American League Wild Card Playoff:
Baltimore at Texas
Why Rangers Fans Should Heed my Data-Based Analysis: At the third-quarter mark of the regular season, the Rangers had the best record in the American League and had scored the most runs in baseball. Yet, I wrote, “look closer. They outscored their opponents by just 3 runs in Q2 and by 6 runs in Q3. They scored 19 less runs in Q2 than Q1 and 22 less runs in Q3 than Q2. If this were a stock chart, you’d be worried.”
Why Rangers Fans Should Ignore my Data-Based Analysis: Despite my preseason pessimism that foresaw Texas merely slipping into the Wild Card game largely due to age-related decline, they still won five more games and scored 70 more runs than I projected.
After the Rangers dropped Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, I had a lot of fun putting together a list of baseball games that fit the “Dead Man Walking” criteria Bill Simmons defined years ago in his seminal column on the Levels of Losing. There has never been a Wild Card, one-and-done playoff format before, so we’re all free to play psychologist for a day and take a guess at what effect blowing the AL West title will have on the Rangers. (Best tweet I saw yesterday: “The U.S. Ryder Cup team is impressed with the Rangers collapse.”)
I believe strongly in the Dead Man Walking theory but those types of losses are, by (Simmons’) definition, playoff losses “so harrowing there’s no way possible way they can bounce back.” Texas’ loss wasn’t technically a playoff loss and I don’t think the manner in which they lost was harrowing. I prefer to turn to noted baseball philosopher and former long-time manager of the Baltimore Orioles, Earl Weaver. When asked by a reporter whether he was concerned about his team’s momentum Weaver replied, “Momentum? Momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher.”
Well, tomorrow’s starting pitcher for Texas is Yu Darvish.
With Darvish on the mound the Rangers are not battling the Orioles with the 93-win team that completed the regular season but with a 100-win team that would score 824 runs and allow 623 over an entire season. (The 201-run differential converts to a .618 win percentage, or 100 wins over a 162-game season. More on that calculation in the Orioles section below.)
Why project the Rangers to be an 824 run scoring team rather than the one which scored 808 runs in the regular season? Largely due to the return of catcher Mike Napoli who missed about one-third of the regular season with injuries. For this one game, the Rangers are putting their very best team on the field.
Why Orioles Fans Should Heed my Data-Based Analysis: There is no reason. I projected the Orioles to win 71 games – missing their season-ending total by a whopping 22 games. At the end of the first quarter, I still contended they wouldn’t finish above .500. Even after 121 games, I insisted they wouldn’t make the playoffs.
Why Orioles Fans Should Ignore my Data-Based Analysis: See above. If I had a sports column in the Baltimore Sun, I’d be under more attack than anyone in the city since “Bunny” Colvin sanctioned the Hamsterdam experiment.
Baltimore’s front-office, led by General Manager Dan Duquette deserves a lot of credit for how they handled the roster over the course of the season. Every baseball analyst in existence pointed out ad nauseam that for most of the season the Orioles had a winning record despite being outscored by their opponents. This is a rare occurrence overall (no team this year had a winning record with a negative run differential or vice-versa) and while it sometimes happens somewhere close to the 81-win level (just above or below .500) it is nearly unheard of for a team twenty games over .500, as the Orioles were in September. (For the record, Baltimore finished 24 games above .500 while outscoring its opponents by just 7 runs.)
Commentators notice run differentials these days thanks to Bill James’ Pythagorean Theorem, an elegant little equation which converts a team’s runs scored and runs allowed into an expected winning percentage with a high-degree of accuracy. The equation has been modified since James’ original work and looks like this today:
RS^1.83 / ((RS^1.83) + (RA^1.83)) = Team Winning Percentage
While commentators like me were complaining about the Orioles win total in comparison to its talent, Duquette kept watching his team bank wins, which sustainable or not, had the effect of shortening the season much like a Pete Carril-coached Princeton basketball team would shorten a basketball game. Once there were less than 80 games left in the season, Duquette knew he’d never have to give back the prior wins, he just needed to figure out a way for the Orioles to keep playing .550 or better baseball. So he went out and improved the team, acquiring Jim Thome, and Nate McClouth for little cost and fixing a huge hole at third base by promoting the organization’s top prospect, 20-year old Manny Machado from the minors.
It was a genius move as McLouth and Machado paid instant dividends and Thome, a left-handed power hitter, strengthens the entire line up vs. right handed pitchers. Baltimore may have had a negative run differential deep into the season, but thanks to the moves of Duquette, they were positively not fielding a sub-.500 team during the stretch run – a fact that many may have missed if solely focused on the entire season’s run differential. To wit: Over the last 41 games of the season, the Orioles outscored their opponents by 50 runs, 203 to 153.
So what kind of team is Baltimore bringing to the one-game showdown in Texas? Well, Orioles fans, don’t put away the torches and pitchforks yet, because I’ve got one last indignity to heap on you. The Orioles scored 712 runs this year; I see the starting line up that they’ll take into the playoffs scoring 749 runs due to the late season changes mentioned above. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that not only do the Orioles lack a true ace at the top of their rotation, thanks to their need to win every game up until the last day of the season, they are in a quandary as to who can take the mound versus the Rangers. Forced to pick between soft-tossing righty, Steve Johnson and soft-tossing lefty Joe Saunders, manager Buck Showalter went with Saunders, presumably because he’s valuing experience (189 lifetime starts vs. 4 for Johnson.) Neither pitcher does much to dent Texas’ advantage in the game but there are two problems with the decision, as I see it.
The Rangers produced about 7% more offense versus left-handed pitchers in 2012 compared to right-handers. Also, I view Johnson as the better choice because of, not despite of his inexperience. The Rangers have plenty of experience against Saunders during his time with Anaheim and I doubt if they are anything but excited about getting to hit against Saunders. Saunders has a 6.48 ERA vs. Texas in 11 career starts and that looks downright ace-like compared to his 9.38 ERA (!) when facing the Rangers in Texas. Without a doubt, I’d start the game with Johnson on the mound and if he’s ineffective or unable to overcome his balky knee, I’d have Saunders ready to go in relief as early as the 2nd inning.
With Saunders on the mound, the Orioles bring an 81-win team to Texas and if Johnson had started or ends up with the ball in his hands after an inning or two they’re probably an 83-win team. People have doubted Baltimore all year, and I’ve been at the front of the line. Fans of the team should simply tune me out and enjoy playoff baseball for the first time since 1997.
RS RA Win % Adjustment
Baltimore 749 745 .503 34.5%
Texas 824 633 .618 65.5% <--- Est. Win Probability
(For those of you inclined to ‘invest’ in baseball games, this projection means I find value in any Rangers market priced below -190. The Orioles look attractive at a price of +195 or better.)
In the pre-season, I wrote about the expected effect of aging on the core of the Texas line up and I’m sticking to that call in the post season. Texas’ level of play declined sharply after the first quarter of the season and aging almost certainly played a factor in the steep drop-off in production from Michael Young, the less steep but noticeable decline in Nelson Cruz, and the sharp drop in defensive efficiency of the entire team. They should get by the Orioles, but I think that’s the last time there will be a celebration around the pitching mound this October for the Texas Rangers.
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) March 7, 2013 release. The book is available for pre-order here: http://www.amazon.com/Trading-Bases-Gambling-Baseball-Necessarily/dp/0525953647/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1346604029&sr=1-1&keywords=trading+bases
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