MESSAGE TO ALL baseball fans— and especially to those of you who are fans of any of the numerous contending teams in the American League— please strap yourself in for a very wild ride. And definitely prepare to have your heart broken along the way.
Seriously. I mean, unless your’e a Baltimore Oriole fan. In that case… Congratulations! You, friend, are prone to a meltdown in the coming weeks.
Well, here you have it. What you and I likely thought would be happening right now before the season started, is far— very, very far— from what is occurring as you read this article. The American League race is as tight as it’s been in years.
In light of the exciting competition, I have decided to speculate the best matchup for each contending team. Not every team has a super realistic chance; teams like the Rays (especially), Indians, Jays and even Yankees are against the odds. But why not?
For the purpose of speculation and interest, I have made every team's matchup a wildcard game. Because you never really know right now who will come out on top.
If you’re a Mariners fan...
Seattle Mariners: Best Wildcard matchup, vs. Detroit Tigers
Likely probables: SEA: Felix Hernandez; DET: David Price
Why Seattle matches up favorably: Felix Hernandez. Detroit relies heavily on the extra base hit, ranking tenth in home runs, first in doubles, and first in total hits. The lineup powers through opposing pitchers, but Hernandez is tailor-made to prevent that exact type of offense.
Hernandez boasts a ridiculous 75.6 LOB% (left-on base-percentage), so even when men get on base, he always finds ways to retire the next batter, rarely allowing them to advance to third. He strikes guys out efficiently, and generates ground-ball-outs 57% of the time, which heavily works against the Tigers’ fly ball, long-hitting philosophy.
Added, Hernandez has only allowed eight home runs on the season thus far, which is incredible. Also, Robinson Cano has garnered equivalent success for both his fantastic individual play and for his influence on the other young hitters in the lineup, which has led to a patient wait-and-see offense, which could work against strikeout maestro David Price, hoping to run up his pitch count.
Ultimately, they could be successful and force the bullpen to come in after six innings; a bullpen, even with the addition of Joakim Soria and Joe Nathan, that has been lackluster all season long. (Side note: the Mariners won 3 out of 4 in a recent series against the Tigers).
If you’re a Royals fan…
Kansas City Royals: Best Wildcard matchup, vs. Tampa Bay Rays
Likely probables: KC: James Shields; TAM: Alex Cobb
Why Kansas City matches up favorably: Although the Rays continue to surge, they don’t have David Price to shut down an offense in a Wild Card Game scenario anymore. Their rotation as a unit boasts some enormous potential; with Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Drew Smyly, and Jeremy Hellickson headlining their starting five, Tampa Bay has a reason to be excited about the future.
But their offense is just not good enough to make up for the loss of an ace of Price’s caliber. The most important factor, though, is the Royal’s ace, James Shields, who is a former Ray and knows the team inside and out. He knows the hitters and their tendencies better than any pitcher in the league, which is why the Rays team only managed three hits against him in their lone face-off.
Pair them up in the wild card game, and the Royals offense won’t even need to be a big factor.
If you’re a Blue Jays fan...
Toronto Blue Jays: Best Wildcard matchup, vs. New York Yankees
Likely probables: TOR: RA Dickey; NY: Masahiro Tanaka
Why Toronto matches up favorably: Toronto’s deadly and frequent long ball does not suit well with Masahiro Tanaka, because as great as he’s been, he does give up one-too-many homers (1.05 per nine innings).
The Jays’ high-octane offense should outweigh the Yankee offense for one reason--they love to run and steal bases, but R.A Dickey has only allowed three stolen bases all season; he is simply hard to run against.
The best part of the Yankees game, their base running, would clearly be handicapped all night long, which would steer them away from their usual game plan.
If you’re an Orioles fan…
Baltimore Orioles: Best Wildcard matchup, vs. Oakland Athletics
Likely probables: BAL: Chris Tillman; OAK: Jon Lester
Why Baltimore matches up favorably: The A’s continue to struggle putting up runs, proving they miss Cespedes’ bat at the heart of their lineup far more than they expected. Or maybe it’s just that the A’s are still adjusting to his absence.
The trends of both teams must make the Orioles feel confident about their matchup. If the A’s struggles are legitimate, the Orioles will take advantage with top-of-the-rank defense and solid pitching from their ace Chris Tillman. Lester will struggle to keep this offense quiet; a lineup that boasts Adam Jones, Nelson Cruz, Manny Machado, Nick Markakis, Chris Davis, and JJ Hardy, which ranks number one in home runs in the league, will rarely be held scoreless— especially if the game takes place at Orioles’ park, which would look likely in this potential matchup.
With the Orioles, you really have to out-gun them, not out-pitch them. And if the A’s continue faltering in the runs department, the birds really have the clear-cut edge in this clash.
If you’re an Angels fan…
Los Angeles Angels: Best wildcard matchup, vs. Seattle Mariners
Likely probables: LAA: Garrett Richards, vs. SEA: Felix Hernandez
Why Los Angeles matches up favorably: Albert Pujols. Pujols is the difference maker in any potential playoff matchup due to his experience, pedigree, and ability to flat-out ball at age thirty-five.
But where he holds the distinct advantage is against the best righty in the game, Felix Hernandez. His plate smarts come from several years of at bats, and he has probably seen and solved more tough pitchers than anyone in the MLB. When it counts, he will be the difference maker against King Felix, because he will know how to bat against him, while the younger players may be left clueless.
It will be he, not Trout, who structures the Halo’s offensive approach and tackles his tendencies of pitches. Albert Pujols is the type of asset that very few other teams have, and it will come especially handy against such an elite pitcher.
He has come up clutch countless times in the past, and he will use his renouned clutch factor in 2014 to influence the other hitters around him. From this, Mike Trout should learn leadership skills he has never previously absorbed.
If you’re an Indians fan…
Cleveland Indians: Best wildcard matchup, vs. Kansas City Royals
Likely probables: CLE: Corey Kluber; KC: James Shields
Why Cleveland matches up favorably: Corey Kluber. Where did he come from? His rise in to stardom was so sudden! He has turned into the superace that Justin Masterson turned out to be incapable of being.
He is the rare breed of pitcher that can strike out batter after batter (9.87 k’s per 9 innings), and simultaneously pitch deep into a game by working each inning. In other words, the man is extremely efficient.
Kluber is also a solid ground ball pitcher; hovering around a fifty-percent ground ball rate. The Royals have the most ground ball outs in the MLB in 2014 thus far, and given how precise Kluber is in generating the easy outs, it’s safe to say the Royals may struggle against the right-hander. Well, actually, it’s already been proven - in one-hundred and eleven total at bats against Kluber this season, the Royals have only turned in sixteen hits, good for a 0.144 average.
Kluber is the real royal in this matchup.
If you’re an A’s fan…
Oakland Athletics: Best wildcard matchup, vs. Detroit Tigers
Likely probables: OAK: Jon Lester; DET: David Price
Why Oakland matches up favorably: They have everything that Detroit has, but are better in a one game decider. Jon Lester matches up with David Price evenly, but the simple difference is Lester has been a slightly better version.
He has a fly-ball percentage of 35.8%, yet he doesn’t let them go beyond the fence, as he only allows 0.58 home runs per 9-innings. That, above all, is bound to frustrate the heavy-hitting Tigers and make them impatient at the plate.
David Price, the likely starter for Detroit, allows over one home run per-9 innings, and the Athletics live and and breathe off of the home run, ranking sixth in the league. The Tigers are a better pure-hitting team, but it will be limited against Lester as long as the A’s can muster a home run or two, though it will be difficult nonetheless against a pitcher like Price.
Both bullpens are shaky, and both teams are on a downward trend recently, which, ironically, should make each team confident in a potential matchup against each other.
But as long as Lester can hold the Tigers down, the A’s have scored the most runs in the MLB for a reason. If it was a five-game series, I’d take the Tigers, due to their eye-candy of a rotation, including Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez.
But also remember, the A’s are out for revenge after being eliminated by the Tigers last year. And they very well may have their home ballpark on their side.
If you’re a Tigers fan…
Detroit Tigers: Best wildcard matchup, vs. Cleveland Indians
Likely probables: DET: David Price; Corey Kluber
Why Detroit matches up favorably: More star power. The Indians lack the proven star, the big time hit, the wise head among the rest, or the clutch factor. The Indians are a group of solid players who know how to hit and play the game of baseball, but lack the post-season pedigree and star-player-qualities that the Tigers have.
It would be a somewhat different story if they at least had experience, but they don’t even have much of that to counter the Tigers’ star players. Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler and Victor Martinez, alone, have the capability to solve and barrel through the biggest obstacle they would face— Corey Kluber.
The Indians, though, are very capable of being the Cinderella team in the playoffs, because they take pride in consistent hitting and put up runs regularly and often, ranking seventh in the league. Though not a proven star yet, Michael Brantley is well on his way, putting up an MVP caliber season and has had incredible individual success across the board in all categories, and he has proven himself as a five-duel threat.
Also, Corey Kluber, of course, will make it very difficult for the Tigers to produce. But ultimately, the Tigers have fearsome hitters that are among the few who can exploit Kluber.
If you’re a Rays fan…
Tampa Bay Rays: Best wildcard matchup, vs. (??)
Likely probables: TAM: Alex Cobb; …(?)
Why the Rays will prevail: Well… they won’t. I really hate singling out the Rays, and they have done a brilliant job at climbing over .500 after being eighteen games under, and still continue to win without David Price.
The thing is, this year is most definitely not their year. Their starting rotation oozes with major potential; Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Drew Smyly and Jeremy Hellickson ALL have the potential to be aces. Their rotation is that talented.
But as of right now, they are still flawed and have plenty of room to grow. Their hitting has also been poor this year, which is a big reason why they don’t match up greatly against any of the other competitive teams, like the Detroit Tigers.
If the Wild Card matchup was stretched over a five game series, I would actually label them as the dark-horse team without a doubt, due to their incredibly talented starting five along with Evan Longoria’s experience, leadership, and hitting prowess.
But in a one-game series, they will either be shut down, or scored on in numbers. The future is definitely bright, but they are not there yet, despite their admirable and valiant push into the playoff picture.
If you’re a Yankees fan…
New York Yankees: Best wildcard matchup, vs. Los Angeles Angels
Likely probables: NY: Masahiro Tanaka; LA: Jered Weaver
Why the Yankees will prevail: Derek Jeter isn’t passing the torch to Mike Trout quite yet. Though the Yankees aren’t as stable among the competition as the Angels are, Derek Jeter is searching for one last title before he hangs it up. How satisfying would that be?
But it goes beyond Derek Jeter. The Angels do have Albert Pujols who is their experienced head and is still playing at an impressively high level this year, but the Yankees have more playoff and seasonal experience.
Jacoby Ellsbury, arguably the Yankees best player this year and who just won a championship with the Boston Red Sox last year, is a primary example. Carlos Beltran, who is the best post-season home run hitter of all time, joined the Yanks this season after making it to the World Series last year.
Ichiro Suzuki, who is clearly past his prime, still ranks #49 on the all-time hits list. Brian McCan, who had a brilliant nine-year career with the Braves, continues to display his terrific bat.
The Yankees are very scarce in youth, but still run and steal bases like young men, ranking sixth in that department and with eighty-percent success, primarily behind the legs of Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner.
The Angels will undoubtedly be a matchup nightmare, even with the loss of their ace Garrett Richards, but the Yankees have the experience and the tools to defeat them with the season on the line.
Not to mention, Joe Girardi is probably the best coach and tactician in baseball right now. In a single deciding game where tactics and experience means a tremendous amount, the Yankees will find a surprisingly solid matchup with the Halos.
The season is winding to a dramatic end, and we can hardly wait to see how the rest of the season, especially in the American League, plays out. Expect the good, the bad, and the ugly. And definitely expect it to be an exciting stretch of baseball.