Rangers-Blue Jays ALDS preview: gloves off

by Paul West

The Major League Baseball playoffs are here at last, and all four matchups have their fair share of intrigue; but the series that seems to promise the most fireworks is the one that kicks off in Arlington, Texas, between the the Texas Rangers and the Toronto Blue Jays. It’s a rematch of last year’s thrilling ALDS, in which the Blue Jays lost the first two games at home but stormed back to win the deciding game five, becoming only the third team to do so. The deciding game was marred by controversy and bad blood, as the Rangers took exception to Jose Bautista‘s over-the-top bat flip, then misinterpreted Edwin Encarnacion‘s attempts to quell a Toronto crowd that was throwing debris on the field. The benches cleared, and the bad blood would eventually carry over into this season, when Bautista was hit with a now legendary right cross to the jaw by Rougned Odor after a late slide into second. Bautista stayed on his feet, to the amazement of many, and a brawl ensued, further intensifying the animosity between the two squads. Now they meet again, a season after their initial skirmish, in yet another ALDS. This year’s series could wind up as close, and hostile, as the last.

Much of the speculation about this ALDS rematch surrounds the chance of fisticuffs.
Much of the speculation about this ALDS rematch surrounds the chance of more fisticuffs.

The Rangers have home field advantage by virtue of a 95-67 record, which is a game better than that of the Cleveland Indians for the best in the American League. They’ve also been extremely successful in their home ballpark, to the tune of a 53-28 record (tied with Cleveland for the best in the majors). But their run differential is a paltry 8 runs, pointing to a pitching staff which was 8th in baseball in quality starts but near the bottom in ERA, WHIP and batting average against. Cole Hamels has been the team’s ace for much of the year, and has been declared the Game 1 starter; Hamels went 15-5 with a 3.32 ERA and 200 strikeouts in just over 200 innings, and he’s capable of presenting a gem in the biggest of situations. But his 1.31 WHIP hints at the fact that, when he doesn’t have proper command of his wicked breaking ball, he can be quite hittable. Yu Darvish had a strong year, still at times looking like the ace who took baseball by storm with the Boston Red Sox; but despite occasionally dominant outings, he can also look surprisingly mortal at times. Beyond Darvish, the Rangers have a collection of hot & cold starters with high ceilings, in Martin Perez, Derek Holland, and AJ Griffin; and 38-save closer Sam Dyson is a formidable game saver who can occasionally struggle with walks. But really, the Rangers’ defining characteristic is their dangerous, explosive offense.

The Rangers finished the year 5th in baseball with a .262 team batting average, and 6th in baseball with a .433 slugging percentage. They scored 765 runs, good for 7th overall, and despite only being 15th in on base percentage, their ability to hit the long ball–they hit 215 home runs–and score in bunches means a big inning is always a possibility. Even after losing Prince Fielder to a potentially career-ending neck injury, the Rangers’ offense can provide thunder from up and down the lineup. The late season addition of Jonathan Lucroy and the resurgent Carlos Gomez, has force-multiplied an offense that already featured Carlos Beltran, Ian Desmond, and future Hall of Famer (and ageless wonder) Adrian Beltre. Odor has impressive power, despite streakiness at the plate, and the Rangers also have sneak-attack sluggers like Mitch Moreland, who’s known to go on the occasional home run binge. Gomez, along with flashes of power and strong outfield defense, has also added extra speed to the lineup, meaning the Rangers are more able to manufacture runs.

The punch heard 'round the baseball world only increased hostilities between the teams.
The punch heard ’round the baseball world only increased hostilities between the teams.

The Blue Jays finished at 89-73, and are in the ALDS after an Edwin Encarnacion three-run walkoff homer ended a dramatic Wild Card game against the Baltimore Orioles. They played in a balanced, tough AL East division, which renders their win total slightly more impressive, and like the Rangers, they can score–and homer–in bunches. Encarnacion led the team with 42 home runs; reigning AL MVP Josh Donaldson was second on the team with 37, and lefty Michael Saunders and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki were tied for third with 24. Renowned slugger Jose Bautista struggled for much of the year, but still finished with 22 home runs after a strong close; even catcher Russell Martin finished with 20. When collectively hot, the Blue Jays can present a home run threat at as many as seven spots in their lineup, and while their 221 home runs was fourth in baseball, it sometimes seems like every at bat is a home run waiting to happen when facing them. They had a whopping plus-93 run differential, though perhaps their biggest achilles heel is that they can be an all-or-nothing offense: for a team with such prodigious power, they only finished 9th in runs scored, 12th in slugging percentage, and a woeful 23rd in batting average. The Blue Jays can light it up, but they can also go awfully cold. The surprise strength of a team that’s been known for several years for its parade of sluggers, is a pitching staff that’s one of the best in the American League.

The Toronto Blue Jays were tied for first in baseball with 100 quality starts produced; they were also 6th in team ERA, 5th in WHIP, and 4th in batting average against. That’s quite an accomplishment for a staff that plays a large percentage of its games in a division filled with hitter’s parks like Yankee Stadium and Camden Yards, not to mention their own Rogers Centre. Marcus Stroman finished the year with a 4.37 ERA, but is emerging as a reliable high-pressure pitcher. Veteran Marco Estrada had a 3.48 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP, and wil take the mound for the Jays in the series opener. Cy Young winning knuckleballer RA Dickey has struggled at times this year, but is always a threat to produce a gem; and 24-year-old Aaron Sanchez finished with a 15-2 record and an ERA of an even 3.00. There are concerns about Sanchez’ workload, but his talent is undeniable. The lefty of the rotation is veteran JA Happ, who went a stunning 20-4 with a 3.18 ERA and whose breaking ball has made hitters look flummoxed all year. The bullpen is also strong, despite Robero Osuna‘s occasional struggles; their primary long reliever is Francisco Liriano, a former starter who held the Orioles scoreless for five outs in the Wild Card game and was credited with the win.

The x-factor in this series might come down to which version of the Blue Jays lineup show up: the homer-happy modern day murderer’s row, or the overly aggressive, strikeout-prone bunch that occasionally goes cold all at once? Both teams have had their share of scuffles with opponents, and much of the speculation surrounding this series revolves around the possibility of fisticuffs; but whether hostilities are renewed or both teams just stick to baseball, this promises to be a thrilling series.

Prediction: Blue Jays in 5

 

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