AL Wild Card Series, Game 1: Here We Go

marc w · October 7, 2022 at 12:00 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Luis Castillo vs. Alek Manoah, 1:07pm

After 21 years, the M’s are back in the playoffs, and unlike their first playoff game, they’ve had time to set up this mouth-watering pitching match-up; this isn’t a Chris Bosio/Bob Wolcott and hope kind of a situation. These are two aces facing off in a packed Rogers Centre.

This is a great series for starting pitching, and your view of who the best of this rarified bunch is is going to depend on how you measure pitching. Alek Manoah is 3rd in baseball, 2nd in the AL, in RA9-based WAR, meaning just counting up the runs (ALL the runs, not just the earnies) and comparing that to league average. But by fielding-independent WAR, Kevin Gausman is the ace around here, finishing 5th in baseball. The difference is that while RA9 is agnostic about how/why those runs score, FIP is focusing solely on the things MOST in the pitcher’s control: walks, strikeouts, and home runs. Your view may be that FIP is too reductive, that it’s not true that pitchers have no impact on BABIP or overall run scoring on balls in play. Or, you may prefer FIP’s superior year-over-year reliability and its ability to cut through the noise and randomness that contribute to ERA/RA9 or more inclusive measures of worth. How you answer that question may color your view of today’s match-up.

Alek Manoah is 6’6″ and built like a defensive end. A right hander, he doesn’t throw especially hard – his four-seam fastball comes in at around 94, and he has a sinker that he’ll throw to RHB and LHBs alike. He has an excellent slider, and that’s the pitch that’s made him an ace. To lefties, he’ll mix in a change, but they still see the slider, too. Manoah’s strikeout rate of 22.9% is essentially league average (22.4%), but unlike his rookie year, he’s limited walks, giving him a solid K:BB ratio. He struck out nearly 28% last year, so in one sense, he seems less dominant, but you can’t convince AL hitters of that. Manoah finished with a 2.24 ERA, the 2nd best in Toronto history among qualified starters. Average Ks, very much NOT average ERA – he’s obviously doing very well in balls in play. Can that last?

I think one of the most important things we’ve learned since I’ve been doing this is that a number of early sabermetric nostrums just don’t hold up – or they’re perfectly accurate in answering a very narrow question, but fall apart when we try to use them to answer a broader one. Voros McCracken came up with defense independent pitching stats and pointed out how volatile BABIP is, and while it’s LESS under the control of a pitcher than, say, walk rate, that doesn’t mean that a pitcher has NO control over it. This year, Manoah ranks in the 73rd percentile for exit velocity, 92nd percentile in hard hit%, and 80th percentile in the percentile of balls in play that were barreled. OK, but that’s just one season. What did he do in 2021? 86th, 93rd, and 81st, respectively. His BABIP in 2021 was .246, and in 2022, it’s .244. He has a solid defense, and that’s part of the story, but part of this just what Manoah does.

Another big factor in Manoah’s much better ERA than FIP is the fact that he pitches much better with men on base. He quite consciously changes up his approach, getting fewer strikeouts, but more ground balls. He’s a fly-ball pitcher with no one on, and a more average/balanced one with men on base – and that GB% goes up further with men in scoring position. This marked quite a change from last year, where he became MORE FB heavy with men on, but it seems to have helped. Part of the reason for this change is how he locates his pitches with men on. He’s burying his slider down and below the zone to righties more so than he did last year. And he’s getting more ground balls on sliders, particularly against righties, than in 2021. He’s trading a few whiffs for more balls in play on the pitch, but those balls in play are significantly worse than average. So much of what Manoah does is going to be invisible to FIP, but he remains a formidable opponent.

Part of the problem is that the Jays are a better team against sinkers and sliders than the M’s, but as I mentioned yesterday, the M’s have hitters who excel against those pitches. I think you can pencil in Julio Rodriguez in as the key to M’s line-up for the next, oh, 15 years or so, but it’s especially true here. The M’s odds to win aren’t great if they need to string a bunch of hits together. They’re much better if Julio Rodriguez and/or Eugenio Suarez can drive a hanging slider or a sinker out of the park. The M’s offensive strength has been their patience, but that’s going to be tough without Jesse Winker AND going up a Jays team that throws a ton of strikes. They need to drive those strikes and use the park to their advantage.

This all sounds like the Jays should be overwhelming favorites, and if you look at the betting markets and most observers’ predictions, well, they are. But they have a legitimate chance. Joe Sheehan wrote in his newsletter the other day that, out of the non-juggernaut Astros/Dodgers, maybe Braves, teams that could do some damage this postseason, he’s picking the M’s. Why? Because in the playoffs, two factors tend to rise to the top to an extreme degree compared to the regular season: home run power and bullpen strength. Sure, the Jays have power, but the M’s combination of pop AND a deep pen (particularly deep in RH power relievers) gives them a shot. The conventional wisdom essentially my whole life was that home run power wouldn’t play in the playoffs, being too infrequent, and potentially neutralized by excellent opposing pitchers. But watch the playoffs now, and that’s not how it happens. I’m watching the Rays/Guardians, and the only runs have come off dingers – a solo shot for the Rays, and a 2R-HR for Cleveland. It’s the only way to score on a Shane McClanahan. No team in baseball, writes Sheehan, has won a playoff series with less than 180 HRs since Kansas City in 2015 (neither the Rays/Guardians have, so that’ll change).

The Rays teams of recent years, and maybe especially 2020, might be a good comparison for the M’s. It’s nearly impossible to use 2020 stats, but that Rays club had a poor batting average, and was even more dependent on dingers than this year’s M’s. Famously, their bullpen was incredibly deep, featuring arms with a bewildering variety of arm angles. They had a rookie go on a home run spree in the playoffs, and they waltzed to the World Series as a wild card club. I worry about the black holes and low averages in the M’s line-up, but that Rays club had Mike Zunino’s .147 regular season average and a down year from Kevin Kiermaier. They still look much the same, and they’re still in the playoffs year after year. Could Julio go nuts the way Randy Arozarena did? Hell, it would be LESS surprising for Julio to do it than Arozarena, so hey, why not. Go M’s.

1: Juliooooo, CF
2: France, 1B
3: Suarez, 3B
4: Raleigh, C
5: Haniger, RF
6: Santana, DH
7: Kelenic, LF
8: Frazier, 2B
9: Crawford, SS
SP: Castillo

Castillo had a few bad starts down the stretch in which he fell victim to the big inning, much the same way as Robbie Ray’s April/May. The Jays can score in bunches, and while it’s obvious to say, let’s just get it out of the way: that cannot happen today.

This is a fascinating line-up, and I’ve grown to really appreciate it. Raleigh hasn’t seen much time in the clean-up position, but it’s great to get a left-hander in with the very right-handed top of the line-up, and Mitch in the 5 hole seems like a great choice. The M’s bottom of the line-up has been an issue at times, and while this looks fairly standard, it’s VERY left-handed, giving them the platoon advantage on four consecutive hitters, maximizing the chance that Julio can come up with someone on.


22 Responses to “AL Wild Card Series, Game 1: Here We Go”

  1. Westside guy on October 7th, 2022 1:10 pm

    Woo! Let’s go!

    Gov. Inslee gave us the afternoon off, haha!

  2. Westside guy on October 7th, 2022 1:12 pm

    Sheesh, last thing we need is for Julio to get his hands dinged up.

  3. Westside guy on October 7th, 2022 1:21 pm


  4. JMB on October 7th, 2022 1:21 pm

    Let’s FREAKING GO!!!!

    Amazing start, M’s!

  5. Westside guy on October 7th, 2022 1:54 pm

    I’m certainly liking the first couple of innings…

  6. JMB on October 7th, 2022 2:16 pm

    Manoah has settled in. Those three runs are huge. Strikezone seems pretty generous, too.

  7. Westside guy on October 7th, 2022 2:33 pm

    Man, I love Julio.

  8. JMB on October 7th, 2022 2:36 pm

    I do too, just wish they’d stop hitting him,

  9. kmsandrbs on October 7th, 2022 3:15 pm

    Can only check-in one in a while on the game … is Castillo just inducing lots of light contact?

  10. JMB on October 7th, 2022 3:20 pm

    Until striking out the side in the 7th just now, yeah, lots of grounders and a few easy flyouts to center.

  11. Westside guy on October 7th, 2022 3:25 pm

    Toronto is certainly having trouble figuring out his pitch mix – 98-100 mph fastballs mixed with sliders that are 10 mph slower.

  12. kmsandrbs on October 7th, 2022 3:32 pm

    With that (especially that 7th) … do you bring him back out for the 8th? I think Marc suggested not letting the starters go deep, but with an (at least) 4 run lead, and a strong performance, I’d say save the pen and bring him back out (if he wants to, which I would assume he does) with a fairly short leash (unless the team whips up a few more runs).

  13. Westside guy on October 7th, 2022 3:49 pm

    From your lips to Servais’ ears, apparently @kmsandrbs!

  14. Westside guy on October 7th, 2022 3:52 pm

    Now let’s see them get an insurance run or 10 here in the ninth…

  15. Stevemotivateir on October 7th, 2022 3:56 pm

    I have to follow these first two games online from Lisbon, but I’m glad I didn’t see these poorly called strikes.

    That’s what I’m telling myself to feel less deprived, anyway.

  16. kmsandrbs on October 7th, 2022 3:56 pm

    Yeah, I’m on board with that @Westside.

  17. Westside guy on October 7th, 2022 4:02 pm

    On the plus side, @Steve – you get to be in Lisbon!

  18. Westside guy on October 7th, 2022 4:10 pm

    Man, I remember when a pitcher throwing 100mph was unusual. Muñoz is throwing 102…

  19. kmsandrbs on October 7th, 2022 4:10 pm

    First game shutout! WOO HOOOOOOOOOO!

  20. Westside guy on October 7th, 2022 4:10 pm

    WOO HOO! WIN #1!!

  21. schwingy on October 7th, 2022 8:29 pm

    R’ right Robbie, let’s get it done!

  22. LongDistance on October 7th, 2022 11:32 pm

    Just got up over here in Paris. Why oh why didn’t I find a way to watch?!

    O.M.G…. !!!!!!

    Go M’s… !!!!!!!!

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