Playoff-Bound Birds

14563324_10150693630039990_613011861251836419_nEarlier today, the Baltimore Orioles clinched a spot in the MLB postseason as a wild-card entrant.  Better yet, they did it with a 5-2 victory over my most hated team, the New York Yankees (and with an assist from my second-favorite team, the Atlanta Braves, who beat the Tigers to seal the deal).  Once again, the Orioles exceeded the expectations of media types across the baseball world (including this brilliant analyst), falling just a single win short of hitting 90.  Rather than just previewing their wild-card game against the Toronto Blue Jays, I think I’ll take a wider look at the AL playoff field and assess the Orioles’ chances of making it to the World Series.

Unfortunately, I don’t think their chances are especially good.  But I’ve been wrong once this season already.  The Orioles largely are who we thought they were, even if they got some better-than-expected performances.  They can still mash the ball, hitting an incredible 251 home runs, 27 more than any other MLB team.  This power surge was led by an unlikely 47 home runs from new acquisition Mark Trumbo.  Chris Davis chipped in another 38, and even managed to keep his average above the Mendoza Line.  Manny Machado led the team in offensive Wins Above Replacement with another solid all-around performance (.343 on-base, .533 slugging, 37 homers).  Jonathan Schoop continued his ascent toward stardom as well.  Early on in the season, the team moved Adam Jones into the leadoff spot, a move I’ve never really been in love with, since he has more power and less on-base ability than most leadoff hitters.  But he is fast.

Mark Trumbo did this quite a few times this year.
Mark Trumbo did this quite a few times this year.

In my season preview, I said that if the pitching staff managed even an average performance, the team could surprise.  I’d say that mostly happened.  Chris Tillman looked much more like his old self, going 16-6 with a 3.77 ERA and posting his second-best Fielding-Independent Pitching (FIP) number since becoming a full-time starter at 4.23.  There are also signs that the team may not in fact be blowing the development of Kevin Gausman, as his FIP was even better at 4.08, putting him in the company of some star pitchers such as Cole Hamels, Adam Wainwright, and Dallas Keuchel.  Former can’t-miss prospect Dylan Bundy was even moved into the rotation with promising results (his FIP was 4.69).  Unfortunately, the rest of the rotation was weak.  Not a single starter aside from those three posted an ERA under 5, though Yovani Gallardo and Ubaldo Jimenez did seem to get a little better toward the end of the season.

The bullpen was typically lights-out, with Brad Brach and others providing a solid bridge to closer Zach Britton, who was somehow even better this year.  In 67 innings of work, Britton allowed four (FOUR!) earned runs, for a microscopic 0.54 ERA and 47 saves.  By contrast, the last reliever to win the Cy Young Award, Eric Gagne of the Dodgers, allowed 11 earned runs in 82.1 innings of work for a 1.20 ERA and 55 saves.  Unfortunately, since Britton plays in Baltimore and not LA, he probably won’t get the media attention required to earn serious Cy Young consideration, but he definitely deserves it.


So what about the O’s most likely AL opponents?  Well, in order for anything to happen, they have to beat the Toronto Blue Jays in the wild-card game (a playoff format I still hate).  The Jays are… actually a pretty similar team to the O’s offensively.  They ranked 4th in baseball in home runs, but their team on-base percentage is a tick better (.329 to .315), which means they’re less reliant on the long ball than Baltimore.  Their pitching, however, is much better, with a 3.80 team ERA.  Unlike the Orioles, they have a bona fide ace at the top of their rotation in JA Happ.  66% of Happ’s starts this year were quality starts (6+ innings, no more than 3 earned runs), and his ERA is 3.18.  Aaron Sanchez has similar numbers, with a 73% quality start rate and a 3.00 ERA.  Their bullpen is shakier, with a 3.50 ERA among pitchers who have made at least 20 appearances.  Their closer, Roberto Osuna, is no Britton, but then again few pitchers are.  They will be tough to get past, but a similarly constituted Orioles team beat an equally good Texas Rangers team in 2012, so I’ve a feeling they have a shot as long as their hitters drive a few balls.  Their overreliance on the home run concerns me, though, given the feast-or-famine nature of such a strategy.

Either Aaron Sanchez (left) or JA Happ will be difficult to beat in a Wild Card Game.
Either Aaron Sanchez (left) or JA Happ will be difficult to beat in a Wild Card Game.

If they get past Toronto, they’ll have to deal with the Texas Rangers, who would be a step up in competition, for sure.  They have a nice mix of power (Rougned Odor and the ageless Adrian Beltre) and speed (Elvis Andrus and the resurgent Ian Desmond) in their lineup.  But their rotation is probably worse, as it suffers a big drop-off from Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels at the top.  Now, in a five-game series, the O’s will likely need to beat at least one of those two pitchers, but if they can, they might be able to steal the series.  The Boston Red Sox are the team that scares me the most as an Orioles fan in the AL.  They beat up on the O’s in the regular season, and nearly knocked them out of the wild-card race with a late-season sweep.  They’ve scored the most runs in MLB, and they have possibly the best one-two punch at the top of their rotation with Rick Porcello and David Price.  Knuckleballer Steven Wright is also the best No. 3 starter out of any of the teams I mentioned.  Closer Craig Kimbrel had a shakier season than normal, but I don’t doubt he’ll be ready to shut the door when called upon.  I don’t give the Cleveland Indians much of a chance of upsetting them in the Division Series, but far stranger things have happened in baseball, and a five-game series is a hotbed for upsets.  The O’s would probably need to catch a few breaks in order to make the World Series, but there are certainly teams that have ridden lucky streaks to playoff success (like the Royals, who swept the O’s 4-0 in 2014 in probably the most maddening playoff series I’ve ever watched).

In the NL, I’m going to change course a bit and pick Chicago Cubs, who faded a little after their historically scorching start, but still managed to win 103 games.  They are the most complete team in all of baseball, and I think they are the favorites to win their first World Series in 107 seasons.  How fitting would it be if they did so against the Red Sox, who broke their own 86-year drought in 2004?



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