By Jason Wojciechowski on October 4, 2012 at 11:00 PM
The Texas Rangers will play the Baltimore Orioles on Friday for the right to play the Yankees in the real playoffs. I'm interested in figuring out, in highly presumptuous fashion, who we as A's fans should be rooting for in that game, as a matter of maximizing Oakland's chances. This is presumptuous because the A's have to get past the Tigers first, but, like I said, let's just think about increasing the probability of a positive result.
We could look at this one of two ways:
The Yankees are better than both the Orioles and Rangers, so we should root for the team with a better chance of actually beating the Yankees and thus leaving the A's with an easier ALCS opponent should they make it that far.
The playoffs are a crap-shoot, so rather than rooting for a team that can knock off the Yankees, we should root for the worst team to win and hope they luck their way into a victory over the Yankees.
It might seem, then, that what we have to do is choose between #1 and #2, and that will determine the choice: #1 is clearly the Rangers and #2 is clearly the Orioles, right? The two squads won the same number of games, but the Rangers finished with a +101 run differential, third in the league behind the Yankees and the poor, sad, unlucky Rays, while the Orioles are at +7, the eighth-best mark, and closest, in all of baseball, to the Phillies. But that might not be the case, so I want to try to confirm things with at least a little bit more study.
What do Baseball Prospectus's adjusted standings say about the two teams and their overall quality? The Orioles' second-order winning percentage, a measure that relies on individual players' underlying statistics rather than actual runs scored and allowed, pegs them as a .487 team. That's not super awesome. The Rangers, by contrast, are at .593, tied for second in the A.L. behind only the Yankees (.594).
This would seem to support the initial hypothesis. Is there anything major in team composition that would change this result?
The Rangers only had 108 games of Mike Napoli, but he's playing now and his bat, while not as astounding as in 2011, is above-average. Outside of first base, though, which has been a rotating spot for years now, the Rangers' starting position players are sort of remarkable. Check out their games played:
On the other hand, Beltre has been dealing with a shoulder issue and played designated hitter in all three games of the final series against Oakland, leaving Michael Young at third. Young's not a butcher or anything, but Beltre is a special defender, so this isn't the best alignment of their resources.
Further, it's not clear that Josh Hamilton is at full strength. A's fans have seen the misplays, and we've all heard the rumors that he's dealing with eye problems. He started the year shockingly hot, but from (to pick an arbitrary endpoint based on eyeballing his game logs) June 1st to the end of the season, he hit .245/.322/.487. That's very nice power, and it's overall nothing to be ashamed of, but it's also not Josh Friggin' Hamilton. First-half/second-half splits may not be the best indicator going forward (i.e. not every strong second half means a player is legitimately on the upswing and vice versa), but combined with the other things we're seeing and reading about, the question is at least raised whether the Josh Hamilton that's in our minds and the Josh Hamilton that's in Rangers' fans' hearts is actually the Josh Hamilton that Texas has.
Finally, Colby Lewis: he put up a 3.43 ERA in 105 innings this year (though that masks a substantial number of unearned runs) before getting hurt. His injury left the Rangers with Yu Darvish and that's basically it. I know Matt Harrison has a gaudy ERA, but his peripherals don't blow anyone away (particularly the 5.6 K/9), so Rangers fans might be right to worry that he's not a true playoff number-two. Relatedly, Darvish will be pitching Friday's play-in game, so if the Rangers win, he'll presumably only get to pitch once in the Division Series, probably not until Game Four. This being a five-game series, there's no guarantee Game Four will even exist.
How about the Orioles? They of course called up top prospect Manny Machado, who ought to be the shortstop of the future, to man third base. Machado hasn't really hit, though, posting an OBP under .300, so at the plate, he's been a little worse than Wilson Betemit, who started 69 times before Machado showed up.
It's very unclear who the second baseman is between Ryan Flaherty and Robert Andino. Neither man can hit, though.
Nate McLouth is now the left fielder, having settled into the position in mid-August. He's really hit, at least relative to what we expect from both McLouth and from the Orioles, posting a .268/.342/.435 line. On the other hand, he's still Nate McLouth and that's not that great. He's something in left field, which is better than nothing (aka it's better than Xavier Avery), but he's still just something.
In right field, with stalwart Nick Markakis getting hurt, Chris Davis of all people settled in as the everyday starter in the last eight games of the year. Davis was DHing before this, splitting time with Jim Thome, and he played first base at the start of the year before Mark Reynolds forced his way off of third, but now he's in right field, accomplishing a rare move to a harder spot on the defensive spectrum. What this meant was a lot of Jim Thome at DH, which is a pretty solid proposition despite his slugging under .400 as an Oriole, at least as compared to the available alternatives: Lew Ford?
It's hard to compare all these changes to any particular point in the year, though, because as a number of writers around the internet have noted, the Orioles had a fetish for roster moves this season, treating the 40-man limitation like a rented mule, cutting players and adding them and cutting them again and adding other guys at the drop of a bat. The team is substantially different from where it started, but is it substantially different from the team that compiled the majority of the stats that added up to the weak second-order win percentage and weak run differential discussed above? I'm not sure. I'm not even sure how to measure that question without more time than I have here on the eve of the postseason. But eyeballing things, there's a bit of a Titanic deck chairs feel to the whole thing.
Don't even ask me about the pitching rotation. I can't even tell you anything beyond that Joe Saunders is apparently starting the play-in game. Wei-Yin Chen has been good all year and is still on the roster and not hurt, but everyone else who's started a game for the Orioles this year is either bad or hurt or demoted or all three at once. Except Chris Tillman, I guess, he of the 2.93 ERA, but he's got a whopping ten unearned runs in 86 innings, so things aren't as sparkling as they appear on the surface.
The bullpen has been stunning all year and remains so now, for whatever that's worth (quite a bit in the playoffs, potentially): the highest ERA (yeah, bullpen ERA, shut it) among the top five relievers by games pitched is Luis Ayala's 2.64. Wowee.
What about matchups vs. the Yankees? The New York offense is a tad weaker against lefties, likely because two of their top four hitters, Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson, both bat from that side, but their .263/.339/.438 line against portsiders is only mediocre as compared with their performance against righties. It's still stellar when compared to the league (the sOPS+ figure on Baseball Reference). Further, the Yankees will throw two lefty starters (Sabathia and Pettitte) and have Boone Logan's 11.1 K/9 from the left side in the bullpen.
There are a million other possible matchups you might be able to look at, but, to paraphrase Joe Sheehan, in the playoffs, variance swamps everything. I think it's worthwhile doing analysis to see where the small edges might be, but the games aren't going to be predictable.
So! Where do we end up? Looks like basically the same place we started. The Rangers have the better shot at knocking off the Yankees simply by virtue of being the better team, since it doesn't look like there are any particular obvious matchup issues to be exploited, and the Orioles are the team the A's would rather face in a potential ALCS.
How you root, then, depends on which theory, #1 or #2, you believe in. Choose wisely.