October 8, 2015
ALDS Preview: Rangers vs. Blue Jays
Back on July 27th, the Blue Jays and Rangers were both in third place and more than seven games out in their divisions. The following day, the Blue Jays acquired Troy Tulowitzki; a few days later, the Rangers secured Cole Hamels; then, right before the deadline, the Blue Jays struck again, landing David Price. The flurry of big-name additions helped these teams do more than grab headlines. From thereon they compiled the best records in the American League, posting a collective 84-42 mark—equal to a 108-win pace over an entire season. Those runs were good enough for both teams to overcome the odds and steal their divisions. Now they'll match up for the right to advance to the ALCS.
Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/TAv, WARP)
The Rangers have a good, well-rounded lineup with plenty of lefty-righty balance. They ranked third in the majors in runs scored during the regular season, as well as first in baserunning runs, eighth in isolated slugging, and 11th in True Average. Texas' projected lineup includes seven hitters who posted above-average TAvs during the regular season, and an eighth who fell one point shy of joining the club. This is a formidable lineup. It just feels so-so when stacked up against Toronto's monster nine.
In addition to pacing the majors in runs scored and TAv, the Blue Jays became the first team since the 2006 White Sox to employ three batters who each homered 35 or more times. The Blue Jays also ranked first in the majors in OPS against righties, first in OPS against lefties, first in road OPS, second in home OPS, first in defensive efficiency, and second in baserunning runs. Plus they led the American League in walk rate and finished near the bottom in strikeout rate, but who's counting? This is a dangerous, dangerous lineup that can turn a tight game into a boat race in a hurry.
Moreland has been platooned less this season than ever before, but that seems like a matter of circumstance—the Rangers' right-handed alternative at first base for much of the year was Adam Rosales—than anything else. Lately the Rangers' lineup against lefties has included Hamilton, who has better numbers than Moreland versus same-handed pitchers both this season and historically, with Napoli slotting in at first base. Moreland should rejoin the starting lineup beginning with Game Two.
The rest of the Rangers' bench has varying utility. Gimenez has hit better than expected since joining the Rangers last August and could get a start in the series. Venable and Stubbs were in-season pickups who could be used late in the game to disrupt a match-up or upgrade the outfield defense. (Alternatively, either could be removed from the roster to make room for Leonys Martin or Joey Gallo, should the Rangers crave more power off the bench.) Alberto is a poor hitter—he swings at everything and deals in weak contact—and a plus runner who has never shown a penchant for stealing bases. He's almost certainly the last man off the bench. As such, expect Stubbs, a career 82 percent basestealer, to get the call to pinch-run if and when the opportunity arises.
The Blue Jays' bench features two most-day starters whose presences will be limited due to the Rangers' rotation. Smoak is unathletic and deployed as a nominal switch-hitter—Toronto limited him to 40 plate appearances against lefties this season, the fewest of his career—but he's the best defensive first baseman on the roster thanks to his soft hands. He'll likely see pinch-hitting action. Goins is somewhat similar. He's not a switch-hitter, yet he's a quality defender with experience all over the field.
Barring an injury or blowout, Navarro is not going to see action behind the plate. He's unlikely to see action at the plate either, presuming the Jays decide to carry him as their only backup. On a related note, Pompey could be subbed off the roster for someone like Munenori Kawasaki or Josh Thole. If he remains, he'll offer plus speed off the bench. Carrera is even more of a burner than Pompey, and John Gibbons used him frequently as a pinch-runner throughout the season. He also could provide value as the designated bunter, since he led the Blue Jays in bunt hits and finished second in sacrifices.
With Hamels going on Sunday to secure the division crown, the Rangers won't be able to pitch their ace until Game Two. That means Gallardo will go in Game One.
Gallardo figures to be the only member of the Rangers' postseason rotation who started more than 15 times for Texas during the regular season. He's a walking red flag in more ways than one. From a macro perspective, his seasonal strikeout rate continued its multi-year downward trend; from a micro perspective, he ended the season with a brutal September, and last recorded more than 16 outs in a start back on August 22nd. Expect to see a lot of breaking balls as he attempts to neutralize Toronto's big bats.
Hamels has acclimated well to the American League, having tossed six or more innings in each of his 12 starts with the Rangers. He throws a lot of strikes with a varied arsenal, including one of the best changeups in baseball. Alas, Hamels is slow to the plate and doesn't hold baserunners well, so the Blue Jays figure to run on him early and often. Holland exited his first start of the season with a strained shoulder and didn't rejoin to the rotation until August. His velocity returned with him, and he pitched well in his first few tries. Since then he has posted just one quality start in his last five outings. Like Holland, Perez missed a considerable amount of time recovering from an arm injury—Tommy John surgery, in this case.
On the other side, this series is part of the reason why the Blue Jays acquired Price. His game is all about command these days, as he's able to paint both sides of the plate with his mid-90s fastball. At the risk of upsetting the cliche police, Price has become more of a pitcher than a thrower. His arsenal has expanded and matured to the point where he's willing to use his changeup, cutter, and spike curve each time out. Price is an efficient pitcher who should work deep into his starts. His status as a pending free agent means the Jays have every incentive to start him as often as possible this October.
Stroman's season-long recovery from spring knee surgery culminated in four successful starts down the stretch. He's likely to take the mound in Game Two or Three. All pitchers need to limit baserunners in order to succeed, but that goes doubly for Estrada, a changeup artist who is prone to the long ball. Then there's the knuckleballer Dickey. He's no longer as dominant as he was during his Cy Young days, but he's set to make his postseason debut just weeks shy of his 41st birthday—barring a sweep.
Relief Pitchers (ERA, Innings, DRA)
Each bullpen is anchored by an unlikely closer. Tolleson is a former 30th-round pick from Baylor whom the Rangers claimed off waivers in late 2013. He took over in the ninth inning in May and hasn't looked back. He relies on a boring, low-to-mid-90s fastball that he'll elevate when he's up in the count. Tolleson features two average-or-better secondary pitches as well: a changeup that he'll break out against lefties, and a slider used almost exclusively as a chase offering versus righties. Lately, he's earned recognition for pitching on five consecutive days, so fatigue could be a factor.
Banister has plenty of hard-throwing options to subdue the Blue Jays' bats in the mid-to-late innings. Dyson (97 mph) and Kela (97) bring the heat from the right side—though the latter does a poor job holding runners and could be targeted as the pitcher to insert pinch-runners against—while Diekman (98) and Freeman (95) do the same thing from the left side. Ohlendorf's anachronistic delivery is fun to watch and, although he spent most of the season in the minors, Banister has shown a willingness to insert him into pressure situations. Gonzalez's spot isn't assured, and the Rangers could instead opt for a veteran like Colby Lewis, Anthony Bass, or Tanner Scheppers.
Toronto's unlikely closer was profiled here recently. Long story short, Osuna is a 20-year-old who skipped Double- and Triple-A to make the club out of spring. He began closing in June and has solidified a once-troubling aspect of the Jays' bullpen. As with Tolleson, Osuna's main offering is a riding fastball that can overpower hitters up in the zone. His best secondary pitch is a slider that he has surprising feel for—in addition to using it as an out pitch, he's shown hints of being able to steal strikes by backdooring it against lefties. He also has a seldom-located changeup.
Cecil figures to be the Jays' top non-Osuna, but the pecking order after that is up in the air. Sanchez looked better during his two-month audition in the bullpen—where his fastball-curveball combination should play up—than he did in the rotation, yet Gibbons could always turn to Hendriks or Lowe—two righties who throw strikes and are having surprising seasons. Loup's innings-to-game ratio, side-arm slot, and historical statistics suggest he's a LOOGY. But the Jays don't always use him like one, and he finished the season having faced more righties than lefties. Maybe that was practice for this series, since the Rangers tend to construct their lineup in such a manner that Loup will need to go through at least one righty if he is to face multiple left-handed hitters.
Predictably, the Blue Jays ended the regular season with the best raw and park-adjusted defensive efficiency. Toronto starts average or better defenders at each position, including some well-above-average glovemen like Donaldson and Goins. Martin also merits recognition for being the best defensive backstop in the series. The Blue Jays excel at turning grounders into outs.
Both teams finished middle-of-the-pack in shift success.
Gibbons has guided the Blue Jays to winning records in three of his five full seasons as manager, yet has never coached in the postseason. He's more likely to be considered the better tactician of the two, in part because of his creative lineups. Gibbons has batted Donaldson second throughout the season, and, for a time after the trade, used Tulowitzki as his leadoff hitter. It won't hurt his standing with the analytical community that he's the less likely of the two to issue an intentional walk or call for a sacrifice bunt. Oh, and by the way—the Jays led the majors in stolen-base success rate, and finished as the game's second-best baserunning team, behind the Rangers.
Neither Banister nor Gibbons used many pinch-hitters during the regular season. Both, however, employed plenty of pinch-runners and showed a willingness to call for a double steal.
Thanks to Kate Morrison for assistance.