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Three Keys to the A’s-Rays AL Wild-Card Showdown

How will Oakland’s new lefty pitchers fare? Who has the home run advantage? Can Tampa Bay win with a traditional starter? The answers could help decide who will square off against the Astros in the ALDS.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A single-elimination playoff appetizer between the A’s and Rays recalls a first-round March Madness matchup between two mid-major darlings. Both Oakland and Tampa Bay boast talented rosters and plenty of pluck, but one will see its playoff dreams dashed before ever receiving a real chance to unfurl.

Such is the drama of the wild-card game, which this year in the American League pits a 97-win team against a 96-win opponent. Tampa Bay makes its first October appearance since 2013, when Alex Cobb and three relievers combined to shut out Cleveland in a wild-card win, while Oakland contends with a more haunting recent history. During Billy Beane’s tenure, the A’s are 1-14 in potential clinch games, including an 0-8 mark in sudden-death contests. In two wild-card tries, they lost a late lead in Kansas City in 2014, then saw a bullpenning plan sputter in the Bronx in 2018.

Now they’re home, at least, and the two small-market clubs will battle for one night for the chance to take on the juggernaut Astros. Both teams are capable of springing such a monumental upset—but they have to earn that chance first. Here are the three key questions that will decide Wednesday’s game.

Will Oakland’s new lefty pitchers dominate Tampa Bay’s lefty hitters?

Oakland used six pitchers in its wild-card loss last season. Only one of them will be on Wednesday’s roster, and Liam Hendriks has evolved from 2018 opener to 2019 closer. But a trio of recently activated southpaws could pitch the bulk of Oakland’s innings in this game, which would generate fascinating ripples across Tampa Bay’s lineup.

Against the Yankees in the 2018 wild-card game, Oakland went the bullpen route, which, even though it failed, made sense given the team’s strengths and weaknesses. But the current club’s bullpen isn’t as deep as last year’s, as 2018 breakout right-handers Blake Treinen and Lou Trivino have spent the 2019 season alternately injured and ineffective, and last year’s A’s lacked a comfortable choice to start. That isn’t the case this year.

Starter Sean Manaea didn’t pitch in the majors before September 1 this season as he recuperated after shoulder surgery, but he dazzled upon his return. In five starts, the big lefty posted a 1.21 ERA and better than a strikeout per inning, while allowing a mere .509 opposing OPS. Manaea is likely to face the most batters of any A’s pitcher Wednesday.

After Manaea are two more intriguing options—both, like Manaea, having recently returned from injury. A.J. Puk (rated the no. 19 prospect in the majors by FanGraphs) debuted on August 21 and has since struck out 13 batters in 11 somewhat erratic innings, while Jesus Luzardo (FG’s no. 23 prospect) has excelled since debuting on September 11. In six games spanning 12 innings, Luzardo has allowed just two runs and three walks while striking out 16, and manager Bob Melvin turned to Luzardo over the weekend to save the game that gave Oakland home-field advantage in the wild-card contest.

On talent alone, there’s a reasonable case to be made that Oakland’s only pitchers in this game should be Manaea, Luzardo, Puk, and Hendriks. The one potential problem is that Luzardo hasn’t yet entered a game with runners already on base, and Puk has inherited a base runner in just two of 10 appearances. (Both times, he faced just one hitter, whom he allowed to reach base.) If Manaea starts but runs into trouble in the middle innings, manager Bob Melvin will have a tricky decision to make.

But on the whole, Oakland’s pitching composition could serve the club especially well as it matches against the Rays’ lineup. Tampa Bay’s two best hitters this year, on a rate basis, were outfielder Austin Meadows and infielder Brandon Lowe—both lefty hitters who hit considerably worse against same-handed pitchers. In the following table, sOPS+ calculates a player’s performance relative to the rest of the league in that split and puts it on a scale in which 100 is average, so Lowe, for instance, was 36 percent better than average against righties and 26 percent worse than average against lefties.

Key Rays Platoon Splits

Meadows vs. RHP .298 .384 .576 153 18.8% 10.9%
Meadows vs. LHP .275 .316 .521 115 29.9% 5.1%
Lowe vs. RHP .278 .355 .543 136 29.7% 8.9%
Lowe vs. LHP .242 .265 .409 74 52.9% 2.9%

Look at the strikeout and walk numbers in particular. Lowe might not even start against Manaea—yes, that really is a strikeout rate higher than 50 percent against lefties—and Meadows might face a succession of lefties all game long. Tampa Bay has platoon righty batters ready to hit, too, but lessening the threat of the Rays’ best players would represent an early victory for Oakland.

Can a traditional starter win for an untraditional team?

After two seasons in which the Rays redefined pitching strategy with the opener, they seem to be resorting to a less heterodox plan in this winner-takes-all contest. Tampa Bay will send Charlie Morton to the mound after a spectacular first season in Tampa—and especially against Oakland, against whom Morton went 13 1/3 innings across two starts, during which he allowed just a single run.

The veteran right-hander also has a history of playoff success, for whatever that experience is worth on Wednesday. Morton has two playoff wins in his career, and both came at convenient times for the then-Astro: Game 7 of the 2017 ALCS, and Game 7 of the 2017 World Series. Morton is the only pitcher in MLB history with two Game 7 wins in the same postseason, and one of just two pitchers—along with Bob Gibson—to win multiple Game 7s at any point in his career.

This season, after a bit of a midsummer swoon, Morton returned to form in September: In five starts in the month—all Rays wins—he collected a 2.73 ERA, never allowed more than three runs in a game, and struck out 39 batters. That stretch included gems against Cleveland, Boston, and the Yankees.

While manager Kevin Cash can call on eminently capable relievers like Nick Anderson and former Athletic Emilio Pagán if needed, the easiest way for Tampa Bay to record 27 outs against Oakland is for Morton to dominate like he has so often this season. Even in the single-game crucible of a wild-card game, after all, most teams rely on a top performance from a top starter as their Plan A: Of the 28 pitchers to make a wild-card start under the new format (since 2012), 21 pitched to at least one batter a third time, and more than half of the other seven were removed early for poor performance, not as part of a preordained plan.

The Rays aren’t most teams, so they may plan to use Morton for just a few innings and then turn to the bullpen, or piggyback with another electric starter like Tyler Glasnow or Blake Snell. But in both past and present, Morton has proved himself reliable enough to—probably—warrant the opportunity to win the game by himself.

Which team has the home run advantage?

In the year of the home run, the A’s ranked fifth in the majors in home runs while Tampa Bay finished just 21st. Of course, that difference might not manifest in a single game—even the difference between fifth and 21st places amounted to just 40 homers over the full season, or just a quarter of a homer per game.

But in analyzing the likely Wednesday lineups, Oakland would seem to have a significant home run advantage. Outside Meadows—who, again, might be neutralized somewhat by Oakland’s pitchers—Tampa Bay’s home run leader was Tommy Pham, who hit 21 home runs. The A’s had six players hit 23 or more, including three players above 30: Matt Chapman (36), Matt Olson (36), and Marcus Semien (33).

On Tampa Bay’s side is a group of pitchers seemingly specially designed to combat a homer-happy offense. Among all qualified starters this season, Morton posted the best HR/9 rate, and among all active pitchers with at least 1,000 innings pitched, Morton ranks third in career homer-allowed rate. More broadly, the Rays ranked no. 1 as a team in home run prevention this year.

Whether Tampa Bay can thwart Oakland’s thump could well swing the game. Contrary to popular belief, a reliance on home runs isn’t a poor playoff strategy; in fact, because overall run scoring decreases in October, any given homer is relatively more valuable in the playoffs. The percentage of runs scored via the homer is typically higher in the playoffs than in the regular season. And in the wild-card era (since 1995), the team that hits more homers in a playoff game has won 75.5 percent of the time; in the juiced ball era (since 2015), that rate ticks up to an even 80 percent.

The lineups suggest that Oakland would be favored to win this key statistical category, and thus the game. The pitching staffs suggest that might not be the case. That tension makes sense for a game that looks about as evenly split as possible. The only worthwhile prediction is that Wednesday’s contest is sure to be close.