The players who will be extra crucial to Blue Jays' chances in wild-card series

Some of the team's players will be more important to Toronto's success than they usually are in a condensed series versus the Twins.

The players who will be extra crucial to Blue Jays' chances in wild-card series

When the Toronto Blue Jays open their wild-card series with the Minnesota Twins on Tuesday, they will be engaging in an absurd exercise.

Deciding on a superior baseball team based on two or three games is nonsensical in a sport where 162 contests can fail to differentiate one squad from another.

Over the course of a full season, it would be fair to say a Blue Jays team that earned two more wins than the Twins in a far tougher division is the better club. That's not what we'll be determining this week, though. Instead, we'll learn which of the two teams can better navigate a condensed series.

Deciding the outcome of that best-of-three battle won't necessarily come down to who has the best players, but rather which team has the players best equipped to win the specific matchup in front of them.

Toronto's stars like Bo Bichette, George Springer, Kevin Gausman and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. are sure to have something to say about the outcome of this series, but the players listed below will be more important to the Blue Jays' chances than usual.

Daulton Varsho

Varsho's 2023 regular season has not gone as planned for the outfielder, but he'll have a chance to re-write his story in the playoffs. After a rough start to the year, the 27-year-old has produced a workmanlike 100 wRC+ in the second half, with that number jumping to 110 since the beginning of August.

That's far from superstar production, but it shows he's finding his comfort zone at the dish, and there are a couple of reasons to be believe he could be critical to the outcome of this series.

One is that like many Blue Jays this year Rogers Centre did not agree with Varsho during the regular season, and a series on the road might do him some good. The outfielder produced a solid .254/.313/.448 in away games while hitting just .185/.255/.327 in Toronto.

Daulton Varsho has come on recently for the Blue Jays. (Cole Burston/Getty Images)
Daulton Varsho has come on recently for the Blue Jays. (Cole Burston/Getty Images)

Another boon for Varsho is that Minnesota's Game 1 starter Pablo López has prominent handedness splits. Lefty bats slashed a solid .271/.328/.426 against him this year, while righties have struggled to a .205/.254/342 line. Left-handed hitters like Varsho should get the best offensive opportunities in the opening game of the series.

The outfielder will also get plenty of chances to make a mark in the field considering Minnesota had the fourth-lowest groundball rate in majors this year (49.9%). Expect Varsho to show his defensive skills a few times against the Twins.

Alejandro Kirk

With Danny Jansen out with a finger injury Kirk is an indispensable player for Toronto. The gap between the 2022 all-star and backup Taylor Heinemann — who is a replacement-level journeyman — is massive.

Toronto would be able to stomach losing almost any other position player more than Kirk because the positional versatility of the roster allows them to move a competent bench player in. With the catcher spot there are no options beyond Heinemann, which is a daunting prospect.

Kirk isn't just important to this series because an injury to him would spell disaster. His offensive profile will also put him in the spotlight against the Twins.

Minnesota struck out opponents at the highest rate in the majors during the regular season (25.9%), and Kirk runs the lowest strikeout percentage of any Blue Jays regular (10.7%). There may be times in the series when Toronto struggles to put the ball in play.

Kirk is one of the few players they can rely on to avoid punchouts.

Kevin Kiermaier

Kiermaier appears on the list for similar reasons to Varsho. His elite outfield defence will come in handy against a club that puts the ball in the air, and his left-handed bat could be handy against López.

Unlike Varsho, he has some specific matchup data on his side — specifically with Sonny Gray, the pitcher the Blue Jays will see in Game 2.

As a whole, current Blue Jays have hit just .182 and slugged .333 against Gray in 112 plate appearances, but Kiermaier has had success. In 22 trips to the plate against the right-hander, Kiermaier has hit .238 and slugged .571.

The centre fielder has two home runs against the starter, making him one of just seven pitchers he has multiple homers off of in his career.

While it's tough to trust this small-sample-size data to be meaningful, it's interesting in the context of a lineup that has struggled against Gray. Defence is always more likely to be the driving force of Kiermaier's contribution — but he'll be worth watching at the plate against one starter that struggles against lefty bats, and another that's had a hard time handling him.

Tim Mayza

As the Blue Jays' most trusted bullpen southpaw, Mayza is precisely the type of player likely to make a significant difference in the postseason. That's especially true against a team like the Twins that will have at least five left-handed hitters on its wild-card roster.

Minnesota's quintet of lefty bats — with the exception of Max Kepler — have been putrid against southpaws, providing Mayza with plenty of juicy matchups.

Via FanGraphs
Via FanGraphs

Some of those guys are sheltered from lefties whenever possible, but Mayza could either knock them out of the game or put them in a disadvantageous position in late-inning spots.

Overall, the Twins had the fifth-best wRC+ in the majors against right-handed pitching during the regular season (111), while ranking 15th against southpaws (100).

Jordan Hicks

Hicks finds his way onto this list because he has a couple of matchup advantages against the Twins.

The first is a lack of familiarity. The fireballer isn't a comfortable at-bat at the best of times, and hitters on the Twins roster have a collective eight plate appearances against Hicks.

Perhaps more importantly, Minnesota's lineup has much preferred starters who favour four-seamers to sinkerballers in 2022.

According to Statcast's run values, Minnesota's hitters have been worth +42.4 runs against four-seamers (4th in the majors) and -7.7 runs against sinkers (15th in MLB). Hicks throws his high-velocity sinker 64.4% of the time.

Hicks will not only pitch crucial innings against the Twins, he's also a strong Plan B if Jordan Romano struggles the way he did in two of his last three outings. The former St. Louis Cardinal had a poor final appearance, but prior to Saturday he hadn't allowed an earned run in his last 13 trips to the mound.