"I look at stats just like you do. It's about run production and run reduction with defense and pitching."---Buck Showalter
The Baltimore Orioles are preparing to face-off this week beginning at Oriole Park against the Detroit Tigers in an ALDS showdown. It's a series which will feature two teams that aren't necessarily all that similar across the board and that kind of difference should lead to an entertaining match up.
Baltimore won the AL East in a down year for the division by smashing homers in voluminous amounts compared to the rest of the American League, playing a rock solid brand of defense, and counting on an experienced tactical manager to get the most out of what was on hand.
Their steady dose of power, combined with a deep bullpen, enabled them to overcome key injuries to Manny Machado and Matt Wieters, poor performances in a few spots, and a suspension to a key player like Chris Davis. It's truly amazing that the O's weathered all of this and still managed to hold a relatively comfortable division lead for most of the season's second half.
What kind of club will the Tigers be facing in Game 1 on Thursday? It's a mixed bag of vets for the most part that have come together to put 96 wins on the board.
--Leading the Way--
Baltimore GM Dan Duquette signed Nelson Cruz late in the off-season to a ultra-cheap one year contract for $8M (plus the forfeiture of a first round draft pick) that certainly looked like a decent bargain on the day it was signed. Instead it turned into a mega-bargain for the Orioles as Cruz ended up leading the American League with 40 homers en route to posting a productive .271/.333/.525 slash-line. Suffice it to say, it was money well spent. Cruz jumped out to a momentous start in April and May carrying the Orioles lineup throughout the Spring. Cruz slowed down during the summer months noticeably but re-emerged with a sterling finish in September. He posted a slash of .349/.384/.604 in the season's final month. He looks ready for October and he has good memories of walloping Tigers pitching in the playoffs from his days in Texas. He's already getting "Tigers Boogeyman" status in some places based on his prior strafing of Tigers pitching.
Adam Jones might be one of many Orioles who aren't really great in the OBP category, but he emerged as a player who garnered plenty of chatter in the "who else besides Mike Trout should we talk about for MVP to make it sound like a race" sweepstakes. Jones made his share of great plays in centerfield and slammed 29 homers as a major power threat to combine with Cruz. Is he "Batman" or "Robin' when it comes to Cruz and him? Either way, it's a dangerous duo capable of turning a game with one swing.
Power throughout the lineup
The O's rely on the big fly more than just about any club in baseball. 211 homers powered their rise in the AL East. They needed each and every one of them. This is a weak club in terms of hitting for average in plenty of spots, they don't walk all that much, and they don't steal bases. But they do clear the fence both at home and on the road. Their power isn't merely a product of the power friendly Oriole Park, 103 of their homers were hit away from Camden Yards.
43 of their homers were hit by the likes of Wieters, Davis, and Machado who won't be available of course. However Cruz and Jones are backed up by Steve Pearce who emerged from relative obscurity to mash 21 dingers in only 383 plate appearances good for an OPS+ of 160. He's been their "JD Martinez" more or less. A great surprise and huge boon to their lineup in support of his more well known compadres.
Jonathan Schoop didn't have a great year overall at the plate (.209/.244/.354) but he did manage 16 homers. Nick Markakis added 14 while JJ Hardy and Caleb Joseph chipped in 9 each. Tigers fans also have seen Delmon Young put on a post-season power display up close and know that Young is capable of breaking open a game when he's rolling. "Instant runs" lurk throughout this lineup among much of the constant out-making.
The Relief Corps
The Orioles acquired former Tiger Andrew Miller from the Red Sox at the trade deadline and there is no question that Miller has been a nice add for the O's. Miller has been a deadly force against both righties and lefties this year with an eye-popping K/9 rate of 15+. But he only augmented a fairly deep bullpen crew that has done a great job holding up for Showalter to utilize to carry games to the finish line.
26-year old Zach Britton emerged this year as the Closer in Baltimore. Another example of a middling starting pitcher transitioning to late inning effectiveness. Britton has seen his secondary stats move in the right direction nearly across the board with the move to relief. A higher K-rate in addition to an unbelievable groundball rate of 75% has combined to make him a force in the 9th inning with a 1.65 ERA.
Darren O'Day promises to be another late inning weapon that Showalter is likely to call on early and often in the series. O'Day's funky sidearm delivery can be death to right-handed hitters and he's capable of 4+ out appearances to chew up the middle innings. Given the extreme right-handed lean of the Tigers lineup, there is little doubt that O'Day will be a tough nut for the Tigers to crack if they are trailing with only nine or fewer outs to go in the game.
The Orioles also have Tommy Hunter with his 2.97 ERA as an 8th inning option and their starters like Ubaldo Jimenez who won't be drawing starting assignments.
In addition to Miller, the Birds bullpen also has two other southpaws in Brian Matusz and T. J. McFarland who have had successful seasons. Whether both need to be rostered in the Tigers series is a good question however. Both struggle against right-handed hitters. Given the Tigers right-handed lean it's debatable that the O's will need three lefties in their bullpen with only Alex Avila commonly in the lineup as a lefty bat for Detroit.
Look for Showalter to have a short leash with his starters in favor of his diverse and deep bullpen. He doesn't need to ride a struggling starter very far. This is a unit, given the off-days in a short series, that can gobble up four to six innings in a game without a lot of problem.
Simply put...the Orioles catch the ball. If you look up and down their pitching roster you notice one thing fairly quickly. You see plenty of pitchers with a lower ERA than their respective FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching). This indicates that the defensive support the Baltimore staff is receiving is allowing many of them to outperform the production usually linked to their homers allowed, strikeouts, and walks.
As a team the Orioles have posted a 3.44 ERA but a FIP which says they've pitched closer to a crew with a 3.96 ERA. That's the defense at play. Defense matters even more in the playoffs when extra-outs can be killers in a short series. Given the state of the Detroit defensive unit, this is a no doubt advantage for the guys from Maryland.
The Orioles don't have a bad rotation. It's truly hard to call their unit a "weakness". But it's also not dominant presence and the Tigers should have the better talent on the mound in nearly every game "on paper".
Chris Tillman, Bud Norris, Wei-Yin Chen, Kevin Gausman, and Miguel Gonzalez are all solid options who would inhabit rotations on dozens of clubs. But none are posting big K-rates and we've noted earlier how the Orioles defense has put a glossier shine on their pitcher's ERA than many may have earned.
Tillman is the "ace" but if Gausman gets a start, he's the kind of young talent that seems capable of ripping off a gem that leaves Tigers fans wondering "what happened tonight?" Still, if the Tigers are going to win the series, it seems that they'll have to duplicate their formula for beating the Kansas City Royals...get some runs early on against the starters before the deep and effective bullpen can put their stamp on the game. Given the O's lack of "blow away stuff" in their rotation, the Tigers should have their opportunities.
Lack of Diversity
What if the O's don't hit for power? The all or nothing aspect of hitting a lot of homers to propel your offense means that sometimes that power can dry up for a few games. In a short series the effects of that don't need to be spelled out.
When you look at the entirety of the Orioles lineup you get the sense if the ball isn't flying out, Baltimore isn't going to string together a walk and three singles very often to push across two runs. They need their scoring sequences to be fairly short. A double and homer for instance. They don't steal bags and only executed 35 sac-hits on the year...so they aren't heavy into manufacturing a run either.
What to look for...
The Tigers went 5-1 this season against the Orioles and outscored them 33-20. A key was, of course, holding down the Baltimore long balls. The O's only hit three homers in the six games as Detroit pitching dominated for the most part.
Certainly regular season results only mean so much in October...they may mean nothing...but it does provide the road map for the Tigers to follow. The main arrow in Showalter's offensive quiver is the homer. If those dry up, the O's will be left to win games in a fashion they aren't as used to.
Baltimore is very lefty deficient in their every day lineup, much like Detroit. This might be a good matchup for the Tigers bullpen. Long a source of consternation for the Tigers, their bullpen at least won't be burdened with too many bad platoon matchups. Only Markakis is the kind of lefty bat the Tigers may choose to build their inning around getting a precise lefty/lefty matchup. Chasing matchups for the other lefties like Ryan Flaherty for instance wouldn't seem quite as necessary. Therefore Joe Nathan, Joba Chamberlain, Joakim Soria, Anibal Sanchez, and Al Alburquerque know they'll be facing a righty stick the vast majority of the time they enter the game.
The sixth inning will probably be the barometer inning in this series. If the Tigers have jumped on Baltimore starters early, they'll have eliminated the threat of the O's bullpen clamping down late.
If Baltimore has hit some early dingers and chased Detroit starting pitchers to get into the softer Tigers bullpen, there is a good chance the O's relief corps will sew things up each night.
Finally...don't discount the defensive differences. The Tigers can make some of the ugliest defensive gaffes known to exist in the civilized world. One too many will sway this series especially if the Orioles counter with their usual clean performance with the leather.
It's October. It's playoff baseball. Enjoy it. The tactical intrigue at this time of year is some of the best the sport has to offer. This series should include it's share of moments that will debated for a while when it comes to managing the respective bullpens and the use of pinch-hitters to get the occasional good match up.
"Tigers in 3" but they'll all be close.