With the NL Wild Card sorted and the Rockies moving on to face the Brewers in the NLDS, it’s time to dive into the AL Wild Card Game. We spent a lot of time analyzing the tiebreakers yesterday, before even getting into a Wild Card Game preview. The AL will not require such analysis, as the results in the Junior Circuit haven’t really been in question for ages, and we’re getting the Yankees-Athletics game in the Bronx that we’ve all been expecting the past month, even if we weren’t expecting it in April.
The fact that the Yankees won 100 games this year and made it to the postseason isn’t surprising in the least, given that they were a game away from the World Series last season and are, in fact, the New York Yankees. That the the A’s are here is another story entirely. They were 10 games back on July 10 before they became the hottest team in baseball after the All Star Break.
The 2018 Athletics are basically a microcosm of baseball in 2018, built on the twin foundations of dingers and a lockdown bullpen. The A’s are handing the ball to reliever Liam Hendriks, who will be the first Australian player to start a postseason game, and planning to toss a bullpen game. I, for one, am a big fan of the “opener, ” and, given the pool of arms manager Bob Melvin can draw upon (and the lack of a real ace), it’s a totally defensible move in a do-or-die situation.
While Hendriks’ overall numbers on the year (4.13 ERA, 4.33 FIP) aren’t particularly eye-popping, he did pitch a perfect inning against the Yankees as an opener in early September. The one caveat here is that the top of New York’s lineup is heavy on right handed hitters, and Hendricks has struggled against them this season, allowing a .327 AVG against (contrasted to .184 against lefties).
The rest of the A’s bullpen offers plenty of options should Hendriks struggle, though, as the group as a whole has notched 5.7 fWAR (5th in MLB) and is the best in either league by WPA (12.50). Shawn Kelley (2.94 ERA, 3.71 FIP), Lou Trivino (2.92 ERA, 3.69 FIP) and Yusmeiro Petit (3.00 ERA , 3.92 FIP) are all available and excellent options for the early and middle innings. After that, they can turn to setup man and midseason steal Jeurys Familia (3.13 ERA, 2.65 FIP), before handing the ball to the best reliever in baseball this season, closer Blake Treinen (0.78 ERA, 1.82 FIP), for a couple innings (or even more, potentially). The fear in a bullpen game is that it goes to extras, but they’ll be carrying a starter (presumably RHP Edwin Jackson) just in case it does.
On the offensive side of the ball, we’d be foolish not to expect some long balls. DH Khris Davis led the charge (and all of MLB) with 48 of them and Oakland hitters combined for 227 (3rd in MLB). Given that they play half their games in the monstrous Oakland Coliseum (28th for HRs in 2018), we you can only imagine what they would have done at Yankee Stadium (6th for HRs in 2018). On the whole, Matt Chapman, Jed Lowrie, Davis and the rest of the lineup came together for 31.1 fWAR, a number which was only bested by the Dodgers. This is a lineup that hits well and fields well.
To be fair, it’s not as if the A’s have the power market cornered in this game. The Yankees just set the single-season record with 267 home runs. And while that number certainly doesn’t take into account ballpark effects, the Yankees’ lineup has been excellent regardless of ballpark.
In terms of pitching, the Yankees will be going the more traditional route and starting RHP Luis Severino. While he didn’t fare so well in his Wild Card Start against the Twins last year, only getting one out, we should probably chalk that one up to the miniscule sample size gremlins and look at his body of work this year, which has been excellent overall, resulting in consideration, at least, for a Cy Young Award.
Severino got his 2018 off to a great start, with a 2.31 ERA in the first half, but then struggled for a couple of months. Lately, though, Severino has been excellent, with a 1.98 FIP since September and a 9-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his final three starts, during which he allowed only four earned runs in 17.2 innings.
Severino’s starts against the A’s this year had mixed results. In his first start in May, before Oakland caught fire, he went six innings, only allowing a run. In early September, on the other hand, he couldn’t make it out of the second after allowing five earned runs. But, even if Severino struggles early, the Yankees aren’t in trouble, because they’re one of the few teams in baseball with a bullpen that can rival or even top the A’s.
New York’s relief crew leads all of MLB in fWAR (9.7) and K/9 (11.40). The ridiculous bullpen that we remember from their postseason run last year is basically all still here and doing extremely well. Aroldis Chapman (2.45 ERA, 2.09 FIP), Dellin Betances (2.70 ERA, 2.47 FIP), David Robertson (3.23 ERA, 2.97 FIP), Chad Green (2.50 ERA, 2.86 FIP) and Adam Warren (2.70 ERA, 3.29 FIP) are joined by midseason acquisition Zach Britton (3.10 ERA, 4.22 FIP; 2.88 ERA since joining NYY).
Turning to the bigger picture, if we’re looking to how things have gone when they’re head-to-head this season, they’re 3-3, so that’s not much help. The Yankees are great at home (53-28, 2nd best in MLB), but the A’s are great on the road (47-34, tied-3rd best in MLB). The Yankees (+182, 3rd in AL) have a better run differential than the A’s (+139, 5th in AL), but the Yankees were +33 against Baltimore alone, so there’s that.
On the whole, team-wide wRC+ (which neutralizes park effects) doesn’t provide much in the way of clarity, as the Yankees’ 111 wRC+ is tied for first place and the A’s almost-the-same 110 wRC+ is tied for third. These are two extremely good lineups, even if the Yankees is (of course) the one with more star power. One area where the edge certainly goes to Oakland is on defense. Collectively, their +25 DRS ranks 10th in MLB and a 36.7 UZR which was the 2nd best mark in either either league. The Yanks, on the other hand, were good for +6 DRS (16th in MLB) and a 0.1 UZR (17th in MLB).
As for an overall prediction, a single game is such a small sample size that it’s almost a coin flip no matter what. The fact that these are two of the best Wild Card teams ever by their season records doesn’t make anything easier. Given the lineups, it certainly has the feel of a slugfest, despite the quality of bullpens that will be on display. At gunpoint, I’d probably pick the Yankees, because, well, Yankees, but if I’m free to take my time and mull it over, I’ll probably go with the A’s outhomering and outfielding the Yankees. Now that I’ve said that, we’re going to be looking at a 1-0 victory. Whatever happens, it’s elimination postseason baseball, so it’s going to be fun.