The playoffs start with a matchup of American League East rivals with identical 89-73 records. Toronto hosts the game thanks to holding the head-to-head tiebreaker, going 10-9 versus Baltimore during the regular season. It's a big advantage, as the Blue Jays were 46-35 at home and the Orioles were 39-42 on the road. Of course, last week the Orioles took two out of three games at Rogers Centre, so who knows.
This time? Winner goes to Texas for the ALDS. Loser goes fishing/hunting/golfing.
2B-R Devon Travis (.300/.332/.454/.266)
3B-R Josh Donaldson (.284/.404/.549/.315)
1B-R Edwin Encarnacion (.263/.357/.529/.291)
RF-R Jose Bautista (.234/.366/.452/.270)
C-R Russell Martin (.231/.335/.398/.252)
SS-R Troy Tulowitzki (.254/.318/.443/.253)
DH-L Michael Saunders (.253/.338/.478/.273)
CF-R Kevin Pillar (.266/.303/.376/.232)
LF-L Ezequiel Carrera (.248/.323/.356/.238)
Toronto's lineup is very right-handed and seemingly built to crush lefties, but both this year and last year the Blue Jays actually had relatively even platoon splits. Orioles right-hander Chris Tillman was slightly less effective versus righties than lefties this season (and for his career), so this is a pretty decent on-paper matchup for the Blue Jays' hitters. They faced Tillman four times this season, scoring 10 runs in 22.1 innings with a 16/9 K/BB ratio.
Carrera was a bit player for much of the season, but manager John Gibbons turned to him in the leadoff spot against righties down the stretch. It's an odd role for a 29-year-old career .255/.314/.351 hitter, but Toronto lacks appealing traditional leadoff options and his left-handed bat does break up all the righties a bit. Despite ranking 12th in batting average the Blue Jays scored the AL's fifth-most runs thanks to leading the league in walks and placing third in homers. Their production fell off in September, but Donaldson-Encarnacion-Bautista is as scary as any trio in baseball and the lineup is capable of hanging crooked numbers, especially at home.
CF-R Adam Jones (.265/.310/.436/.251)
LF-L Hyun-Soo Kim (.302/.382/.420/.284)
3B-R Manny Machado (.294/.343/.533/.292)
DH-R Mark Trumbo (.256/.316/.533/.276)
C-S Matt Wieters (.243/.309/.409/.245)
1B-L Chris Davis (.221/.332/.459/.271)
2B-R Jonathan Schoop (.267/.298/.454/.250)
RF-L Michael Bourn (.264/.314/.371/.238)
SS-R J.J. Hardy (.269/.309/.407/.246)
Baltimore has one of the most powerful lineups in baseball history, leading the majors with 253 long balls–28 more than any other team. In fact, manager Buck Showalter has so much pop from which to choose that he may opt for Bourn over Pedro Alvarez, which improves the outfield defense by shifting Trumbo to designated hitter. Alvarez smacked 22 homers and slugged .504 in 337 at-bats, but last started a game on September 27.
Whereas the Blue Jays have a walks-and-power lineup, the Orioles are mostly just the and-power part. They ranked 10th among AL teams in walks and posted a sub-.300 on-base percentage in the second half. Davis drew 88 free passes, while Trumbo was second on the team with just 51 in 667 trips to the plate. Kim, whom the Orioles tried to ditch after a bad spring training, proved to be a key cog thanks to his patience and on-base skills in front of Machado and the big boppers. As a group they can be pitched to, but if a pitcher leaves a mistake in the strike zone he'll be asking for a new baseball.
Blue Jays: Marcus Stroman (204, 4.37, 3.45)
Last season Stroman returned from a torn ACL to become the Blue Jays' most-trusted playoff starter. This season he stayed healthy, starting 32 games and logging 204 innings, but Stroman was inconsistent and mostly mediocre. His secondary numbers were much better than his ERA and Stroman's second half included a 3.68 ERA and 83/21 K/BB ratio in 88 innings, but even that consisted of a great July-August followed by a shaky September in which he went 0-5. As an extreme ground-ball pitcher Stroman is well-suited to shut down the Orioles' powerful, homer-dependent lineup, but he did serve up 21 long balls.
Orioles: Chris Tillman (172, 3.77, 4.53)
Tillman missed three weeks from late August through mid-September with a shoulder injury and mostly struggled upon returning, failing to make it out of the sixth inning in any of his final three starts while showing decreased velocity. He had a decent outing against the Blue Jays in his regular season finale, but walked three and struck out two while needing 92 pitches to record 17 outs. It's no surprise that the Orioles are turning to Tillman with their season on the line–he has a 3.81 ERA in 845 innings since 2012–but between his late-season issues and 7.01 career ERA in Toronto they can't be feeling especially confident.
Relief Pitchers (IP, ERA, DRA)
Bullpens are damn near unlimited in Wild Card games, but the Blue Jays will be relying mostly on Osuna in the closer role and the setup trio of Grilli, Biagini, and Cecil. Left-hander Francisco Liriano, who started and relieved after coming over in a midseason trade from Pittsburgh, looms as a potential game-changer if Stroman struggles early. Joaquin Benoit, who was masterful for the Blue Jays after being acquired in another midseason deal, is out for the playoffs with a torn calf muscle.
Baltimore has tons of quality bullpen options–including Dylan Bundy, at least for this game–but it's without question Britton's show, with Brach, Givens, and either O'Day or Donnie Hart playing key supporting roles. Britton may end up winning the Cy Young award depending on how this year's voters decide to treat 67 innings of 0.54 ERA pitching and a helluva "value" narrative, but the Orioles will be mixing and matching to form a bridge from Tillman to him in the ninth (or possibly the eighth) inning.
Don't expect much action on the bases, as the Orioles and Blue Jays ranked 30th and 28th in steals, respectively. Baltimore stole a grand total of 19 bases all year, including no more than four from any player. Toronto stole 54, with only Kevin Pillar in double figures. Where the Showalter vs. Gibbons matchup will come in to play far more is with the bullpens, as both teams are likely to have their starters on a short leash and can play endless matchups in the late innings if needed thanks to reliever-rich one-game rosters. There's no reason for either manager to stick with a struggling pitcher in the name of letting him work through things in these circumstances.
PECOTA pegs the Blue Jays as 67 percent favorites. While that sounds too lopsided to me–Baltimore has been underrated by projections all season and, realistically, I'd have a hard time making any good team a true two-thirds favorite over another good team–the odds are unquestionably on Toronto's side. I'll avoid being cute and take the Blue Jays, betting on Tillman struggling enough to keep the Orioles' bullpen from being fully unleashed.