Season on the Line, Joe Saunders on the Mound?

The Orioles and Rangers square off tonight in a winner-take-all/loser-goes-home showdown. The Rangers are throwing Yu Darvish, who has been their best starter for the last month or so, and has the stuff to dominate on any given night. The Orioles are throwing Joe Saunders, who they acquired in an August trade after he cleared waivers. This seems to be the definition of the word mismatch.

There are some match-ups where you’d be okay with Saunders pitching in a critical game because of the composition of the opposing team’s line-up. For instance, Saunders would be a pretty good match-up against a team that has a lot of thump from the left side that he can neutralize. Because, realistically, Saunders is a situational lefty masquerading as a starting pitcher.

This year, he faced 172 left-handed batters. He gave up just five extra base hits — all doubles — while walking four and striking out 38. Left-handers hit .198/.222/.229 against Saunders this year, and even if you regress his BABIP and HR/FB rate by looking at xFIP, he still comes out at 2.65. Saunders is one of the very toughest pitchers in baseball for a left-hander to hit off of.

Right-handers have a bit of an easier time, as they combined for a .302/.349/.500 line against Saunders this year, and those numbers aren’t based in inflated numbers that are likely to regress. His FIP against RHBs this year was 4.89, his xFIP was 4.80. Against lefties, he gets a ton of ground balls and pounds the strike zone – against righties, he turns into a flyball pitcher who has to nibble due to the lack of an outpitch.

While this year’s results are more extreme than most, Saunders has always posted huge platoon splits, and has never really been particularly effective against right-handed batters. His vs RHB wOBA over the last four years:

2009: .361
2010: .358
2011: .347
2012: .359

Keep in mind that league average is now about .315. Right-handers have consistently pounded Saunders, with his only success coming against line-ups where they simply had too many left-handed regulars to exploit the flaw. Unfortunately for the Orioles, the Rangers have the capability of running out a very right-handed line-up tonight.

The regular Rangers line-up features six right-handed hitters and three left-handed bats, but you can bet that Saunders won’t get the benefit of seeing Mitch Moreland tonight, and he might not even get David Murphy. Ron Washington could start both Craig Gentry and Geovany Soto, leaving Josh Hamilton as the only left-handed batter in the Rangers line-up to begin the game, then simply pinch-hit for both with Moreland and Murphy once Saunders exits. A line-up of eight right-handers and Josh Hamilton is just about the worst possible match-up Saunders could face.

There’s no question that the Orioles bullpen is going to be used heavily tonight. I’d be surprised if Saunders got through three innings, honestly. With a day off yesterday and a day off tomorrow, plus the ability to change the rosters after the game ends, the Orioles should have their entire bullpen available tonight, and Buck Showalter should be planning on going to his relievers very early in tonight’s contest. While it might not inspire confidence in his starter, it’s probably worth having a right-handed reliever — or Steve Johnson, who would have been my pick to start this game — on alert that he might very well pitch in the first inning, because the Orioles can’t afford to dig a big hole early with Darvish on the mound for Texas.

The Orioles bullpen is excellent, and they’re a better team than they’ve been given credit for most of the year. But, given that their season comes down to hoping that Joe Saunders starting against the a line-up full of good right-handed hitters, they’re going to need some of that magic they’ve shown throughout the regular season. Or, perhaps more practically, they’ll just need their manager to have the shortest hook in the history of short hooks.

It might be hyperbole to say that Saunders should be removed immediately after retiring Hamilton in the first inning, but that wouldn’t be the worst strategy in the world.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Person
Guest
3 years 10 months ago

How short a hook?

“…and Kinsler walks to lead off the bottom of the first. Elvis Andrus coming to the plate.

“And it looks like there’s activity in the Baltimore bullpen.”

That short?

Dan
Guest
Dan
3 years 10 months ago

I might not let him get past Hamilton a second time with a shutout. Starting him is playing with fire. Letting him go past 3/4 is playing with fire while soaked in gasoline.

BX
Guest
BX
3 years 10 months ago

I say yes.

It’s win or go home.

Not even win or go to the Wild Card like Rangers/A’s on Wednesday was, but win or season over.

If there are runners on 3B with less than 2 outs I would pull him and put in the bullpen if the next batter is Beltre/Napoli/another strong RHB. Even if that means Saunders doesn’t even make it out of the 1st inning.

Bill
Guest
Bill
3 years 10 months ago

I’d like to see Saunders throw one pitch then see Buck get Johnson up. Make the whole thing a ruse to get Washington to burn his platoon advantages. Buck Washington up real good.

Well-Beered Englishman
Guest
Well-Beered Englishman
3 years 10 months ago

I will admit, this would be superb.

Chris from Bothell
Guest
Chris from Bothell
3 years 10 months ago

Came here to post exactly that. I think a bait-and-switch to force Wash to run out a righthanded lineup out there would be ballsy as hell.

Baltar
Guest
Baltar
3 years 10 months ago

Better yet, how about no pitches?

Aggie E
Guest
Aggie E
3 years 10 months ago

Texas starts 6 RH hitters and Josh Hamilton regardless of the pitcher, The only difference might be Craig Gentry for David Murphy and Mike Napoli for Mitch moreland since Soto catches tonight. I really dont think such a move would cause Washington to lose it…

Choo
Member
3 years 10 months ago

Attack the Rangers bench early so match ups later in the game are more clearly defined was my first reaction, too.

tz
Guest
tz
3 years 10 months ago

Did Leyland do something like this in the playoffs when he managed the Pirates?

I recall he started Ted Power, who was a reliever at the time, and then switched to a lefty after one time through the lineup.

todmod
Guest
todmod
3 years 10 months ago

Yeah, this idea sounds good in theory but really ignores the reality of the Rangers lineup.

The 2 positions the Rangers change for right vs left don’t make much of an overall difference in the lineup. Napoli and Gentry vs a righthander isn’t too bad (Gentry is definitely a defensive boost).

Average_Casey
Guest
Average_Casey
3 years 10 months ago

That’s what I was thinking. I would start Joe Saunders and tell him and a right handed starter that Saunders was facing one batter to start the game. That way, Texas loads up on the right handed hitters and ends up effectively mathcing up against a right handed pitcher. You waste on starter early in the game (but he’s not that great) but then get to play matchups the rest of the way and hit Texas’ bench really hard.

Hayves
Guest
Hayves
3 years 10 months ago

This is where Buck Showalter loses MOTY to Melvin

cass
Guest
cass
3 years 10 months ago

Except the voting is already complete. The postseason has no effect on awards.

suicide squeeze
Member
Member
suicide squeeze
3 years 10 months ago

Also, Melvin started AJ Griffin in game 162, and didn’t give him a quick enough hook, so they’re probably even in that regard.

Rick
Guest
Rick
3 years 10 months ago

@suicide squeeze: would you prefer Melvin go with Milone (a lefty, see article above why lefties aren’t the best match up vs. the Rangers) on short rest for the first time in his career. Not to mention Milone has a higher FIP. Maybe you would prefer Melvin start McCarthy (who just had brain surgery) or Anderson who just had to leave a game b/c of an oblique strain. I can’t think of any other available starters to use???? And in terms of quick hooks, Griffin got pulled in the 3rd inning. An inning where he gave up a bloop, grounder to pitcher, well hit single (on a pitch way below strike zone), grounder, soft bloop, well hit liner, bloop, in field pop up, and a grounder. A lot of bad luck babip in one inning. Scribner came in and ended the inning on one pitch, a ball in play on the ground hit harder than any off of Griffin.

John
Guest
John
3 years 10 months ago

I don’t know enough about the O’s to know, but do they have a righty version of Joe Saunders? Do they put Saunders in to force Texas’s hand in with an all righty line up and then immediately switch to the RHP to pitch the next 4-5 innings? Could even do this immediately after the lineups are announced.

BillWallace
Member
BillWallace
3 years 10 months ago

This is what I was thinking. Maybe Buck is just trolling the Rangers. Pitch Saunders just through Hamilton’s first PA and then try to get 4-5 innings from Johnson with his sweeping slow curve against 8 righties, unless Wash wants to burn his bench in the second inning.

Bab
Guest
Bab
3 years 10 months ago

Kind of silly, no? If Saunders pitches well, he keeps pitching. If not, shorter leash than usual. Matchup “trolling” is not really what professional managers are paid to do.

Kampfer
Guest
Kampfer
3 years 10 months ago

Except if match up trolling is what make the O’s win. Managers are paid to win games.

Bab
Guest
Bab
3 years 10 months ago

Yes, matchups are important. Somehow I understand that.

“Hey, Joe Saunders, despite you pitching a lot of innings this year and performing reasonably well with us since you arrived from Arizona, we’re actually gonna start you in the WC game, not to actually pitch, but to fuck up with ol’ Wash’s lineup. Hehhe. Old Ronnie will love that one.”

Come on, guys.

Kyle
Member
3 years 10 months ago

Oh my god I would love that. Please let it happen.

Dan
Guest
Dan
3 years 10 months ago

Saunders through Hamilton the 2nd time.
Johnson until Hamilton gets up.
Matusz for 1 batter.
Ayala for an inning.
O’day for an inning.
Strop until Patton faces Hamilton.
Johnson shuts it down.

Managing is easy.

Ralph
Guest
Ralph
3 years 10 months ago

I’m betting Strop won’t pitch tonight, he’s been awful for the last two months, in fact O’Day has replaced him as the primary set-up guy. I’d expect all the relievers to move down an inning with, maybe, ground ball pitcher Britton getting into the game right after situational lefty Matusz. I see Tommy Hunter, whose been very good out of the bullpen, making it in too, though I’m not sure where.

Big A
Guest
Big A
3 years 10 months ago

Johnson hurt his knee and foot last outing. Buck is not convinced he’s 100%. My gut tells me Buck goes with Johnson if he’s 100%.

Aggie E
Guest
Aggie E
3 years 10 months ago

Texas has struggled offensively lately, but not so much at home where guys like Ian Kinsler actually still looks like an All-Star. I am hopeful for tonight but prepared for the worst. The biggest hope is that having Darvish on the mound against a HR happy and strikeout heavy team will work to his biggest advantages which are strikeouts and not giving up HRs…

Slats
Guest
Slats
3 years 10 months ago

Have faith in Showalter Dave!

lewish
Guest
lewish
3 years 10 months ago

Yeah, but Showalter still has to have the guys to produce.

Bill
Guest
Bill
3 years 10 months ago

I can’t help but think that Buck made a mistake pitching Tillman Wednesday. The Yanks had already clinched it as they were facing DiceK. Tillman on the road>>Saunders at home.

Matt K
Guest
Matt K
3 years 10 months ago

but if they won, the game tonight would be in baltimore, not texas…

adam
Guest
adam
3 years 10 months ago

Interesting argument. Home field is worth, what, 4+% or something like that? So Tillman would have to top 8% (or more) worth of win probability by “forfeiting” the game to the Rays by holding Tillman out. I’m not sure if there’s any resource out there for (easily) seeing how a particular starting pitcher affects the average closing Vegas line.

Bill
Guest
Bill
3 years 10 months ago

Of course, it would be if the O’s greatest victory takes place at the site of their greatest defeat. Something has to erase 30-3.

Bill
Guest
Bill
3 years 10 months ago

It would be great.

Haze
Member
Haze
3 years 10 months ago

30-3 was actually in Baltimore, but it will still exorcise some ghosts no doubt…

jesse
Guest
jesse
3 years 10 months ago

It would be fantastic conversation fodder if Saunders gets ‘hurt’ during warmups

Jeff
Guest
Jeff
3 years 10 months ago

“Saunders through Hamilton the 2nd time.”

The rest of it sounds good, but the problem is getting to Hamilton a 2nd time. By the time Saunders gets there he could be 5 runs down and the O’s could be outta the playoffs. The rest of those nifty moves wouldn’t make a bit of difference. Unfortunately, Saunders’ troubles could come via the long ball, which Showalter can’t manage around. I’m guessing that’s Saunders’ worry too and we’ll see a few walks. Rangers are going to work long counts early. We should see Johnson in the 2nd inning if not sooner.

Haze
Member
Haze
3 years 10 months ago

I agree, I’ve been holding out hope that the idea is hope to get through the first with Saunders so you get him against Hamilton… then immediately go to Johnson in the 2nd, even if Saunders miraculously strikes out the side in the first… there’s no way I’d let him get to Cruz even once… with the depth in the Orioles pen, use the lefties every time Hamilton comes up then switch to the next RHP…

Ed Looney
Guest
Ed Looney
3 years 10 months ago

You also have to realize… giving the Rangers a 5-run lead isn’t necessarily giving away the game… just ask the A’s…

Aggie E
Guest
Aggie E
3 years 10 months ago

Expect to see some balls clearing the Right Field wall as Saunders nibbles on the outside corner against guys like Beltre, Cruz and Napoli who all are very good at hitting Oppo Tacos….

Dave in GB
Guest
Dave in GB
3 years 10 months ago

Or Showalter could change his mind and start someone else. Saunders is just scheduled to start, it means nothing untill he hands in the lineup card

Neil
Guest
Neil
3 years 10 months ago

I love the theory that Saunders is just out there to get Texas to play the RH lineup and he comes out after the first. Either you get a solid platoon advantage for the first 4-6 innings or your force Washington to use his guys early and you gain the platoon advantage in innings 7-9. If this happens, I’ll be so impressed, I’ll think Buck is secretly Joe Maddon.

todmod
Guest
todmod
3 years 10 months ago

I’m just baffled by who these guys people think the Rangers have to pull early are. That’s really not how their roster is made up. This strategy works better for a platoon heavy team like the A’s.

Colin
Guest
Colin
3 years 10 months ago

You know the decision is a head scratcher when the leading theories (plural) involve the Orioles trying to dupe the Rangers into an all right handed lineup so they can then sub out Saunders.

qat
Guest
qat
3 years 10 months ago

Welp that was a bad prediction.

overlookhotel
Member
overlookhotel
3 years 10 months ago

Maybe Buck really is better at this than we are, or maybe he got lucky. Either way, can’t argue with the result.

My echo and bunnymen
Guest
3 years 10 months ago

Short hook indeed, but I really Joe Saunders is the one trollin’.
Seriously it’s like he just decides to not be Joe Saunders one day.

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