Last year's Rangers-Blue Jays series was one of the most compelling ALDS of all time, as Toronto escaped with a Game 5 win at home thanks to Jose Bautista's three-run homer and benches-clearing, hot take-generating bat-flip. Since then the two teams have exchanged brush-back pitches, takeout slides, and actual punches, not to mention endless quotes about how much they dislike each other. And now they're ready for a rematch, this time with the Rangers holding homefield advantage.
Better yet: PECOTA sees the series as a coin-flip, giving both teams a 50 percent chance.
Toronto’s lineup is absolutely stacked with right-handed pop, as each of the first six right-handed hitters have 20-plus-homer power and the 2-3-4 of Donaldson-Encarnacion-Bautista is a nightmare to get through. Despite that on-paper imbalance the Blue Jays had an even platoon split this season and last season. All of which makes for some interesting matchups in this series, because the Rangers will be starting a lefty in three of five games, but will be using primarily righty relievers.
Most of those right-handed hitters are veterans who grind out at-bats and the Blue Jays led the league in walks during the regular season, so righty or lefty they're all about wearing down the opposing pitchers before delivering a 450-foot knockout blow. And while their offense gets most of the attention, the Blue Jays' defense ranked among baseball's best in park-adjusted Defensive Efficiency and Martin was a top-five pitch-framer behind the plate. Walks, homers, and defense is a pretty nice combination.
It’s remarkable how well general manager Jon Daniels and the Rangers remade their lineup on the fly, adding Desmond on a bargain contract this offseason and Lucroy, Beltran, and Gomez in midseason pickups. Beltran replaced Prince Fielder, whose career was cut short by injuries, and the 39-year-old veteran of 11 previous postseason series is hugely important as a switch-hitter breaking up a string of right-handed bats. Lucroy had a big second half after coming over in a deal from the Brewers, slugging .539 with 11 homers in 47 games, and will also be counted on to steal a few strikes per game behind the plate. Gomez, left for dead after a brutal stint in Houston, hit .284/.362/.543 in 33 games for the Rangers and brings center-field range to a corner spot.
Texas has free-swingers up and down the lineup–Odor in particular will swing at anything, including Bautista–but Beltre and company don't strike out much and Choo’s return from the disabled list combined with the additions of Beltran and Lucroy give the Rangers a few grinders. They ranked among the AL’s top five in batting average, homers, and runs this season overall and posted the league’s third-highest slugging percentage in the second half. And they can do some running too, with Gomez, Desmond, Andrus, and Odor giving manager Jeff Banister base-stealing options if he wants to get aggressive.
Upton will likely start in left field against left-handers Cole Hamels and Martin Perez, and will probably be Toronto’s most-used player off the bench as well, providing manager John Gibbons with power, speed, and defensive options. Smoak also figures to see action as a pinch-hitter capable of going deep in counts and popping the occasional long ball. Pompey got a grand total of two plate appearances in the majors this season, but he’s around for his late-inning wheels and has swiped 40 bases in 170 career games at Triple-A.
Choo’s return combined with Mazara’s late-season slump pushes the rookie to the bench, but with 20 homers in 145 games and a .274/.332/.459 line off righties Banister should be able to find some use for the 21-year-old’s lefty bat. Rua could find himself in some key spots versus Brett Cecil, Aaron Loup, or Francisco Liriano as a right-handed bat called upon in place of Choo or Moreland.
Stroman won’t be called on until Game 4 because he was needed to start the Wild Card game, putting pressure on soft-tossing veterans Estrada and Happ. Neither has eye-popping secondary numbers, but Estrada’s changeup is such a weapon that he’s been one of the hardest-to-hit starters for the past two years despite a high-80s fastball. Happ’s success is tougher to explain, but something seemed to click for the 33-year-old journeyman in Pittsburgh last season and he broke out this year with a 20-4 record and 3.18 ERA. He’s certainly not that good, but the current version of Happ is better than his pre-2015 career numbers suggest and posted a sub-3.60 ERA in every month but July.
Sanchez had a brilliant first full season in the rotation, going 15-2 with a 3.00 ERA and pitching so well that the Blue Jays scrapped plans to transition him back to the bullpen late in the year. With 30 starts and 192 innings under his belt entering the playoffs, how well the 23-year-old holds up physically will be key after logging a total of 101 innings in 2015. Stroman is the surest bet of the bunch, but he'll make just one start after pitching Game 2 and Game 5 (over David Price) last year.
If any left-handed pitcher can survive the Blue Jays’ gauntlet of right-handed power it’s Hamels, whose changeup has been baffling righty bats for a decade. His lifetime splits include a .676 OPS versus lefties and a .679 OPS versus righties. However, even a changeup as good as Hamels’ is a fly ball-inducing pitch susceptible to homers and he served up 20 of them against righties this season. It’s an intriguing matchup of strength versus strength, lefty changeup versus righty power.
Darvish looked every bit like his old self returning from Tommy John elbow surgery, racking up 132 strikeouts in 100 innings while reclaiming his usual velocity. Texas has the front-line pitching advantage in this series, but both Lewis and Perez are shaky third and fourth options against a lineup capable of chewing up low-strikeout arms. Not only do the Rangers need Hamels and Darvish to pitch like aces, they need Lewis and Perez to avoid blowups enough to let the bullpen do its thing.
Relief Pitchers (IP, ERA, DRA)
Osuna’s health is one of the biggest factors in this series after the 21-year-old stud closer exited the Wild Card game with a shoulder injury. Gibbons insists it’s a minor issue, but Osuna may not be available in Game 1 and could be limited throughout the series, which along with Joaquin Benoit’s season-ending injury would leave the Blue Jays very short-handed in the bullpen. Grilli has closing experience and a strikeout rate of 12.0 per nine innings since 2011, but the 39-year-old also served up 10 homers in 59 innings while struggling with his control.
Biagini has gone from Rule 5 pick to trusted setup man, and both Cecil and Liriano will be asked to get key outs. Liriano in particular looks likely to make-or-break at least one game for the Blue Jays, who need the career-long starter to get key outs against righties and lefties like he did in the Wild Card game. If the Blue Jays get short outings from their starters the bullpen could be stretched to the point of breaking unless an unsung hero or two steps up in a big way.
RHP Sam Dyson (70, 2.43, 4.05)
If the Rangers’ bullpen pitches like it did in the regular season—or at least has the impeccable timing it had in the regular season—they’ll probably win the World Series. Texas was an absurd 36-11 in one-run games—compared to 59-56 in all other games—and Rangers relievers combined for an MLB-high 41 wins. Among all other teams only the Yankees (36) topped 32 relief victories. And what’s particularly amazing about Texas’ uncanny ability to win close games is that the bullpen’s collective 4.40 ERA was nothing special, ranking 25th in baseball.
However, in the second half the Rangers’ bullpen posted a 3.50 ERA with similarly strong secondary numbers, as Jeffress joined the mix as part of the Lucroy trade and Banister leaned heavily on the Dyson-Bush-Kela trio. They’re lacking in household names and true shutdown options, but there’s quantity and decent quality, with five solid right-handers to match up against the Blue Jays’ righty-heavy lineup.
I realize calling this series a coin-flip is a cop-out of sorts, but PECOTA agrees and … well, it's just damn hard to envision these two teams not playing four or five emotional, hard-fought games that come down to a big moment or two. Whether you want to call the Rangers' bullpen performance and historic record in one-run games good luck or good fortune, it's unlikely to continue to the same extreme. However, that doesn't mean they'll suddenly turn into late-inning bums. Texas also has homefield advantage and the two best starting pitchers in the series lined up how they want, which is enough for me to pick the Rangers by the slimmest of margins.