Oh. Joe Saunders.
I guess there are other ways to react. It's the first time since 1997 that the Orioles have been in the postseason. Do-or-die game. Joe Saunders. In Ballpark. Against the Rangers. That might merit more than an "Oh." That might merit ampersands, dollar signs, and asterisks. Like you just had an anvil dropped on your foot in a cartoon.
But I'm here to make you feel better, gentle Orioles partisan, so here are some reasons to not be that worried about Joe Saunders. Please don't think that I came up with the premise for this article first and then scrambled to fill it with half-baked ideas. Because that is totally absurd. Ha ha ha. Ha ha. Ha. Ahem.
Joe Saunders isn't that bad
Let's get that out of the way early. Joe Saunders is a capable pitcher. His career ERA+ is 103. His ERA+ in 2012 was … 103. That's quite acceptable for a starting pitcher. In fact, during last year's division series, Roy Oswalt, Randy Wolf, and Joe Saunders all started on the same day. Each of them had a 3.69 ERA in 2011, yet for some reason Saunders was supposed to be the generic innings-eater, while Oswalt and Wolf were supposed to be perfectly good playoff pitchers.
This tidbit would probably make you feel better if Oswalt and Wolf didn't totally implode this year. But you get what you pay for.
And in that NLDS game, Saunders gave up three runs in three innings.
Okay, this isn't working. But I promise, Saunders isn't that bad. He can actually be quite good at times -- to be a pitcher with a career 103 ERA+, you have to mix in some good starts. Saunders does that. Two of his strongest starts of the season came with Baltimore in September, actually. Sure, those two starts came against the Mariners in Seattle and against a Red Sox lineup that had Danny Valencia hitting fifth, but …
You know what? Let's skip to the next one.
The Rangers don't crush lefties as much as you might think
The Rangers don't have the ludicrous platoon splits you might expect from a team that has Mike Napoli, Nelson Cruz, Ian Kinsler, and Adrian Beltre all hitting right-handed. A good way to look at a team's splits is through sOPS+, which ... here, let Jeff Sackmann explain it:
The "s" stands for "split," so for any split (say, how a lefty batter does against lefty pitching), sOPS+ tells us how a performance is relative to the average for that split. For instance, Fielder's OPS against lefties is 727 -- way below average -- but it's better than how lefties typically do against southpaw pitchers. So his sOPS+ is above average, at 112.
The Rangers sOPS+ suggests they don't hit lefties as well as the rest of the league -- they're below average when you adjust for park, and … wait, I had the pitching splits open. So, what do they do against lefties when they're hitting?
Oh. Well, at least Saunders had reverse platoon splits this year, so it's not going to be a big deal that he's facing a rightie-heavy lineup, right?
Oh. Small samples apply, but, uh, okay, this isn't working, either. Next argument!
It's going to be a bullpen game anyway
Two weeks ago, Dave Cameron wrote about a counterintuitive strategy for the play-in game. He suggests that teams with strong bullpens skip the starter entirely, specifically mentioning the Orioles:
The Orioles bullpen has been dramatically better than their starters, and this should also be a consideration for the A’s, whose best chance to advance deep in the playoffs comes from Brett Anderson getting two starts in the ALDS. By shifting innings to the relievers to start the game, these teams can ensure that their best pitchers pitch the most innings in a win-or-go-home contest while also gathering more information on whether to deploy their best starter or save him for the start of the division series two days later.
The O's won't let Joe Saunders get into trouble over and over again. Remember that part up there where he went just three innings in the NLDS last year? The Orioles will have him on a similar leash. You can pretend they're folioing Cameron's advice, and that they just happen to be starting with good ol' Joe Saunders.
So that should make you feel better.
Or not. Actually, let's do an experiment. Of all the pitchers who have qualified for the ERA title this year, let's try to find the one with whom you'd feel the least comfortable in a one-game playoff against the Rangers in Arlington. He'd need to be left-handed, and he should probably have a penchant for allowing home runs. And because he'd be in Texas, he should be a fly-ball pitcher.
Ready? The answer is Bruce Chen. Which brings me to the next point.
Joe Saunders is not Bruce Chen
That's just science. So when you're worrying about Saunders, remember that he's not the worst possible match-up. That would be Bruce Chen. Followed by Ricky Romero. And after that, well, it could be Joe Saunders. But you know how easy it is to deceive with stats!
And don't forget the final, and best, reason not to be too worried about Saunders.
Baseball doesn't like to do what you expect
There you go. Saunders is capable, and he'll always have a chance to shut down the opposition because of that. Forget all of the worrisome stuff up there; this is the important point. Weirdness can happen over a best-of-seven series, so you'd better believe it can happen over a single game.
Joe Saunders in an elimination game? It's not half as weird as the Orioles in a playoff game, so why start scrutinizing this now? Just let it happen. Be calm. A little terror is okay, but not too much.