American League Wild Card Preview: Does Marcus Stroman Give the Blue Jays an Edge?
We start the playoffs with a matchup between two offensive heavyweights in the Baltimore Orioles and the Toronto Blue Jays, both of which finished with identical records (89-73) on the season. The season series was tight between these two teams as the Blue Jays held a narrow 9-7 advantage, but most recently, the Orioles took a three-game series at the end of September (2-1).
Heading into this matchup, our numbers give the Blue Jays the edge. In terms of nERD, the Blue Jays are at a significant advantage as they check in at 0.83 while the Orioles are at 0.13. The Jays have the top four players in terms of nERD as Josh Donaldson (3.74), Marcus Stroman (2.61), Edwin Encarnacion (2.53) and Aaron Sanchez (2.45) all rank higher than Manny Machado (1.98), the Orioles' top-rated player
However, it's just one game, and as these one-game wild card showdowns have shown us, anything can happen.
Let's dig in and disect this winner-take-all matchup.
How the Blue Jays Got Here
Toronto is led by its tremendous offense, a unit that ranks 9th with a .328 wOBA. Even with guys like Devon Travis (101 games) and Jose Bautista (116 games) missing time and/or struggling -- Bautista has recorded his lowest numbers since 2009 in ISO, OBP, wOBA and wRC+ -- Toronto has been a formidable offense.
Josh Donaldson picked up the slack. He may have been even better this season than he was a year ago, when he won the MVP. He's increased his walk rate (5.3%) and cut down on his strikeouts (down 1.7%) while recording career-high clips in OBP (.404), wOBA (.403) and wRC+ (155).
Double E, E-5, or whatever name you call him, Edwin Encarnacion has been tremendous, too. He's belted 42 home runs (tied for his career high) while scoring 99 runs and driving in 127, both of which are career-best marks.
All of this has led to a team that ranks fifth in run differential -- at +93 -- for the season.
All of that, for the most part, was expected. Toronto was supposed to mash.
The surprise has come with their pitching staff, which checked in with the 6th-best team ERA in all of baseball (3.79). Led by Stroman, Sanchez and 20-game winner J.A. Happ, this group took major strides forward from a staff that ranked 11th in ERA in 2015.
How the Orioles Got Here
The Orioles are built similarly to the Jays. That is to say they rake.
Baltimore led baseball in home runs, mashing a whopping a 253 dingers, which was 28 more than the second-place St. Louis Cardinals. They checked in third with a .334 wOBA against right-handed pitching. They do combine the stellar wOBA with a strikeout rate of 21.7%, which is the ninth-highest in all of baseball.
By traditional measures, however, the Orioles pitching staff left a little bit to be desired. They ranked 17th in team ERA (4.22) and 21st in xFIP (4.34). The biggest culprit with the pitching staff was walks as they gave up the 6th-most walks per nine innings pitched (3.43). Among Baltimore's five starting pitchers who threw 100 or more innings, only Kevin Gausman recorded an xFIP of under 4.50 in 2016.
In a one-game playoff, like we said earlier, anything can happen. But pitching tends to take the day, and that could be the case here.
For the Blue Jays, they'll send Marcus Stroman to the hill. Many were surprised when the Blue Jays inserted him into the rotation last October, but he earned his place in postseason lore with a solid performance in the playoffs.
While he struggled in the first half of 2016, Stroman was fantastic down the stretch, sporting a monster 3.01 xFIP in the second half. Stroman has always been a pitcher who limited walks and got ground balls, but in the second half, he added strikeouts to his arsenal. After posting a 16.9% strikeout rate in the first half, Stroman's strikeout rate spiked to 22.7% after the break, turning him into one of the game's best pitchers.
Chris Tillman, meanwhile, has been good -- and lucky -- for the Orioles. Tillman has tacked up 16 wins on the season, but his SIERA is 4.61, which is nearly a full run higher than Stroman's (3.62). Tillman posted his best strikeout rate in four years (19.6%), and he allowed just a .287 wOBA in his road starts. He did falter over the second half as his strikeout rate after the break was just 16.7%, and his soft-hit rate dropped to 15.9%.
The Blue Jays have more top-tier players -- as we saw with our nERD ratings -- and they have the better pitcher taking the ball. Nothing is set in stone when it comes to predicting a one-game playoff, but those two things are hard to ignore and they make Toronto the favorite.
Per our models, the Blue Jays have a win probability of 60.2%, and Vegas has installed them at -145 on the moneyline.
One swing, one pitch or one error can swing this game, but the Orioles are pretty clear underdogs tonight heading into the Rogers Centre.