The Newly Found Stars of the ALDS

The Orioles won 96 games and the Tigers won 90, but by any real standard they’re close to equals in a short series. Yet the overall equivalence belies how different the clubs really are. One specializes in hitting and starting pitching while the other stands out defensively and in the bullpen. The most interesting similarity, however, is how they both struck gold this spring.

The narrative of the weekend is probably going to revolve around the Tigers starters and the Orioles bullpen and how the teams do run prevention in totally different ways, but perhaps the story worth telling is the one about how both teams got massive production from the scrap heap in almost exactly the same way.

The story of the series isn’t David Price or Zach Britton, it’s J.D. Martinez and Steve Pearce.

At the plate, you could probably make the case they had almost identical seasons. Nothing is perfect, of course, but Martinez and Pearce both got on base (.358 and .373 OBP) and hit for tons of power (.553 and .556 SLG) at similar clips. When you package it all together and adjust for their home park, Martinez compiled a 153 wRC+ and Pearce a 161 wRC+ in 480 and 383 plate appearances, respectively.

It’s probably proper to say that Pearce was a little better on a per at bat basis while Martinez’s extra 100 PA closed the gap to the degree that they were equally valuable to their team’s at the plate and both hit just over 20 dingers to boot.

Pearce was a few runs better on the bases and graded out well at 1B and in the outfielder corners while Martinez was just okay in the corners himself. The ten to fifteen runs of fielding and base running difference give Pearce about an extra win of value over Martinez, but both were incredible finds.

They were projected for wOBAs in the lower .300 to .330 range, with Pearce on the high end and Martinez on the low end. Martinez finished at .391 and Pearce at .404.

Martinez’s leap forward was all about power. He posted a below average 6.3% walk rate and higher than average 26.3% strikeout rate, but his .238 ISO was a massive improvement over his career marks prior. His swing adjustments have been well-documented and he recently told MLB Network that it started when he noticed that his swing didn’t look like the swings he saw great hitters taking.

So Martinez started hitting everything much harder than he ever had before and while it probably won’t continue at this pace forever, it also wasn’t a three week flash in the pan. The Astros gave up on Martinez to clear room on their roster and the Tigers were huge beneficiaries.

Pearce, on the other hand, has been with five organizations since 2011 and was released by these very same Orioles this Spring. They signed him back a couple days later after he rejected a claim by the Blue Jays and Chris Davis got hurt. The rest is history.

Pearce had shown good plate discipline in various MLB stints prior to 2014 so the walk rate and on-base percentage weren’t shocking, but like Martinez, the power exploded. His ISO spiked to .263 after never topping .180 even in small samples of playing time. Sure the good defense is new, but most of the value is coming from the incredible pop.

If you’re thinking about the future, Martinez’s new power seems to track better with the underlying quality of contact than Pearce’s does, but Pearce has much better discipline which means all of his value isn’t tied up in his ability to hit the snot out of the ball. Neither is likely to be this good next season, but both figure to be much better than we thought they were six months ago.

Typically, we give credit to organizations that find these diamonds in the rough, but a good amount of luck goes into it as well. The Tigers liked Martinez more than other clubs, but the Tigers certainly didn’t think Martinez was going to his like Miguel Cabrera. The same for the O’s and Pearce. A lot of it was luck, but some of it was a good eye for potential.

Which is a pretty decent metaphor for playoff baseball. Most of what happens during the next few weeks will be about randomness and chaos and it will be hard to tell what information is meaningful and what isn’t: just like the seasons Martinez and Pearce just had.

Neither club would be where they are without their personified pile of luck, but that’s kind of the whole point. To have a special season, you need to get lucky a few different times and this ALDS matchup will feature the two clubs that found the biggest bargain bin values of the year.

There’s really no predicting the postseason. It’s going to come down to which team winds up with the most Martinezes or Pearces at just the right time. It might be David Lough or Tyler Collins. There’s no way to know, which is what makes it so much fun. Both teams got here in part because of a great turn of fortune and the winner will likely be determined by who gets the next one.



Neil Weinberg is a Senior Analyst for TigsTown. He is also the Founder of New English D, a contributor to Gammons Daily, the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score, and the Site Educator at FanGraphs. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44

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