The Blue Jays won Sunday in Boston, securing home-field advantage in Tuesday’s Wild Card game. The Orioles won, too, ensuring they would be the team making the trip to Toronto. The teams finished with identical records in the same division, but their seasons have been very different, and it might drive them to view this game very differently. It may even drive them to make the crucial decision of who starts on the mound very differently.
For Toronto, ending up in this situation is a slight disappointment. They led the division with less than a month left. Winning their final two games stopped the bleeding a little, but the Jays still stumbled to a 13-16 record from the start of September onward. They finished with the fifth-best third-order winning percentage in MLB and the second-best in the AL, but they now face the prospect of being eliminated from the playoffs before they’re really in them.
Baltimore, on the other hand, had no right to get this far. They fell out of first place for the last time in mid-August, but more than that, they were never supposed to be in first place. They had a rocky offseason. They had a rocky spring training. On Opening Day, they had the lowest Playoff Odds and lowest projected winning percentage in the AL, according to PECOTA. No team gets this far and considers themselves to have overachieved, to be playing with house money, but the Orioles are a team with unusual cause to appreciate their standing. Winning this game wouldn’t change the way they feel about this season. Winning a World Series would.
The Blue Jays have a deep enough starting rotation, and an obvious enough chance to play the matchups, to make their choice relatively easy. Francisco Liriano is left-handed (the Orioles were nearly 100 points of OPS worse against lefties this year than against righties), and dominated Baltimore in his last outing against them. He should start Tuesday night. After that, the Jays could have Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, and J.A. Happ fresh and ready for the Division Series. The Orioles, however, have a tougher choice.
Chris Tillman would be the obvious selection. He last pitched Wednesday, so he’d be working on five full days of rest if given the chance Tuesday night. He’s also been the de facto ace (of this admittedly ace-less outfit) for parts of each of the last five seasons. Since returning from the disabled list in mid-September, he’s made three good starts and one bad one. With Kevin Gausman short on rest, Tillman is the natural choice. Ubaldo Jimenez would be on four days’ rest, and had a 2.45 ERA in seven starts after returning to the rotation in August, too, so if Tillman is Plan A, Jimenez is a fine Plan B.
I propose, however, a Plan C. (Actually, for reasons you’ll understand better in a moment, its cleverer name might be Plan B, but that’s taken.) It’s not a new proposal, though it still seems to register as a radical one. It’s been recommended by one or another smart baseball analyst in the case of one or another Wild Card game participant nearly every year since the game’s inception. In the Orioles, though, we might have found the strongest possible case for it. Plan C: Britton, Bundy, Brach, and the rest of the birds’ bullpen. (I’m really upset about wasting the title of Plan B on Jimenez.)
In Gausman, Tillman, and Jimenez, the Orioles have three credible playoff starters (even if Jimenez’s claim to that status is a bit weak). Were they to reach the Division Series, they would have a shot there. In order to maximize their chances of that, though, and not only of that, but of winning the ALCS and the World Series, too, they need to get as many starts out of Gausman, Tillman, and Jimenez as possible, as early in the ALDS as possible. The fourth starter for Baltimore is probably Yovani Gallardo (5.60 DRA, 121 cFIP). They can’t have him pitching more often than is absolutely necessary, if they want to go deep enough into October to really change the way this season feels.
In theory, Tillman could pitch Tuesday night, and if the Orioles won, he’d be in line to pitch Game 3 of the ALDS on Sunday. For any pitcher coming back from a shoulder injury, though, extra rest has value. Still, the biggest reason to choose the bullpen over Tillman for Tuesday isn’t to manage Tillman, but the strength of the bullpen itself. Zach Britton has gotten at least four outs in six games this season, and is arguably the most dominant reliever on any playoff team. Brad Brach had a rough outing Saturday in New York, but has been steadily overwhelming this season. Dylan Bundy seemed to be running out of steam a few weeks after moving into the starting rotation, but his velocity has rebounded recently, and he’s figuring out how to get ground balls when opposing hitters put his secondary pitches in play.
Those three pitchers, plus situational options Donnie Hart, Oliver Drake, Wade Miley, and Darren O’Day, make a really good stand-in for whatever performance the team might get out of Tillman—all while keeping Tillman, Gausman, and Jimenez lined up the way the Orioles would want them to be, if they should get as far as the ALDS.
Joe Sheehan’s phrase for this kind of choice is a “championship-maximizing decision,” I think. In essence, it’s the idea that a team might trade some sliver of probability of winning the Wild Card game for a higher chance of winning the World Series, and really having achieved something. The Blue Jays need to win the Wild Card game to validate their season. The Orioles’ season is already a success. If they’re ready to take aim at another plateau of success, though, they should make a bullpen game out of Tuesday’s tilt. They’ve got the bullpen (and the thin, flat rotation) for it.