American League Division Series:
Texas Rangers (88-74), AL West Champs vs. Toronto Blue Jays (93-69), AL East Champs
It isn't a secret that the Rangers are huge underdogs in the ALDS against Toronto, who is the World Series favorite per Bovada dot com. They own baseball's best offense, a top-10 starter in MLB, and a legitimate home field advantage (53-28 this year). It's a tall order asking the Rangers to win this series, but we all know this is the postseason... right? Welcome to the glorious crapshoot.
To put into perspective just how good Toronto's offense is, let's first look at its general body of work:
In 2015 the Blue Jays scored 891 runs (5.5 runs/game), a robust 127 more than the next-best team in MLB. That team, the Yankees, crossed home plate 764 times. The difference between Toronto and the 2nd-best team is the same as the Yankees and the Reds... who ranked 26th in MLB with 640 runs scored.
Relatively speaking, the Rangers were no slouches compared to the rest of baseball. Texas's offense ranked 3rd in MLB with 751 runs scored (4.64 runs/game), but even that is almost a full run per night lower than the Blue Jays on average.
As a team, over an entire season, Toronto slashed .269/.340/.457 (117 wRC+), and were tops in baseball in all italicized statistics. For reference, that's basically equivalent to Adrian Beltre's 2015 campaign (.287/.334/.453), give or take a few points in the two relevant offensive categories, OBP and SLG.
From a run prevention standpoint, Toronto was 12th in MLB in ERA (3.81) and 19th in xFIP (4.12), the latter adjusted to better help us gauge the staff's true talent, or expected ERA. In comparison, the Rangers ranked 23rd in ERA (4.25) and dead last in xFIP (4.37), but that's also with the caveat that the rotation and bullpen look significantly different now than the first two-thirds of the season.
Even with all signs pointing towards a lot of runs being scored in this series, I'm anticipating the largest impacts to come from two starting pitchers -- David Price and Cole Hamels -- and each team's respective bullpen.
Rather than a handful of 10-8 or 7-6 outcomes in these games -- which is probably popular public opinion heading into Thursday -- I think a more reasonable conclusion is they will end up in the 3-2 range. In the playoffs the games have a way of slowing down, and stretching out, and with a slew of hard-throwing right-handers in his bullpen, Jeff Banister will attempt to neutralize the strength of Toronto's lineup -- right-handed power -- at every stop. If you thought you saw a lot of Sam Dyson and Shawn Tolleson at the end of the regular season, that was just a tuneup for what you should expect against the Blue Jays.
As far as the Rangers offense is concerned, they have no reason to sweat David Price, who is really what stands between Texas and the ALCS in many peoples' eyes. Although he's one of the best pitchers in baseball and is sure to command Max Scherzer-type money in free agency this winter, Price isn't unfamiliar to Texas. In his last five starts against the Rangers dating back to 2012 -- including a complete game victory in Game 163 in '13 -- Price has allowed 16 ER on 37 hits in 31.1 IP (4.60 ERA), though with an elite 27/3 strikeout/walk ratio. The Rangers lineup is lefty-dominant so generating runs won't be easy, but the Rangers have a decent track record of putting up crooked numbers against the former Vanderbilt product.
The Rangers counter with Yovani Gallardo in Game One and Cole Hamels, who will likely go up against RHP Marcus Stroman, in Game Two.
I'm bad at predictions, but the Blue Jays are only 60% favorites to win the series, according to FiveThirtyEight, which isn't enormous by any means. Beyond Price their best starter is Stroman, who's been dominant, but he's only had made 4 starts this year (27 IP/5 ER/20 H/18 K/6 BB). Toronto has a decided edge with its lineup, but I'll roll with Hamels (two times), Holland, Perez and Gallardo over Price/Stroman/Estrada/Beuhrle, and call the bullpens a wash (they are both very good).
It's an old and it's cliché to say that "offense wins games, defense wins championships," but that's what I'm banking on in the Division Series when it comes to Rangers vs. Blue Jays, if only for that's probably the only way Texas can come out victorious.
It isn't a question if the Blue Jays are the best team in baseball. Their +221 run differential is 99 runs better than the next-best team in MLB (St. Louis, +122). At 93-69 they actually finished 9 wins worse than they should have according to Baseball Prospectus's 3rd Order Winning Percentage.
And yet... I don't think this is a bad matchup for the Rangers. The strength of the Blue Jays comes in the form of four right-handed hitters -- Troy Tulowitzki, Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion -- while Texas features what is likely to be the righty Gallardo and three lefties. Logic suggests that spells trouble for the Rangers.
But two of those lefties, Hamels and Perez, have excellent change ups, and aren't afraid to use them. Since Cole has been in Arlington he's used his CH 24.6% of the time, Perez about once every five pitches (21.8%) this year. That might not be something, but it's definitely not nothing.
This is a 5 game series, not 7 or 9 or 155. If the Rangers are playing the best team in MLB, it benefits their odds to play the shortest series possible. When I take a step back from feeling grateful that Texas was able to pull off this miracle of a season -- which I unequivocally am -- I think they have a real chance in this ALDS. I think the Texas bullpen is going to be the story of the series, with Keone Kela making a name for himself, Sam Dyson and Shawn Tolleson exhausting a ton of pitches, and the Rangers scraping by as they've done for so much of the second half this year.
If it feels like it's been a long time since the Rangers have been in the playoffs, it's because it is. The last actual series they played came all the way back in the 2011 World Series; the two years that followed featured one-game coin flips that Texas came out on the wrong end of, and last season there wasn't a game past 162. This team is built for the postseason format, and for the front office, these games are the reason for the weeks and months and years worth of gathering information on players. The Rangers might not win it, but it won't be because they weren't prepared and ready.
Toronto deserves all the credit for being the best, just like Houston deserved credit for being the best in the West on paper this year, but it doesn't make the Jays exempt from having to earn their spot in the ALCS.
If and when it all has to end, we can say how happy we we were just to be there.
For now, let's win this thing.
Prediction: Rangers in 5