AL Wild Card Series Preview: The Battle of Robbie Ray

marc w · October 6, 2022 at 9:52 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

I have been writing about this team for a long, long while – comments on early iterations of this site, Lookout Landing, and then joining to write above the comment box in 2009 or so. I…don’t quite know what to do now? The M’s are in a playoff series, albeit entirely on the road, and it’s a short little amuse bouche of a series. The Toronto Blue Jays are a formidable opponent, and will be more so in their home park. But while they have the talent edge at the plate, the M’s may have one in run prevention. A three-game set won’t allow a team with a clear talent edge to coast on that talent; there’s not enough time for talent to rise above randomness (ok, they’d have an advantage, but the point is it wouldn’t be decisive on its oww). But the downside is that the M’s edge in *depth* won’t really have time to shine either. So what wins out? The Blue Jays’ deep, deep line-up? Or the M’s and their game-shortening bullpen following up on excellent starting pitchers? Here are the most important factors in this series for me.

1: Robbie Ray.

Robbie Ray starts game two, on Saturday afternoon. He won the Cy Young with these Jays last year, then signed his big free agent deal in Seattle. The game two match-up between Kevin Gausman of Toronto and Ray for Seattle, for me, will make or break this series. Ray is an excellent pitcher and worth his contract. Moreover, he was excellent in his single start against Toronto this year. But in a game to either win or stay alive, Ray has to come up huge in a match-up that, on paper, looks a bit rough for him.

Much has been made of the Jays’ right-handed orientation, with so many of their best hitters batting from that side. That’s true, but they actually hit slightly better against right-handed pitchers this year than left (though they battered both). The problem is more on Ray’s end. He had sizable platoon splits last year, and they’re just as big this year. As a fastball/slider guy nearly exclusively, how could they not be? Ray’s going to neutralize lefties, and then hopefully contain right handers. He gets plenty of whiffs and strikeouts, but he allows some very loud contact, and always has. It’s part of the package, and when that loud contact finds gloves, he’s fine. When that loud contact occurs with no one on base, he’s fine. When it happens in streaks, or in high-leverage situations, or, more importantly, you’re in a park that rewards hard contact, it could go south.

These are just trends, this isn’t saying he’s doomed or anything. But it does play up the fact that this second game is really the must-have. Outside of Gausman and game one starter Alek Manoah, the Jays starting pitching gets thin. The M’s have a solid chance in the deciding game 3 – should it come to that. But they have to get through the gauntlet of Manoah/Gausman, and they have to do it against a line-up that is capable of scoring in multiple ways.

2: Home Runs.

Both of these offenses rely on home runs, but the M’s lower average/OBP means they’ve been especially reliant on them. Again, a good part of this is due to the home park they play in, and this is the ONE good thing about this series being played outside of Seattle. Julio Rodriguez and Eugenio Suarez are the clear offensive leaders, but the M’s can get home runs from Cal Raleigh, Ty France, and Mitch Haniger, and they may need them. The Blue Jays 1 and 2 starters have been brilliant this year at avoiding home runs, but they can’t do so forever. Gausman yielded no home runs in his first seven starts before the M’s hit one in his eighth. Manoah generates such weak contact, but again, without a brilliant change-up, he could be vulnerable to a good lefty slugger like Raleigh.

And while Manoah especially mixes in a sinker along with his primary four-seam fastball, Julio and Eugenio have destroyed sinkers this year; both guys have run values of +11 on sinkers. It’ll be more important for the M’s to avoid yielding HRs. Ray threw about 20% sinkers this year, but gave up 9 HRs on the pitch. Batters slugged .530 on it, but under .400 on his other two primary pitches. Yes, the new wrinkle probably contributed to the success of the slider/four-seam, but on its own, the sinker wasn’t all that good. He should still show it, but he has to be judicious with it, especially given the way it breaks for right-handed batters.

Rogers Centre is a good offensive environment, and the ball is conducive to long fly balls. Fly balls and line drives end up being about 40 points of wOBA better in Toronto than in Seattle. Asking the M’s pitchers to keep the Jays off the board entirely doesn’t seem fair, so the M’s offense has to take advantage of their environment and score some runs. Just based on what they’re best at, and looking at how playoff teams have scored recently (see the great note on playoff team scoring through HRs in this great Sarah Langs piece), the home run seems the best/most likely path to doing that.

3: The Bullpen.

Ok. The short story here is that the M’s one clear, convincing, univerally-acknowledged edge over Toronto is in the bullpen. The seasonal numbers show that, but they underestimate the edge due to the M’s not really figuring out who should be IN their bullpen until June or so. It widens if we look at it in the second half of the season, but even that’s misleading, because no team is going to use the back of its bullpen in a three-game mini-series. Who has depth at the TOP of the pen? The M’s.

So how best do they deploy it? They have to utilize the advantage to get anything out of it, right? But how do you have an early hook for Luis Castillo and Robbie Ray considering that games like these are precisely why you acquire them? As Joe Sheehan and Eric Longenhagen note, the M’s have great right-handed relievers who excel at precisely the kinds of things that Matt Chapman and especially Vlad Guerrero, Jr struggle with. It sounds sacrilegious, but the M’s don’t need Castillo facing Vlad three times. Robbie Ray positively shouldn’t be allowed to. It worked out exceedingly well for Toronto in another short series where the Orioles lost without ever utilizing their best reliever in a close, extra-inning game. The key here is for the M’s to use every one of their situational and high-leverage relievers through the first two games. Munoz, Sewald, of course. But they should use Matt Boyd, Penn Murfee (situational righty!), and Matt Brash too. Diego Castillo. Everyone gets an outing. The depth really shows itself when the M’s have not just options but GOOD options late in the game to essentially have the platoon advantage in all key situations. Take that advantage.

4: Health/Athleticism

The M’s lost Jesse Winker and Sam Haggerty to the IL just before the regular season ended. While Winker wasn’t a stolen base threat or a fine defender, Haggerty had value in a close and late situation in this series. The Jays are getting both Lourdes Gurriel, Jr. and Santiago Espinal back from injury, but it’s not clear how ready they are to play in the field or if Espinal can use his defensive flexibility and baserunning. Neither of these teams ran a lot during the year, and they may run even less now.

But then again, maybe they might? The M’s are calling up Cade Marlowe to make his MLB debut in this series, or at least his first stint on the active roster. The former 20th-rounder is a speed/power threat, coming off 42 steals in the minors against 10 caught-stealings. His MiLB K% is not particularly pleasant to look at, but at least he gives the M’s some options in a close game. The Jays equivalent is probably Bradley Zimmer, the ex-Cleveland and Philadelphia OF. He’s great defensively, but after swiping 15 bags in 18 tries in part-time duty last year, he was only at 3 and 2, respectively, last year.

Ty France’s solid final two weeks did a lot to allay concerns that he was playing through injury, as his numbers have fallen hard after his unreal start to 2022. Cal Raleigh is perhaps moving the other direction, with a cool stretch to end the year, likely due in part to his injured thumb. The M’s absolutely need both to be contributors, and it’s hard to know how much their injuries are still impacting them. The M’s may have an intriguing pinch running option, but they likely can’t count too much on the depth behind a lot of these guys, as Curt Casali is in there to handle the pitching staff, while Taylor Trammell is 1 for his last 21.

Does the lack of Haggerty impact the M’s OF defense? It’s honestly not that bad, especially considering the M’s don’t have a choice regarding Winker in LF. It’s more the flexibility they lose out on with him. The Jays have the option of putting out a great OF defense, but they can’t punt too much offense to do it. Gurriel’s hamstring may prevent him from playing too much LF, and if so, the Jays may need to use a much worse batter.


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