PECOTA odds of winning: 70% Yankees, 30% Athletics
Coming off a 75-87 record in 2017, the As’ didn’t exactly come out of nowhere, but few if any pundits anticipated them capturing a playoff spot, let alone winning their most games (97) since the heyday of the Moneyball era in 2002. They’ll face the Yankees, who have been in the winner-take-all Wild Card game three of the past four seasons.
Tonight’s meeting marks the fourth time the Yankees and A’s have squared off in the postseason, with the last coming in the 2001 ALDS. New York has won all three October matchups, so if the Athletics are going to win, they’re going to have to defy history and the mystique and aura of Yankee Stadium. Or not; some of the players on the Athletics are under 30 and were entering high school or younger at the height of the Moneyball peak. Ghosts or no, Oakland’s recent playoff history is rife with failure. Going back to the 1990 World Series, when the Jose Canseco/Mark McGwire-led A’s were swept by the Reds, Oakland is 1-10 in postseason series, including their most recent appearance in the 2014 Wild Card game. While the players on this Oakland team might not remember past organizational failures, their fans certainly do.
The 2018 incarnation of the Yankees isn’t what springs to mind when New York fans wistfully stare at the pages of Baseball Reference’s Franchise Encyclopedia and the Yankees’ long line of aging stars acquired via free agency and trades complimented by franchise anchor Derek Jeter. Of the team’s current offensive mainstays, only Brett Gardner (34) and Andrew McCutchen (31) are over 30. While Aaron Judge took a step back and offseason acquisition Giancarlo Stanton was a relative disappointment, Didi Gregorius and Gleyber Torres gave the Bombers a dynamic duo up the middle that Yankees fans haven’t seen since the days of Jeter and Robinson Cano.
The Yankees core of Stanton, Judge, and Severino is more well known, but this doesn’t mean that Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, and Jed Lowrie (yes, that Jed Lowrie) will simply crumble into dust at the sight of the big, bad Yankees; the A’s split the season series with the Yanks at three games apiece. The Yankees’ young core combined with their financial resources is a frightening proposition for the rest of the league for the next 5-10 years, but for one night only, Oakland has a chance to send them home. Loathed in some corners for its inherent unfairness, the Wild Card game is the great equalizer of October.
Projected Starting Lineups
|Athletics vs. Severino (R)||Yankees vs. Hendriks (R)|
|Nick Martini, LF||Andrew McCutchen, LF|
|Matt Chapman, 3B||Aaron Judge, RF|
|Jed Lowrie, 2B||Aaron Hicks, CF|
|Khris Davis, DH||Giancarlo Stanton, DH|
|Matt Olson, 1B||Didi Gregorius, SS|
|Stephen Piscotty, RF||Luke Voit, 1B|
|Ramon Laureano, CF||Miguel Andujar, 3B|
|Marcus Semien, SS||Gary Sanchez, C|
|Jonathan Lucroy, C||Gleyber Torres, 2B|
Historically, Oakland does a terrific job populating its roster with cheap veteran talent, and 2018 was no exception. The average age of the Athletics’ lineup was 28.0 years, or the seventh-youngest in the AL. Unlike some teams playing on the cheap that rely almost entirely on youth, Oakland’s success often depends on their mastery of the scrap heap. They have had some recent success in the draft, and the centerpiece of their team—Chapman—was a first-round pick in 2014. For all the justified focus on his defense, Chapman carried the A’s with his bat in the second half, hitting .309/.371/.591 with 14 jacks in 64 games. Oakland’s offense is healthy heading into the playoffs, almost entirely avoiding injury all season.
What could be scary for the Yankees or any potential playoff opponent is how general manager David Forst quietly and efficiently plugged the holes in the A’s lineup in the second half. The Athletics went from having a slightly above-average offense before the break to the second-best the rest of the way. Outside of Lucroy, who struggled with the bat all year, there wasn’t a culprit for the A’s so-so first half. Lucroy and Semien were the team’s only below-average hitters in the first half. Oakland used a combination of unlikely performances in Laureano and Martini to fill in the blanks without trading for a big name in-season.
The Athletics aren’t a super patient team or a squad that tries to avoid striking out. Davis’ approach might have been something other teams would have tinkered with after acquiring him, but the Athletics have been content to live with his “deficiencies” and enjoy his 48 home runs and boomstick at the center of their lineup. Although second-half call-up Laureano stole seven bases in 48 games, this is mostly a station-to-station team that maximizes efficiency by refusing to surrender outs on the basepaths. The A’s were better against righties than against southpaws, although not enough to move the Yankees off Luis Severino on the bump.
New York’s lineup in last year’s Wild Card game featured Starlin Castro, Greg Bird, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Todd Frazier (sorry for the reminder, Yankees fans). While pundits during the offseason were salivating over an improved offense with Judge and Stanton anchoring the lineup and socking 100-plus home runs, New York has instead provided a balanced attack from top to bottom despite a mere 65 dongs from the dynamic duo. There isn’t a hole in this lineup, although Sanchez is admittedly coming off a down year in which he was hurt and once again dogged by complaints about his catching.
Seven hitters in the Yanks’ projected lineup had an OPS of .800 or higher, with McCutchen narrowly missing at .792. Despite missing 28 games due to multiple injuries, Gregorius not only hit 20 or more home runs for the third consecutive season, he took his offensive game to another level. McCutchen isn’t the superstar he once was with the Pirates, but in this lineup he doesn’t need to be, and his numbers markedly improved after the Giants traded him.
Few believe Voit can keep up this blistering pace, but there’s no reason Aaron Boone won’t keep riding the hot streak. Only the Red Sox scored more runs than the Yankees in the regular season, while only the Dodgers and Nationals waked more. There have been laments about the Yankees almost entirely right-handed lineup due to the belief that it’s a poor fit for a stadium that rewards left-handed power, but the numbers don’t bear this theory out. The Yankees’ offense dominated at home; getting homefield advantage for a one-and-done game is significant based on the home/road splits.
Hendriks started the season in middle relief, but a slew of injuries to the A’s rotation pushed him into an “opener” role in September. Hendriks surrendered two runs in his first “start,” but since then has been terrific, allowing no runs and six baserunners in seven innings with six strikeouts. When Hendriks is going well, he’s throwing his four-seam fastball down or below the zone while relying more on his slider than usual. Hendriks traveled a circuitous path to the postseason, including a long stint in the minors in July and August.
Hendriks was followed by a pitcher who went three or more innings in six of his eight “starts.” If this is the route Bob Melvin chooses to travel, Daniel Mengden and Chris Bassitt are both candidates get the call. Mengden isn’t exactly a soft-tosser, but does rely on mixing speeds and keeping hitters off balance. He’s contact prone and not a ground-ball pitcher, which is a bad mix for Yankee Stadium. Bassitt profiles similarly to Mengden, although he relies more on the slider and has a somewhat more favorable strikeout profile. Both pitchers typically went 4-5 innings when Hendriks opened, but Melvin will use a quick hook in this winner-take-all scenario. Starter Mike Fiers is another possibility to fill in when Hendriks leaves the game. Melvin isn’t divulging his plan of attack, which is part of the presumed advantage of this tactic.
Despite a somewhat higher ERA, Severino lived up to his monster 2017 season, with virtually a repeat performance in strikeouts, a slightly lower walk rate, and an improved DRA. Severino didn’t make it out of the first inning in last year’s Wild Card game start and struggled in the second half of this season to the tune of a 5.57 ERA, but he is the staff ace by a country mile and has earned his slot in this game. Severino continued to rely on a 97 mph heater to go along with a nasty upper-80s slider along with a changeup. If you’re looking for a hole in the armor (and an explanation for his second-half struggles), Severino’s wOBA on balls in play spiked post-break.
Severino had difficulty with his slider in the second half. It had less drop, less spin, and less break than earlier in the season. Without an effective slider, Severino is still difficult to hit, but the quality of contact increases considerably when his opponents do connect. The overall numbers remained impressive, as Severino was eighth in DRA and 10th in strikeout percentage. Severino had a radical platoon split in 2017; this normalized this season and doesn’t appear to be a factor against the Athletics’ righty-heavy lineup. Severino had a 2.04 ERA with a 18/4 K/BB ratio in his last three starts, with no home runs allowed, so it’s possible his struggles are behind him.
Oakland was aggressive with their bullpen on the trade front, acquiring Jeurys Familia and Fernando Rodney to provide veteran backup for Blake Treinen. The Athletics surely would have loved to add an elite arm, but in a market where the asking price for Brad Hand was Francisco Mejia and fewer relievers were available, Familia and Rodney were a decent haul. Treinen was lights out all season, making the performances of Oakland’s acquisitions not nearly as important in a Wild Card race that was academic by September. It’s a game where all hands will be on deck, but given the depth of the pen combined with the rash of injuries to the rotation, it’s unlikely we’ll see a starter come in for a relief appearance.
Treinen is the first pitcher with an ERA below 0.80 in 80 or more innings since at least 1908. His absurd upper-90s fastball/upper-80s slider combination have been unhittable in short bursts, and if the A’s can get the ball to him in the ninth inning with a lead, they’re probably on their way to Boston. Treinen is the star, but Lou Trivino, Shawn Kelley, and Yusmeiro Petit can all keep the game close. Petit’s presence on the roster as a rubber-armed long reliever is useful if the game goes extras or if Bassitt and/or Mengden don’t have it.
Although their relief DRA jumped from 3.38 in 2017 to 3.69 this year, the Yankees’ bullpen remains a strength and an advantage against any non-Astros opponent in the postseason. The Yankees featured four of the top 14 relievers in strikeout percentage (minimum 40 innings) in the AL in Aroldis Chapman (no. 2), Dellin Betances (3), David Robertson (11), and Chad Green (14). This team’s bullpen is built for the postseason and the manager’s prerogative of a quick hook. Joe Girardi wasn’t afraid to pull Severino early last year when Severino struggled against the Twins, and with this arsenal of arms Boone won’t be timid either.
Last year’s blueprint remains intact. Robertson, Green, and Tommy Kahnle were all asked to log multiple-inning appearances in 2017’s Wild Card game and Boone will push his veteran arms if the situation warrants. The Athletics’ surging lineup versus the Yankees’ top-shelf bullpen is one of the best matchups of the postseason, and it’s almost a shame we won’t get to see this play out over the course of a series. As strong as Oakland’s pen is, it’s impossible not to give New York the advantage.
As you’d expect from a team that won 100 games during the regular season, the Yankees are heavily favored to win and advance to the ALDS against the Red Sox. The Athletics won 97 games, but don’t seem to garner the respect their fellow playoff teams do. Heck, they don’t get nearly the amount of positive media accolades the Rays did for winning 90 games and missing the playoffs. PECOTA gives the Yankees a 70 percent chance of winning. This is somewhat misleading; PECOTA is baking in Hendriks as a starting pitcher, not a one-and-done reliever. However, Fiers (25 percent chance of victory for the A’s), Bassitt (26 percent), and Mengden (26 percent) would be even worse “starters” for Oakland on paper.
Anything can happen in what amounts to a coin-flip game between two very talented teams, yet picking against the Yankees at home feels like a bridge too far. New York won 53 and lost 28 at Yankee Stadium, and while the idea of ghosts and mystique is best left to fairy tales, playing a one-game series in New York is a daunting task for any opponent. The Athletics may get to Severino, but the Yankees almost definitely will hit whatever combination of pitchers Oakland throws at them. If the game is left to the bullpens, the advantage for New York may be too much to overcome.
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