After six months of slow-developing regular-season play, we’ve reached the point of the year when baseball morphs into a small-sample sport and demands that we do in-depth analyses of individual games, which would have made us look like overachievers in any other month. The craziness kicks off in Kauffman Stadium with tonight’s AL wild-card game (8 p.m. ET, TBS) between the Kansas City Royals, who fell just short of an AL Central upset but still broke their 28-year playoff drought, and the Oakland A’s, who survived their own second-half collapse and a late charge by Seattle to continue their quest for one measly win beyond the ALDS, which has eluded them in seven previous trips to the postseason under GM Billy Beane.
This is a matchup between teams that play very different brands of baseball: The A’s are known for embracing on-base percentage, the Royals for neglecting it; the A’s boast baseball’s best run differential, the Royals the worst among AL playoff teams; the A’s shit doesn’t work in the postseason, the Royals’ shit rarely works in the regular season. They do have at least a couple of things in common, though: To get to this point, both teams made all-in, mortgage-the-future moves that were intended to pay off today. And they’ll be starting their respective aces, Jon Lester and James Shields, each of whom was acquired via trade1 with must-win games in mind, and each of whom is weeks away from competing with the other for free-agent dollars.
Lester at the 2014 trade deadline, Shields before the 2013 season.
K.C. took the season series, 5-2. Now, which side has the edge in a one-game playoff on the Royals’ home turf, where they’ve been outscored by 42 runs? To figure that out, let’s examine the strengths and weaknesses for Kansas City (89-73 record, plus-27 run differential) and Oakland (88-74, plus-157).
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Kansas City Royals
|Royals’ Projected Wild-Card Game Lineup|
|1||SS Alcides Escobar||R||.285/.317/.377||95||620|
|2||RF Nori Aoki||L||.285/.349/.360||104||549|
|3||CF Lorenzo Cain||R||.301/.339/.412||111||502|
|4||1B Eric Hosmer||L||.270/.318/.398||100||547|
|5||DH Billy Butler||R||.271/.323/.379||97||603|
|6||LF Alex Gordon||L||.266/.351/.432||122||643|
|7||C Salvador Perez||R||.260/.289/.403||92||606|
|8||2B Omar Infante||R||.252/.295/.337||76||575|
|9||3B Mike Moustakas||L||.212/.271/.361||76||500|
|Strong shift candidates, according to BIS:2 Moustakas, Raul Ibanez, Erik Kratz, Josh Willingham, Jayson Nix|
Lefties with at least 80 percent pull rates or righties with at least 85 percent pull rates on grounders and short liners.
If you scanned those names and thought, That doesn’t look like a playoff lineup, your intuition is on target: No playoff lineup has ever looked like Kansas City’s, and not only in the sense that Infante is the lone player in the group with a postseason plate appearance. The Royals are the first playoff team ever to finish last in the majors in both home runs (95) and walks (380). Collectively, K.C.’s non-pitchers produced a 94 wRC+, tied for the ninth-worst mark by a team’s position players this season and the worst by a playoff team since the 2007 Diamondbacks, who fluked into a 90-win season despite being outscored by 20 runs.
Cain, Gordon, and Escobar, who bounced back to playability after a dismal 2013, are the only regulars who improved at the plate in 2014. The Royals’ former first-rounders, Hosmer and Moustakas, didn’t develop: Hosmer failed to sustain his productive second half from 2013, while Moustakas took a step back after teasing us with another torrid spring, no small feat considering how far away he’d been from the mark before. Infante, playing through lingering pain, had his worst offensive season since 2005. Butler’s plate discipline and power, which were once his strengths, eroded in his age-28 season, as he suffered the seventh-largest increase in chase rate among hitters who saw at least 2,000 pitches in both 2013 and 2014 (according to Baseball Prospectus plate discipline stats).
Maybe the rest of the Royals rubbed off on him: Kansas City tied for the second-lowest walk rate of the wild-card era. The team’s only strength with the bat is making contact and racking up singles, an approach that plays right into Oakland’s sure hands. Royals hitters have the second-highest ground ball rate in the AL (47.0 percent), and A’s pitchers have allowed a .210 batting average on grounders, easily the lowest mark in the majors. I’ll get you, Kansas City, and your little grounders too.
Yet the Royals made the playoffs despite their offensive inadequacies, which tells us two things: that they might have been a little lucky (more on that in a moment), and that they must excel in other areas. One of their under-the-radar skills is a knack for making the most of their legs: The Royals are the eighth-best baserunning team of the wild-card era, per Baseball Prospectus’s Baserunning Runs, and they more than doubled the 2014 BRR total of the runner-up Angels. They’re adept at advancing on all batted balls, and they combine the game’s highest stolen-base total (153) with its third-best success rate. They’ve also allowed the third-lowest opponent’s BRR in the league and the fewest stolen bases, thanks to the strong arms and quick releases of Perez behind the plate and Gordon and Aoki in the outfield corners (as well as the efforts of Shields and Yordano Ventura on the mound). Oakland is the season’s second-worst baserunning team, so any A’s who reach base should probably stay glued to the bag.
Twitter3 has started referring to Shields as an Astronaut Lion (the only entity more admirable than a regular lion) in recognition of his leadership skills and incredible consistency. The righty has run his streak of 200-inning seasons to eight, and he’s posted a FIP between 3.42 and 3.59 in the last four. At age 32, he’s throwing harder than ever, his changeup is back to being one of baseball’s best weapons, and his five-pitch mix remains mostly unchanged, aside from a slight increase in curveballs at the expense of cutters.
Specifically @r_j_anderson and @TRancel.
Shields might seem well cast as an Oakland killer: The A’s lead the league in walk rate, and Shields allowed the 14th-lowest walk rate among 88 qualified starters this season; pit a strike-throwing starter against a patient offense, and you rob the lineup of its strength: selectivity. However, while Shields throws strikes, he doesn’t throw them in the strike zone: His 48.3 percent zone rate ranks only 102nd among 155 pitchers who’ve thrown at least 1,500 pitches this season. His chase rate ranks 34th, so he depends on hitters getting greedy and fishing outside the zone. Oakland’s hitters chase less often than any other team’s, though, which means Shields’s stuff will have to seem especially enticing for him to succeed.
If the A’s do make Shields work and drive him from the game relatively early, their job won’t necessarily get easier. Backing him up is a rested and relentless bullpen led by the seventh/eighth/ninth-inning Cerberus of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland, who made the Royals the only team other than the 1907 Cubs to have three pitchers throw at least 60 innings apiece with ERAs below 1.50. Trade acquisition Jason Frasor and September call-up (and 2014 draftee) Brandon Finnegan have firmed up the bullpen’s underbelly, and even flame-throwing starter Ventura might be available for short work if needed. No manager maintains bullpen roles as rigidly as Ned Yost, but Shields failed to complete the sixth in only four of his league-leading 34 starts, which reduces the risk that the Royals will be burned by a weak link between their starter and their dominant late-inning arms — even if it increases the risk that Yost, who has a slow hook, will stick with Shields too long despite a better relief option being available.
|Athletics’ Projected Wild-Card Game Lineup|
|1||CF Coco Crisp||S||.246/.336/.363||103||536|
|2||DH Adam Dunn||L||.219/.337/.415||112||511|
|3||3B Josh Donaldson||R||.255/.342/.456||129||695|
|4||LF Brandon Moss||L||.234/.334/.438||121||580|
|5||RF Josh Reddick||L||.264/.316/.446||117||396|
|6||SS Jed Lowrie||S||.249/.321/.355||94||566|
|7||1B Stephen Vogt||L||.279/.321/.431||114||287|
|8||C Geovany Soto||R||.250/.302/.363||88||87|
|9||2B Eric Sogard||L||.223/.298/.268||67||329|
|Strong shift candidates, according to BIS: Moss, Reddick, Soto, Crisp (LHB)|
The A’s finished the first half with the best run differential at the All-Star break since the 116-win 2001 Mariners, but limped to a .433 winning percentage thereafter, the lowest-ever post-break winning percentage by a playoff team. (Thanks, second wild card!) When Beane insisted that he’d traded for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel (and later, perhaps, for Lester, Dunn, and Soto) with his eye primarily on the regular season and not October, the A’s seemed to have a playoff spot locked up. Still, Beane was wise to be prudent.
Through July, the A’s averaged five runs per game; in August and September, they averaged 3.5. The culprit wasn’t a decline in Oakland’s patience or a Royalsesque contact rate, but rather a decrease in BABIP and home run rate driven by regression exacerbated by injuries to catcher John Jaso, Moss, Donaldson, Crisp, Lowrie, Vogt, Craig Gentry, and others. While the timing of Oakland’s slump relative to the Yoenis Cespedes trade led to insinuations that Beane had delved too greedily and too deep in his attempts to improve his pitching, the loss of one bat (who hit only .269/.296/.423 with five homers in Fenway) can’t explain the missing runs. In fact, one can more easily make the case that dealing Cespedes for Lester saved Oakland’s season.4
Fun fact: According to the BP database, homegrown players accounted for only 22.7 percent of Oakland’s plate appearances and batters faced in 2014, the lowest total of any team since the 2007 Padres.
According to BP data, A’s hitters had the platoon advantage in 72.1 percent of their regular-season plate appearances, the second-highest mark in the majors.5 With the left-handed-hitting Jaso sidelined for the season by a concussion and Derek Norris months removed from his early hot hitting, the A’s will likely start Soto in an attempt to control the Royals’ running game.6 True to form, however, Oakland will probably go with only one other righty against the right-handed Shields — not that stacking the lineup with opposite-handed hitters is likely to trouble him. Shields has a reverse split as a Royal, with a lefty-neutralizing arsenal — cutters, curves, and changeups all tend to have nonexistent or reverse splits — that suggests his stats are legit.
Both teams have speed on the bench, but Yost, unlike A’s manager Bob Melvin, almost never pinch hits.
Soto has a league-average career caught-stealing percentage, but he’s 10-for-23 in attempted kills in 2014.
A’s hitters have the highest fly ball rate in baseball, which is normally a good thing (inefficiency alert!). Tonight, however, it might hurt them in much the same way that the Royals’ proclivity for grounders could hamper K.C. In Gordon, Cain, and Jarrod Dyson, the Royals have three of the top 10 outfielders this season by Defensive Runs Saved, though their defensive efficiency and slugging allowed on fly balls in play (fifth-lowest in baseball) don’t tell as optimistic a story.
Meanwhile, one might think that with four lefties likely to be in the Royals’ lineup, a tough southpaw like Lester — and behind him, a talented lefty relief trio with setup men Fernando Abad and Eric O’Flaherty (if healthy) and closer Sean Doolittle — would be a tough assignment for Kansas City. However, the Royals have been relatively productive against southpaws, posting a 100 wRC+ against lefties, compared to 92 against right-handed pitchers.7 It’s a stretch to describe anything the Royals do at the plate as a strength, but susceptibility to southpaws isn’t an obvious weakness, and Lester has an even smaller career split than Shields.
Aoki has a career reverse split, and Gordon has a slim one.
Against Lester, though, there is no foolproof plan. The Royals are well aware, as Lester is 9-3 against K.C. in his career, with a 1.84 ERA. The lefty set a career high in innings pitched this season and also posted the lowest FIP and highest K-BB% of his career. Like Shields, he throws five pitches, with an average fastball velocity of 93-plus mph; since leaving Boston, he’s increased his sinker and curveball usage at the expense of four-seamers, although thus far he hasn’t seen an increase in ground balls as a result. However, that arsenal adjustment could serve him well tonight, since the Royals have posted the league’s worst results this season when they’ve put sinkers and curveballs into play. And when Lester leaves the game, the Royals will have the pleasure of facing the bullpen with the second-best ERA in the AL.
In last week’s review of playoff myths, we learned that a lack of prior playoff experience isn’t a handicap in October, so there’s no edge for the A’s there. However, we also learned that the way a team plays down the stretch or in the second half tends not to correlate with how it plays in the postseason, so the Royals can’t count on a cakewalk because of Oakland’s August–September struggles.
According to cluster luck, analyst Ed Feng’s measure of how lucky teams have been in bunching their hits together, the A’s and Royals rank fifth and sixth, respectively, in offense added through serendipitous sequencing. That’s right: The Royals’ offense might be even worse than the run total suggests. While the Royals have exceeded expectations, the A’s have dramatically underachieved win-loss-wise despite their cluster luck, based on their underlying stats. Oakland’s early-season stats don’t necessarily reflect the team this is now, but the A’s do have the deeper and more well-rounded roster.
Defensively speaking, each team is the other’s worst nightmare; between that reality, the skill of the starters and bullpens, and the season-long/months-long struggles of the respective offenses, the stage is set for a low-scoring affair. Still, Oakland holds enough slight advantages — Lester over Shields, Bob Melvin over Yost, an offense that used to score over one that never did — to outweigh the Royals’ home-field status and give the A’s an infinitesimal edge.