Monday, September 11, 2023

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, September 11, 2023 -- "Showdown In The Six"


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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter: Showdown In The Six
Vol. 15, No. 95
September 11, 2023

With the Orioles and Rays setting a pace that just about guarantees them both playoff berths, the American League playoff situation is clear. The Astros, Mariners, Blue Jays and Rangers are competing for three spots: the AL West title and the final two wild-card berths. The Jays, obviously, can only land in two of those three. The AL West winner will be the #2 seed in the AL, while the next two teams in this group will be the #5 and #6 seeds.

Here’s what that looks like as standings:

Astros     82-62     --   98.9%
Blue Jays  80-63    1.5   78.8%
Mariners   79-64    2.5   69.1%
Rangers    78-64    3.0   51.9%

(Playoff odds from FanGraphs.)

The Astros have won 10 of 14 to take control of the AL West. They’re the best-hitting team in baseball in the second half, even better than the Braves. Since returning, Michael Brantley has hit .346/.357/.615 with one strikeout in 28 PA, extending the lineup. They play a super-soft schedule coming in, with nine games against the A’s and Royals over the next two weeks. They could run away with the division.

The Mariners, thanks to the schedule makers, control their own destiny with their final ten games against the Rangers and Astros. Having wrapped up a tough road trip, they also have an extremely gentle travel schedule, with just six road games left, and just three of those outside the Pacific time zone. It would take some extreme events for that final series of the year at T-Mobile, four games against the Rangers, to have no meaning at all.

The Jays, however, get just one more shot at this group of teams. Starting tonight, they host the Rangers for four games and then finish their year entirely within the AL East. The Jays took advantage of their own soft slate to go 9-3 over the last two weeks despite some serious injury issues, so they have a 1 1/2-game lead on the Rangers for the last playoff spot. Bo Bichette came off the IL on Friday to go 2-for-5 with a double in the team’s comeback win over the Royals, which kicked off a series sweep. Erik Swanson, who has become one of the better non-saves relievers in baseball, returns tonight.

The Jays are still down Danny Jansen, likely until the playoffs, and Matt Chapman, who should be back before the season ends. Those injuries, though, have just created playing time for Davis Schneider. Schneider, 24, has hit .370/.511/.808 in his debut, video-game numbers from a 28th-round draft pick who was ranked 13th on the Jays’ prospect list at the time of his promotion. The right-handed batter has real OBP skills and can handle second base, third base, and the outfield corners passably well. The Blue Jays are 15-6 when Schneider starts; he’s the biggest driver of their surge into the second wild-card slot. (Patrick Dubuque has a great piece on Schneider at Prospectus.)

The other big reasons all pitch. The Blue Jays lead MLB in second-half ERA and are third in FIP. Their starters lead the majors during this time by a huge margin.

E-R-Eh (Lowest second-half ERAs, starters only, 2023)

Blue Jays   3.37
Guardians   3.81
Brewers     3.88
Tigers      3.88
Padres      3.98

I guess that chart is the counter to the argument that starting pitching is everything.

Stability has been a key here. The Jays have used just six starters in the second half, swapping out Alek Manoah for Hyun-Jin Ryu in August and since then sticking with a strict five-man rotation. The ERAs are lying a bit -- four of the five are out-pitching their FIP, and the group as a whole is doing so by more than half a run. The Jays’ efforts to upgrade their outfield defense this offseason have shown up all over the stats, with the team second in run prevention by its outfielders, and usually playing two of the top dozen defensive outfielders in the game this year.

That defensive strength sets up an interesting matchup the next few days against a Rangers team that is one of three that hits more fly balls than grounders, with the third-highest flyball rate in the game. The Rangers are sixth in MLB in OPS on fly balls, though a lot of that value is realized on balls that go over the fence. As we’ve noted a few times, Rogers Centre is no longer a great park for dingers, 20th in home-run park factor this season. Between that and the Jays’ outfielders, the Rangers’ path to scoring runs is limited. Adolis Garcia’s strained right patella tendon, which has him on the IL for at least another week, isn’t going to help. Top prospect Evan Carter is now up as the Rangers hope to catch some of their own lightning in a bottle.

Preventing runs, though, has to be their main concern. The Rangers, even after winning two in a row over the A’s, have lost 16 of 22 because their bullpen has fallen apart.

Texas Dangers (Highest ERAs, relievers only, last 30 days)

             ERA    FIP
Rockies     7.88   5.35
Angels      6.53   5.33
Mets        6.17   5.15
White Sox   6.04   5.24
Rangers     5.87   6.38

I sorted by ERA to stay consistent with the earlier chart, but as you can see, the Rangers’ bullpen has the worst FIP in baseball over the last 30 days. Thirty days ago, the Rangers were in first place and headed for a division title and a first-round bye. The bullpen has been the biggest reason they’re now 50/50 just to make the playoffs. No Rangers reliever with five appearances in that stretch has a FIP below 4.18, and only Jose LeClerc has a FIP below 5.23. Bruce Bochy has had no safe harbor for a month now.

Neither team went out of its way to line up the pitching for this series, but given it’s a four-game set, we’ll see most of the starters anyway. The best matchup comes Thursday, when Nathan Eovaldi tries to get past the third inning for the first time since July 18 against Jays ace Kevin Gausman. Eovaldi had been a big driver of the Rangers’ first-half success, but he’s thrown just 9 2/3 innings since the break. 

That game could be worth a lot. The Rangers have taken two of three from the Blue Jays this year, so a split this week would allow the Rangers to maintain the tiebreaker over the Jays. If they were to lose three of four, it would cost them two games in the standings and the tiebreaker, effectively pushing them four games back of the Jays with 16 to play, and leaving them down to those seven games against the Mariners to win a playoff spot.

While the Rangers obviously want to win every game, the difference between a split this week and anything worse is massive. Given his bullpen’s woes, Bruce Bochy would do well to triage his relievers -- his core is Aroldis Chapman, Chris Stratton, and LeClerc at this point -- to ensure that he maximizes his chances to win two games, even if it means punting on one of the others to make that happen.