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What the Data Tells Us About Who Should Advance in the AL Wild Card Round

By: Taylor Bechtold

Some will want to put an asterisk by the name of this year’s World Series winner because this season has had empty stadiums, new rules and an incomplete schedule.

But there’s little doubt that whichever team is presented with the Commissioner’s Trophy won’t feel the same way. This World Series title will be cherished as deeply as any other after clubs endured a 60-game sprint filled with highs and lows on and off the field.

As one might have expected, there are surprises in the American League playoffs with the new-look Toronto Blue Jays getting in and the rebuilding Chicago White Sox qualifying perhaps a year too soon.

It’s not so much a shock that the defending AL champion Houston Astros made the postseason as it is that they joined the 2020 Milwaukee Brewers as the only teams to do so with a losing record.

Six of the eight playoff teams in the AL have payrolls below the league average, including the top four seeds in Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Oakland and Cleveland. The Rays dominated the favored New York Yankees (8-2) and the AL East (27-13) on the way to finishing with the league’s best record for the first time since 2010. Can they carry that performance over to the playoffs?

Let’s take an advanced look at the best-of-three wild-card round in the American League and determine which teams should move on to the ALDS. To project our winners, we’re using a model that combines each club’s Raw Value data into a single ranking system.

Raw Value+ (RV+) examines how a hitter performs throughout each pitch of an at-bat rather than just the end result, while Raw Value- (RV-) does the same from a pitcher’s perspective.

OFFENSE

The eighth-seeded Blue Jays have put together a formidable young lineup with Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Bo Bichette, Teoscar Hernandez, Randal Grichuk, Vladimir Guerrero Jr and Cavan Biggio. Hernandez has enjoyed a breakout season, finishing second in the majors only to Miguel Sano in BIP+ (223) and 18th in Raw Value+ (150).

Hernandez (.351, 4 HRs), Biggio (.385, 2 HRs) and Grichuk (.341, 3 HRs) all pounded Tampa Bay pitching this season. According to our rankings, Toronto had the second-best offense (111 RV+) in the American League behind only the Yankees (115).

Tampa’s Brandon Lowe has had a big season with a .269 average, a team-high 14 home runs and an RV+ of 129. He also batted .351 with three homers, three doubles and nine RBIs to help Tampa take six of the 10 meetings with the Blue Jays this season. The top-seeded Rays, however, finished ninth in the AL with a team RV+ of 95, which is below the league average.

Making matters worse, Yandy Diaz and Ji-Man Choi are banged up and Austin Meadows (oblique) won’t be back for the wild-card round.

EDGE: BLUE JAYS

STARTING PITCHERS

With the exception of Toronto’s Game 1 starter Hyun Jin Ryu, Tampa Bay should have a huge advantage in the starting pitching matchups. Ryu ranked 14th in the majors with a 65 Raw Value-, but Game 2 starter Taijuan Walker (110) and Game 3 starter (if necessary) Robbie Ray (141) both rated below average in that category. Ray will likely be on a very short leash after finishing the regular season with the fourth-worst RV- in MLB among those who faced at least 170 batters.

Each of the Rays’ three scheduled starters in this series – Blake Snell (92) in Game 1, Tyler Glasnow (75) in Game 2, Charlie Morton (83) in Game 3 – finished better than the league average (100) in RV-. Overall, Tampa Bay had the fourth-best rotation in the AL during the regular season, while Toronto ranked eighth.

EDGE: RAYS

BULLPEN

With everything locked up over the final weekend of the regular season, the Rays were able to ensure their bullpen would be fresh and ready for the wild-card round. That should loom large considering they boast the third-best bullpen in the AL heading into the postseason, according to our metrics.

Whiff+ measures the swing and miss ability of a pitcher, which is a critical component in the performance of a bullpen. Both these bullpens have similar above-average Whiff+ numbers, but Rays relievers have an 81 RV- while the Blue Jays bullpen is 11th at 101.

EDGE: RAYS

The Blue Jays will have to steal Game 1 to have a chance in this series because the pitching advantage swings heavily in the Rays’ favor after that.

STATS PERFORM’S PROJECTION: RAYS IN 3

OFFENSE

Behind AL batting champion DJ LeMahieu (.364) and home run leader Luke Voit (22), the Yankees bring the league’s top-rated offense into the postseason.

New York has four players who posted an RV+ of 129 or more in Voit (155), LeMahieu (140), Gio Urshela (139) and Aaron Hicks (129). That doesn’t even include oft-injured sluggers Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, who appear to be healthy heading into the playoffs.

Francisco Lindor (127), Carlos Santana (133) and Jose Ramirez (139) finished with strong RV+ numbers, but the Cleveland Indians ranked seventh in the AL overall with a just about average 99 RV+.

EDGE: YANKEES

STARTING PITCHERS

We’re about to get another data point in the never-ending struggle between good pitching and good hitting. While New York has the top-rated offense in the AL, the Indians have our top-ranked starting rotation in both RV- and Whiff+.

AL Cy Young favorite and Game 1 starter Shane Bieber ranked fourth in the majors in RV- (51) and second in Whiff+ (151) during the regular season. Game 2 starter Carlos Carrasco had a better-than-average 86 RV- and scheduled Game 3 starter Zach Plesac was 22nd in MLB with a 70 RV-.

Even without James Paxton for at least this round, the Yankees should feel good about Gerrit Cole and Masahiro Tanaka going in the first two games. Cole finished 15th in the majors in RV- (66) and fourth in Whiff+ (139), while Tanaka posted above-average marks in both categories. New York starters ended up with the second-best RV- in the AL – behind only Cleveland.

EDGE: INDIANS

BULLPEN

Though the Yankees have some big names in Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton and Adam Ottavino, only the Boston Red Sox, Seattle Mariners and Detroit Tigers had worse bullpens this season.

The Indians’ bullpen, on the other hand, ranked first in the AL in both RV- and Whiff+. Brad Hand has 16 saves, James Karinchak has emerged as a top setup man and the ageless Oliver Perez continues to get big outs in the back of Cleveland’s pen.

EDGE: INDIANS

Because the Yankees have a substantial advantage offensively and might be able to match the Indians’ starting pitching, our model gives them a slight nod.

STATS PERFORM’S PROJECTION: YANKEES IN 3

OFFENSE

A year after leading the majors with an all-time record 307 home runs, the Twins proved to have one of the most powerful lineups once again as they finished sixth in the majors with 91. Miguel Sano led the majors in BIP+ by a wide margin, meaning when he put the ball in play, he did more damage than anyone in MLB. Nelson Cruz ranked 11th in that category.

Cruz (140), Sano (122) and Max Kepler (109) all had above-average RV+ numbers for the AL Central champs, who are hoping Josh Donaldson (calf) and Byron Buxton (concussion) will be ready to go for the postseason.

George Springer helped the Astros overcome subpar performances by Carlos Correa (100 RV+) and Jose Altuve (78) to reach the playoffs by finishing 23rd in the majors in RV+ (144). Kyle Tucker (124), Michael Brantley (120) and Alex Bregman (119) also led the way for Houston, which was our sixth-ranked offense – one spot behind Minnesota.

EDGE: TWINS

STARTING PITCHING

The Twins are going with AL Cy Young candidate Kenta Maeda in the opener, followed by Jose Berrios in Game 2 and Michael Pineda if a Game 3 is necessary. Maeda should give Minnesota a great chance to win in Game 1 after he ranked fifth in MLB in RV- (52) and eighth in Strike+ (114).

The Astros have only announced that Zack Greinke will start Tuesday’s Game 1 at Target Field. Greinke had a solid 83 RV-, ranked 10th in the majors in Strike+ and 17th in Command+, but he was 0-3 with a 6.53 ERA in his last four starts after going 3-0 with a 2.91 ERA in his first eight. The veteran right-hander went 0-2 with a 4.68 ERA in five playoff starts for Houston last year.

With Justin Verlander out for the season, Framber Valdez (94 RV-), Lance McCullers Jr. (109) and Cristian Javier (67) could be possibilities for Houston in Games 2 and 3. The Astros had our sixth-ranked rotation during the regular season, while the Twins were No. 3.

EDGE: TWINS

BULLPEN

The Astros lost their closer when Roberto Osuna went down early in the season with an elbow injury. Ryan Pressly has taken over that role with 16 saves, but Houston’s bullpen was eighth in the American League in ERA (4.39) and it’s also No. 8 in the league by our metrics.

The Twins have a deep pen with a number of talented arms, finishing sixth in the majors with a 3.62 ERA. They have our fifth-best bullpen in the American League heading into the postseason.

EDGE: TWINS

The Twins have the advantage in every category and we didn’t even get to the fact that they were an MLB-best 24-7 at home during the regular season. The Astros were just 9-23 on the road.

STATS PERFORM’S PROJECTION: TWINS IN 2

OFFENSE

With several young stars throughout the lineup, the White Sox have put together an offense that’s fun to watch. AL MVP candidate Jose Abreu ranked 15th in RV+ (151) and 14th in BIP+ (189), while Tim Anderson finished second in the AL with a .322 batting average to go with a 116 RV+.

Eloy Jimenez was ninth in MLB in RV+ (160) and fifth in BIP+ (211), but his status is uncertain after missing the final weekend with a sprained foot. Chicago had the fourth-best offense in the American League, according to Raw Value.

The Oakland Athletics, meanwhile, won the AL West despite hitting just .225 – the second-worst batting average in the league. Mark Canha (113), late-season acquisition Tommy La Stella (113) and Matt Olson (102) were the only A’s to finish with RV+ numbers above league average among those with at least 170 plate appearances.

EDGE: WHITE SOX

STARTING PITCHING

The A’s have opted to go with Jesus Luzardo in Game 1 and Chris Bassitt in Game 2. Best guess after that would be Sean Manaea in a decisive Game 3. Luzardo, who threw three scoreless innings in last year’s Wild Card game against the Rays, faces a Chicago offense that hit .285 with 27 home runs against left-handers – second and fourth in MLB, respectively.

Bassitt has been lights out, going 3-0 while allowing only one run over 26 2/3 innings in his last four starts. The right-hander had an impressive 78 RV- this season and he also held the White Sox scoreless over 13 innings to win his last two starts against them in 2019. After a rough start to this season, Manaea has been sharp at 4-1 with a 2.65 ERA over his last six outings.

Chicago has announced its sending Lucas Giolito to the bump in Game 1 and Dallas Keuchel to work Game 2. Giolito ranked 20th in the majors in RV- (70) and third in Whiff+ (145), but he had a 4.08 ERA in his last five starts. Although Keuchel went 6-2 with a 1.99 ERA, he ended up with a RV- (102) worse than the league average because he didn’t miss many bats. The veteran left-hander’s 6.0 strikeouts per nine innings were his lowest since his rookie season in 2012.

Overall, Chicago’s starters are only ahead of the Tigers and Red Sox in the American League by our metrics. The A’s, however, have the fifth-ranked rotation in the AL.

EDGE: A’S

BULLPEN

The bullpen is another strength for Oakland. Behind Liam Hendriks (14 saves), Yusmeiro Petit (1.66 ERA), J.B. Wendelken (1.80), Jake Diekman (0.42) and Joakim Soria (2.82), the A’s pen ranks second behind only the Indians in the American League.

Chicago’s relievers – sixth in the AL – have been solid overall, just not as good as Oakland’s.

EDGE: A’S

Though this matchup appears to be extremely close, even without fans it’s difficult to ignore the fact that the A’s have won 15 of the last 19 meetings in Oakland.

STATS PERFORM’S PROJECTION: A’S IN 3

 

Data modeling and analysis provided by Lucas Haupt.

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