I’m not a fan of the second Wild Card. I dislike the feeling of artificial drama, and for a long season of baseball games to come down to one arbitrary contest feels wrong to me. That said, I must give credit to the system this season, because it has given us one Hell of a matchup Tuesday night in Kansas City. The Oakland Athletics would, under the old MLB playoff format, be heading home right now, bitter tastes on every tongue, a really hideous collapse haunting their dreams until the spring. The Kansas City Royals would be preparing for their first playoff appearance in 29 years with a bit less trepidation, and a bit less adrenaline flowing.
This season, because of how the two teams who will play for the last full membership in the AL postseason got to this point, the Wild Card game is going to be a blast. It’s James Shields and Jon Lester, two long-time big-game titans of the mighty AL East, each now pitching for the little guy, with a shared sense of cataclysm hanging between them. You couldn’t ask for more.
What’s at Stake
For the Athletics: This was to be the coronation for Billy Beane, the year Moneyball (having already gone Hollywood) went viral. Oakland dominated in the first half, clearly the best team in baseball. There was nothing they didn’t do well, and what they did best, they did better than anyone. Two-time defending AL West champions, they seemed destined to cruise to the third title in a way they hadn’t been able to do the first couple times.
With their history of postseason missteps, though, the club didn’t feel that they could simply go into October as assembled. They had entered the last two tournaments with flat rotations rounding out well-balanced rosters, and had been beaten by the star-studded, artless Detroit Tigers each time. So Beane went out and added Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel and Jon Lester to the starting staff. The flat rotation was no more. The A’s had to cough up Yoenis Cespedes in order to land Lester, changing their team identity somewhat, but just at that moment, it seemed well worth it.
Now, in hindsight, it looks like a huge risk. The A’s could end up paying more for this team, in terms of money and in terms of the talent they gave up to acquire several of the pertinent players, than they have ever paid before, and it might not even result in a full-strength playoff appearance. Lester is gone after this season. So is Hammel, and so (more likely than not) is starting shortstop Jed Lowrie. Josh Donaldson has been a marvelous story for Oakland, a near MVP candidate his first two full seasons, but he’s also going to be 29 (already! He was a 27-year-old rookie!) next season. Coco Crisp has a contract with the team that seems like it will carry him to retirement. They emptied the farm system to add Samardzija and Hammel, especially. Winning this year matters, I’m saying, because winning will get harder for this team over the next few.
There’s this, too: Like it or not, the way the A’s backed into this playoff appearance makes the outcome of this game extra important. Win, and at least you made the playoffs. It was a rough second half, and maybe you even get bounced in the ALDS again, but you weathered the storm and got to celebrate on the field a couple of times.
Lose, though, and the collapse becomes the story of the season. You only got halfway to the playoffs, really, and ran out of steam so badly that you couldn’t even avail yourself of the system’s safety valve.
The 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers had a massive lead in August, gave it away, then lost the tiebreaker series for the NL pennant to the New York Giants. It’s one of the most infamous collapses ever, punctuated by perhaps the most famous home runs ever (Bobby Thomson’s, for New York), but if the Dodgers win that series and go on to the World Series, no one would remember the dozen games they gave away in the standings over the final seven weeks of the season.That would just be another in a long line of great Dodgers teams from that era, with a more colorful story to tell than most of the others.
More recently, the 2012 Texas Rangers had a miserable September, punctuated by a loss to the A’s on the final day of the regular season that doomed them to the Wild Card game. We wouldn’t look with disdain on that team if they had beaten Baltimore in the Wild Card game itself, or at least, we would remember the collapse more charitably. Because they lost that game, though, the Rangers will be remembered as the choke artists who fell off the high wire, then tore right through the net below. You don’t want to be that team.
For the Royals: The Royals need the validation of a victory every bit as much as the A’s. While there’s a certain euphoria surrounding the team right now, history will remember this team as unremarkable if they don’t finish the job by reaching the ALDS. No Royals team has gotten even this far (that is, past game 162) since 1985, but then, it was a lot harder to get this far back then.
This team is here because it played a bit over its head (89 wins, against a Pythagorean record of 84-78) and had the Wild Card on which to lean. There’s nothing illegitimate about their achievement, but if this is as far as they get, the celebration of those drought-busting 2014 Royals at Kauffman Stadium next spring is going to feel terribly hollow. This season is, in the team’s eyes, their bold step forward into the sunshine, after 30 years in cold shadow. In order to get the rest of the baseball world to see them that way, though, they need to have the dogpile on the mound in their home whites. They need to play a series against the best team in the American League, show they can hold their own and let the national audience get a look at the likes of Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura.
This is an exciting team, but it’s not quite the young and dynamic one Royals fans probably envisioned when they daydreamed about breaking the playoff fast a few years ago. The studs who made up maybe the greatest farm system ever have turned into serviceable, unspectacular regulars. They’ll have more shots at division titles, but I don’t see any season in the short- to mid-term in which they’ll be favorites. This is their big chance to make a cultural change, and might be the statement they need to start fishing in deeper waters during free agency. A loss would mean a whole bunch of fans packed into the park going home disappointed, and the glow of having reached the playoffs fading away long before it gets the chance to warm anyone’s heart over the cold winter.
How They Got Here
Oakland Athletics: I covered some of this above, but here, I want to get into exactly how their season unfolded, how they play, what their strengths and weaknesses are.
For the A’s, the watchword has been depth. For much of the season, they had as many as 13 players worthy of full-time duty rotating through their nine lineup spots. I count 16 position players who could (and probably should) be on the roster Tuesday. They break down thusly:
Oakland Athletics, Batters by Handedness
Before John Jaso, Craig Gentry and Kyle Blanks got hurt, and before Cespedes was sent to Boston for Lester, and before Lowrie, Donaldson and Moss began battling injuries that have hampered them even as they have continued playing, this team was an offensive juggernaut.
Some of that was because players were playing over their heads, and those guys came crashing down to Earth in the second half. Some of it was that guys with long injury histories (Lowrie, Jaso, Crisp) suddenly stayed healthy for a solid stretch; those guys went back to their former, fragile form in the second half.
All that said, did the A’s completely fall apart in the second half? Did their offense suddenly imitate that of the San Diego Padres? Not really.
2014 Oakland Athletics, By Half
The most glaring difference here is the power drop, which one could fairly ascribe to the choice to trade Cespedes, but which really boils down more to the injuries that have hampered Donaldson and Moss.
The team played 12 one-run games in September, and lost 10 of them. They went 8-6 in the other 14 contests, so it’s not as though they dominated but for a handful of bad breaks, but they also didn’t collapse the way, if Tuesday night goes badly, history will say they did.
On the pitching side, the story of the season is upheaval. This team lost two prospective members of the starting rotation (Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin) to Tommy John surgery before the season even began, and two more fringe candidates (Dan Straily and Tommy Milone) to unexpected ineffectuality in the early going. Straily and Milone proved so unsatisfactory, in fact, the Beane jettisoned each of them in trades during July.
The team managed to patch the holes with, among other things, the transition of career reliever Jesse Chavez into the rotation, but they needed a boost at mid-season, and the sense that the offense would bludgeon opponents into submission led Beane to move boldly to shore up that group. Lester, Samardzija and Hammel cost the team a whole lot of talent, and a whole lot of flexibility, but without them, the offensive erosion might have cost them any hope of getting this far.
Samardzija made 16 starts for Oakland, chewing up 111.2 innings and posting a 3.14 ERA. He struck out 99 and walked 12. He tossed two complete games. For a team whose bullpen proved an unexpected liability, the ability to rest it on occasion was a huge help. (That relief corps, by the way, has come together again, and may yet be a strength for the team if they survive into October.)
Lester far outpitched Samardzija, though. In 11 starts, he had an ERA of 2.35, struck out 71, walked 16 and averaged seven innings per outing. That he will end up with the ball for the game that determines the outcome of the team’s season is delicious and delightful.
This team was a monster, a powerhouse that nearly gave away a great season. They finished with 88 wins, but a Pythagorean projection indicating 99. They are the very prototype of a club that was much better than you think, or than the standings show, and if they get past this game, they remain extraordinarily dangerous.
Kansas City Royals: The Royals will never be mistaken for the A’s. They got here by playing steadily and beating bad opponents. They scored 78 fewer runs than Oakland, and allowed 52 more. They’re also a monumentally different team, in terms of roster construction, value distribution and how they win games. Whereas Oakland found itself floundering in the second half, unable to score runs despite general offensive stats that portended better, Kansas City turned fairly tepid actual hitting into a serviceable offense:
2014 Kansas City Royals, AL Ranks in Offensive Statistics
|OPS+ (An adjusted, holistic measure of offense)
That’s no juggernaut, nothing in the vein of the first-half A’s, but it sure keeps a team that emphasizes run prevention afloat. How did they do it?
Well, there are a few more league rankings I should have showed you before:
2014 Kansas City Royals, AL Ranks in Offensive Statistics
The Royals run, and run very well. They put the ball in play relentlessly, which pressures an opposing defenses, gives their guys chances to use their legs and frustrates many modern pitching staffs, the majority of which are focused on striking opponents out in order to dominate. Pesky, you could call this team, if you were so inclined. They create runs because they have enough decent contact hitters to occasionally string together a few singles, and because they can take the extra base at almost any time, with almost anyone.
Their run prevention is the real story, though. Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Norichika Aoki (or, once the team grabs a late lead, Gordon, Jarrod Dyson and Cain) comprise the best defensive outfield in baseball, and maybe the best in a few years. Their range is terrific, everyone has an arm, they charges balls hard, cut them off in the gaps aggressively and generally stunt an opponent’s running game. No one stopped runners from scoring from second on singles or from first on doubles as well as Alex Gordon, whose arm has become so legendary that no one challenges it anymore. They catch darn near everything, which has been a huge help for the fly-ball guys in their rotation—Jason Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie, and yes, James Shields, to name a few. Kansas City hurlers finished with the AL’s median FIP, at 3.69, but their ERA ranked fourth-best on the circuit thanks to help from the defense.
It’s also true, and should be noted here so we can build upon it later, that the Royals’ pitching talent is concentrated almost entirely in seven arms:
2014 Kansas City Royals Pitchers, bWAR
Why are the Royals dangerous in October? Three of those seven arms they rode to this point are one-inning relievers (designated with asterisks above). The other four are their prospective playoff rotation. The Royals could ask these seven to pitch 95 percent of all their innings during the postseason, and focusing strictly on Tuesday night, they should need no more than Shields and three relief aces.
Matching Them Up, and a Prediction
That’s all the pertinent information about how these teams managed to reach this stage, and about what’s on the line. Now, let’s attempt the impossible (and extremely inadvisable), and try to forecast a single baseball game.
When the A’s are at bat: There’s a lot to digest here. Obviously, the A’s have that modularity in the lineup, the ability to stack the lineup with lefties and switch-hitters against Shields. The problem is that Shields has a backward platoon split, or has shown one the past two years, meaning that right-handed batters do as well or better than lefties against him. I think Oakland will line up much the same way they did on the last two days of the regular season:
- Coco Crisp – CF (S)
- Adam Dunn – DH (L)
- Josh Donaldson – 3B (R)
- Brandon Moss – LF (L)
- Josh Reddick – RF (L)
- Jed Lowrie – SS (S)
- Stephen Vogt – 1B (L)
- Geovany Soto – C (R)
- Eric Sogard – 2B (L)
That’s what I project, but don’t be surprised if A’s manager Bob Melvin goes with something slightly different. Herrera, Davis and Holland—the Royals’ horses out of the bullpen—are right-handers who destroy opposing right-handed batters. If Melvin has a righty he feels good about, like World Series hero and noted good-luck charm Jonny Gomes, the smart time to get him into the contest will be at its start. Gomes is also a better defensive left fielder than Moss.
Shields is, as I mentioned, a fly-ball pitcher, and that’s interesting because the A’s are the fly-ball offense. That might seem to play into Oakland’s hands, but in fact, fly-ball guys usually do better against fly-ball hitters, and ground-ball hurlers do best against ground-ball hitters. Of course, it also helps Kansas City’s cause that they have that terrific outfield defense to run down those fly balls.
The most interesting thing to watch here will be the ability of any Oakland baserunners to advance on subsequent hits and outs. The A’s are the second-worst running team in baseball this season, according to Baseball Prospectus’s Baserunning Runs (BRR). By the system’s estimation, that cost the A’s about 12 runs over the course of the season. It’s a small effect; you would expect as much.
However, as I noted earlier, the Royals are the best in the business at clamping down on these kinds of things anyway. The combination of those facts has me wondering if, at some crucial moment on Tuesday night, the A’s will miss a scoring opportunity due to their inability to run on the Royals. If they do, I feel sure that will be the killing blow. This version of Oakland just can’t afford to miss chances the way the first-half version might have.
We shouldn’t pretend that there’s no chance of Oakland putting up runs against Shields, though. Shields has great command and misses bats at crucial points, but one thing he has never done reliably is avoid hard contact. He surrendered 23 home runs this season, even calling roomy Kauffman Stadium home, and with Donaldson, Moss and company having had a day to draw breath and heal up a little, it may well be that someone will get ahold of one off of the Kansas City ace sooner or later. Even if they don’t, they also had the highest line-drive rate in the league this season, and a couple well-tomed rallies could be enough.
When the Royals are at bat: Lester is a left-handed starter, but that matters relatively little in constructing the lineup. I can daydream about Ned Yost sliding in Christian Colon at third base and sitting lefty-hitting Mike Moustakas all I want; it’s not going to actually happen. My best guess:
- Alcides Escobar – SS (R)
- Norichika Aoki – RF (L)
- Lorenzo Cain – CF (R)
- Eric Hosmer – 1B (L)
- Billy Butler – DH (R)
- Alex Gordon – LF (L)
- Salvador Perez – C (R)
- Omar Infante – 2B (R)
- Mike Moustakas – 3B (L)
Yost told local media he envisioned carrying nine pitchers for this game, so let me guess at the seven guys who will populate the bench for Kansas City, too:
- Erik Kratz
- Jarrod Dyson
- Josh Willingham
- Terrance Gore
- Jayson Nix
- Raul Ibanez
- Lane Adams
It matters, who the Royals carry into this game, because a good number of them may be called upon. Yost never pinch-hits, it seems, but he pinch-runs liberally, so having Gore, Dyson and Adams all available is lovely. (All three are absolute burners, great options to have if a key base is needed.)
With Lester starting, I wonder how aggressive Yost may be. Say Billy Butler gets on as the tying run in the bottom of the fifth. Knowing that he could call upon Willingham to combat Lester the next time through, would Yost lift Butler that early? I hope so. That’s the point of having this sort of flexibility. No chance to score should be passed up on Tuesday night, assuming no overwhelming tradeoff.
Unlike the Royals, the A’s have a deep and balanced bullpen. They won’t be able to match Herrera, Davis and Holland, but they have guys from each side, guys with differing repertoires, a lot of ways to mix and match. If Lester gets 18 or 19 outs, there are six guys the A’s would feel comfortable bringing in to divvy up the remaining fistful. It will be interesting to see in whom Melvin places his trust; he tends to partition his bullpen, and some of his lower-leverage arms could be left off this roster entirely if he knows he wouldn’t ask them for a big out, anyway.
The game is more likely than not, though, to be decided by which starter gets the better of the matchup. The Royals will have a lot of trouble with Lester, who pounds the strike zone from the left side and can therefore neutralize two key Royals threats: Hosmer and Gordon. As a lefty, Lester also exercises good control over the running game, which would be one of Kansas City’s preferred weapons against him. If the Royals do break out against him, it’s going to have to be because they kept putting the ball in play and sequenced some hits well.
The Verdict: I envision a low-scoring game. The weather forecast has me frustrated; I want to see the deep blue of a cool fall evening, getting colder, as Shields throws the first pitch. I want the stark sharpness of dying summer, but it sounds like a warm and cloudy night is ahead. Still, this game should be great, taut and thrilling throughout.
If you know anything about the evolution of MLB’s competitive structure, you’d probably guess that the A’s and Royals are meeting in the postseason for the first time. They shared the AL West from the advent of divisional play until the shift to the three-division, Wild Card format in 1995, and of course, the Royals haven’t been to the postseason since then.
Yet, the two teams actually have met, and under strangely similar circumstances. In 1981, a protracted strike cut the season in half, and each half had a champion. The A’s won the West in the first half, and had the best overall record in the division that year, too. The Royals won the second-half title, though, and so the two played in one of the very first Division Series, even though Kansas City had finished the regular season a composite 50-53.
Oakland swept the series 3-0, without regard for the presumed momentum of the second-half champion Royals.
This time around, things are sort of the same, and sort of very different. The A’s almost had a split season themselves, terrific in the first half, poor in the second. The Royals are the steady hand in this matchup, even though they’re probably the inferior overall team. Given their home-field advantage, though, and given the promising matchup of their defense with Oakland’s hitters, I’ll take the Royals to advance to their second-ever ALDS. If that happens, watch past the final pitch. You’ll see a generation of catharsis spilling out of a city, all at once. It’s going to be beautiful.