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AL Wild Card Series Preview: Mariners (90-72) at Blue Jays (92-70)

In their first playoff appearance in two decades, the Mariners head to Toronto for a best-of-three series.

Boston Red Sox v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images

After two decades of futility, frustration, and plenty of hope deferred, the Seattle Mariners have broken their long standing playoff drought. They’ve come close before, as recently as last year, but this season was different. After their July hot streak and an equally good August, making the postseason seemed like an inevitability, even if there were some frayed nerves in September. Their playoff odds crossed the 90% threshold for good on August 25 and the rest of the regular season was spent jockeying for position in the Wild Card race.

So here we are in unfamiliar territory. We’ve gone through some tough times together and now we get to experience the joys and heartbreak of baseball in a whole new way. The playoff chase during the regular season is one thing; postseason baseball is a completely different animal. And these Mariners are right here with us in that unknown space. To be sure, there are players on the team who have played in big games before, some even have limited major league playoff experience under their belt already. But this is different. The burden and joy of being the team to break the drought brings with it a new kind of apprehension. Does this team belong here? Are they good enough? So here we are in unfamiliar territory. Who knows what October baseball will bring, but we’ll be along for the ride. –JM

At a Glance

Mariners Blue Jays
Mariners Blue Jays
Game 1 Friday, October 7 | 1:00 pm
RHP Luis Castillo RHP Alek Manoah
51% 49%
Game 2 Saturday, October 8 | 1:00 pm
LHP Robbie Ray RHP Kevin Gausman
41% 59%
Game 3* Sunday, October 9 | 11:00 am
RHP Logan Gilbert RHP Ross Stripling
49% 51%
*If necessary | Game odds courtesy of FanGraphs

Team Overview: Mariners vs. Blue Jays

Overview Blue Jays Mariners Edge
Overview Blue Jays Mariners Edge
Batting (wRC+) 118 (1st in AL) 107 (4th in AL) Blue Jays
Fielding (OAA) 5 (6th) 4 (8th) Blue Jays
Starting Pitching (FIP-) 92 (3rd) 106 (8th) Blue Jays
Bullpen (FIP-) 100 (10th) 95 (7th) Mariners

With a larger playoff field this year, up two teams from the previous format, the Wild Card round is now a three-game series played entirely at the higher seed’s home ballpark. For the Mariners, that means they’ll be traveling “north” to Toronto.

The Blue Jays enter the playoffs as a Wild Card team for the second time in three years. During the shortened 2020 season, Toronto made the super-expanded 16-team playoffs, but missed the playoffs last year; their 91 wins was only good enough for fourth place in the AL East. It’s been six years since the Blue Jays made it past the Wild Card round of the postseason: they lost in the Championship Series in both 2015 and 2016, and the two World Series victories in the team’s history took place in 1992 and 1993.

This year, Toronto’s playoff odds have never dipped below 79.2. That nadir took place on July 11, courtesy of your Seattle Mariners:

After the Blue Jays took two of three from the M’s at the Rogers Centre in May, Seattle swept Toronto triumphantly July 7th-10th in Seattle. Not only did that series galvanize M’s fans in front of the crowds of northerly neighbors who’d been unable to join us at T-Mobile Park the previous two seasons, and not only did it gift Toronto with their lowest playoff odds of the year, it epitomized the downturn in play for the Blue Jays that led the team to fire manager Charlie Montoyo later in July. Toronto’s interim manager, John Schneider, has a long history with the team and is speculated a forerunner to continue as Toronto’s manager in 2023. The Phillies join the Blue Jays as the only two 2022 playoff teams to have fired their managers this year.

Yes, pundits are giving Toronto the edge in this series. The Blue Jays are a formidable team, with a formidable lineup and formidable pitching. This series will not be a walk in the park for our Mariners, but the playoffs are fickle and injury question marks hang over both teams’ heads. The only way out is through; Jake and I will see you on the other side. –LFS

Blue Jays Lineup

Player Position Bats PA K% BB% ISO wRC+ BsR
Player Position Bats PA K% BB% ISO wRC+ BsR
George Springer CF R 583 17.2% 9.3% 0.205 132
Bo Bichette SS R 697 22.2% 5.9% 0.179 129
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 1B R 706 16.4% 8.2% 0.205 132
Alejandro Kirk C R 541 10.7% 11.6% 0.130 129
Teoscar Hernández RF R 535 28.4% 6.4% 0.224 129
Matt Chapman 3B R 621 27.4% 11.0% 0.204 117
Raimel Tapia LF L 433 18.7% 3.7% 0.114 90
Danny Jansen DH R 248 17.7% 10.1% 0.256 140
Whit Merrifield 2B R 550 15.5% 6.9% 0.125 88

Toronto has a strong-hitting lineup, from team fWAR leader (with 4.5) and AL hits leader (with 189) shortstop Bo Bichette to five other players likely on the series roster with wRC+ over 125. Those are catchers Alejandro Kirk (129) and Danny Jansen (140 with 248 plate appearances), center fielder George Springer (132), first baseman Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., and right fielder Teoscar Hernandez. Bichette and Whit Merrifield have been particularly hot over the last month, but there are strengths up and down the lineup. Toronto’s offensive depth at catcher is notable, and is likely where their DH will come from in the first game of this series. Rounding out Toronto’s lineup is Matt “Oakland Matt” Chapman at third base, whose 4.1 fWAR demonstrates his solid value to the team, despite not reaching the level of offensive prowess he showed in his (memorable to M’s fans) 2018-19 seasons with the Athletics.

The biggest question marks in the Blue Jays lineup are left fielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and infielder Santiago Espinal. Both have been rehabbing from injury this last week (a left hamstring strain for Gurriel dating back to September 7 and a left oblique strain for Espinal dating to September 21), and their spot on the Wild Card series roster remained in question the night before the series began. It appears that the Blue Jays are making a last minute decision regarding both players’ readiness; the decision is difficult in a three-game playoff series, where availability to pinch hit may not justify a roster spot. Merrifield has stepped up brilliantly in Espinal’s absence, while Raimel Tapia is a more significant step down from Gurriel. –LFS

Probable Pitching Matchups

Updated Stuff+ Explainer

Game 1

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Toronto Blue Jays John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

RHP Alek Manoah

196 2/3 22.9% 6.5% 7.1% 37.5% 2.24 3.34
Pitch Frequency Velocity Spin Rate Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Four-seam 35.9% 93.9 2369 95 123 93
Sinker 25.8% 93.3 2194 98 105 95
Changeup 11.2% 86.5 1980 76 71 147
Slider 27.1% 81.5 2216 86 91 95

The Blue Jays will call on Alek Manoah to start the first game of the series. His meteoric rise through Toronto’s organization culminated with his major league debut last year, just two years after he was drafted in the first round — and due to the canceled minor league season in 2020, he threw just nine career minor league starts before getting his call up. He possesses a stellar slider, two hard fastballs, and changeup that’s improved by leaps and bounds during his short professional career. The key to his success is the combination of his four-seamer and his sinker. Those two fastballs tunnel off each other extremely well leading to tons of weak contact. When he needs a swing and a miss, he can turn to his secondary offerings, but he’s just as content inducing a weak fly out to keep his pitch count in check.

Back on July 9, Manoah carved through the Mariners lineup for six innings until Carlos Santana tagged him for a decisive two-run home run in the bottom of the seventh. He allowed just four runs across his final six starts in September and will present a significant challenge for Seattle.

RHP Luis Castillo

150 1/3 27.2% 7.3% 10.0% 46.9% 2.99 3.07
Pitch Frequency Velocity Spin Rate Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Four-seam 32.9% 97.1 2354 138 159 103
Sinker 23.8% 96.9 2163 144 80 89
Changeup 22.3% 88.4 1937 128 86 93
Slider 21.1% 86.5 2422 100 105 112

Opposing Manoah will be the Mariners big midseason acquisition, Luis Castillo. He’s pitched exactly as advertised since coming over from the Reds, posting an excellent 3.17 ERA and a 2.91 FIP in 11 starts. Two of his three final starts of the year were clunkers, but he’s shown an ability to pitch well in big games in a Mariner uniform — he allowed a combined four runs in five starts against the Yankees, Guardians, and Padres down the stretch. –JM

Game 2

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Philadelphia Phillies Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

RHP Kevin Gausman

174 2/3 28.3% 3.9% 8.5% 39.2% 3.35 2.38
Pitch Frequency Velocity Spin Rate Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Four-seam 48.8% 95.0 2265 159 77 82
Splitter 34.9% 85.2 1571 130 146 95
Slider 14.5% 84.4 2198 84 105 78

The Blue Jays haven’t formally announced a starter for Game 2 but it will likely be Kevin Gausman. If Toronto wins Game 1, there’s a possibility Ross Stripling will slide into Game 2 so they’d be able to save Gausman for the decisive Game 3 or the beginning of the Division Series. That might be overthinking things and I expect Gausman to toe the rubber on Saturday afternoon.

Gausman was the AL leader in FIP this year as he continued to build off the success he had found in San Francisco over the previous two seasons. An elite 7.32 strikeout-to-walk ratio forms the basis of his excellent peripherals but he did struggle to really prevent runs from scoring. The difference between his ERA and FIP was nearly a full run and the highest in the majors and it all boils down to the contact he allowed. Despite running a solid swinging strike rate, when batters made contact with his pitches, they really punished them. It didn’t help that he also ran a league high BABIP either. With a high quality but limited repertoire, batters have an easier time keying in on a particular pitch type, which makes game planning against him pretty easy.

For the Mariners, it was honing in on his fastball when they faced him on May 18. He only allowed two runs to score but Seattle gathered seven hits off him while only striking out three times. More recently, Gausman had to leave his final start of the season after three innings with a cut on a finger on his throwing hand. He’s thrown a bullpen session since then and appears to be healed enough to make a start during this opening round of the playoffs.

LHP Robbie Ray

189 27.4% 8.0% 15.5% 39.2% 3.71 4.16
Pitch Frequency Velocity Spin Rate Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Four-seam 39.4% 93.4 2283 115 122 104
Sinker 20.8% 93.3 2190 82 147 77
Curveball 1.9% 79.7 2106 61
Slider 37.2% 87.2 2190 105 113 94

The Mariners will counter with Robbie Ray in Game 2. The Blue Jays aren’t the best matchup for him with their right-handed heavy lineup, but as a veteran leader in the clubhouse and the reigning Cy Young winner, there’s no way the Mariners would skip him in their first playoff series. There have been ups and downs during Ray’s first season in Seattle but his overall numbers look pretty good, even if they’re not nearly up to the level he posted last year. He’s shown flashes of dominance at times and will need to be precise with his command on Saturday; the Blue Jays do not strike out often and rarely go fishing out of the zone. –JM

Game 3

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

RHP Ross Stripling

134 1/3 20.7% 3.7% 7.7% 43.8% 3.01 3.11
Pitch Frequency Velocity Spin Rate Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Four-seam 33.4% 91.9 2125 79 95 90
Sinker 7.8% 89.9 2004 62 81 161
Changeup 27.3% 82.6 1680 121 111 114
Curveball 9.6% 76.1 2377 95 55 112
Slider 21.9% 87.1 2301 136 50 109

If the series requires three games, the Blue Jays will likely start Ross Stripling over José Berríos. The latter has struggled all season long while the former has been a stabilizing presence in Toronto’s rotation after their two big name starters. Stripling relies on a solid five-pitch repertoire and excellent command to keep batters off-balance. The result is a decent strikeout rate, a good groundball rate, and an elite walk rate. Even though he’s been healthy all season long and he possesses a deep arsenal, the Blue Jays have been hesitant to let him pitch deep into games this year. He hasn’t thrown more than 100 in any of his appearances this year and pitched into the seventh inning just three times.

Stripling made two appearances out of the bullpen against the Mariners in May, allowing a run in each of them. He also made a start during their series in July and allowed two runs on seven hits in five innings, striking out six.

RHP Logan Gilbert

185 2/3 22.7% 6.4% 9.2% 36.7% 3.20 3.45
Pitch Frequency Velocity Spin Rate Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Four-seam 53.9% 96.1 2135 157 111 92
Changeup 8.0% 86.2 1752 114 104 55
Curveball 12.5% 80.8 2117 99 73 66
Slider 24.2% 86.9 2289 125 72 116

The Mariners haven’t announced a starter for the potential final game of this series but it would likely be Logan Gilbert on the mound if it came down to it. George Kirby would be the other option but I think the Mariners are concerned about his workload and want to limit his exposure this October if possible. The latter followed up his promising rookie campaign with a solid sophomore effort. Gilbert is still working on finding a consistent secondary offering, but his elite fastball gives him a firm foundation to build from. He threw one of the best starts of his young career in his final outing of the season, the same game the Mariners clinched their playoff berth. –JM