September 30, 2014
AL Wild Card Game Preview
With their poor second half, the Athletics fumbled away the AL West and gifted home-field advantage to the Royals for Tuesday night's AL Wild Card game. As a result, Kauffman Stadium will host its first postseason contest since 1985 against, fittingly enough, the franchise that used to call Kansas City home. In our comprehensive Wild Card preview, we'll try to determine which team will advance to face the Angels for entrance to the ALCS. (Note: Neither team's Wild Card roster is set, so we'll update the article when the names are officially announced.)
Oakland scored the fourth-most runs in the majors, an impressive feat given its pitcher-friendly ballpark, but the A’s recent performance suggests that rank overstates the current quality of their lineup. Crisp, Moss, and Vogt have endured half-long slumps, while Donaldson gutted through knee pain en route to an uncharacteristically poor September. If there is good news, it's that Reddick has played well since the All-Star break, and Soto has reached base at a high-enough clip to overtake Norris at catcher.
Part of what makes this game interesting is the similarities in lineup composition. The Royals were the only team to strike out less often than the A's did, though Oakland walked more often and hit for more power than Kansas City did. Another big difference is how the clubs approach lineup construction: The Royals have a set nine for the most part, whereas the A's juggle based on myriad variables.
The Royals' .254 team True Average is the lowest among playoff teams (albeit by a point). Kansas City does maintain a healthy left-right balance, making it tougher for opposing teams to play matchups and stay true to the platoon advantage. With the Royals facing a left-handed pitcher, it's worth noting they were better against southpaws than normal humans—mostly due to Aoki's reverse splits and quality performances from Gordon, Butler, Cain, and Escobar.
If there is an area in which the Royals' lineup trumps the Athletics', it's on the basepaths. Kansas City finished with the most baserunning runs in the league, according to our metrics, thanks to their aggression (and precision) at stealing bases and taking the extra base on hits—both acts that help a power-starved team score more runs than it otherwise would.
The A's bench is built around versatility. Norris, Gomes, and Freiman provide power against left-handed pitching, while Fuld and Punto help out on defense. Burns, presuming he makes the roster, gives the A's a designated pinch-runner type, which is all the rage these days.
Compared to the A's, the Royals have a thin bench. Willingham is their one legitimate pinch-hit option, with the rest of the main bench players specializing in defense (Dyson), speed (Gore), or hanging on despite poor results (Ibanez).
Athletics: Jon Lester (219 2/3, 2.46, 2.81)
Royals: James Shields (227, 3.21, 3.61)
Bullpen (IP, ERA, FIP)
As with their bench, the A's can afford to play the matchup game with their bullpen. Doolittle, Gregerson, and Abad retired lefties and righties alike throughout the season. Cook and O'Flaherty, on the other hand, are best deployed as specialists. Otero's rubber arm would come in handy if the A's advance to a lengthier series.
Go by ERA and the Royals have the three best relievers in the game in Holland, Davis, and Herrera. (They have three of the top four by FIP.) Bueno gives Ned Yost a left-handed specialist if he chooses to employ one, and Finnegan, the club's first-round pick, could be a wild card.
Yost manages like he's straight from the '80s. He's as rigid as any manager when it comes to bullpen roles, with Herrera, Davis, and Holland seldom appearing before their designated innings—Holland, in fact, has entered no earlier than the ninth all year. The same dedication doesn't apply to his middle-relief usage, likely because Yost afforded his starters the third-highest average pitch count in the majors. On offense, Yost adheres to the traditional small-ball strategies—stealing bases, hit-and-runs, and bunts, oh my. Look for a conservative approach from the Royals, as Yost tries to manufacture an early lead for Shields to hold onto.