American League Wild Card Preview: Can the Royals Top the A's?
At one point, it seemed like a certainty that the Oakland Athletics would finish with the best record in the American League and comfortably avoid Major League Baseball's version of a full-on panic attack - the one-game wild card playoff. But now, here they are, in the playoffs for the third straight year, preparing to take on the Royals in Kansas City. It will be that franchise's first playoff game since 1985, which was part of Ronald Reagan's second presidential term.
Certainly, this isn't what Oakland general manager Billy Beane wanted. In fact, he traded for Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel and Jon Lester specifically to avoid this scenario. Unfortunately, the Oakland offense went MIA, and now Beane's squad will have to submit themselves to the gauntlet as he tries to reach his first-ever World Series.
For Kansas City, they're just happy to be here, although it won't really feel like a true playoff experience unless they're able to knock off the A's.
So, we have a one-game playoff after having played 162. Let's break this baby down.
How The A's Got Here
Happily for Oakland, they were able to avoid what would have been the second-worst collapse in baseball history. However, they certainly have made things a lot harder for themselves. Back on June 21, they had a season-high six-game lead over the Los Angeles Angels in the American League West, but that lead evaporated with lightning-quick speed, eventually resulting in a second place finish, 10 games behind the AL West champions.
In fact, they had to hang on for dear life on the last day of the season, needing a win over the Texas Rangers to avoid a one-game playoff with the Seattle Mariners for the final wild card spot.
When Beane traded away Yoenis Cespedes to the Red Sox in exchange for Lester, he did so thinking his offense had enough fire power to make do without him. The goal was to make his rotation, filled with inexperienced and overachieving arms, more playoff-worthy. It was also done with the hopes of avoiding that perilous one-game playoff.
But the A's went 12-17 in August and 10-16 in September, with the team hitting a collective .244 in the second half of the season, tied for 12th in the American League. They had just two everyday players with a weighted runs created (wRC+) over 100 (Josh Donaldson's wRC+ of 143 and Josh Reddick's 146). Coco Crisp, Brandon Moss, Derek Norris, Jed Lowrie, Sam Fuld, Stephen Vogt, Eric Sogard, and Alberto Callaspo all accumulated over 100 plate appearances in the second half and created runs at a worse-than-league-average pace.
As a team, the A's finished with a nERD of 0.82, tied with the Angels for second-best in all of baseball, but they were far and away leading MLB in that category after the first half of the season.
How The Royals Got Here
Kansas City made it to their first postseason thanks to grit, determination, an outstanding pitching staff and good defense. Their team-wide 3.51 ERA was fourth-best in the AL, with a starters' ERA of 3.60 (also fourth-best in the American League) and a bullpen ERA of 3.30 (fifth-best in the AL).
Offensively, it was a different story. Their .306 weighted on-base average (wOBA) was 10th in the American League this season. They were the only team in the American League not to reach at least 100 homers (their 95 dingers were 16 fewer than the next-closest team, the Rangers), with an isolated power (ISO) of .113, also the worst in the AL.
Manager Ned Yost, a.k.a. "The Happy Bunter" seemed to overreact to their offensive shortcomings by routinely sacrifice bunting early in games, trying to scratch out a run whenever possible. They do have a legitimate MVP candidate in Alex Gordon, who hit .266/.351/.432 with a wOBA of .346, 19 homers, 74 RBI, and an fWAR of 6.1, generated in large part to his outstanding defense in left field. However, Gordon was one of just four Royals to post a wRC+ of 100 or better (Lorenzo Cain 111, Nori Aoki 104, and Eric Hosmer 100). Everyone else in the lineup is a below-average run creator.
Keys To Victory For the A's
In a one-game playoff it all comes down to the starting pitching.
Both teams will have their aces take the ball, with "Big Game" James Shields ready to lock horns with Jon Lester. Both are going up against offenses that are less-than-stout.
Lester has been a terrific postseason pitcher for the Boston Red Sox throughout his career. In 11 career starts (13 games) spanning 76.2 innings, he's compiled a 6-4 record and a 2.11 ERA, striking out eight batters per nine innings and walking just 2.5 per nine. Oakland's collapse this season was not his fault, he went 6-4 with a 2.35 ERA in 11 starts for Oakland after his trade from Boston.
The health of third baseman Josh Donaldson will be key in this game. He's battled hip, hamstring and knee injuries all year, but still managed to hit 29 home runs and 98 RBIs, posting a nERD of 1.85 - meaning a lineup full of Josh Donaldsons would score 1.85 runs a game more than a lineup of league average players. He is the team's MVP, and the hope is he will provide a big hit somewhere in this game.
And obviously, in any short series and specifically a one-game series, the bullpen must be ready to answer the bell if Lester falters. They had the second-best bullpen ERA in the AL this year (2.91) and will need their late-inning crew of Luke Gregerson, Eric O'Flaherty and Sean Doolittle to shut the door if the game is close late.
Keys To Victory For The Royals
Again, it all comes down to starting pitching. Shields is no slouch, and this type of game is exactly why the Royals acquired him from the Tampa Bay Rays prior to last season. Shields hasn't had quite the same success in the playoffs that Lester has had, with a 2-4 record and a 4.98 ERA in six career playoff starts. But he has been hot lately, both in the second half (2.62 ERA) and in September (2.31 ERA). He'll likely need to out-pitch Lester in this one if the Royals want to move forward.
The manager will also have to stay out of the way here. As mentioned above, Ned Yost likes to play for single runs in the early innings, potentially running the team out of what could be big innings. The Royals are going to have to be patient, work the count, get runners on and try to bring them home with singles and doubles, because the odds of them pounding home runs out of Kauffman Stadium are not high.
Kansas City will also need someone other than Alex Gordon to step up and have a big game against Lester, perhaps right-handed hitters Cain or catcher Salvador Perez.
Even though they've struggled mightily in the second half, and even though they went 2-5 against the Royals this season, Oakland has more talent and the better starting pitcher going for them on Tuesday night. They should be the favorites to move on, ending Kansas City's first playoff run in 29 years after just one game.