October 2, 2013
AL Wild Card Game Preview
Who said the second Wild Card is bad for drama? The American League's postseason picture was not determined until Monday night's tiebreaker between the Rays and Rangers. The Rays won behind a strong performance from David Price, allowing them to advance to Wednesday's Wild Card Game against the Indians. Here's what to expect from the pair of evenly matched teams.
This isn't your typical Rays offense. For one, this bunch struck out less than 20 percent of the time; for another, they're uncharacteristically poor at baserunning, and lack the stolen-base threats they had in the past. Then there's this: the Rays finished tied for second in team True Average, edging Cleveland by a few points. The lineup above features eight above-average hitters, with Molina serving as the exception, and the bench has four more above-average bats. This is a good offensive unit with the ability to—as Joe Maddon says—"swarm" opposing pitchers.
Cleveland finished sixth in the majors in runs scored, but not for the reasons we expected. Marquee offseason additions like Bourn and Swisher were less than their usual selves, while other, low-key acquisitions like Gomes and Ryan Raburn were more than their usual selves. Five of the nine hitters listed above were better than the league-average mark in True Average. The Indians have an intriguing blend of power and speed, and ranked sixth in stolen bases and fifth in ISO.
Johnson, Young, and Rodriguez give the Rays platoon-based options off the bench, while Fuld gives the club a set of wheels. It's possible Lobaton starts the game, though he's a worse defender than Molina is.
Though neither Giambi nor Kubel offers defensive value, Raburn is the big offensive threat for the Indians. Carson saw a lot of action late in the season as a pinch-runner.
Tommy Rancel recently profiled Cobb's technique. Long story short: Cobb knows how to pitch. He pounds the zone with a low-90s sinker, resulting in one of the AL's highest groundball rates. When Cobb wants to alter speeds he has his pick of two good secondary offerings: a curveball and a split-change. He shows understanding of sequencing and the importance of changing eye levels, and tends to work deep into games. Throughout his career, Cobb has shown a platoon split favoring lefties.
Salazar should be the least-experienced pitcher to start a postseason game this season. The 23-year-old has 10 major-league starts under his belt, and a conservative pitch count kept his innings limited. But, while Salazar is unlikely to go deep into the game, he should put on a show anyway. The Dominican native has a big fastball, which he locates well and adds to and subtracts from. His secondary stuff—a slider and changeup—aren't less consistent, though both have their moments. It's a small sample, but six of Salazar's seven home runs allowed were against right-handed batters.
Bullpen (IP, ERA, FIP)
The Rays and Indians all but tied in bullpen ERA, yet Tampa Bay might hold the advantage with a better closer situation and less dependency on matchups. Rodney's poor start overshadowed a strong finish, as four of his seven multi-walk appearances came within the season's first two months.
Perez is on shakier ground than his numbers suggest, and it shouldn't surprise anyone if Francona looks to someone else to close out a tight ballgame. Masterson has become the trendy candidate, having experienced high-leverage pressure during his time with Boston. The Indians' depth could be called into question if Salazar is unable to give them five-plus innings.
One of Joe Maddon's mantras is, "We catch line drives." They do, but liners aren't the only batted-ball type the Rays field well. They ranked fifth league-wide in defensive efficiency, thanks in part to a shift-heavy approach and a talented defensive roster. Maddon likes to get creative, and one example is how Longoria and Escobar switch positions in the shift once the bunt is no longer in play. The outfield defenders are worse than their infield counterparts, and while the Rays ranked 20th in batting average on flyballs, they still finished ahead of the Indians.
For all the talk about the Indians having a great defensive outfield, the club finished near the bottom in batting average on flyballs allowed. Cleveland was close to average on groundballs and line drives, and you'd have to think things are better with Swisher at first base and Mark Reynolds elsewhere. Still, this is not an elite defensive club.
No AL manager used more pinch-hitters than Joe Maddon did. That's how Tampa Bay operates: with an eye on maximizing every potential advantage. Andrew Friedman gifted Maddon with a deep bullpen and bench, which allows him to play the matchup game all night. Maddon's best attributes are his ability to relate to players and communicate with them, but he remains a good tactical mind whose willingness to eschew tradition is necessitated by his team's position.
Terry Francona used the fewest pinch-hitters in the majors this season, yet ranked third in pinch-runners deployed. Unsurprisingly, his Indians were among the league's most-aggressive basestealers, even swiping third base when the occasion arrived. A good players manager, Francona is one of a handful of skippers who seems least likely to call for an intentional walk. If bullpen management doesn't trip him up, then likely nothing will.
The Indians have the home-field advantage, and when the teams are similar in quality that's not a bad tiebreaker. Cleveland wins and advances to the next round.
Take this projection with the obvious caveat—PECOTA doesn't know about the Rays' play-in game on Monday night, their month-long run with minimal off-days, and so on—gives Tampa Bay a 55 percent shot at advancing to the Division Series, where they'd play the Red Sox.