01 October 2012

Who Should the Orioles Start in a Wild Card Game?

The Orioles have clinched a play-off spot. Wow. That feels a little weird to write after the last 14 years (especially given expectations going into this season), but it's true. The team is guaranteed at least a Wild Card spot, and given the schedules of the respective teams (O's on the road versus the Rays, while the Yankees host the Red Sox at home), that's the most likely route the Birds will need to go through to reach the World Series. With Oakland finishing the year against the Rangers and the Orioles holding a one-game lead over the A's, I'd expect the Friday AL Wild Card game to be played here in Baltimore. The question is, who should start that game for the O's?

The options more or less shake out as:

Wei-Yin Chen - 4.11 ERA, 4.43 FIP, 4.36 xFIP this year. He'd be going on short rest, is already approaching 200 innings, and has looked a little gassed in recent outings as it is. As he's been one of the team's better starters this year, not being able to run him out multiple times in a potential ALDS isn't the best. Plus, skipping him over and giving him some extra rest would not only allow Chen to pitch twice in the five-game series but could improve his performance there as well.

Chris Tillman - 2.78 ERA, 3.97 FIP, 4.36 xFIP. By my count, he's on schedule to pitch the last game of the season in Tampa, but depending on where the O's sit in the divisional race he could probably be bumped back. I'd think having Tillman start twice in the ALDS would be the preferred path for the Orioles, which could happen if he just throws on the side and then starts Game One on Sunday the 7th and Game Five on Friday the 12th. There's no other real way to see him twice, unless he starts game 162 against the Rays but only goes a couple innings so that he could come back on short rest.

Miguel Gonzalez - 3.45 ERA, 4.55 FIP, 4.70 xFIP. He's had a great surprise season, but I'd say he's just plain not as good as Chen or Tillman. He's also on schedule to pitch game 161, which would knock out the Wild Card game but put him on schedule to pitch games one and five of the ALDS. Given the Orioles Magic going on this season, counting on Gonzalez in that way just might be wild enough to work. If he doesn't start against the Rays, he could pitch the Wild Card game - that would entail a longer lay-off (similar to Tillman not pitching until Game One).

Joe Saunders - 4.07 ERA, 4.09 FIP, 4.26 xFIP. He's the only guy who would pitch the Wild Card game on exactly normal rest, and I would think the Orioles would prefer starting one of the three above guys twice in the ALDS instead.

Steve Johnson - 2.86 ERA, 3.97 FIP, 3.87 xFIP (as a starter). He would also being going on mostly normal rest (one extra day), and has done a really nice job for the team since his call-up, but with the leg injury he may not be able to go (he's getting an MRI on it).

Jason Hammel - 3.43 ERA, 3.30 FIP, 3.47 xFIP. He's pretty clearly been the team's best starter this year, but he hasn't pitched in almost three weeks and has only 8.2 IP since mid-July. Even if he's healthy, I'm not sure you can trust him to make the start in a win-or-go-home game. If he's available and the O's are magically way ahead, letting him come out for an inning or two might be useful to see if he can start in the ALDS, but I wouldn't count on it.

I'd probably be inclined to start Saunders, while having Johnson (or some other "starter") coming in from the pen relatively early (maybe 2-3 innings from Joe then 2 from the next guy). That would hopefully get the team into the mid-to-later innings where the "normal" bullpen can take over.

In fact, the Orioles could easily throw starter after starter at the A's (matching righties and lefties) for 2 innings at a time. With the ability to set their roster for just the one game, the staff could be something like Saunders, Steve Johnson, Bundy, Phillips, Hunter, Arrieta, Matusz, Ayala, Patton, O'Day, Strop, Jim Johnson. Then they could drop Bundy/Phillips/third guy for Tillman/Chen/Gonzalez for the ALDS. The O's could even match up* pretty well, theoretically, with Saunders (L) - Johnson (R) - Matusz (L) -Arrieta (R) - Patton (L) - Hunter (R) each taking an inning before Strop, O'Day, and Johnson finish things off. With an off-day both before and after the Wild Card game, that shouldn't really mess things up for the pen.

* The A's have a higher OPS against righties than lefties this year (.717 vs. .705), but a higher OPS against lefty starters than righty starters (.724 vs. .707). So yeah, there's that.

Is it worth using two of the teams lesser starters instead of just going with their #1 (whoever you think that might be - pick a name out of a hat, maybe)? In his career, Joe Saunders has a 2.3 K/BB ratio his first time through the order. That drops to 1.8 the second time, and 1.4 the third time. Chris Tillman has a 2.5 K/BB ratio this year overall. Gonzalez is at 2.1 overall (and has actually struck out way more batters in his second go through the order than the first). So while Saunders may not be the Orioles' best starter, using him for a few innings - and just looking at 2012, Saunders has a 5.1 K/BB the first time through the order, declining to 2.3 on the second - and then going to the pen should pretty much replicate what you'd expect to get from riding things out with someone else. That gap between the various O's starters is relatively small, and the variance in a single game is going to wash out whatever differences are there. That is, they probably wouldn't be costing themselves much if anything in the Wild Card game, while potentially also setting themselves up better for the following series.

ALDS rotation would then be something like:

One: Tillman
Two: Chen
Three: Gonzalez
Four: Saunders/Johnson
Five: Tillman

In game four (or three, if they so choose), the O's would be in a position to do the same kind of as in the Wild Card game, having Saunders start with Johnson (if healthy) ready to come in after a couple trips through the order. If Buck preferred, he could also swap Tillman and Chen, allowing the lefty to pitch twice.

If the division title is still in play though (and there's a fair chance it will be), then obviously all bets are off. Using Gonzalez and Tillman in Tampa Bay to try to win the East leaves Saunders for the Wild Card game by default, but also means that the O's don't have a starter on normal rest (if Steve Johnson can't go) for a potential Thursday tie-breaker with the Yankees, unless Hammel is back (I'd think doubtful). Then I guess Tommy Hunter or Brian Matusz or Jake Arrieta would be pressed into action, which probably wouldn't bode terribly well for the Orioles' chances considering none of those guys has started a game in over a month. It would also leave Tillman unable to start Game One of the ALDS on normal rest.

The O's could go for more of a "bullpen approach" in the tie-breaking game as well, but trying that and losing (having to settle for the Wild Card) could mean having to rely on Joe Saunders for 6-7 innings on Friday - those are some risky options. Really, it would be best if the Yankees got swept while the O's won tonight and then had Dylan Bundy and Chris Davis entertain us by starting Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively. Don't even care which of the two throws a no-hitter.

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