Twenty-nine years in the making and we’re a few hours from the first pitch of the Wild Card game.
It’s the Royals against the Athletics. The Royals arrive in the postseason on the back of another strong second half of baseball. The A’s staggered to the finish line, coughing up a chance to win the West to settle for a play-in game. After the All-Star Break, the Royals won 41 of 67 games – a .612 winning percentage second only to Baltimore’s .657. Meanwhile Oakland won just 28 of 66, a miserable .424 winning percentage.
A hot team against a team that’s ice cold. But baseball is a funny game. In the second half, the Royals scored 264 runs and allowed 240. The A’s scored 258 and allowed 247. Such a narrow margin between the two teams in the run column, yet the Royals surged to 13 more wins.
And this is one game, winner-take-all. Anything can happen. We can see a 10-0 blowout or a 2-1 nail-biter. With James Shields and Jon Lester on the mound, I know which way I’m leaning, but… Baseball is a funny game.
Maybe you don’t see it from the graph, but the offenses are a study in contrasts. The Royals .263 batting average is second in the AL. Their OBP is ninth because they don’t take a walk. On the year, Royals batters accepted a free pass 380 times, last in the league. Nearly 100 walks fewer than league average. On the other hand, the A’s walked a league-high 586 times. Over 100 walks above league average. Josh Donaldson (10.9 percent), Derek Norris (12.2 percent), Brandon Moss (11.6 percent), and Coco Crisp (12.3 percent) are the A’s who have a walk rate above 10 percent. That rate isn’t especially meaningful, it’s just one that jumps out because it’s double digits. By comparison, Alex Gordon is the only Royals regular who has a double-digit walk rate. And he’s barely on the right side at 10.1 percent. As you know, the lack of walks on the Royals isn’t skewed by one or two bad apples. It’s an epidemic.
Neither team hits for much cumulative power. The A’s are an odd bunch. They rank 12th in the AL in doubles, first in triples and are in the middle of the pack at 8th in home runs. The Royals play more of a gap to gap style of ball, finishing fourth in doubles, fifth in triples. You know where they finished in the home run race. (Last. In case you’re new here.)
Yes, the Royals are the first team to qualify for the postseason after finishing dead last in walks and home runs in the regular season. Quite a feat. This is truly a team only Dayton Moore could have assembled.
At first glance, the advantage goes to Oakland. Higher strikeout rate, lower walk rate, better ERA and xFIP. Maybe if this was a best-of-five series. But this is a single game. So it’s Jon Lester and the bullpen. Aaron had a great breakdown of Lester on Monday, so I’ll direct you there for a more comprehensive look at the A’s starter. To simplify things, let’s just put it this way: Lester has helped those averages in a very positive way for Oakland.
If this game is close – as I suspect it will be – the starting pitchers will give way to the bullpen in the late innings. We know about the Royals killer triumvirate of Herrera, Davis, and Holland. Oakland doesn’t lack in the bullpen department, either.
Sean Doolittle stepped into the closer role in mid-May. Since taking over he’s posted a 2.27 ERA while limiting opponents to a .139/.181/.219 slash line. Of note here, A’s manager Bob Melvin isn’t shy about using Doolittle for more than an inning. He threw two innings twice since becoming a closer. Because the Royals basically owned the A’s this year, Doolittle made only one appearance, pitching the eighth in a 7-3 whitewash last August 14. He retired Mike Moustakas on a line out to left, surrendered a single to Lorenzo Cain, then got Christian Colon on a fly ball to center before striking out Jerrod Dyson to end the frame.
The A’s setup men are more than capable as well. Luke Gregerson and Fernando Abad form a potent late inning right-left combo. Neither walk batters. If the A’s are in a pinch and need a strikeout, they will likely turn to Ryan Cook who has whiffed 50 batters in 50 innings of work.
It’s true the A’s stumbled in the second half. But it wasn’t because of the pitching. Oakland’s strongest month on the mound was in September. The pitchers closed the season strong. If the Royals don’t go up to the plate with a plan, they may not have much of a chance against Lester and company. Ummm… Yeah. I don’t think any Royal hitter has gone up to the plate with a plan all season. Why start now?
This is the lineup Melvin will use against the right-handed Shields, per Roster Resource. That leaves several right-handed bats on the bench such as Jonny Gomes and Geovany Soto. Sam Fuld is a left-handed bat who could be used as a pinch runner late in the game. Craig Gentry is their main speed threat, but he’s out after suffering a concussion a couple weeks ago.
It looks like Shields will see only two right-handed batters. I heard speculation on MLB Radio on Sirius/XM that Melvin may decide to go with Soto at catcher instead of Norris. The thinking is, Soto would better neutralize the Royals running game. He’s thrown out nine of 17 would be base stealers this year, a 53 percent success rate. Norris on the other hand, has gunned down just 17 percent, nabbing just 12 base runners in 72 attempts. Personally, I think with offense at a premium, Melvin will go with Norris at least to start the game. Lester being left-handed may help, but he’s not known for his skill in holding runners. He hasn’t picked off anyone this year – actually his last pickoff came in 2011 – and he’s allowed 16 steals in 21 attempts this year. Soto may enter the game in the later innings to try to keep the Royals from running roughshod. Although good luck stopping Dyson and Terrance Gore.
If you think Yost runs anything different out to start the game, you haven’t been paying attention. This has been the lineup the last eight games. At this point, it’s gospel.
But goddamn, what a horrible lineup. Escobar doesn’t take a walk and has a .317 OBP, but he’s leading off. Hosmer slugs under .400 and has nine home runs on the season, but he’s cleanup. The best hitter on the team has somehow dropped to sixth. From what I can tell, these machinations are due to finding some sort of right-left-right-left balance. Holy crap. This is a Hall of Fame dumpster fire of a lineup.
Yet Escobar has been hot since moving to leadoff. In 15 games at the top spot, he’s hit .375/.412/.484 with five extra base hits and three walks. Since returning from his hand injury at the end of August, Hosmer has slugged .489 with eight doubles, a triple, and three home runs. And after a scorching hot August where giddy Royals fans were chanting M-V-P when he came to the plate, Gordon has stumbled down the stretch, hitting .190/.333/.286. Yost is playing the hot hand. And it’s been working. Sometimes, it’s good to be the king.
Despite hot and cold streaks and despite the fact the Royals won five of seven, this looks like a very even game to me. Hell, it’s one game for everything. At this point in 2014, nothing would surprise me.
I remain cautiously optimistic.