The last day of the regular season gave us what so many of us wanted- another day of the regular season. I have a hard time accepting that tomorrow’s one-game playoff is a regular season game, while the following day’s one-game playoffs will be playoff games, so I’ll combine them for part one of my playoff preview.
I’ve said many times in this space that picking the winner of a best-of-seven playoff series is a fool’s errand, which means picking the winner of a single game must be an errand reserved for Ruben Amaro, Jr’s ilk. But I have a baseball blog and I’m excited to see these games, so why not flip a coin and pick some winners?
Tomorrow, David Price and the Rays travel to Texas to face Martin Perez and the Rangers. Texas knocked Tampa out of the 2010 and 2011 playoffs, then lost last year’s inaugural Wild Card game to the Baltimore team that edged the Rays out for the last playoff spot. The Rangers looked poised for a collapse in mid-September, losing seven straight and 15 of 20 to find themselves suddenly looking up in both the division and Wild Card races. They needed every one of the seven straight wins that ended their season. The Rays had their fade in August, losing six straight early in the month and eight of nine as the calendar turned to September before a 13-4 finish got them to the same 91-win total as the Rangers.
These two play in ballparks at opposite ends of the offensive spectrum, which often obscures their relative offensive prowess. To wit, the Rangers outscored the Rays, 722 to 688, this season, although Tampa had the better offense. Their weighted ob-base averages, which are not park-adjusted, were almost identical (Tampa led, .324-.323), but factoring in the ballparks gave the Rays a huge edge in weighted Runs Created+, 108-96. The Rangers were a below-average unit masquerading as a good one, while the Rays were quietly among the league’s five best offenses.
Defensively, UZR liked both teams, determining that they each saved between 16 and 17 runs more than an average defense. Yunel Escobar and Evan Longoria stood out for the Rays, while Craig Gentry, Leonys Martin, and Elvis Andrus carried the defensive torch in Arlington.
On the pitching side, the ballparks had the opposite effect, making the excellent Rangers staff (3.64 ERA, 114 ERA+) look merely decent and the average Rays (3.73 ERA, 102 ERA+) look above average. The playoffs limit a team’s exposure to its worst pitchers, though, and at the moment, we’re only looking at one starter and the top few bullpen arms, so the Rangers’ overall pitching edge is irrelevant.
Perez carried a 3.55 ERA through 119 innings, but his 4.21 FIP exposes his inability to strike hitters out (less than six per nine innings), though he was excellent at keeping the ball on the ground (48.6% ground ball rate) in front of a good defensive infield. Joe Nathan (1.41 ERA, 2.24 FIP) is still an elite closer, while Neal Cotts (1.13, 2.27) and Robbie Ross (2.08, 3.24) are likely to get work tomorrow, with starter Alexi Ogando (3.04, 4.31) as a wild card.
Price, despite not winning ten games, had another excellent year when healthy. In 177 2/3 innings, he compiled a 3.39 ERA and a 3.05 FIP, primarily by striking out more than five batters for every one he walked. He’s struggled in Arlington in the past, but I’m calling small-sample-size shenanigans on anyone expecting that to impact his performance tomorrow. The back end of Tampa’s bullpen- Fernando Rodney, Jake McGee, and Joel Peralta- was neither as good as they were last year nor as good as the Rangers’ late-inning team, but Alex Torres (1.71, 2.32) is a strikeout machine with whom the Rangers won’t be familiar, and Alex Cobb is a possibility out of the pen should Price leave the game early.
The better team probably wins less than 60% of the time when two good teams meet for a win-or-go-home game, but I think the Rays are the better team here, and they’re certainly managed better. While Ron Washington bunts his way out of potential big innings, Joe Maddon will pull tricks out of his bag if he needs to.
Then again, with David Price pitching against the Rangers offense, he might not need to.
Rays 4, Rangers 1
The winner of that game should be an instant favorite on Tuesday against the Indians, even in Cleveland. Cleveland was impressive down the stretch, winning their last ten and 15 of 17. Both of those losses, though, came against the nominally-contending Royals, while 14 of the wins came against teams that lost at least 95 games this year.
Cleveland can hit, as evidenced by a wRC+ seven percent better than league-average, and nearly as many homers (170) as the Rangers (174) without the benefit of The Ballpark at Arlington. Their defense, though, is ugly (-55 UZR, third-worst in the majors), and they don’t bring much pitching into this one. Their team ERA (3.83) and FIP (3.75) were both around league average.
All that matters in this one, though, are Danny Salazar and the bullpen. Salazar, a rookie, started ten games down the stretch, with solid results (3.12 ERA, 3.16 FIP, 11.25 K/9). Let him get through the lineup once or twice and give Terry Francona the keys from there, and pitching might not be the weakness for Cleveland that it’s likely to be in a long series. “Closer” Chris Perez shouldn’t work without a ten-run lead or deficit, but Joe Smith, Bryan Shaw, Cody Allen, Marc Rzepczynski, and even starter Corey Kluber are likely to be available and allow Tito to match up effectively.
The Rays would likely start Cobb (2.76, 3.36) in this one, while the Rangers could start Matt Garza (4.38, 3.93 in the AL) or Ogando.
It says here that the best team won’t win this one.
Indians 5, Rays 2
In the National League, one game between teams that have played seven times in the last ten days will determine which NL Central foe gets 20+ dates with the Cardinals this year. Pittsburgh just swept Cincinnati to close the season, though the last game didn’t mean anything after home field for Tuesday’s game was clinched. Cincy took two of three last weekend.
Ballparks affect the perceptions of these teams’ abilities in much the same way they do the Rangers and Rays. On the offensive side, this one’s deceptively close. Led by Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo, the Reds had an average offense this year (97 wRC+), and they should be better with Billy Hamilton swiping bases and distracting pitchers in the late innings. Pittsburgh struggled to score runs all year, finishing 149 behind the Reds with 630, but much of that is due to their environment, as their park-adjusted numbers (98 wRC+) look a lot like those of the Reds. The Pirates stole more bases (94 to 67) in the regular season, with Starling Marte’s 41 leading the way, but Hamilton more than closes that gap.
Both teams are excellent defensively, led by Russell Martin and Clint Barmes in Pittsburgh and the Phillips-Cozart-Frazier infield in Cincinnati.
The Pirates had the NL’s second-best ERA (3.28) this year, but park effects and low BABiP had a lot to do with that. From a fielding-independent standpoint, they were still better (3.42 FIP) than the Reds (3.79), but the Reds get Johnny Cueto (2.82, 3.80) back for the playoffs and don’t have to pitch Bronson Arroyo (3.79, 4.49). Cueto gets the nod Tuesday against Pittsburgh’s Francisco Liriano (3.02, 2.92). Liriano could neutralize much of Cincy’s left-handed power (namely Votto and Jay Bruce), and the Pirates’ solid bullpen, led by Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon, could take it from there. The Reds will want to limit bullpen exposure to Aroldis Chapman, Tony Cingrani, and JJ Hoover, as they don’t have the bullpen depth the Pirates have.
There’s a lot going for Pittsburgh here, including the better regular season record, a recent sweep, and a starting pitcher who had a great year and was healthy all summer. That said, I see the glass slipper falling to the floor this time, as the Reds’ ability to get on base, the possibility of Chapman pitching multiple innings (am I asking too much of Dusty Baker here?), and the potential psychological impact of Billy Hamilton could overwhelm the Pirates in their first trip to the playoffs since I was in sixth grade.
Reds 8, Pirates 3