AL Wild Card Series best bets: Guardians-Rays and Blue Jays-Mariners

By Adam Burke  (VSiN.com) 

October 5, 2022 10:49 PM
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The prize for winning an AL Wild Card Series is being an underdog against either the Yankees or Astros, but we still have four interesting teams set for best-of-three series in the first year of MLB’s new postseason format.

The Rays and Guardians actually met in 2013, which was the second year of the winner-take-all, one-game wild-card “round.” That year, the Guardians missed out on the division title by one game before losing to the Rays. This year, they’re in the wild-card round as division champs and play the Rays in the No. 3 vs. No. 6 series. 

The Blue Jays and Mariners meet in the No. 4 vs. No. 5 series. The teams have no playoff history with each other, due in part to the fact that Seattle hasn’t made the playoffs since 2001 and Toronto only has four postseason appearances since winning the 1993 World Series.

Both series stand out to me in different ways, so let’s see what we can expect.

No. 6 Tampa Bay Rays (+ 110) at No. 3 Cleveland Guardians (-130)

DraftKings has the highest line in the market on Cleveland, as other shops are -125 or lower on the AL Central champions. The SuperBook even opened -115, which I think is a fairer price. Tampa Bay at + 110 is likely worth a small wager.

However, my interest here is less about a series price and more about how to play each individual game. To me, this is the best draw either opponent could have asked for. Tampa Bay was 30th in home runs in the second half with 51 and Cleveland was 28th with 56. The teams were both slightly below league average offensively. One huge difference between the teams is Tampa Bay strikes out more than Cleveland, though the Rays walk more than the Guardians as well.

The Guardians have two advantages that could swing the balance of this series. The first is they are one of the best defensive teams in baseball. The second is they have one of the game’s best bullpens. However, in a small sample size, Tampa Bay’s bullpen can perform extremely well and has been a quality unit over the course of the season. The Rays had a lot of bullpen injuries this season, with only three relievers having at least 48 appearances. The Guardians had six reach that mark.

What piques my interest the most is that this should be a very low-scoring environment. It’s cooling off in Cleveland, and Progressive Field plays very big when the ball isn’t carrying. Unless we somehow get a breeze blowing toward the lake instead of off of the lake, runs should be hard to come by.

Cleveland’s entire offensive profile is predicated on not striking out and being able to go first to third on the bases. The Guardians had the second-most stolen bases of any team in the second half, trailing only the Diamondbacks. They manufacture runs the way teams did it in the old days. However, when the playoffs arrive, teams face more strikeout pitchers. Any uptick in strikeouts makes it that much harder for Cleveland to score runs or be in a position to do so. Usually offense is created via the long ball in the postseason. Cleveland doesn’t hit those.

On the other hand, neither does Tampa Bay. I’m expecting tight, stressful baseball, with this series likely coming down to a few key plate appearances in high-leverage situations. If I’m lining these totals, I’m looking at 6s and 6.5s instead of 7s.

When these teams played in Cleveland from Sept. 27-29, the Guardians won twice by a score of 2-1. The other game ended 6-5, but it featured an early rain delay with both starters struggling when play resumed. It looks like Shane McClanahan vs. Shane Bieber in Game 1, Tyler Glasnow vs. Triston McKenzie in Game 2 and TBD (Jeffrey Springs/Corey Kluber/Drew Rasmussen) vs. Cal Quantrill in Game 3.

Pick: Look for game-by-game Unders

No. 5 Seattle Mariners (+ 140) at No. 4 Toronto Blue Jays (-170)

The most interesting underdog of the four Wild Card Series is the Mariners, who have what it takes to make a postseason run. 

The acquisition of Luis Castillo took their rotation up several levels. George Kirby pitched to a 3.02 ERA with a .278 wOBA against in the second half and wrapped up the regular season with 133 strikeouts against just 22 walks. After allowing 12 homers in his first 64.1 innings, he allowed one homer in his next 65.2. Kirby will be used in relief, however, with Robbie Ray lined up to pitch Game 2 and Logan Gilbert scheduled for Game 3 (if needed).

The Mariners also have a stout bullpen with multiple guys that can be used in high-leverage situations. They’ve adopted the Rays’ strategy with guys who throw hard but also come from a bunch of different arm slots with plus sliders or another breaking pitch. Also, most of them are right-handed, which matters a lot against a Blue Jays lineup that has one of the lowest platoon advantage rates in history.

A “platoon advantage” means a right-handed batter vs. a left-handed pitcher or a left-handed batter vs. a right-handed pitcher. Historically, hitters do much better against opposite-handed pitchers and teams have tried to play up that advantage for decades. The league average Ptn% (platoon advantage rate) is 52.4%. The Blue Jays are at 30.7%. Toronto had 4,044 righty-vs.-righty plate appearances this season. The next closest team had 3,468 (Marlins).

In that split, the Blue Jays do have the league’s highest OPS at .783 and finished with the second-highest wOBA against RHP, but you’d like to see a lot more balance from a lineup. Good hitters will be good hitters in any setting, which is the case with a bulk of Toronto’s lineup. It will be a major key to this series. It will also make for an interesting start for Robbie Ray, who allowed 28 of his 32 homers to right-handed batters and also struggled mightily on the road.

Of greater concern for me is Toronto’s bullpen. The Blue Jays ranked in the bottom 10 in reliever FIP and the bridge from starter to Jordan Romano seems to be a moving target. Alek Manoah and Kevin Gausman are two great starting pitchers, but they’ll be under a lot of pressure to work deep into their starts and limit the exposure of the bullpen.

A line of -170 implies that the Blue Jays win this series about 63% of the time, and that seems high to me. Julio Rodriguez’s nagging back injury is an enormous concern, but I really love this Seattle bullpen, and bullpens are arguably the most important position group come playoff time because of the tight leash on starters. If you asked the Yankees which team they’d rather face, they’d absolutely say the Blue Jays. Seattle is dangerous and I think + 140 is too big of a number.

Pick: Mariners + 140

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