals; they came from seven different runners, five of whom subsequently scored. The Angels, who are baseball’s (distant) second-best baserunning team, aren’t adept at slowing other clubs’ legs; only four other teams allowed their opponents to rack up more Baserunning Runs (mostly through taking the extra base on batted balls). Historically, both Chris Iannetta and backup catcher Hank Conger have recorded slightly below-average caught-stealing percentages, but the Royals won’t be able to take advantage of Jon “no-throw” Lester in this series, so don’t expect them to run quite as wild as they did in the wild-card game.
Ned Yost’s decision to insert Yordano Ventura in the sixth inning of the Royals-A’s epic drew most of the second guesses during and after the game, but the pitching decision that ultimately may have had the bigger impact was a non-move: Bob Melvin’s slow hook with Lester. Melvin let Lester face four batters in the eighth, three of whom reached base and subsequently scored. Lester had thrown 95 pitches through seven, not an inordinate number; more importantly, though, he was beginning his fourth trip through the order.
The times-through-the-order penalty is one of sabermetrics’ most important, and most often neglected, findings. With each trip through the order, the batter becomes more familiar with his opponent, and the starter’s stats suffer. Courtesy of Baseball-Reference, here are the 2014 league-average batting lines against starting pitchers in each trip through the lineup in a given game:
|PA in Game||BA||OBP||SLG||OPS||K/BB|
Those differences might not look like much, but they’re a crucial component of intelligent tactics. When we mentally manage at home, we tend to weigh the best available bullpen option against the starter’s overall stats, assuming that if the starter hasn’t exceeded his typical pitch count, he’s essentially the same guy he was in the first. And maybe he is — but the batter isn’t. The starter has lost the element of surprise, and we should revise our expectations accordingly. A no. 2 starter in the first is more like a no. 4 in the sixth or seventh, which makes the decision about whether to pull him much more clear-cut. And how effectively or efficiently the starter has been pitching up to that point isn’t necessarily indicative of whether he’s more or less susceptible than usual to the typical in-game decline.
It’s hard (albeit potentially beneficial) to have a quick hook during the regular season, when bullpens quickly tire. In the playoffs, though, there are enough off days to use bullpens with abandon. And more than any other team, the Angels are positioned to maximize a strength and minimize a weakness by remembering the effect of familiarity.
Since the start of last offseason, the Angels — with little prospect talent to trade for high-profile regulars — have stockpiled relievers, signing Joe Smith; trading for Huston Street, Jason Grilli, Joe Thatcher, and Vinnie Pestano; promoting Mike Morin; and continuing to employ Kevin Jepsen. It’s a strong group, light on lefties but heavy on righties who can retire lefties (not that the Royals have many likely LOOGY victims) and equipped with the variety of angles and approaches that GM Jerry Dipoto loves. Because the Angels have a weak rotation and a strong pen and will use Weaver on short rest, they can accentuate the positive and ameliorate the negative by aggressively shifting innings from the former (diminished starters) to the latter (fresh relievers). We’ll soon see whether the newly saber-savvy Mike Scioscia will take the times-through-the-order penalty plunge.
As for Kansas City: As with the Orioles and luck, you’ve probably read enough about the Royals’ bullpen and its dominant but amber-encased trio of late-inning relievers to take you through the rest of October. All you need to remember is that if the game doesn’t unfold in such a way that Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland line up to pitch the seventh, eighth, and ninth, respectively, something strange and unpleasant will probably happen.
The Royals barely use their bench, except for speed; Yost is the only manager this season to pinch-run more often than he pinch-hit. Given how the wild-card game went, we might see Terrance Gore on the bases again in lieu of a bigger bat at the plate. The Angels don’t have any equivalent weapons (unless you count Tony Campana), just bodies to fill the standard bench roles.
If momentum is real, then the Royals have more of it. The evidence suggests that it isn’t, though, and so we’re left looking at the one factor that we know is predictive of postseason performance: regular-season performance. By that boring-but-tangible criterion, this is the biggest mismatch possible in the current playoff field. The Angels aren’t the team they were with Richards, but they have home field, a big offensive edge, and smaller deficits with the leather, on the bases, and in the bullpen than most other playoff teams would compared to Kansas City. Angels in four.
The Royals stats cited in this piece are from the regular season only.