The Blue Jays were under .500 as late as July 28 and finished with a historically great run differential and a six-game edge in the AL East. The Rangers were under .500 as late as August 13 and won the AL West. The Astros and Royals have the fewest and third-fewest wins over the past 10 seasons, yet here they are, brazenly being good baseball teams, as if that’s just normal now and we’re supposed to sit back and accept it. I know nothing. You know nothing. Let’s preview some playoff games.
Texas Rangers vs. Toronto Blue Jays
(Game 1: Thursday at 3:37 p.m. ET on FS1.)
|Texas Rangers’ Projected Starting Rotation|
|1.||RHP Yovani Gallardo||3.42||4.00||184.1||15.3||8.6|
|2.||LHP Cole Hamels||3.65||3.47||212.1||24.4||7.1|
|3.||LHP Derek Holland||4.91||5.30||58.2||16.7||6.9|
|4.*||RHP Colby Lewis||4.66||4.17||204.2||16.5||4.9|
|Toronto Blue Jays’ Projected Starting Rotation|
|1.||LHP David Price||2.45||2.78||220.1||25.3||5.3|
|2.||RHP Marcus Stroman||1.67||3.54||27.0||17.5||5.8|
|3.||RHP Marco Estrada||3.13||4.40||181.0||18.1||7.6|
|4.*||RHP R.A. Dickey||3.91||4.48||214.1||14.3||6.9|
Both of these teams transformed their rotations by acquiring a left-handed frontman before the trade deadline, turning their biggest liabilities into playoff-caliber units. David Price is an all-caps ace, while Cole Hamels is a small step below, but both were enormous upgrades over the next-best alternatives. Hamels went the distance to clinch the Rangers’ division title on Sunday, so he won’t be available until Game 2, although Texas could still bring him back on normal rest to face Price in a potential Game 5.
Toronto’s rotation goes four deep with decent starters: The early return of Marcus Stroman, who’s experimenting with his nasty stuff in a way that might get him even more grounders than last year, gives the Jays the third-best pitcher in this series by a wide margin over any Ranger. Extreme fly baller Marco Estrada has ridden best-in-class vertical movement to soft contact and an ERA that far outstrips his peripherals, thanks to a .216 BABIP — the lowest BABIP in any season of at least 180 innings pitched during the DH ERA, an extreme outlier considering the league BABIP was 20 points lower at times during the ’70s and ’80s. Although Estrada isn’t a true-talent low-3.00s ERA guy, his stuff seems to fit the profile of at least a slight FIP defier. In R.A. Dickey’s past 16 starts (dating back to July 9), he’s pitched to a 2.78 ERA, almost halving his ERA through his first 17 outings and more than doubling his strikeout-to-walk ratio. Knuckleballs and 40-year-old bodies being what they are, Dickey’s next start is as much a mystery as anyone’s, but for the past half-season, he’s almost exactly replicated his production for the Mets from 2010 to 2011.
Texas’s rotation, meanwhile, remains more of a chaotic neutral than a strength. Game 1 starter Yovani Gallardo last went six innings on August 22, and he hasn’t recorded a 19th out since June 27. Then again, in the playoffs he probably shouldn’t be allowed to anyway. Of greater concern is what Gallardo has done during his short starts: In 71 innings since the All-Star break, he’s allowed a .323/.383/.512 line. It’s fortunate the Rangers relievers will be rested entering this series.
Gallardo isn’t the only Texas starter who might need backup: Derek Holland has allowed the fourth-highest home run rate to right-handed hitters among 106 pitchers who’ve faced at least 1,000 batters since 2009, and although he’s capable of producing the occasional gem, on the whole he has more in common with the three home run dispensers ahead of him — (really) old Jamie Moyer, Joe Blanton, and Scott Baker. Holland against the Blue Jays in Arlington is a sphincter-squeezing matchup for Rangers fans. Texas will likely use Martin Perez in relief to avoid starting three southpaws against Toronto’s righty gantlet, which leaves Colby Lewis in line to start Game 4. Lewis has a homer problem, too, thanks to the third-highest fly ball rate among playoff starters, behind Estrada and Chicago’s Dan Haren. Lewis’s only virtue is a low walk rate, which keeps some of the long balls from being multi-run shots.
|Texas Rangers’ Projected Starting Lineup|
|1||CF Delino DeShields||R||.261/.344/.374||94||492|
|2||RF Shin-Soo Choo||L||.276/.375/.463||127||653|
|3||DH Prince Fielder||L||.305/.378/.463||124||693|
|4||3B Adrian Beltre||R||.287/.334/.453||108||619|
|5||1B Mitch Moreland||L||.278/.330/.482||115||515|
|6||LF Josh Hamilton||L||.253/.291/.441||92||182|
|7||SS Elvis Andrus||R||.258/.309/.357||77||661|
|8||2B Rougned Odor||L||.261/.316/.465||105||470|
|9||C Chris Gimenez||R||.255/.330/.490||119||113|
|Toronto Blue Jays’ Projected Starting Lineup|
|1||LF Ben Revere||L||.306/.342/.377||98||634|
|2||3B Josh Donaldson||R||.297/.371/.568||154||711|
|3||RF Jose Bautista||R||.250/.377/.536||147||666|
|4||DH Edwin Encarnacion||R||.277/.372/.557||150||624|
|5||SS Troy Tulowitzki||R||.280/.337/.440||100||534|
|6||C Russell Martin||R||.240/.329/.458||114||507|
|7||1B Justin Smoak||S||.226/.299/.470||107||328|
|8||CF Kevin Pillar||R||.278/.314/.399||93||628|
|9||2B Ryan Goins||L||.250/.318/.354||84||428|
Almost nine decades later, we’re still using the 1927 Yankees as the standard for offensive excellence. “They’re no 1927 Yankees,” we say, or sometimes “They’re no Murderers’ Row.” We’ve chosen our bellwether wisely: The ’27 Yankees were the best-hitting team of the modern era, with a 126 wRC+ that tells us they were 26 percent better than a league-average team, after adjusting for park effects. Toronto is testing that ironclad rule, though: Since the All-Star break, the Blue Jays have been the 1927 Yankees, hitting .274/.350/.478, which translates to a 125 wRC+.
Here’s another way to convey how good the Blue Jays have been. Manager John Gibbons has two lefties and one switch-hitter in his regular lineup. As a result, 52.1 percent of Toronto’s plate appearances have come with right-handers hitting against right-handers, the highest rate of any team but Detroit. Yet the Blue Jays are baseball’s best-hitting team against righties, too. Forcing the Blue Jays to face same-handed pitchers is the closest the league can come to making them hit with one hand tied behind their backs, and even then they’re without equal. Against lefties, they’re more or less Murderers’ Row.
The Blue Jays hit so well that trading for Troy Tulowitzki dragged down their overall line. They hit so well that they were comfortable DFA-ing Danny Valencia when the lefty-masher was slashing .296/.331/.506. They hit so well that Darwin Barney has slugged .609 since they traded for him in mid-September, and Ryan Goins has learned how to draw walks. Forget statistical tests and scientific experiments: The best support for the cliché that “hitting is contagious” is Barney and Goins being better than useless. Those guys got all of their vaccines, but thanks to Toronto, they caught offense anyway.
The Jays are an elite offensive team not only because they take walks and hit for power, but because they have one of the league’s lowest K rates, second only to Kansas City’s among playoff teams. Most teams known for their power and patience have the decency to strike out sometimes, since hitters who do well in those areas also tend to swing hard and get into deep counts. The Blue Jays are one of only 35 non-strike-season teams from baseball’s expansion era (1961–2015) to post a walk rate and an Isolated Power at least 15 percent higher than the MLB average. Of those 35 teams, only two (the 1985 and 2009 Yankees) struck out less often relative to their leagues than the Jays did this season. And neither of those two teams was quite Toronto’s equal in the patience or power departments.
The Jays came within two Baserunning Runs of being the first team on record to lead the majors in hitting, baserunning, and Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. There’s nothing their position players don’t do well. It’s scary to consider what they would have done during the second half with a healthy Devon Travis, not to mention any contribution from the always-injured Michael Saunders.
The 2015 Blue Jays scored 10 runs in a game 26 times, the most of any team since the high-offense early 2000s. Second on that list are the Rangers, who’ve done it 17 times this year. Texas is also the only team with more Baserunning Runs than Toronto. On balance, the Rangers improved at the plate after the All-Star break, as declines from Prince Fielder, Mitch Moreland, and Delino DeShields have been balanced out by a blistering showing from Shin-Soo Choo (who was out-OBPed by only Joey Votto and Bryce Harper in the second half), Elvis Andrus’s return to adequacy, Rougned Odor’s newfound power, and Adrian Beltre’s bounceback to his 2013-14 rates.
Both teams’ bullpens have gotten better as the season has progressed: The Rangers owe their improvement to the arrivals of Sam Dyson in a deadline deal with the Marlins and Jake Diekman in the Hamels trade, while the Jays can trace theirs to Aaron Sanchez’s move to the bullpen on July 25. Freed of the need for more than two pitches, Sanchez has held opponents to a .467 OPS in 26.1 innings of relief, with a Brad Ziegler–esque (or Dyson–esque) 68 percent ground ball rate. Between Sanchez, lefty Brett Cecil, and closer Roberto Osuna, the Jays have a formidable seventh-eighth-ninth Cerberus, and their lower-leverage options — Mark Lowe, Liam Hendriks, LaTroy Hawkins (who’s still in search of his first World Series win in Season 21), and second lefty Aaron Loup — aren’t as much of a downgrade as most teams’ middle-inning arms.
The bullpen edge goes to the Blue Jays not only because of their depth and high-end talent, but because they haven’t worked any of their stoppers as hard as the Rangers have. Dyson and Shawn Tolleson — both of whom manager Jeff Banister used in five consecutive games during the Rangers’ final playoff push — rank seventh and 13th in major league relief innings, respectively, and Keone Kela missed time in September with elbow discomfort. They’ve all been effective so far, but they might have less left in the tank than Toronto’s top arms.
As for the benches: True to form, the Blue Jays have a right-handed slugger in Chris Colabello who would have the highest wRC+ (minimum 100 PA) on the Rangers roster. Toronto’s lineup didn’t give Gibbons many pinch-hitting opportunities during the regular season, but expect to see Colabello hit for Goins or Ben Revere against left-handers late in close postseason games. Gibbons can also call upon speedy outfielder Dalton Pompey for pinch-running purposes. The 22-year-old has been successful in 82 percent of his 184 steal attempts as a pro.
Mike Napoli is the Rangers’ Colabello equivalent. Since being dumped by Boston in August, his bat has come back to life, and he owns a .278/.391/.563 full-season line against lefties in 179 PA. Moreland has a .666 OPS against southpaws over the past three seasons, which is both the mark of a beast and the mark of a hitter who should be benched against Price. Napoli should also be sleeping with the Rangers’ scouting reports on Cecil and Loup. Ryan Strausborger, a 27-year-old August call-up, has none of Pompey’s offensive potential, but in 191 pro base stealing attempts, he’s been successful at roughly the same rate. Catcher Robinson Chirinos missed most of September with a bad biceps tendon, but he made it back in time to convince Texas he can be the backup in the ALDS. The team will likely carry both lefty Will Venable and righty Drew Stubbs as Josh Hamilton injury insurance and defensive replacements for the Rangers’ iffy outfield gloves.
Twitter beware: Although Gibbons is pretty conservative when it comes to trying to create runs from the bench, Banister can get a bit bunt-happy, calling for sacrifices from position players at the highest rate (relative to his league) of any manager in 2015.
With the standard disclaimer that no outcome of a five-game series qualifies as surprising, there’s no good reason to bet against the Blue Jays. Texas finished with the run differential of an 83-win team, while Toronto posted the run differential of a 102-win team. Both clubs made big deadline additions and are better than their full-season stats would suggest, but there’s still a significant separation between them. Not only do the Blue Jays have home-field advantage, they also have the better offense and the better starter in every game except the second, with no obvious deficit in any other area. Toronto in four.
Houston Astros vs. Kansas City Royals
(Game 1: Thursday at 7:37 p.m. ET on FS1.)
|Houston Astros’ Projected Starting Rotation|
|1.||RHP Collin McHugh||3.89||3.58||203.2||19.9||6.2|
|2.||LHP Scott Kazmir||3.10||3.98||183.0||20.3||7.7|
|3.||LHP Dallas Keuchel||2.48||2.91||232.0||23.7||5.6|
|4.*||RHP Mike Fiers||3.69||4.03||180.1||23.7||8.4|
|5.*||RHP Lance McCullers||3.22||3.26||125.2||24.8||8.3|
|Kansas City Royals’ Projected Starting Rotation|
|1.||RHP Yordano Ventura||4.08||3.57||163.1||22.5||8.4|
|2.||RHP Johnny Cueto||3.44||3.53||212.0||20.3||5.3|
|3.||RHP Edinson Volquez||3.55||3.82||200.1||18.2||8.5|
|4.*||RHP Kris Medlen||4.01||4.13||58.1||16.5||7.4|
|5.*||RHP Chris Young||3.06||4.52||123.1||16.6||8.6|
Dallas Keuchel, whose work we witnessed Tuesday in a wild-card win over the Yankees, will likely pitch only once in this series, so the Astros will have to piece together the rest of the rotation with starters who don’t possess his uncanny ability to hit spots three inches off the edge of the zone. Collin McHugh will start Game 1, and then the Astros will turn to Scott Kazmir, whose velocity loss and fade down the stretch for the second straight year — he managed only one quality start in his six September games, getting 13 or fewer outs in four of them — surely would have pushed him down the depth chart if Houston had better options. Kazmir is likely only starting Game 2 because (a) Keuchel needs more rest, and (b) rookie Lance McCullers is way past his previous innings high and has stuff that translates well to the bullpen. McCullers is the exception on the Astros’ soft-throwing staff, the only arm that sits in the mid-90s, and the best-positioned pitcher to take advantage of a team with a large split against power and finesse pitchers — which, unfortunately for the Astros, describes their batters but not the Royals’, who hit the same against all comers. The Astros have tried tandem starters before, which is one of the reasons McCullers hasn’t thrown more innings in the minors. With Kazmir starting Game 2, the Astros could try a tandem, with McCullers warming up early.
The Royals won’t face as many questions at the front of their rotation: On July 20, Yordano Ventura gave up 10 hits and six runs over four innings, raising his ERA to 5.19. On July 22, the Royals demoted Ventura to the minors, although his roster spot was saved at the last second by a sproing in Jason Vargas’s UCL. On July 26, Kansas City traded for Reds ace Johnny Cueto. It seemed obvious then that the new guy would start the ALDS opener. Instead, Ventura will take the ball, both because Cueto wasn’t comfortable with the idea of pitching on short rest and because Ventura, who’s reportedly matured emotionally, has actually been the better pitcher in the closing months.
Ventura didn’t turn untouchable immediately after the almost-demotion — he had a couple of clunkers shortly after the close encounter with Omaha — but in 11 starts beginning on August 11, he’s posted a 2.38 ERA with 81 strikeouts and 28 walks in 68 innings, the ace-like peripherals we always expected from someone with his top-shelf stuff. Ventura’s fastball has gained speed as the season’s gone on, and he’s relied more heavily on his curveball, which has become one of the best of its kind, boasting the sixth-best whiff rate and 17th-best ground ball rate among the 88 starters who’ve thrown at least 200 curves this season. As good as Ben Zobrist has been, and as good as Cueto was expected to be, the revamped Ventura has become the Royals’ best deadline pickup.
Cueto has turned in four semi-successful starts since his catching intervention with Salvador Perez, but something still seems off: Neither his 15 strikeouts nor his nine walks in those 25 innings was Cueto–esque. When he’s healthy and happy, he’s one of the best pitchers in baseball, but we haven’t seen that guy since his first few starts in K.C. Edinson Volquez, meanwhile, will draw the Keuchel start, which makes him the underdog in Game 3. The first half was the highlight of his season, but his signing has worked out better for Kansas City than many (me included) expected, and he’s been a league-average innings-eater even during his down months. The Royals will weigh the pitch-to-contact cases of Kris Medlen and Chris Young for Game 4, or even go back to Ventura if they’re facing elimination. Young has had success on the road, but K.C. might lean toward the less fly-prone Medlen in Minute Maid Park.
|Houston Astros’ Projected Starting Lineup|
|1||2B Jose Altuve||R||.313/.353/.459||120||689|
|2||RF George Springer||R||.276/.367/.459||129||451|
|3||SS Carlos Correa||R||.279/.345/.512||133||432|
|4||3B Luis Valbuena||L||.224/.310/.438||105||493|
|5||DH Evan Gattis||R||.246/.285/.463||99||604|
|6||LF Colby Rasmus||L||.238/.314/.475||115||485|
|7||CF Carlos Gomez||R||.255/.314/.409||96||477|
|8||1B Chris Carter||R||.199/.307/.427||101||460|
|9||C Jason Castro||L||.211/.283/.365||76||375|
|Kansas City Royals’ Projected Starting Lineup|
|1||SS Alcides Escobar||R||.257/.293/.320||67||662|
|2||2B Ben Zobrist||S||.276/.359/.450||123||535|
|3||CF Lorenzo Cain||R||.307/.361/.477||129||604|
|4||1B Eric Hosmer||L||.297/.363/.459||125||667|
|5||DH Kendrys Morales||S||.290/.362/.485||131||639|
|6||3B Mike Moustakas||L||.284/.348/.470||124||614|
|7||C Salvador Perez||R||.260/.280/.426||87||553|
|8||LF Alex Gordon||L||.271/.377/.432||122||422|
|9||RF Alex Rios||R||.255/.287/.353||72||411|
For the most part, the Astros remain what they looked like when I wrote about them in early May. Their batters lead the league in fly ball rate, and a higher percentage of their flies leave the park than any other team’s but Toronto, in part because they hit those flies as hard as anyone. If you count the two Tuesday shots off Masahiro Tanaka, they’re tied with Toronto for the most home runs in the game. They also lead the AL in strikeout rate, and not even a top-10 walk rate can bump their OBP above the middle of the pack. They run better than one would expect, but thanks to that combination of whiffs and home runs, 47.6 percent of the Astros’ regular-season runs were scored on dingers, the second-highest rate in the majors. Another happy byproduct of the flies and K’s: They rarely ground into double plays.
There’s one important way in which the Astros aren’t what they were in May, though: They now have Carlos Correa, who’s been their best hitter during his time with the team. They also now have Carlos Gomez, a deadline acquisition who has filled the starting slot Jake Marisnick used to squat in. Gomez was a superstar in 2013 and 2014 but he’s not right now: Even if the hip problem that reportedly convinced the Mets not to trade for him is no longer an issue, he’s dealing with an intercostal strain that prompted Astros manager A.J. Hinch to remind writers “He’s not 100 percent” in both his pregame and postgame press conferences Tuesday.
Still, if we stipulate that Gomez is an all-around average player, even in his hobbled state, then the Astros’ lineup has few dead zones. Correa gives them the offensive stud they lacked — Jose Altuve is an excellent all-around player but probably not Correa’s equal on offense alone — and if you believe the projections, their worst hitter, Jason Castro, is roughly a league-average offensive catcher. (Even if he isn’t, he’s developed into a fine receiver, which makes up for the outs.) Alex Presley and Robbie Grossman, two relics of the Lastros years who combined for 67 plate appearances and minus-0.4 WAR many months ago, are the only Astros hitters who’ve accrued negative WAR this year. Throw in the negative-WAR pitchers — Jake Buchanan, Michael Feliz, and Samuel Deduno, each of them one-tenth of a win in the red and nowhere near the October roster — and the Astros’ negative-WAR players have produced only minus-0.7 WAR. That’s really impressive, especially in light of the Astros’ massive total from 2012 to 2014. There’s a lot to be said for superstars, but there’s almost as much to be said for not having holes. In September and October, the Astros hit better than any other team. Including the 1927 Yankees.
Of course, there’s something about the sight of strikeouts with runners in scoring position that activates broadcasters’ gag reflexes in October, and if the Astros struggle to score in this series, you’ll hear about how they’re too reliant on the home run. Best as I can tell, there’s no such thing: Every type of team tends to score less in October, because of cold weather and superior pitching, but teams that depend on dingers score less less, probably because it’s hard to string together long rallies off good playoff pitchers and it’s hard to find empty field against good playoff defenders. If you hate Houston’s style of scoring, though, you’ll love Kansas City’s: As Jeff Sullivan showed in September, the Royals are the best contact team ever, relative to their league.
The Royals are also a significantly better-hitting team now than they were for much of last season: They’re still last in walk rate, just as they were in 2014, but thanks to Kendrys Morales and the belated blossoming of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Lorenzo Cain, they’re no longer last in home runs. (They actually outhomered the Cardinals.) Like Houston, they have no platoon split. Toward the end of the year, manager Ned Yost abandoned the Zobrist/Alex Gordon tag team at the top of the order that had pleased the lineup-simulator crowd, moving low-OBP shortstop Alcides Escobar back to the leadoff spot. But no matter where Zobrist and Gordon bat, they give the Royals a pair of regular hitters with walk rates of at least 11 percent, which they haven’t had in any season since Wilson Betemit teamed with Gordon in 2010. Speaking of which: I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Gordon has been on this team since 2007. The Royals, all of a sudden, are one of the oldest teams in the league, on both sides of the ball, while the Astros have usurped the young-upstart-no-one-expected-to-win part the Royals played so well last season. Are we all aging this fast? How long ago was last year?
Both teams are near the top of the leaderboard in defensive efficiency, with pitching staffs that play to their defensive strengths: The Royals have a fly ball staff, funneling more balls in play toward their stellar outfield, while the Astros get grounders and vacuum them in with aggressive infield shifts. The Royals probably aren’t as off-the-charts excellent with the leather as they were last season, but when Jarrod Dyson and Marisnick replace starters late in games, both clubs boast among the best outfields in baseball. One other note: Through some combination of Perez, outfield arms, and pitchers who care about controlling the running game, the Royals have been the second-best in baseball at restricting their opponents’ activity on the basepaths, based on Baserunning Runs allowed. Just from facing the Royals, an average baserunning team would play like the league’s third-worst baserunning team.
By full-season WAR, Deserved Run Average, and forward-looking projections, the Astros have the best or second-best bullpen in baseball, although they were the worst in September and they have the lowest average velocity of any pen in the league. DRA-wise, the Royals are right behind them. The K.C. pen that the world grew to respect last fall lost lights-out closer Greg Holland to Tommy John surgery, but the surgical gods made it an even exchange by returning Ryan Madson, giving Yost a Wade Davis–Kelvin Herrera–Madson combo that’s almost as automatic as last year’s trio. The Royals will make the middle innings work with Luke Hochevar, Franklin Morales, and Danny Duffy, who threw 8.1 scoreless innings in relief down the stretch and might actually appear in October this year. As good as the Astros’ threesome of Luke Gregerson, Will Harris, and Tony Sipp is, they don’t have a Davis, which could be the difference depending on how hard Yost rides the right-hander.
Yost, the majors’ least active in-game manager, rarely pinch hits, and for good reason: Dyson is the only lefty bat on his bench, and Dyson is more of a pinch hit-ee than a pinch hitter. Once the game begins, Yost rarely does anything, actually, so you won’t get to know the Royals bench nearly as well as you will the Astros’ collection of platoon bats and subs. The Royals will carry backup catcher Drew Butera — who’ll never, ever play, if Erik Kratz’s zero 2014 playoff innings are any indication — and presumably playoff good-luck charm Jonny Gomes, then fill out the rest of their roster spots with speed-and-defense guys like Dyson, Paulo Orlando, and familiar pinch runner Terrance Gore, who has 215 professional steals at a 92 percent (!) success rate. The Royals have fewer weak hitters than they did a year ago, though, so the pinch-running spots might be sparse.
Houston, meanwhile, has several bench bats that could start for the Phillies: Preston Tucker is the power bat from the left side, while Jed Lowrie would be the best choice to start against a southpaw if the Royals didn’t have an all-righty rotation. And Marwin Gonzalez has turned into Zobrist-lite before our eyes, playing five positions this season. If the Royals do reach for a pinch runner, they’ll hope Hank Conger is catching: The Astros backup has a 2 percent caught-stealing rate, as in one runner gunned down in 42 attempts. There’s your latest piece of evidence that stat-inclined teams place more emphasis on framing than arms.
After picking against the Royals in the first three rounds last season, then switching to the pro-Royals camp for the World Series and watching them lose in seven to San Francisco, I’m ready to be on the right side. This is a more even matchup than the wins and losses make it look: Houston actually out-won Kansas City in the parallel universe in which Pythagorean records are binding. It’s a toss-up, but the wild-card penalty — a single start from Keuchel — and the Kazmir uncertainty makes me say Royals in five.
The Astros stats cited in this piece are from the regular season only.