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.

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