Playoff Reset: Blue Jays vs. Rangers ALDS Game 1

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The Game: Toronto Blue Jays @ Texas Rangers, ALDS Game 1
The Time: 4:30 PM EDT
The Place: Globe Life Park, Arlington, Texas
The Channel: TBS
The Starters: Marco Estrada (Blue Jays) vs. Cole Hamels (Rangers)

The Upshot:

Everyone’s going to be talking about the recent history between these two clubs and the chance that fisticuffs could break out at any moment. That history: last season’s exciting and contentious ALDS between these two, which effectively ended with Jose Bautista‘s three-run homer off of Rangers reliever Sam Dyson, leading to an epic bat flip which launched a thousand think pieces about on-field decorum. That was followed up by a fracas this past may when Rangers reliever Matt Bush hit Bautista with a pitch which led to Bautista going into second base with an extremely hard slide, which in turn led to Rougned Odor throwing a right cross to Bautista’s face. Both players were suspended — Odor for seven games, Bautista for one — and everyone involved seethed.

Despite all of that backstory, right now everyone is saying that it’s all in the past. Or, at the very least, that the present stakes are too important to risk continuing on with the feud. I’m inclined to take them at their word — the playoffs are too important to risk losing players to discipline or injury — but the very definition of a heated moment is one in which reasonable men forget themselves and their priorities. If a pitch misses too far inside or an expression of frustration gets mistaken as an act of aggression, there is every reason to believe that fuses will be short.

All of that aside, this is a baseball series, not a boxing match, so how does that break down?

  • During the season the Blue Jays took four of seven from the Rangers head-to-head. That’s never a great predictor of a postseason series, and is especially misleading here because they last played in mid-May and each team has undergone a lot of changes since then, but I thought you should know;
  • While the Rangers have home field advantage by virtue of winning their division and while they won six more games overall than did the Blue Jays, don’t consider the Jays much of an underdog. The AL West was a bit easier than the AL East this season. More importantly, the Rangers record was goosed by an amazing record of 36-11 in one-run games, allowing them to win those 95 contests despite a Pythagorean record of 82-80 (the Jays’ Pythagorean record was 91-71). While the Rangers close game success owes a lot to a strong bullpen and a savvy manager — Jeff Bannister is above average in bullpen management, John Gibbons below — winning close games is not necessarily a reliably repeatable skill over the long term and these teams are a lot more even than their records might suggest;
  • Cole Hamels (15-5, 3.32 ERA) gets the Game 1 start for the Rangers. Marco Estrada (9-9, 3.48 ERA) is going for the Blue Jays. Hamels has considerable postseason experience and handled the Blue Jays fairly well in last year’s ALDS. Still, despite the fact that he’s had a good year, he’s not exactly the vintage Cole Hamels you may remember: his walk rate spiked this year. The Blue Jays batters, meanwhile, walked more than any team in the American League and the second most in baseball. Look for them to make Hamels work. Also worth noting: Hamels has pitched far worse at home than on the road this year.
  • Estrada is likewise prone to issue the free pass (3.3BB/9IP) and he is susceptible to the long ball. He and his defense have been far better at limiting hits overall, however, and he led the league in fewest hits allowed per nine innings for the second straight year. While Hamels has not faced the Jays this year, Estrada faced the Rangers twice. Once he was good, once he got creamed. The difference was in the walks allowed. Walks could easily be the difference maker for both teams in this game.
  • If all of these factoids make it sound like these clubs are evenly matched, know that that continues to the offenses as well: The Rangers scored 4.72 runs a game this year, good for fourth in the AL. The Blue Jays scored 4.69 runs a game, good for fifth. The Jays were third in homers, the Rangers fifth. The Jays were third in OBP, Rangers sixth. The biggest difference is probably in walks, as the Rangers walked the second least of any team in the AL in 2016, the Jays the most.

Who has the edge here? Your guess is as good as mine. It is without question the most evenly-matched Division Series this year. At least if no one important flies off the handle, starts throwing haymakers and gets suspended.