Five Thoughts on the Wild Card Game

All wild card games – any single MLB game for that matter – is pretty close to a coin flip. When you factor in how close these two teams played – the 10-9 head to head record and shared 89-win total tells that story – the Blue Jays versus Orioles is about as much of a 50/50 proposition as you could imagine. Even the starting pitchers share similar struggles against the other team. I have no interest – and certainly lack the ability – to make any sort of educated prediction about a game this unpredictable, so here are a handful of random thoughts I have. Let’s Go O’s!!

 The Chris Tillman Advantage

 There has been quite a bit of hand wringing over the Orioles’ decision to start Chris Tillman by fans of the team and there will definitely be even more of that if Tillman is ineffective early. There is certainly cause for concern. Tillman has averaged nearly 93 MPH on his fastball this season according to Brooks Baseball, but has been under 92 MPH since he began dealing with shoulder discomfort in mid-August. In his last start – last week versus Toronto – Tillman struggled to break 90 MPH, lacked command of his fastball and had to lean heavily on his changeup (which to his credit he had working) to get him through the game. On the season, Tillman throws his changeup about 15% of the time but last week he went to the off speed pitch nearly 24% of the time. There is a concern that Tillman is still hurting (he almost certainly is) and his fastball velocity and command will remain off in the wild card game.

The kicker might be that if Tillman’s fastball is better – let’s say an average of 92 MPH with his normal command – and he can keep the Jays hitters believing he might throw 24% changeups again (which will involve throwing a lot of changeups early) he might be at a real advantage. Players from both sides have talked in recent days how there are no secrets between the teams and that they know each other really well. The catch is that the Tillman the Jays saw last week and who pitched well against them is not the same one they were used to. Assuming his fastball comes around tonight, he has the opportunity to keep the Jays’ hitters guessing in a way he would not have been able to without that changeup heavy performance from a week ago.

 My Only Prediction: Liriano Will Get in Early

 The one thing I am most certain will happen – maybe the only thing I am certain about at all – is that Liriano will get in the game relatively early. The Blue Jays – from their general manager on down – have stated that they expect the left-handed starter to make an impact out of the bullpen. While not a flaw unique to him, Marcus Stroman tends to stumble the third time through the order which means the Jays might want to get him out of the game sooner rather than later. Stroman also has struggled against Baltimore this season. The Orioles do not hit left-handed pitching well at all relative to right-handed pitching. With Stroman starting, the O’s are starting left-handers Hyun Soo Kim and Chris Davis, and Michael Bourn. Getting Liriano in early might cause Buck Showalter to burn Kim, Bourn or Alvarez early in the game by pinch hitting for them.

There are so many reasons to get Liriano in the game early that it is difficult to believe John Gibbons won’t do just that.

Does Ubaldo See Action?

If Buck was 100% certain that he was not going to pitch Ubaldo Jimenez unless he had no other options, I doubt the resurgent right-hander would have made the wild card roster. I don’t believe Buck would waste a spot on a player who served no utility. I believe that Ubaldo is on the roster because Buck envisions a way in which he can help. That doesn’t mean he will play – one has to think the ideal plan is for 4-5 innings from Tillman and 4-5 from the short relief group – but I do think Buck has some scenarios in mind where he would like to get Ubaldo in the game. If true and if Buck gets the opportunity it will be interesting to see how he utilizes Ubaldo. Personally, I would be leery of bringing Ubaldo out of the bullpen at all in a must-win game. That doesn’t seem like the ideal role for a starter who has only recently gotten his command and mechanics under control. Buck is very, very good at using his pitchers – especially when he isn’t worrying about tomorrow – so I am interested in seeing how he thinks Ubaldo could best contribute (although hopefully the game goes so well that it becomes a moot point).

The Bench(es)

The O’s are carrying a six man bench comprised of Ryan Flaherty, Caleb Joseph, Pedro Alvarez, Drew Stubbs, Trey Mancini, and Nolan Reimold. Under many other situations, I would assume that most of those guys won’t see significant action. Maybe Flaherty would get in the game as a defensive substitute in the later innings. Maybe Stubbs pinch runs and Reimold replaces Kim in the outfield later for defense purposes. Alvarez could definitely see an at bat against a right-handed reliever late in a normal game. However, this might not be a normal game given the possibility discussed above of the Jays using a two-handed starting pitcher approach. If Liriano does come in early, it will put pressure on Buck to swap out his lefty bats. Does he remove Kim in the fourth or fifth inning knowing that likely means a lesser hitter will face a right-handed reliever late in the game? The same goes for Bourn. Does Buck take him out in the 5th for offensive help and downgrade the outfield defense in the process? At some point I am sure we will see this game of chicken. If Buck does opt to remove a left-handed batter or two, that suddenly thrusts some of the right-handed bench players – Reimold, Stubbs, Mancini – into possibly bigger roles than they would otherwise have in this game.

How Long Could Zach Go?

Buck has used Zach Britton for more than three outs seven times so far in 2016. In fact, he just did it on Sunday against the Yankees with a 5-1 lead in what at first seemed like a curious move. Sure, the O’s needed to win that game in order to control their own playoff destiny but it still seemed like an odd move. Was the primary or secondary motive behind the decision to give Britton a warm up five out save for possible wild card scenarios? I think that at least played a small role in the decision. So the question is – now that Buck has shown the willingness to use Britton for multiple innings (and relied heavily on his best reliever, Andrew Miller, in the 2014 playoffs) and maybe given a hint that he plans on doing it in the playoffs, how far will he push Zach in a winner takes all game?

A two-inning save if the Orioles are holding onto a narrow (one to two run) lead would seem to almost be a given. But what about other situations? Does Buck go to Zach to start the 7th (or during the 7th) if the Orioles have a narrow lead? Does he got to him in a tie in 8th? What about the 7th? Could Britton see action in the 7th inning (or even earlier?!?) during a big spot in the game? Or does Buck stick to what brought them to the dance and roll out his set up men one after one leaving Britton to get three outs at the end of a tight game? Of course, all of this is dependent on the situation – mainly, the O’s having a lead late or being close late. The last thing any manager wants to do in a winner-take-all game is not utilize their best weapons to the fullest and Britton is clearly on the O’s best weapons. It is just the meaning of fullest is a bit trickier to nail down when Buck has no way of knowing what the biggest moment in the game might be.

O's Control Own Destiny with 20 Games Left

With twenty games left to play in the 2016 season, the Orioles are well positioned in the standings. Baltimore is two games out of the top spot in the American League East, which is currently held by the Boston Red Sox. They are tired with Toronto for second place in the division and the first wild card spot. The O’s sit two games ahead of the Detroit Tigers (who they just took a weekend series from) and the surging New York Yankees. At the fringe of the AL playoff scene are the Astros and Mariners who sit 3.5 games back (4 back in the lost column with 19 games left to play) as well as the Kansas City  Royals who are 4 behind with 20 left to go.

Despite the fact that the Orioles occupy a playoff spot, are just one win and one Jays loss removed from sole possession of the top wild card spot, and three wins removed from a division lead, there is a prevailing sense among fans of the team that the odds of reaching the post season at all are not very good.

Much of that has to do with the perception of the teams around them. Prior to Sunday, the Yankees rattled off seven straight wins. Toronto plays its next seven games against sub-.500 teams. Half of the Tigers remaining twenty games are with basement dwellers Minnesota and Atlanta. The Orioles meanwhile play the AL East leader seven times, the Yankees three times, and the Blue Jays three times over their final twenty. When you look at which teams are hot and the schedules, it can make the O’s current standing suddenly feel rather tenuous.

The reality is that the Orioles control their own destiny as much if not more so than any of the other six teams (with the likely exception of Boston). There is only one team who they are competing with for a playoff spot that is actually ahead of them in the standings and that happens to the team they play the most down the stretch. With seven games versus Boston down the stretch – starting with a three game trip to Fenway on Monday – the O’s have the opportunity to do direct damage without having to rely on any other teams for assistance. To a lesser extent, the same is true of the remaining 3-game series with Toronto and New York. When you have to play teams you are competing with for a playoff spot at the end of the season you can look at it as a tough draw or an opportunity to take matters into your own hands. They have more opportunities to directly create space and close the gaps than any other team fighting for a spot.

There are twenty games left in the regular season. If the Orioles go 12-8 (.600 winning percentage) during the race to the finish line they will end up with 90 wins. Assuming that Boston does not relinquish first place in the East, TWO of the following would need to occur for the Orioles to miss out on one of the two wild card spots without necessitating a play-in game:

·         Toronto goes 13-7;

·         New York or Detroit goes 15-5;

·         Seattle or Seattle goes 16-3; or

·         Kansas City goes 17-3.

You can bump all of those win totals down by one for what each team needs to do to reach 90 wins, which in the above scenario would force a tie-breaker game (or two). In either case, the point is that if the Orioles play reasonably well but don’t necessarily go on a run – which is basically what .600 baseball is – at least one other team would have to make a true run to knock them out. If the Yankees hold the advantage in terms of momentum and the Tigers have a schedule advantage, then the O’s advantage is the current standings. It is nonsensical to discount that advantage while simultaneously talking about the advantages of other teams. I have read comments that suggest that every loss over the final three weeks is a huge blow to the Orioles' chances and it simply isn’t true. If anything, that sentiment applies more closely to the teams behind them in the standings.

Obviously winning 12 of the next 20 is no sure thing. It is merely an example of how the team is in very good shape if they continue to play well. Nobody is looking at ways the O’s could back into the playoffs – at least not yet. The “win games” part of the equation is sort of a given. If they don’t win games, it makes it far more difficult to get in. However as demonstrated above if the Orioles do continue to win games at a pace in line with their current winning percentage, they are well positioned to reach the playoffs in one form or another.

Strength of schedule is not something that should be dismissed entirely but I do think it is as important as it is often made out to be. This is Major League Baseball where a bad team winning one, two or even three straight games from a very good team is a regular occurrence. Fans of this team who remember the 2011 season should know as well as anyone that teams out of contention can go on a September tear and play spoiler. The expanded rosters even the playing field as well. If given the choice, I would much rather play the Twins seven times than the Red Sox but to assume that the games are going to play out exactly like they read on paper is incredibly presumptuous.

There are five teams – New York, Detroit, Houston, Seattle, and Kansas City – who would LOVE to be in the O’s spot now (upcoming schedules be damned). I wish more Oriole fans would realize and embrace that rather than assuming that the worst is going to happen over the next three weeks. The race is going to be stressful and likely come down to the end, but the Orioles are in the enviable position of simply needing to win games at a pace they are accustomed to this season and the rest will in all likelihood take care of itself.

Joe Girardi vs. The Baltimore Orioles: A Brief History

Joe Girardi’s hissy fit and subsequent ejection for arguing with the umpires over what he thought was a missed balk call on Orioles’ starter Kevin Gausman last night was another reminder that nobody in baseball complains as much as the Yankees’ skipper. While Joe’s wrath on Thursday evening was directed towards the umpiring crew, he has not been shy about getting into it with the Orioles in the past. Below is a brief and likely incomplete history of Joe Girardi vs. the Baltimore Orioles. Please feel free to let me know any incidents that I might have forgotten.

·         Joe Girardi vs. Jeremy Guthrie and Hit Batters

o   March 30, 2010 – Guthrie hits Mark Teixeira on the wrist during a late ST game. The timing of the incident (occurring right at the start of the season) “irks” Girardi. Girardi takes out his frustration by yelling at something – either at Guthrie or at a Yankee water cooler depending on what you wish to believe.

o   April 29, 2010 – Guthrie hits Jorge Posada leading Joe to passive aggressively wish that Guthrie “had better command.”

o   September 19, 2010 – Guthrie hits Derek Jeter with the first pitch of a game. Girardi is more direct in his criticism this go around: “Too many, just too many. I don’t really understand it, and I know he likes to pitch inside, but it’s too many.”

·         Joe Girardi vs. The Weather

o   August 27, 2011 – With the Orioles organization still reeling over the suicide death of Mike Flanagan three days earlier and with the remnants of Hurricane Irene hammering the east coast, Girardi’s mind is on the important things in life such as rescheduling make up games to best meet the needs and desires of the New York Yankees. He vows to “fight” the Orioles’ decision to reschedule Saturday’s canceled games (the teams were to play a doubleheader) as part of a Sunday doubleheader and on a mutual off day in early September, respectively. Girardi offered two solutions neither of which were legitimate unless the criteria considered is helping out the Yankees. The first suggestion was to shuffle around the weekend schedule in advance and book double headers on both Friday and Sunday. The O’s finished a game in Minnesota close to midnight on Thursday meaning even a single admission double header (which would cost the organization one game of ticket revenue) starting at 4:05 would result in a 12-hour turnaround by the time the team plane landed in Baltimore early Friday morning. Not to be deterred, Girardi also kindly offered up that the teams play a double header in New York when the Orioles visited ten days later. As if money was the only concern with that plan, the Yankees offered to share the ticket revenue with the Orioles. To nobody’s surprise but Joe Girardi’s, the Orioles declined both suggestions. Girardi seemed unaware or indifferent to the fact that he took the organization to task for not pre-planning around the weather a day or two after they tragically lost an active and important member of the organization.

o   May 3, 2016 – After the Orioles finish their round of batting practice somewhere around 5:30, the OPACY grounds crew places the tarp over the field effectively canceling New York’s batting practice session. Girardi accuses Showalter and the O’s of gamesmanship by using the weather to deprive the offensively challenged Yankees of their hitting practice. In Joe’s professional meteorologist opinion, “It didn't seem to rain. I don't know. I wasn't out here, but it didn't seem to rain much." Weather tracking systems that were “out there” show that it did rain during the time the Yankees would have taken BP (even if not very much).

·         Joe Girardi versus Bobby Dickerson and Sign Stealing

o   September 9, 2013 – In the early going of a September game at Camden Yards, Girardi reportedly screams at third base coach Bobby Dickerson who he suspects of stealing the Yankees’ signs. This prompts Buck Showalter to come out of the dugout in between innings in defense of his third base coach which leads to a highly entertaining shouting match between the two managers. 

The Cascading Effects of Signing Pedro Alvarez

In the aftermath of Dexter Fowler spurning the Orioles to rejoin the Cubs, I wrote about a few potential solutions to the Orioles’ hole in right field. One of those acquisition ideas is (almost) a reality with the reported signing of Pedro Alvarez to a one year, $5.75 million contract.

As discussed in that piece, Alvarez represented an imperfect fit for the Orioles given that his presence would shift Mark Trumbo into more of a full time right fielder role. While true, the post also hypothesized that with some clever maneuvering – which Buck Showalter is adept at – Trumbo could end up spending only about 50% of his games in the outfield without the team having to sacrifice much offense to get there. To get to that 50% outfield playing time mark for Trumbo, Buck will have to buy into a few different strategies and then have the healthy personnel in order to pull them off.

Four Potential Solutions to the Orioles' Outfield Problem

In one of the more bizarre turn of events in recent Orioles history, Dexter Fowler went from being a surefire Oriole to being a Cub yesterday. As much as I might want to rant about that whole situation and the entirely suspect manner in which Fowler’s agent Casey Close handled it, that would not make for a very readable blog post. It also probably wouldn’t do much good for my health. So instead – as we often do around here – I want to look forward at the possibilities that exist to fill the hole "left behind" by Fowler. The slow developing 2015-2016 offseason has left one free agent and a trio of trade possibilities on the table who could potentially help the Orioles. I look at each individual’s case below.

Exploring Possible Alternatives to Player Opt Out Clauses

Dan Duquette has publicly stated his opposition to offering player opt-out clauses as part of free agent contracts.  Some have expressed concern that a firm stance against opt-outs could place the Orioles at a competitive disadvantage with free agents.  Is that the case and in any event, what alternative contract structures could the Orioles pursue to attract free agents in an opt-out environment while limiting their downside risk?

A Look Back at Oriole Rookie Debuts of the 2009 Season

With Mike Wright's major league debut in the rear view mirror and Tyler Wilson's in the foreseeable future, we look back at the 2009 Orioles who debut six starting pitchers and three position players all in one season.