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.)
- CF-S Coco Crisp (.246/.336/.363/.280)
- DH-L Adam Dunn (.219/.337/.415/.282)
- 3B-R Josh Donaldson (.255/.342/.456/.302)
- LF-L Brandon Moss (.234/.334/.438/.288)
- RF-L Josh Reddick (.264/.316/.446/.292)
- SS-S Jed Lowrie (.249/.321/.355/.257)
- 1B-L Stephen Vogt (.279/.321/.431/.284)
- C-R Geovany Soto (.250/.302/.363/.233)
- 2B-L Eric Sogard (.223/.298/.268/.223)
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.
- SS-R Alcides Escobar (.285/.317/.377/.255)
- RF-L Nori Aoki (.285/.349/.360/.267)
- CF-R Lorenzo Cain (.301/.339/.412/.269)
- 1B-L Eric Hosmer (.270/.318/.398/.262)
- DH-R Billy Butler (.271/.323/.379/.256)
- LF-L Alex Gordon (.266/.351/.432/.286)
- C-R Salvador Perez (.260/.289/.403/.251)
- 2B-R Omar Infante (.252/.295/.337/.234)
- 3B-L Mike Moustakas (.212/.271/.361/.233)
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.
- C-R Derek Norris (.270/.361/.403/.286)
- OF-R Jonny Gomes (.234/.327/.330/.257)
- 1B-R Nate Freiman (.218/.269/.448/.255)
- OF-L Sam Fuld (.239/.321/.342/.253)
- UT-S Nick Punto (.207/.296/.293/.236)
- INF-S Alberto Callaspo (.223/.290/.290/.231)
- OF-S Billy Burns (.167/.167/.167/.156)
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.
- UT-R Christian Colon (.333/.375/.489/.317)
- OF-R Terrance Gore (.000/.500/.000/.292)
- OF-R Josh Willingham (.215/.346/.397/.275)
- OF-L Jarrod Dyson (.269/.324/.327/.242)
- DH-L Raul Ibanez (.167/.264/.285/.220)
- C-R Erik Kratz (.218/.243/.391/.219)
- C-R Francisco Pena (.000/.000/.000/.000)
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)
When Billy Beane traded for Lester, he probably had him starting Game One in mind, but almost certainly not game one of the entire postseason. Lester, who was worse against lefties this season than righties, attacks hitters with a three-pitch mix: fastball, cutter, and curve. His command over his pitches allows his arsenal to play deeper than it is—he'll throw his curveball around lefties, front- and backdoor his cutter, and work inside and out with his fastball. The overall package makes Lester one of the game's top left-handed starters, and he’s the easy pick for the A's in an elimination-game setting.
Royals: James Shields (227, 3.21, 3.61)
Unlike the Lester trade, Dayton Moore didn't acquire Shields with only a playoff run in mind, yet having an arm of this quality to start a win-or-stay-home game is a nice perk. Shields boasts a deeper arsenal than Lester, as he throws a changeup in addition to a fastball, curveball, and cutter. The changeup is one of the best in the league, and his curveball gives him another high-quality secondary offering. Shields is skillful and smart enough to know when to pitch backward and when to attack hitters with his fastball. He has one of the best right-handed pickoff moves in the game, which complements his tenacious approach to keeping baserunners tethered to first base.
Bullpen (IP, ERA, FIP)
- LHP Sean Doolittle (62 2/3, 2.73, 1.74)
- RHP Luke Gregerson (72 1/3, 2.12, 3.27)
- LHP Fernando Abad (57 1/3, 1.57, 3.28)
- RHP Ryan Cook (50, 3.42, 3.38)
- RHP Dan Otero (86 2/3, 2.28, 3.31)
- LHP Eric O'Flaherty (20, 2.25, 4.51)
- RHP Jesse Chavez (146, 3.45, 3.92)
- RHP Jason Hammel (176 1/3, 3.47, 3.91)
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.
- RHP Greg Holland (62 1/3, 1.44, 1.86)
- RHP Wade Davis (72, 1.00, 1.22)
- RHP Kelvin Herrera (70, 1.41, 2.72)
- RHP Jason Frasor (47.3, 2.66, 3.31)
- RHP Aaron Crow (59, 4.12, 5.43)
- LHP Brandon Finnegan (7, 1.29, 0.73)
- LHP Francisley Bueno (32 1/3, 4.18, 3.87)
- RHP Jeremy Guthrie (202 2/3, 4.13, 4.34)
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.
From a defensive efficiency perspective, the A's had the best defense in baseball. Park adjust those numbers, and they slip to second. Either way, it's fair to give them the edge over the Royals, who ranked 12th in both the raw and park-adjusted measures. The Royals' defensive reputation seems to exceed their statistical merits, perhaps because of their strength up the middle or lackluster offense. Whatever the case, defense shouldn't be a negative for either club.
These being the Athletics, you wouldn't expect Bob Melvin to signal for many bunts or stolen-base attempts. True to form, he doesn't. What he does call for, thanks in large to his platoon-heavy approach, is plenty of pinch-hitters; Toronto's John Gibbons was the only AL manager to use more during the regular season. Provided the Royals stay true to their usage patterns in the late innings, Melvin won't have to tap too many of his reserves for pinch-hitter duty. On the pitching side, expect Melvin to let Lester—who averaged nearly seven innings per start with the A's, and could be making his final appearance in green and gold—to work deep into the game, should his performance allow it.
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.
Although the A's finished with the worse record and lost the season series to the Royals, they look like the better—or, at minimum, the more complete—team. Oakland's recent struggles are pause-worthy, as is their lack of home-field advantage. However, the A's have the better starter and manager going in their favor. Anything can happen in a single game, but we'll give the A's the nod.
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