The Orioles are making their first playoff appearance since 1997 and, to stack the odds further against them, therefore making a better narrative when the movie comes out, they’ve decided to start Joe Saunders against the Rangers. This is the same Joe Saunders who passed through waivers and was then acquired by the Orioles on August 26th for Matt Lindstrom, a 32-year-old middle reliever and a PTBNL. And now he’s starting the biggest game the Orioles have played since Monica Lewinski jokes were in fashion. (Though really, if the Orioles were given the choice of any of their players, who would they take: Chris Tillman? Miguel Gonzalez? Wei-Yin Chen? The corpse of Mike Mussina?)
While everyone has laughing about Saunders, I thought I would look back at the last five years of game one Division Series starters to see if Saunders was truly such a bad choice. While it’s not a perfect comparison as the Orioles are playing a one game, winner-take-all affair, it’s not like I had a lot of options and so I had to make do. I decided to use bWAR, ERA+, K/9 and BB/9 when making my comparisons.
Here was Saunders 2012 line: 1.3 bWAR, 103 ERA+, 5.8 K/9, 2.0 BB/9
And the most similar players in previous years:
2011: Kyle Lohse: 2.2 bWAR, 109 ERA +, 5.3, K/9, 2.0 BB/9
2010: Edinson Volquez: 0.5 bWAR, 95 ERA+, 9.6 K/9, 5.0 BB/9
2010: Derek Lowe: 1.8 bWAR, 98 ERA+, 6.3 K/9, 2.8 BB/9
2009: No comparable starters.
2008: Javier Vazquez: 2.8 bWAR, 98 ERA+, 8.6 K/9, 2.6 BB/9
2007: No comparable starters.
Clearly, when I went into this, I was hoping that Saunders would stack up much worse simply because that would make for a better piece. But surprisingly, especially for the rep he has, Joe Saunders has been a solid pitcher, consistently posting league average performances every year. It may not sound like a lot, but that’s actually highly valuable. And as we can see, whether because of scheduling quirks or lack of better options, there have been plenty of pitchers in the last five years who are quite similar to Saunders start off the playoffs for their ballclubs.
Unfortunately, the results aren’t nearly as pleasant. Those pitchers combined lines in those four games:
16.2 IP, 23 H, 17 R, 8 BB, 16 K. At least their striking out batters.
While the sample is admittedly small, the results match what we would expect. League average pitchers, when tasked with big games against difficult opponents, tend to suffer. It’s the way of the world for guys without killer fastballs and drop-off-the-table breaking balls.
The season has been magical for the Orioles and who knows, maybe today will be one of those games where Yu Darvish can’t throw the ball over the plate or Matt Wieters uses his hex powers and cries “No more Rangers.” Just be prepared for the very likely outcome that baseball’s grand experiment, while exciting, sends Cinderella teams home after one day.
(Data Source: Baseball-Reference)