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AL Wild Card Preview: Baltimore Orioles at Toronto Blue Jays

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The Blue Jays and Orioles nearly split 19 games this year. Their 20th meeting will decide who moves on to the ALDS.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Toronto Blue Jays Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Baltimore Orioles (89-73) at Toronto Blue Jays (89-73)

Time/Place: 8:00 p.m. ET, Rogers Centre
SB Nation blogs: Camden Chat & Bluebird Banter
Media: TBS (USA), SportsNet (Canada), MLB.TV
Pitching Matchup: RHP Chris Tillman (16-6, 3.77 ERA) vs. RHP Marcus Stroman (9-10, 4.37 ERA)

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Tillman 172.0 19.6 9.2 4.23 2.4
Stroman 204.0 19.4 6.3 3.71 3.6

Here’s a fun fact: since their resurgence in 2012, the Baltimore Orioles have won more regular season games than any other MLB club. While many people would credit their homer-happy offense for this success, they have managed to cobble together a handful of sneaky good pitching staffs along the way. In particular, the O’s have been able to defy advanced pitching metrics better than many other teams. They led all of baseball in ERA-FIP differential in 2014, posting an ERA over half a run better than their 3.96 FIP that season. The 2012 season featured a similar story, though their 0.30 ERA-FIP difference wasn’t quite as pronounced.

Chief among the Orioles’ FIP-beaters has been Chris Tillman. The 28-year-old righthander has defied sabermetric analysis during this stretch, posting an ERA-FIP difference of 0.46 or better in three of the past four seasons. This season was no different, as Tillman finished the year with a 3.77 ERA and 4.23 FIP in 172 innings. He once again managed to suppress home runs more than the league average starter, thanks in part to a continued drop in fly ball rate on his part. Over the past couple years, Tillman has increased his two-seam fastball usage slightly (he got up to 16.7 percent this year, per Brooks Baseball), which has in turn led to a rise in ground ball rate and fewer home runs.

On the other side, Marcus Stroman of the Blue Jays ran into some serious bad home run luck this season. His overall HR rate of 0.93 dingers per nine innings doesn’t seem too bad, but it gets much worse when you consider he allowed a meager 20.4 percent fly ball rate. As a result, his 3.41 xFIP (which assumes his HR per fly ball will fall back toward league average) was over a full run lower than his 4.37 ERA. Luckily for him, tonight’s game takes place in the friendly confines of the Rogers Centre: Stroman’s HR/FB% was actually slightly below league average at home. But homers weren’t his only source of trouble; he weirdly struggled with men on base, with opponents batting .278/.347/.417 against him with runners in scoring position.

Luckily for Toronto, Stroman has been at his best over the past couple months. Since August 1, he has thrown 68 23 innings with a 3.28 ERA and 3.26 FIP. His 16.2 K-BB% during that stretch would have ranked 10th among AL starters if maintained for a full season, and he induced a soft contact rate (21.7 percent) that would have ranked third in the league. The speed bumps he hit in the first half – he had four different starts with seven runs allowed through July 15 – went by the wayside over the final two months as Stroman provided top-of-the-rotation production.

How the Orioles win

Stroman only made seven starts last season (playoffs included), but averaged nearly 6 23 innings in those outings, and almost seven frames per start in his four regular season starts. This season, his average dropped to just over 6 13 innings per start, and fell just under that threshold in 14 second half starts. This doesn’t seem like much, but he had a lot of trouble getting through the lineup a third time this year (opponents hit .284/.321/.525 off him the third time through). Add in a bullpen that has been shaky at times in front of closer Roberto Osuna, and the middle innings could get dicey for the Jays.

While Stroman was better down the stretch than his season-long numbers suggest – he managed a 3.28 ERA and 3.42 strikeout-to-walk ratio after August 1 – he wasn’t particularly efficient. If the Orioles can drive Stroman’s pitch count up early in the game, their high-powered offense could potentially sink their teeth into Toronto’s soft middle relief corps. The Blue Jays may piggyback Stroman with Francisco Liriano, which would provide an interesting cat-and-mouse game between managers. Of note: the Blue Jays’ bullpen allowed the second-highest home run rate in the American League this season. Leaning heavily on them would not bode well for Toronto as they face a lineup that led baseball in 2016 with 253 home runs.

How the Blue Jays win

The Orioles jumped out to a 51-36 record in the first half of 2016, thanks in no small part to a bullpen that ranked second in the American League in ERA. While they regressed a bit in the second half – an elevated home run rate resulted in a middle-of-the-pack 3.74 ERA – manager Buck Showalter can still call upon the likes of Zach Britton, Mychal Givens, and others to shorten a close game. Scoring early is always a recipe for success in baseball, but getting ahead of the O’s is especially important given how dominant Britton has been since inheriting the closer role in Baltimore.

Luckily, the Jays have the bats to do so. They struggled to score runs down the stretch, averaging just 3.66 runs per game in September and October, but have handled Tillman throughout his career. In 24 starts, Tillman has allowed Toronto to hit a combined .278/.334/.514 with 29 home runs. These numbers have only gotten worse in a handful of games at Rogers Centre, where Tillman has given up a .994 (!) OPS. He pitched well there six days ago – Toronto scored just two runs (one earned) in 5 23 innings on September 28 – but the larger sample of evidence suggests the Blue Jays can make life difficult for Tillman.


Rob Rogacki is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score and the Managing Editor of Bless You Boys, SB Nation's Detroit Tigers community. You can follow him on Twitter at @BYBRob.