Matchup to Watch: Manny Machado vs CC Sabathia/Andy Pettitte
The Orioles pulled their 20-year-old third baseman up from Double-A in August, and the talented youngster managed to hold his own down the stretch, even while making the adjustment from shortstop at the same time. While he’s still rough around the edges, Machado has already shown that he’s capable of driving the baseball, especially against left-handers. If the series goes five games, the Yankees will throw a left-handed starter in three of them, and the Orioles will need production from Machado to offset those southpaws ability to neutralize power hitters Jim Thome and Chris Davis.
Yankees X-Factor: Curtis Granderson
It’s an overstatement to say that Granderson makes the Yankees offense work, but his performance swings have a huge impact on whether the team wins or loses. While he looked to have solved some of his contact problems during last year’s breakout, his strikeout rate has continued to escalate this year. He whiffed in 31% of his second half plate appearances, during which he simply wasn’t the offensive force he’s been previously. If Granderson can put his bat on the ball, it’s got a good chance of traveling a long distance, and the Orioles posted a below average strikeout rate as a team, so this should be a good match-up for him.
Orioles X-Factor: Matt Wieters
While Wieters overall offensive performance has always been more good than great, he’s had stretches of baseball where he’s been the dominating force that he was billed as coming out of college. September was one of those stretches, as Wieters hit .296/.389/.541 and began to draw some respect from opposing managers – three of his four intentional walks on the season came in the final month. That version of Wieters is one of the game’s best players, and gives the Orioles a switch-hitting slugger who can do a lot of damage in a hurry. He’ll get the benefit of seeing a lot of left-handed pitching in this series, so Wieters has a chance to keep his hot September going.
Yankees Key Reliever: David Robertson
Rafael Soriano might be the guy filling in for Mariano Rivera, but Robertson is the reason the Yankees are able to protect so many leads. His command improvement has allowed him to work as more than just a one inning setup guy, as he faced five or more batters in 19 of his 65 appearances this year. He will almost certainly be asked to pitch across multiple innings in the postseason, including getting tough left-handers out when they don’t want to pull him for match-up reasons. Robertson’s hammer curve gives him a weapon that works against hitters from both sides of the plate, and the Orioles are going to have to figure out how to keep Robertson from turning each game into a six inning affair.
Orioles Key Reliever: Tommy Hunter
While Hunter’s overall season performance doesn’t seem to merit a spot on the playoff roster, his late season velocity spike  saw him averaging 96 with his fastball, compared to 91-92 in the first five months of the season. The huge jump in velocity showed up immediately in his September results – 12 2/3 IP, 2 BB, 12 K, 0.71 ERA. While it’s a sample size of just 51 batters, it is no coincidence that Hunter turned into a dominating reliever when his fastball started hitting the upper-90s, and he simply didn’t look anything like the pitch-to-contact strike-thrower he’d been as a starter. Don’t look at Hunter’s 5.45 season ERA and think he’s a scrub – the most recent version of Hunter has the ability to be a big weapon for the Orioles.
Yankees Key Bench Player: Eduardo Nunez
With Andruw Jones second half collapse, Nunez may very well take over his role as the platoon OF/DH who starts against lefties. He only got 100 plate appearances during the regular season, but his high contact rate against southpaws made him a productive hitter, and it’s the kind of skill that might translate well into a limited role. You don’t see a utility infielder serving as a DH in the playoffs very often, but Nunez may very well be the Yankees best option.
Orioles Key Bench Player: Ryan Flaherty
Second base has been a season long problem for the O’s, with Robert Andino failing to hit much and Brian Roberts return simply leading to another injury. The team finished the year with Flaherty starting eight of the final 12 games at the keystone, as he flashed some power for the first time all year. Five of his nine extra base hits on the season came in September, and with no real effective alternatives, the rule 5 pick could end up getting significant playing time for the Orioles in the post-season.
Most Important Stat: Orioles bullpen WPA: +13.86
The Orioles amazing 29-9 record in one run games is essentially the main reason why the team is in the playoffs, and that record can be explained simply through continued amazing performances by the Orioles bullpen. In fact, by Win Probability Added – a measure that looks at wins added based on the situation, score, and inning at the time of the performance – the Orioles bullpen was the most “clutch” group of relievers in baseball history . While their bullpen was just decent in medium or low leverage situations, only Tampa Bay’s relievers performed better in high leverage situations, and the Orioles played in so many tight games that they were used in more tight situations than any other bullpen in the AL. This combination of high quantity and high quality performances when it matters most was the key to the O’s magical season, and they’ll need their relievers to keep carrying the day if they’re going to advance in October.
Modest Proposal: The Orioles should carry 13 pitchers.
In general, teams shorten their pitching staff in October, as the lack of a need for a fifth starter and the day off for travel give them an opportunity to consolidate innings among their best few pitchers. The Orioles, however, don’t really have a best few pitchers – they have an abundance of arms who are all similarly useful in specific situations, and the fact that the five games are scheduled to take place over just six days means that pitching depth is more important than usual. Additionally, the Orioles bench is not very good, and they only really need a backup catcher, a utility infielder, and one outfielder to serve as depth behind their regular starters. Going with 13 pitchers will allow Buck Showalter to be extremely aggressive with his bullpen usage, playing the match-ups and relying heavily on his bullpen rather than letting the starting pitchers dig a big hole. Against the AL’s best offense, having the ability to make six or seven pitching changes each game is more important than having a pinch-runner for Jim Thome.
Prediction: Yankees in four.