Rays at Rangers for AL wild-card tiebreaker: Who has the edge?
We'll play a tiebreaker between the Rays and Rangers to decide who wins the second AL wild card. What can we expect?
The Tampa Bay Rays and Texas Rangers finished the first 162 games of the 2013 regular season with identical 91-71 records and tied for the second AL wild-card berth. As such, they'll play a tiebreaker on Monday night at 8:07 p.m. ET to decide who advances to play another one-and-done against the Indians in Cleveland.
Obviously, we're talking about a single game, so making predictions is a bit of a fool's errand. With that said, what follows is a necessary hazard of the profession, so let's break down -- position-by-position and role-by-role -- the 20th playoff tiebreaker in MLB history as best we can ...
Catcher: Jose Molina vs. A.J. Pierzynski
Molina is a superlative defensive catcher, but he's also a pretty awful hitter. We'll give the nod to Pierzynski, who remains a useful batsman by positional standards.
First base: James Loney vs. Mitch Moreland
Loney's success in 2013 is a surprise, to be sure, but through recent history he has out-hit Moreland (119 OPS+ in 2013 to Moreland's 99 OPS+). He's also the better defender.
Second base: Ben Zobrist vs. Ian Kinsler
Tough call. This season, Kinsler is batting a useful .276/.343/.412, and he's better against lefties. The switching Zobrist has put up slightly better numbers and has been more effective against left-handers. Defense? Another close call. Let's declare this one a push of general excellence.
Shortstop: Yunel Escobar vs. Elvis Andrus
Neither shortstop is hitting a great deal this season, but Escobar gets a slight edge with the bat. Andrus is by far the better base-runner, but what of defense? Andrus has reputation and statistical track record, and Escobar is a standout defender, as well. Another push.
Third base: Evan Longoria vs. Adrian Beltre
Among third basemen, Longoria is an almost ideal blend of defensive excellence and plate production. Among third basemen, Beltre is an almost ideal blend of defensive excellence and plate production.
Left field: Sean Rodriguez vs. Craig Gentry
So, as will soon be noted, this is a battle of two lefty starting pitchers, and as such I expect some platoon advantages to be sought out by both managers. That will be the case in left. Rodriguez for his career owns a .752 OPS against the opposite side, while Gentry has a very similar mark of .767. Defensively, you might give an edge to Gentry because he's a natural outfielder with the range and skills to man center. Rodriguez, although athletic, is far less experienced in the outfield. Another very close call.
Center field: David DeJesus vs. Leonys Martin
Normally, Desmond Jennings would be patrolling center for the Rays, particularly against a lefty. However, his hamstring figures to keep him out of the lineup yet again. So I'll say that the Rays go with DeJesus, who, though good with the glove, cedes the platoon advantage. As for Martin, he's a standout defender but an absolutely miserable hitter against left-handers. No winners here.
Right field: Wil Myers vs. Alex Rios
Another good one. Myers may wind up with the AL Rookie of the Year Award, and Rios has a broad menu of skills. Myers is the better hitter, but Rios has the edge on the bases and in the field. With that said, the idea of Myers facing a lefty in hitter-friendly Arlington earns him the narrow nod.
Designated hitter: Delmon Young vs. Nelson Cruz
This is the role Young was made for: facing a left-hander and coming nowhere near a glove. He's a career .304/.342/.471 hitter against lefties. As for Cruz, normally I would give him the easy nod, but how will he be after a 50-game layoff? It's a push, but only because of the unusual circumstances surrounding Cruz.
Both teams have plenty of lefty bats to turn to once the right-handed relief corps takes over for the opposition. With that said, I'll go with Tampa Bay, thanks largely to the fact that they have Kelly Johnson and Luke Scott available for late-inning, high-leverage duty against those imposing right-handed relievers of Texas.
Starting pitcher: David Price vs. Martin Perez
Even though Price's overall numbers were down a bit this season, he paced the AL in K/BB ratio and was good for a 2.95 ERA in the second half. Perez, meanwhile, owns a highly respectable 116 ERA+ on the season, and he has actually been more effective at home in 2013. With all that said, let's go with the reigning AL Cy Young winner, particularly in light of recent trends.
While the Rays' bullpen has been respectable this season (7th in the 15-team AL in bullpen ERA), the Rangers' has been perhaps the best in baseball. With a shutdown closer in Joe Nathan , quality right-handed setup in Tanner Scheppers and Jason Frasor and dominance from the left side in Neal Cotts and Robbie Ross , this one's an easy call.
In this one, I'm comfortable turning to defensive efficiency rating, which is the percentage of balls in play that a defense converts into outs. As it turns out, the Rays rank second in the AL with a mark .707, while the Rangers check in at sixth (.693). What with their emphasis on shifts and athleticism up the middle, I have no trouble believing that the Rays are a plus-fielding team. The Rangers, though, are no slouches in this regard.
As you can see above -- and as their identical records would imply -- these are two closely matched ballclubs. Really, it's a coin flip. With that said, I'm going to predict the Rangers by a score of 4-3. The home-field advantage is to be considered, and I expect Texas, particularly with the full expanded September roster at its disposal (this is technically a regular-season game) to turn it over to the elite bullpen sooner rather than later. I'll say that makes the difference, and the Rangers advance to play Cleveland.