MLB.com Columnist

Mike Petriello

O's vs. Blue Jays: A position-by-position WC look

Toronto won 10 of 19 regular-season matchups in 2016

O's vs. Blue Jays: A position-by-position WC look

Nineteen head-to-head meetings this year weren't quite enough, apparently. Tonight, Toronto and Baltimore meet north of the border for the winner-take-all American League Wild Card Game (8 ET, TBS/Sportsnet in English or RDS in French). The clubs finished the year with identical 89-73 records; the season series was basically an even split too; The Blue Jays went 10-9 against the Orioles, with that slightest of edges giving them home field for tonight's elimination game.

Still, these are two very different rosters. Baltimore hit the most home runs in baseball and has a great bullpen, but its rotation is weak. Toronto has had a surprisingly strong group of starters and good power of its own, but its bullpen has been an issue for much of the year -- worse now that Joaquin Benoit is out with an injured calf.

In an elimination tilt, however, the normal rules of the game change. Rotation depth doesn't matter. Getting the starter out before he can tire does. Let's go position by position to see who has the edge.

Catcher
Matt Wieters (84 Weighted Runs Created Plus, where 100 is league average) is having one of the worst seasons of his career, but Russell Martin (99 wRC+) hasn't really stood out, either. Martin, at least, has turned a corner, putting together a very good second half (122 wRC+) after a brutal first half (77 wRC+). Yes, that's true despite an identical batting average in each half, because getting on base and hitting for power matters a lot.
Advantage: Blue Jays

Keys to the Orioles and Jays

First base
Edwin Encarnacion has taken over the primary first-base job from Justin Smoak, and he's put up a typically productive (and underrated season), with 42 homers and a 134 wRC+, which is the seventh best of any qualified first baseman. It might come as a surprise to O's fans disappointed in Chris Davis, but Davis has actually had an above-average hitting season, putting up a 111 wRC+ along with his 38 homers. It's just not what they expected for the first year of his contract, and it's not better than Encarnacion.
Advantage: Blue Jays

Statcast: Encarnacion's 40th HR

Second base
Jonathan Schoop has started every game for the Orioles, and he put up what's quickly becoming his typical season: good power (25 homers), little plate discipline (second-highest swing percentage in baseball). Devon Travis missed nearly a full calendar year due to a left shoulder injury, and he tweaked it again brawling with the Yankees, but he's been very productive in the second half, hitting .321/.348/.462 (117 wRC+). Assuming he's fine, then he earns the slight edge because he had a 34-point advantage on Schoop in OBP while nearly matching him in slugging.
Small advantage: Blue Jays

Travis' sliding catch

Shortstop
Last year, J.J. Hardy played through a torn labrum in his shoulder and was one of the weakest hitters in baseball; this year, despite a foot injury that cost him nearly two months, he bounced back somewhat with a .270/.311/.409 (89 wRC+) line that's almost identical to his career averages. He remains a good defensive shortstop, as does Toronto's Troy Tulowitzki, who was more good than great with the bat this year. With a career-low .318 OBP this season, Tulo has been merely a league-average hitter over the past two seasons.
Advantage: Blue Jays

Third base
Josh Donaldson is a very good defensive third baseman who mashes, with 78 homers over the past two years. Manny Machado is an elite defensive third baseman who mashes, with 72 homers over the past two years. There's really not a right or wrong answer here, because they're both stars who may finish in the top five in AL MVP Award voting, but we'll give Donaldson the very small edge because he topped Machado by nearly 60 points in OBP.
Small advantage: Blue Jays

Statcast: Donaldson's 453-ft HR

Left field
Both teams have platoon situations in left, and with two right-handers pitching it will likely be Hyun Soo Kim for Baltimore and Ezequiel Carrera or Michael Saunders for Toronto. Kim has mashed righties (.304/.382/.422, 120 wRC+ against RHP) and was hitless against lefties in 22 plate appearances. Carrera is in there more for his defense and Saunders saw his All-Star season take a major turn for the worse after the break (.178/.282/.357, 69 wRC+).
Advantage: Orioles

Statcast: Kim's go-ahead HR

Center field
Do you prefer the outstandingly elite defense of Kevin Pillar, who finished second only to Kevin Kiermaier in Defensive Runs Saved among center fielders? Or do you prefer the consistent power of Adam Jones, who just put up his sixth straight season of 25-plus homers? Pillar's offense took a big step back (.267/.303/.375, 80 wRC+), but Jones always ranks poorly in defensive metrics, potentially due to his shallow positioning. 
Advantage: Push

Right field
We all know Mark Trumbo's story, and it's huge power -- he led baseball with 47 homers, and he's third only to Miguel Cabrera and Nelson Cruz in the new Statcast™ metric "Barrels." He's a below-average defensive outfielder, but he still gets the edge here because Jose Bautista's injury-plagued year has led to a line that's still good by most standards (.233/.365/.452, 121 wRC+), yet his worst since his first full season with the Blue Jays back in 2009. 
Advantage: Orioles

Statcast: Trumbo's 442-ft homer

Designated hitter
Toronto may start Bautista here with Saunders in right, but Saunders was at DH when Toronto faced Orioles starter Chris Tillman last week. Saunders made the All-Star team, but his season has fallen off considerably, hitting just .178/.282/.357 (69 wRC+) since the break. Meanwhile, Baltimore's Pedro Alvarez crushes right-handed pitching, with 21 of his 22 homers this year coming against them. He also had the third-best exit velocity in the Majors in the second half against right-handers (95.5 mph), behind only Cruz (96.8 mph) and Cabrera (96.6).
Small advantage: Orioles

Statcast: Alvarez's 20th homer

Bench
Depending on how the Toronto lineup is assembled, a potential bench of Dioner Navarro, Smoak, Darwin Barney, Melvin Upton Jr. and Carrera offers some defensive flexibility but very little in the way of offense. For Baltimore, this is where the loss of Steve Pearce really hurts, because Caleb Joseph, Ryan Flaherty, Nolan Reimold and Michael Bourn aren't scaring anyone, either. This isn't a strength for either side, but Baltimore gets the nod here in part because of how much Upton and Saunders have struggled.
Small advantage: Orioles

Starting pitcher
Neither club has a bona fide ace, and the matchup of Tillman (4.45 second-half ERA, velocity drop around a DL trip for a sore shoulder) and the somewhat disappointing Marcus Stroman isn't exactly Thor vs. Bumgarner. Stroman led all qualified starters with a 60 percent ground-ball rate, and he's seemingly here to try to neutralize the O's home run hitters. Neither pitcher should have a long leash.
Small advantage: Blue Jays

Stroman on starting WC Game

Closer
We all have our opinions on whether a relief pitcher can really offer enough value over limited innings to win the Cy Young Award, but there is absolutely no doubt that Zach Britton, 47-for-47 in save opportunities, is one of the truly elite closers in baseball. He has the two highest ground-ball rate seasons on record (since 2002) and he piles up the strikeouts, too. Toronto's 21-year-old closer Roberto Osuna has been great too (82 strikeouts in 73 innings) but he's allowed multiple runs in three of his past eight outings, and either way, he isn't Britton. This one isn't close.
Big advantage: Orioles

Britton on clinching Wild Card

Relief pitchers
This is all hands on deck, so you could potentially see starters like Francisco Liriano or Dylan Bundy enter in relief. Aside from that possibility, this is an Orioles team that has thrived with a great bullpen, and that's not just about Britton. Brad Brach hasn't been nearly as good in the second half as he was in the first, but righties still only hit .123 against him, and Darren O'Day, Mychal Givens, Oliver Drake and Donnie Hart make for a formidable group that manager Buck Showalter will use early and often. While Brett Cecil was outstanding late, Jason Grilli and Joe Biagini fell apart in September, making the absence of Benoit loom large for the Blue Jays.
Big advantage: Orioles

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.