At 8:37 pm (EST, approximately) on Friday, the Texas Rangers will host the Baltimore Orioles in one of the most surprising match-ups possible in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. One game-- a Game 163, if you will. One chance to survive and play the Yankees. One winner, but with two vastly different stories from two vastly different teams. How did they get there? Who will win? After the jump, I will examine each team and boldly predict a winner.
If you had told me at the beginning of the season that the Rangers and O's would be playing in the Wild Card round, I would have laughed you out of the room (metaphorically, probably). How could Texas lose a division that they have dominated? How could Baltimore beat out the Rays and Red Sox and Angels and other teams in the AL to get there? But here we are with Texas collapsing down the stretch and Baltimore continuing their improbable run.
Texas Rangers: So, you just blew a huge lead in the AL West, got swept by the upstart A's and are now one loss away from being out of the playoffs. At least you haven't lost back-to-back World Series in heartbreaking fashion...
But seriously, the Rangers are in a tailspin. We can't quantify their emotions and feelings, but I am sure they are coming into Friday feeling pretty horrible. Blowing a sizable division lead is bad enough, but getting swept in the final series by the usurping team? That's crushing. Fortunately for Ranger fans, the stats do not lie; this team has a legitimately outrageous offense. You have Josh Hamilton and his 43 HRs, Adrian Beltre and his 0.386 wOBA and 140 wRC+, and Elvis Andrus with 21 stolen bases. The entire lineup can get on base, run reasonably well, and hit the ball to score runs. All this led to a 4.98 run/game stat that is absurd, especially considering how dominant pitching was across the league. For context, league average was 4.32 runs/game. Their 808 runs scored led the league, the Yankees were second with 804 runs, and no other team came reasonably close to 800. Simply put, the Rangers are dangerous on offense.
Yu Darvish has been tabbed to start for the Rangers. Aside from one Mike "The Effing Boss" Trout, Yu has had arguably the best rookie season in the AL. Ron Washington is betting the back of the rotation can hold up against the Yankees as he throws his #2 starter. But he has reason for confidence. Yu has a 3.29 FIP and a 10.4 K/9. Sure, his walk rate is a tad high, but he has great strike-out pitches and the Orioles do like to strike-out (21.3% K rate).
Baltimore Orioles: So, you just shocked everyone in the Majors, you win seemingly every close game you play, and you showed the flaws of Pythogrean Win Theorems. Miracles abound!
Even as a die-hard Yankees and Nats fan (which is finally a good combination), I am loving this Orioles run. The O's are reminding everyone that even as we attempt to understand the inter-workings of the sport, baseball is still a mystery. It is exciting and random. They are making the game a joy to watch as no one knows what will happen next. Players who were written off as gone (looking at you, Nate McLouth) are playing great baseball. Even better for Showalter's men: the advanced stats agree with the result-- the Orioles are a good team, even if the 'Pythags' do not agree.
Using the Pythagorean Theorem (using runs scored and runs given up), the Orioles record should be about 81-81. Yep that definitely didn't happen, so it is obvious that they actually have reason to feel confident in close games-- they've done it all year, why not for a couple more games? Be careful with that narrative (on both sides) because Pythagorean formulas cannot tell us what will happen in one game. That being said, experience is definitely a plus for the team that has played so many close games. In other words, while I don't totally agree with the idea that "the game is played on the field, not in spreadsheets", the inability to quantify 'clutch' leaves me given a slight edge to the team that has proven an ability (or something) to win late and extra inning games.
Sources say Joe Saunders or Steve Johnson will start for the Orioles. In limited time, the pitchers have both done reasonably well. I do not want to read too much into small sample sizes, so I will just say that either of them will have an incredibly tough time against a stacked team.
Baltimore does have hitting. I was surprised to see the O's have the FOURTH highest ISO in the Majors. Camden Yards is definitely not an extreme hitters park, so Chris Davis, Mark Reynolds and company should be taken seriously.
We know the Rangers have gone 5-2 against the Orioles this season, with two of the games being decided by a combined 13 runs. That doesn't tell us anything new; the Orioles win close games, the Rangers score runs in bunches. The pitching match-up is certainly intriguing. Johnson's WAR + Saunders WAR = 1.4 WAR. Darvish has a WAR of 5.1. Note: Steve Johnson has also only started four games and Saunders in seven, so take that difference with several grains of salt. It appears the Rangers have the better starter. However, the Orioles bullpen has been shockingly solid, so the O's have the advantage in late game situations.
One game does not a sample size make. At a certain point, all the stats and analysis in the world come to nothing. The game will happen, the players will play, and the results will be final. Strange things could/will happen.
Prediction: It is always hard to go against the home team, especially one with such solid hitting. Darvish is a dominant pitcher, Saunders and Johnson have a lot to prove, and the Rangers offense is just deadly. Unless the Orioles hitting can keep pace, this should be a win for Texas. Then again, I have doubted the Orioles all season, and seeing as the teams have identical records, nothing should be taken for granted. All the same....
Rangers: 6 Orioles: 2