Zach Wilt: Backs ends of bullpens present interesting ALCS matchup

For years, I preached about the importance of starting pitching in the postseason. In my mind, I firmly believed that the teams with the best rotations had the greatest chance of making a deep run into October. It was all about those four starters and no matter what a team did to hide its lack of starting pitching in the regular season, they would surely be exposed in the playoffs.

Suddenly, I'm not so sure that's true anymore. At least not this year. The Tigers added a third Cy Young award winner, David Price, to their rotation at the trade deadline, but they were still swept by the Orioles in the American League Division Series. The Athletics went all-in by acquiring Jeff Samardzija and Jon Lester, yet they still failed to make it past the wild card play-in game.

In our small sample size this fall, you could argue that relief pitching has been more important to playoff teams' success than starting pitching. Here on Oct. 9, the Orioles' acquisition of Andrew Miller has actually been more impactful than the A's getting Lester and Samardzija or the Tigers adding Price. Baseball can humble you that quickly.

While some may argue that the Orioles lack that true ace that Kansas City possesses in James Shields, the O's and Royals starting staffs have actually posted very similar numbers this season. K.C.'s rotation had a 3.61 ERA, Baltimore's was 3.60. Both starting rotations had similar stats for strikeouts/nine innings (6.59 for the Royals, 6.91 for the O's), walks/nine innings (2.46/2.96), home runs/nine innings (0.88/1.03) and even ground ball percentage (42.1 percent/40.7 percent).

Even the margin between the two teams' No. 1 starters is slim. Baltimore's Chris Tillman slightly outperformed Shields in ERA in the second half (2.33 to 2.62) and tied him in FIP (3.38). This makes the bullpen matchup between these two clubs that much more interesting.

Through four postseason games, the Royals 'pen has pitched 19 innings, allowing just five earned runs (2.37 ERA), while Orioles relievers have pitched 12 innings and let three runs score (2.25 ERA). Baltimore's guys in the seventh, eighth and ninths innings - Miller, Darren O'Day and Zach Britton (the "MOB Squad," as a friend of mine refers to them) - and Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland in Kansas City might be the best among all 30 clubs in baseball. All six relievers have ERAs of 1.70 or lower, but the Royals' back end of the bullpen is a bit more overpowering with Davis' 13.63 K/9 and Holland's 12.99. Only Miller has a higher strikeout rate, 15.30, but that's over just 20 innings with the O's. O'Day and Britton depend more on getting outs on balls in play; they have a .218 and .215 BABIP against, respectively, which works with Baltimore's talented defense playing behind them.

From a pure talent standpoint, it's tough not to take K.C.'s bullpen over Baltimore's, just simply because of the overpowering stuff they're slinging. While the Royals pitchers in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings allowed just three home runs in the regular season (all three of which were surrendered by Holland) the O's have been a bit more prone to giving up the longball with 11 against Miller, O'Day and Britton. None of the six relievers have allowed opponents to hit higher than .211, with Miller holding opponents to a .119 batting average. One slight advantage that the MOB Squad has on the Royals 'pen is the walk rate. Britton's 2.71 BB/9 is the highest among the three Orioles relievers, but lower than that of Herrera (3.34), Davis (2.88) and Holland (2.89).

If both teams had exactly the same guys, the advantage would have to be in the Orioles' favor, however. Buck Showalter's management of the bullpen in the Division Series was nothing short of masterful. In Game 1, we saw him go to Miller early, after a five-inning start from Tillman. Despite the fact that Miller hadn't gone more than 1 1/3 innings since Aug. 28, Showalter struck with him for 1 2/3 innings, before turning to O'Day to record the final out in the seventh and two in the eighth. In a one-run game, we then saw Buck bring in Britton early to record the final out of the eighth against Victor Martinez. After the Orioles offense scored eight runs in the bottom half of the inning, Showalter went to Tommy Hunter to finish the game, which allowed Britton to rest and return for Game 2.

The next game proved to be just as difficult, with Showalter removing Wei-Yin Chen after 3 2/3 innings and five runs surrendered. Kevin Gausman replaced Chen and matched his innings total, while Brad Brach came in during the eighth and the rested Britton in the ninth. Though decision-making in Game 3 was a bit easier, with Bud Norris 6 1/3-inning start, the bullpen use from the previous two games allowed for that flexibility.

In years past, we looked forward to starting pitching matchups in October, but the baseball world will now eagerly await the final three or four innings of this year's American League Championship Series. The matchup against the Royals won't be easy, but it's tough not to - as Showalter would say - like our guys.

Zach Wilt blogs about the Orioles at Baltimore Sports Report. Follow him on Twitter: @zamwi. His views appear here as part of's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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