The magic just won’t wear off of those pesky Orioles. After finishing the regular season two games back of the Yankees with a 93-69 record, the Birds extended the Rangers misery Friday night with a 5-1 victory. At one point, Texas had a cozy 13 game division lead and were in first since April 9. They also blew a four game lead with six to play.
The Yanks have seen plenty of Baltimore this season, 18 times in fact. The matchup was perfectly even at nine wins a piece. For most of the season, we were all just waiting for Baltimore to collapse given their lack of experience and talent, plus their negative run differential. Thanks to a very strong second half, they did finish with a +7 run differential. They’re pythagorean W/L was 82-80, which they incredibly outperformed by 11 games. They certainly played more to their actual record in the second half, while getting a good amount of luck in the first half. Regardless, Buck Showalter is a deserving candidate for manager of the year along with A’s skipper Bob Melvin. When I wrote them off on August 8th, their run differential -54. Clearly, they’ve played some excellent baseball since to make up for it. Although they certainly have some young core talent, it’s pretty amazing that they got this far with guys like Nate McLouth as regulars.
Obviously, the Yankees have seen plenty of the Orioles offense in 2012. There’s plenty of power on the team; they touched off on 214 dingers while scoring 712 runs (4.4 runs per game). It’s not a great offense as a whole, posting a 95 wRC+ and .311 OBP, but there are plenty of guys who can take pitchers deep.
The Yanks catch a break in the fact that Nick Markakis is out for the rest of the year. Markakis had been a steady lefty bat for them (124 wRC+), and proved capable of hitting left handed pitching (137 wRC+). Amazingly, Nate McLouth has stepped in for him and has actually done a pretty nice job, hitting seven homers in 236 plate appearances, good for a 117 wRC+.
Five players have hit more than 20 home runs for Baltimore: Mark Reynolds, JJ Hardy, Matt Weiters, Adam Jones, and Chris Davis. Jones and Davis both blasted more than 30. We also know that Reynolds is better than 23 home runs; he hit 37 last season and has eclipsed 40 in the past. The Yankees were on the wrong side of a Reynolds home run barrage in early September, too.
Jones is their most dangerous hitter, posting a .287/.334/.505 slash line, or .360 wOBA and 126 wRC+. If there’s one negative, it’s his patience: 34 walks all season. Matt Weiters is their second most potent hitter, but only against right hand pitching. His wRC+ vs. righties is a superb 148, but lefties neutralize him down to 91. Perhaps this is why the Yankees are considering starting Pettitte after Sabathia, instead of Kuroda.
A few other guys to wtach: Chris Davis is pretty feast or famine with his 33 home runs but 33.1% strikeout rate. It’ll be interesting to see how 20 year old Manny Machado will handle his first postseason. We’ve seen Andruw Jones and Miguel Cabrera excel in the postseason as teenagers, so perhaps Machado could follow suit.
With Joe Saunders getting the nod against Texas, he wouldn’t be able to come back on full rest until game three on Wednesday. Right now, it looks like Miguel Gonzalez is slated for game one on full rest. Chris Tillman or Wei-Yin Chen could go game two, although Chen hasn’t pitched since Monday and could actually go for game one. It probably makes mosts sense to go Chen-Tillman in games one and two.
It’s not a very good rotation; nobody has an xFIP below 4.34 or a SIERA below 4.14. Tillman and Chen have the 4.34 xFIP, while Chen has the lowest SIERA. ERA, on the other hand, is well in Tillman’s hands (2.93). Tillman has a bit of a propensity to give up homers (12 in 86 innings) while being primarily a fly ball pitcher. While Chen’s numbers aren’t overwhelming, they are pretty solid for a rookie. He’s had a couple rough starts against the Yankees in September (for what it’s worth), allowing four homers in 11 innings.
Here is where the Orioles thrive. It’s all centered around Jim Johnson, who saved 51 out of 54 opportunities. He throws hard (94.4 MPH average fastball) but doesn’t strike many out (5.37/K9). His BABIP is a low .251 which certainly is reflected in his ERA, but this is also because he is an extreme ground ball pitcher (62.3%).
Their pen isn’t done there. Pedro Strop, Troy Patton, and Darren O’Day all have ERA’s below 2.50, with O’Day being the best of them (2.28). Ex-Yank Luis Ayala isn’t far behind with a robust 2.64 ERA. O’Day has been the most dominant of them all, with a 9.27 K/9 and 1.88 BB/9. His right hand sidearming style might make you think he’s susceptible to lefties, but they actually only have a .283 wOBA against. Patton is death to lefties (.211 batting average and .249 wOBA), while former top prospect Brian Matusz has also settled in very nicely to a lefty reliever role. In 13.1 innings in the bullpen, Matusz has a 1.35 ERA supported by a 1.91 xFIP.
As a whole, the Orioles offense is pretty average and their starting pitching isn’t great. They certainly had some degree of fortune in the first half, and that luck allowed them to make the playoffs thanks to a torrid second half. The Birds closed the season 38-20, a .655 winning percentage.
What’s the key for the Yankees to move on to the ALCS? Beat up on their starting pitching, and keep their offense in the ballpark. Baltimore couldn’t have gone 16-2 in extras and 29-9 in one run games without that bullpen, so it’s going to be essential for the Yankees to get to their starting pitching. If the Orioles have a lead after six or seven, the Yanks may be out of time. Additionally, guys like Chris Davis, Mark Reynolds, and Adam Jones need to be kept in the ballpark. Although it is unlike his past, Sabathia has had trouble surrendering the long ball this year, so it’s essential for him to reign that part of his game in. More concerning would be Phil Hughes in game four, especially if the Yanks are down in the series 2-1.
Overall, there is no doubt the Yankees are favorites. They really should win this series given the talent disparity, but we certainly have seen crazy things happen in the past in five game sets. As I alluded to on Thursday, the playoffs simply tend to be a crapshoot. Even teams you’re supposed to beat can find a way to move on.
Nobody in the Yankees organization will say it, but the Orioles are undoubtedly a better match up for them. Even though the Rangers hit hard times to close the season, there’s no way the Yankees would have rather seen the likes of Josh Hamilton and Adrian Beltre.
I’m going to hedge my bets here: I think the Yanks either sweep this one or win it in five. Why? If the Orioles manage to take on game (I imagine one of the first two at Camden Yards), I think they probably have a good chance at winning game four. They’re home run hitting proficiency is a bad matchup for Phil Hughes, which is why I could see them forcing a fifth game. From there though, I would expect CC to shut the door.
Hopefully, this series doesn’t need to go five. As I outlined before, that would force the Yankees to use a fifth starter in game 2 of the ALCS (unless they decide to use Pettitte on short rest).
UPDATE 10/6:The Orioles announced Jason Hammel as their game one starter. He’s been banged up with knee problems this year and hasn’t thrown since September 11. He had a 3.43 ERA and 3.29 FIP in 118 innings.