American League Division Series Preview: Texas vs. Toronto
It's been a long time since the good people of Canada have seen October baseball.
When the Great White North was a two-team country, they had both the Montreal Expos and the Toronto Blue Jays. Neither franchise was overwhelmingly successful at first. The Expos made it to the playoffs just one time, in 1981 and lost a quick five-game series to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLCS. Montreal's terrific 1994 season got wiped out by the strike, and after that, the team slowly bled to death until it was smothered with a pillow and sent over to Washington, DC.
But the Blue Jays have managed to stick around since their inception back in 1977, making the playoffs five times in their 39 seasons, including back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993. But since Joe Carter danced all over the souls of every Philadelphian of a certain age in '93, the Jays had not come back to the playoffs, going 22 years without postseason action, the longest drought in the Majors.
That was before this year. Now, the Jays enter the playoffs with the second-best record in the American League (96-69). They'll take on a Texas Rangers team that was down and out at the All-Star Break (42-46) but rallied after making a big mid-season trade with the Phillies for their ace, Cole Hamels.
The deal was supposed to set Texas up for next season. Instead, they went 46-28 in the second half, just two games worse than Toronto's 48-23 record after the All-Star Break, and finished the regular season at 88-74.
These are two red-hot teams, both of whom used the trade deadline this year to make themselves a whole lot better. Let's break it down.
At mid-season, it didn't look like either team had the horses to make a playoff run. But then Toronto went out and traded for David Price, who was simply the best pitcher in the American League since becoming a Blue Jay. In August, Price put up an ERA of 2.28 and in September it was 2.32, finishing with a 9-1 record in 11 starts with Toronto and a 2.30 ERA.
For the season, Price went 18-5 in 220 1/3 innings with a 2.45 ERA, a 2.78 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) and 6.4 fWAR. He will likely battle Houston's Dallas Keuchel for the American League Cy Young Award.
Toronto has Price lined up to pitch Game 1, where he'll be opposed by Yovani Gallardo, who had a decent season after coming over to the Rangers from the Brewers over the winter. But clearly, that is a matchup the Blue Jays have to like.
Game 2 will feature Hamels versus Marcus Stroman. Cole has been terrific since coming over from the Phils, going 7-1 in 12 starts with a 3.66 ERA. In his final start of the season, he pitched a complete game against a desperate Angels team that was trying to make the playoffs.
On the season, Hamels went 13-8 with a 3.65 ERA, striking out 9.11 batters per nine innings. And don't forget, he's got a terrific postseason pedigree. In 13 playoff starts he's 7-4 with a 3.09 ERA, including being named the NLCS and World Series MVP in 2008.
Stroman, meanwhile, was supposed to miss the entire 2015 season after undergoing ACL surgery back in March but returned in September and dominated, winning all four starts with a 1.67 ERA in 27 innings. Hamels should have the advantage in Game 2, but don't count Stroman out.
As of this writing, the Rangers hadn't announced who they will start in Games 3 or 4, but Toronto has Marco Estrada and R.A. Dickey lined up. It's likely they'll face either 17-game winner Colby Lewis, Martin Perez or Derek Holland in two of those games. It would appear on paper that Toronto has the edge here.
We buried the lead a bit, but the thing that makes Toronto so dangerous is the bats. So many bats.
This year, the Blue Jays scored 891 runs. The next closest team, the Yankees, scored 764. That's a difference of 121 runs. Last year, the Angels led baseball with 773 runs scored, just 16 runs more than the Tigers. In 2013, the Red Sox scored 853 runs, 57 runs more than the Tigers.
You get the idea. Toronto scored loads of runs, the most since the 2007 Yankees' 968. They led the AL in homers (232), RBI (852), on-base percentage (.340), slugging percentage (.457), weighted on-base average (.344 wOBA), weighted runs created (117 wRC+), doubles (308), and walks (570). They were merely tied for second in batting average (.269). Slackers.
They are led by MVP candidate Josh Donaldson, who put up an 8.7 fWAR in his first season in Toronto, hitting .297/.371/.568 with 41 homers, 122 runs scored, 123 RBI, a .398 wOBA and a wRC+ of 154. He's joined by a cadre of fellow right-handed mashers, including Edwin Encarnacion (39 home runs, .929 OPS), Jose Bautista (40 home runs, .913 OPS), Russell Martin (23 home runs, 114 wRC+), and Troy Tulowitzki, who missed time since coming over to the Jays but hit .280/.337/.440 with 17 homers and 70 RBI in 128 games between Toronto and Colorado.
Texas clearly can't match that kind of production, but they're no slouch offensively either. They finished third in runs scored (751), tied for third in on-base percentage (.325), fifth in batting average (.257), sixth in OPS (.739), seventh in home runs (172) and slugging percentage (.413).
Adrian Beltre once again proved why he'll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when he hangs 'em up, leading the Rangers in fWAR this year at 4.6. He hit .287/.334/.453 with 18 homers and 83 RBI, all while playing a stellar defensive third base. As I wrote about a couple weeks ago, Shin-Soo Choo's red-hot second half (.343/.455/.560, 1.016 OPS) has jump-started the offense, and Prince Fielder is a leading contender for Comeback Player of the Year after a .305/.378/.463 season in which he hit 23 homers, knocked in 98 and had a wRC+ of 124.
But again, the edge clearly goes to Toronto.
When it comes to bullpens, recent stats matter, so let's look at what each team's relievers did in the second half.
Toronto's 'pen had an ERA of 3.35 after the All-Star Break, thanks to closer Roberto Osuna's 16 saves and 3.03 ERA, striking out 9.40 batters per nine. Brett Cecil has been unhittable in the second half, striking out 13.14 batters per nine in 25 1/3 innings, giving up no earned runs during that stretch. Liam Hendriks, Aaron Sanchez and LaTroy Hawkins (yes he's still in the league), all have ERAs under 3.00 with at least 16 innings pitched in the second half.
Texas, meanwhile, had the worst bullpen in the American League in the first half, with an ERA of 4.38 that ranked 15th out of 15 teams. But some key additions turned things around.
Jake Diekman, who came over from Philadelphia in the Hamels deal, and Sam Dyson, acquired from the Marlins at the trade deadline, both helped breathe new life into the unit. Dyson has a 1.15 ERA in 31 1/3 innings in the second half, while Diekman's ERA is 2.08 in 21 2/3 innings. Closer Shawn Tolleson has saved 22 games in the second half, with a 2.83 ERA, and Keone Kela has a 1.19 ERA in 22 2.3 innings since the All-Star Break. Texas' bullpen ERA of 3.79 in second half was sixth-best, light years better than the first half of the season.
The Rangers' 'pen got worn down during the last two series of the season as they held off the Astros and Angels to win the American League West. But a couple days off could revitalize the unit that had been so good since the additions of Diekman and Dyson. The numbers say the Jays' bullpen is slightly better, but Texas' relievers have been red-hot. Given their weaknesses in the rotation, the 'pen has to perform well if the Rangers want to move on to the ALCS.
Our numbers say the Blue Jays are a strong favorite to win the series, at 71.77%, while the Rangers are just 28.23% to move onto the American League Championship Series. And while the Rangers do come into the playoffs as a hot team, the Blue Jays should be able to handle all Texas pitchers not named Cole Hamels, and win this series without too much fuss.
My prediction is Toronto in four games.