An Orioles fan might put money on the O’s to win their wild-card play-in game against Texas tomorrow night, but a betting man wouldn’t, at least with even odds. Then again, by now the betting man may have already gone broke backing Baltimore’s opponents.
The Orioles have spent the whole season surprising people. First they flouted the expectation that they couldn’t compete in the AL East, then the near-certainty that they couldn’t sustain their early-season success (or, for that matter, their success later on in the season). To reach the Division Series, they’ll have to have one more surprise in store.
The Orioles have drawn a difficult opponent in the Rangers, who’ll have their strongest starter, Yu Darvish, on the mound. Texas outscored its regular-season opponents by over 100 runs; Baltimore’s run differential barely broke even. Darvish has pitched to a 2.13 ERA over his last seven starts, striking out 59 batters against only 10 walks in 50 2/3 innings and looking a lot like the ace the Rangers expected to see when they signed him. Not only will the O’s have to defeat Darvish, they’ll have to do it in Arlington, where the Rangers have gone 50-31. And while the Orioles might appear to have more “momentum” in the wake of the Rangers’ disappointing denouement, history has taught us that how a team fares leading up to October doesn’t help us predict how it will play once the postseason starts.
Darvish’s opponent has not yet been named: as we went to press, Buck Showalter was still deciding between Steve Johnson, a soft-tossing righty with just 38 1/3 big-league innings under his belt, and Joe Saunders, a soft-tossing lefty who’s been about league average in his eight-year career. Johnson, whose sore knee was declared good to go after a successful bullpen session on Wednesday, seems more likely to get the nod, both because the Rangers excel against southpaws and because Saunders has struggled in Arlington, recording a 9.38 ERA there in six career starts.
*UPDATE: Showalter went with Saunders, noting that the team wasn't completely confident that Johnson's knee would be up to the task.
In many cases, a team’s choice of starter can make a major impact on its odds of success in an elimination game, but neither Johnson nor Saunders would move the needle much more than the other. In a sense, that’s appropriate, since the Orioles’ rotation has consisted of a largely interchangeable (and often interchanged) cast of characters all season. Either way, as Showalter admitted, the O’s will have their work cut out for them.
However, there is a way for the Orioles to tilt the odds away from Texas, if not quite in their own favor: rely on their relievers.
Aside from their record in one-run games, the Orioles haven’t led the AL in anything this year. Their starters have the league’s sixth-highest ERA. They rank fifth-worst in baserunning and tied for fourth-worst in True Average. Their defensive efficiency rates a good-but-not-great fifth-best. But there is one area in which they’ve stood out: among AL teams, only the A’s and Rays—both of whom play in far more favorable parks for pitchers—have lower bullpen ERAs than Baltimore’s 3.00. Granted, even accounting for Baltimore’s above-average defense, some of their successful arms have benefited from luck on balls in play, which could turn at any time. But the bullpen has still been the team’s best asset. A battle of the bullpens would favor Baltimore, especially with Mike Adams unavailable for Texas. Getting to the Rangers’ relievers could prove difficult—Yu Darvish hasn’t had an outing shorter than 6 1/3 innings in over two months—but the Orioles can ensure that their own enter the fray early.
Yesterday, Dave Cameron argued that the A’s should bypass or keep an extremely short leash on their starter, A.J. Griffin, in their own decisive showdown with Texas, which proved prescient when Griffin was roughed up in the third inning and removed with the Rangers up 5-1. The A’s were able to recover from that deficit—hardly the deepest hole they’ve dug themselves out of this season—but they made it more difficult by letting Griffin go too long. As Cameron observed, starters become markedly less effective each time through an order. In the regular season, teams have to live with that loss of effectiveness, since they can’t afford to burn their bullpens every night. But in an elimination game, when a loss signifies the end of the season, that concern is secondary.
If anything, the Orioles are a better candidate for the bullpen-heavy blueprint than the A’s were. Oakland went into their 162nd game with a tired bullpen, and Griffin may have been more likely to have a successful start than either Johnson or Saunders. With the ability to tailor their roster to the play-in game without it extending to the ALDS, the Orioles can stock their pen with as many arms as they want. And with Jim Johnson, Pedro Strop, Luis Ayala, Darren O’Day, Troy Patton, and a trio of converted starters—Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, and Tommy Hunter—at their disposal, the O’s bullpen is deep enough that if they were feeling adventurous, they could bypass their starters completely.
We won’t see a strategy as extreme as the all-reliever approach, both because it could be risky to ask players to try something new in a game with no margin for error and because Showalter himself could take some heat if he strays too far from convention and doesn’t emerge with a win. However, the Orioles should strongly consider removing their starter after he’s faced every Ranger once, even if he’s cruising. A few effective innings is no guarantee of continued success, and by the time a starter runs into trouble, it could be too late to warm someone up in time to prevent runs from scoring. If the Orioles were to run through most of their relievers en route to a win, they would have Saturday to recover before facing the Yankees in the series opener on Sunday, when Jason Hammel—their most consistent starter this season—could be available to pitch.
The Orioles owe much of their success this season to both the quality of their bullpen’s work in high-leverage situations and the quantity of its work overall. They’ve gotten more innings out of their pen this season than all but three other teams, and 30 more innings than any other playoff team. Despite that innings total, no Orioles reliever ranks among the top 10 in baseball in innings or appearances, which is a testament to their depth. Because of that depth, the O’s can afford to double down and go with what got them here. The Rangers saw how valuable good bullpens can be last October, when Ron Washington rode his relievers hard, and they saw how vulnerable starters can be on Wednesday, when the A’s let them get out to an early lead. The Orioles should learn from the A’s mistake and give Washington a taste of his own medicine tomorrow.
â€‹A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .