By: Chris Larson
Now that the National League Wild Card Game has concluded, it is time to turn our sights towards the American League Wild Card Game. It is bound to be full of plenty of excitement from both teams and if you are a saber-metrically inclined fan, then this will be the game for you. If you follow baseball regularly, you likely know how much both the Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays embrace analytics and using them to their advantage.
Furthermore, if there were ever a Wild Card Game that was called "Budget Baseball", this would be the game for everyone to set their eyes on. Heading into this season, the Tampa Bay Rays had the lowest payroll of all 30 teams in baseball, while the Oakland Athletics had the 5th lowest payroll in the sport. Considering that and how much money is in the game today, it's remarkable to think of what both of these teams have been able to do over the years with a constrained budget and in a small market. Therefore, a lot of credit has to go to Kevin Cash and the entire Tampa Bay Rays front office staff as well as Bob Melvin and the entire Oakland Athletics front office.
For the Tampa Bay Rays, they led the American League East for almost the entire length of the first two months of the season and finished the year with a 96-66 record, allowing them to be back in the playoffs for the first time since 2013, when they squared off against the Cleveland Indians in the American League Wild Card Game and won with a final score of 4-0. The 2019 regular season wasn't an easy one for the Tampa Bay Rays as they had to overcome injuries to two of their key starting pitchers in, Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow, and had nearly as many injuries as the New York Yankees experienced over the course of the season. At one point in August, the Rays had put 23 of their Opening Day players on the Injured List as some point.
Despite those obstacles, Kevin Cash and the entire Tampa Bay Rays coaching staff were able to manage the team very effectively and get the most out of each and every single player on the team's 25-man roster. Yes, there were peaks and valleys during the course of the season which ultimately ended up allowing the New York Yankees to surpass the Tampa Bay Rays for the American League East divisional crown, but Tampa Bay showed a lot of adversity and the ability to really work together in sync on several different occasions as well. A lot of the offensive contributions came courtesy of outfielder, Tommy Pham, and rightfielder/designated hitter, Austin Meadows who both had excellent seasons overall.
On the other side of the field, for the Oakland Athletics, the players on their 25-man roster might not be the most well-known players around the game of baseball, but they are all talented in their own right. It's not necessarily the pitching that the Athletics are most known for, but rather their offensive juggernauts in first baseman Matt Olson, shortstop Marcus Semien, third baseman Matt Chapman, and designated hitter Khris Davis. In fact, a legitimate case can be made for Marcus Semien to win the American League Most Valuable Player Award and you definitely can't sleep on Matt Olson, Matt Chapman, or Khris Davis either. You mind as well call it "The Matt Show by The Bay" with the talent of both Olson and Chapman and the excellent veteran leadership that Khris Davis provides on and off the field every single day.
Unlike last season for the Oakland Athletics, this season was one where Oakland seemed to dominate all year long ultimately ending up with a 97-65 record, good enough for a (.599) winning percentage. If you were to break the season into two halves, the Athletics put up a (51-41) record during the first half, while ending the second half with a (46-24) record. Once again, the team showed that it excels in one-run games, putting up a (27-22) record and scoring a total of (198) runs in those situations. Like last year, the Athletics always seemed to find a way to fight until the very end of a game and this season seemed no different regardless if you are a diehard Oakland Athletics fan, a fan watching from afar, or even a casual fan of the game.
Switching things back to tomorrow night's game, the game is going to feature a starting pitching matchup of Charlie Morton for the Tampa Bay Rays and Sean Manaea for the Oakland Athletics. Morton, who used to pitch for the Houston Astros, belongs right there in the conversation for the American League Cy Young Award with his former teammates, Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, based on the numbers that he posted this season. Over the span of the 2019 regular season, Morton posted a 3.05 ERA over 194.2 innings of work with a (2.81) Fielding Independent Percentage (FIP), a career low home runs-per-9 rate of (0.7), and a strikeouts-per-9 rate of (11.1). Furthermore, Morton was able to hold opposing teams hitters to a cumulative slash line of: .215/.283/.340 over that time frame which is remarkable for the 35-year old.
Going from one saber-metrically inclined organization in the Houston Astros to another in the Tampa Bay Rays, has proven to be a very good one for Charlie Morton and a step in the right direction as he continues to get older. All 30 teams in baseball could have signed Morton and the Tampa Bay Rays, who as stated earlier came into the season with the lowest payroll in the game, ended up landing him and bolstering a strength of their team with another legitimate arm. Beyond the excellent surface level numbers, a really fascinating stat about Charlie Morton has been his ability to perform in situations where there are two outs and runners in scoring position. In those situations, which accounted for approximately (72) plate appearances of the (790) plate appearances that Morton logged this season, he held opponents to a batting line of: .136/.208/.197 with (29) strikeouts and a (.222) BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play). So if anyone can handle a big moment in a postseason game, it's Charlie Morton and his outstanding 79 MPH curveball!
In the starting pitching matchup, Charlie Morton likely has the leg up over Sean Manaea, but that shouldn't take anything away from the 27-year old southpaw who has long been viewed as the future ace of the Oakland Athletics starting rotation. Unfortunately for Sean Manaea, he was forced to sit on the sidelines for the entire 2019 regular season, with the exception of September, as he was recovering from left shoulder surgery. Heading into the season, Manaea was a big component of the Oakland Athletics plans for this season and when it was announced that he would end up being out longer than expected, the Athletics ended up turning to the trade market for additional help and acquired Homer Bailey from the Kansas City Royals and Tanner Roark from the Cincinnati Reds.
Despite that, Sean Manaea was still able to log five games over the month of September in which he posted a 1.21 ERA over 29.2 innings pitched with an Opponent Batting Average Against of (.160) and a WHIP of (0.78). One of the interesting components about Sean Manaea's game is his ability to to limit contact by the opponents hitters on the bottom and right side of the strike zone itself. For more on that, refer to these two heat maps below.
As you can see from that chart, the more that Sean Manaea stays away from the direct center of the strike zone and the upper-left quadrant of the zone, the better off he is. Those tend to be the areas where the opposing team's hitters make the most contact and where the most damage is done when he's on the mound. Based on the data from the chart on the right in terms of exit velocity, you can easily pinpoint where the sweet spot is in the strike zone, which is directly in the middle where the exit velocity sits at (99.1) MPH, followed by the corners of the strike zone besides the upper right corner which sits at (86.2) MPH. The Tampa Bay Rays have likely studied this material heavily, as they prepare for tomorrow night's game, and are likely well equipped with a solid plan of attack to ensure that they make contact in those "heat" zones.
Although both Charlie Morton and Sean Manaea are scheduled to pitch, it will be interesting to see if they are the only starting pitchers used during the course of the game. Tampa Bay has Tyler Glasnow, who would be available on regular rest, along with Blake Snell, who would be pitching on short rest. Depending on the matchup at hand, Kevin Cash and his coaching staff could elect to give the ball to one of them before handing the ball off to one of their relievers. The same goes for Oakland as they have a couple of different starting pitchers that would be available. Bob Melvin has always been creative in his handling of a pitching staff so maybe someone like, Mike Fiers ends up making an appearance depending on, how long Sean Manaea ends up pitching. Of course, this whole thought of thinking is trying to predict what the future might look like without any substantial evidence that it's going to happen.
Looking at the bullpen now, the Tampa Bay Rays bullpen ended the 2019 regular season with the best bullpen ERA in all of baseball (3.66 over 772.0 innings of work), but the Oakland Athletics bullpen faired well during the regular season as well. Oakland finished with the seventh best bullpen, in terms of ERA, at 3.89 over 579.0 innings pitched. For both teams, having a substantial amount of bullpen depth has been key all season long because both teams haven't necessarily fired away at their opponents in the starting rotation. As has been well noted over the past few seasons, the Tampa Bay Rays were the team that originally instituted the idea of having "The Opener" and the Oakland Athletics followed that approach during last year's American League Wild Card Game against the New York Yankees. That approach ended up not working out in Oakland's favor so that is a significant reason why they are not embracing it this time around.
Within the Tampa Bay Rays bullpen, one of the most intriguing arms is Nick Anderson, who we wrote about on here a few weeks ago. (https://popflybaseball.blogspot.com/2019/09/the-tampa-bay-rays-reliever-that-youve.html). Anderson, who Tampa Bay acquired from the Miami Marlins prior to the July 31st Trade Deadline, is fascinating in that he is a high strikeout guy that has allowed very little contact throughout the season and does a great job at run prevention. With the Tampa Bay Rays, Nick Anderson finished the 2019 regular season with a strikeouts-per-9 rate of (17.3), a (0.65) WHIP, and a 2.11 ERA over 21.1 innings of work. In total, Anderson had a Runs Allowed Per 9 Innings Pitched (RA9) value of (2.11) with the Rays and was especially great against righties holding them to a cumulative slash line of: .183/.234/.305.
Given that he has been so successful against righties and the fact that the Oakland Athletics lineup is righty-heavy, this is likely to be one of the more significant matchups that ends up happening in tomorrow night's game. Kevin Cash is a matchup specialist so he will know when to deploy Nick Anderson, but everyone besides Matt Olson is a right-handed hitter in the Athletics lineup. So for instance, if the top of the order was coming up in the batting order and it was the 6th inning, Kevin Cash might end up deploying Nick Anderson to face Marcus Semien, Ramon Laureano, and Matt Chapman. Either way, it is another way that the Tampa Bay Rays will try to out manage the Oakland Athletics from a pitching standpoint.
Besides Nick Anderson, another intriguing arm in the Tampa Bay Rays bullpen mix is right-hander, Diego Castillo. Castillo ended the season with a 3.41 ERA over 68.2 innings of work, but his signature pitch is his sinker. During the 2019 regular season, his sinker averaged the fifth highest pitch speed (98.2 MPH) among pitchers with at least 150 batted ball events, according to data compiled by Baseball Savant. Furthermore, Castillo's sinker had an average spin rate of 2,124 RPM and resulted in a total Whiff Rate of (20.8%). Considering that the Whiff Rate on his sinker sat at (16.6%) just last season, that is incredible because it means that Diego Castillo has been able to refine it and make it his signature pitch even more.
On the other side of the field, the Oakland Athletics have worked very hard over the past few seasons to build up a "super bullpen" with lots of different options for skipper, Bob Melvin. Unfortunately, that depth took somewhat of a hit about two weeks ago when it was announced that, Lou Trivino, would be put on the shelf indefinitely after falling in the shower and injuring a rib. In addition, reliever Blake Treinen was shutdown towards the end of last month, after experiencing a stress reaction in his back. Both of those injuries were blows for the Athletics, but as they have shown all season long, they can overcome any obstacle put in front of them and creatively find a way to get those critical outs that matter the most.
Of every reliever in the Oakland Athletics bullpen, the name that will likely be relied on heavily during tomorrow night's game is right-hander, Liam Hendriks. Hendriks finished the season with a 1.80 ERA over 75 games and was able to hold opponents to a batting average of (.201) throughout the entire regular season. Over his nine seasons of pitching at the big league level, Hendriks averaged the fewest pitches per inning pitched (15.9) and had (66.2%) of his total pitches called for strikes. Furthermore, Liam Hendriks had the lowest expected batting average (.179) and was able to induce a Whiff Rate of (55.8%) on his curveball. Given that Hendriks features four pitches in his pitch repertoire (sinker, 4-seamer, curveball, and slider), he gives Bob Melvin a lot of different options and looks when it comes to getting those critical outs late in the ball game. Depending on if the Athletics have a lead during tomorrow night's game, will depend on how and when Hendriks is deployed.
Another very good reliever for Oakland this season has been right-hander, Yusmeiro Petit. Petit had the highest WAR (1.4) of his big league career during the 2019 regular season and put up a left on-base percentage of (81.4%). Beyond that, Yusmeiro Petit posted the lowest walks-per-9 rate of his twelve year big league career at (1.08) and had a (.213) batting average on balls put into play (BABIP) as well. One really intriguing aspect of Yusmeiro Petit's overall style of play this season has been his ability to handle high leverage situations. In those situations, which have accounted for 14.2 innings of the 83 innings pitched by Petit this season, he held opposing hitters to a cumulative slash line of: .176/.176/.392 with (15) strikeouts and a Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) of (.230). That could be something else that comes in quite handy during the game as Bob Melvin looks for someone to use in a high leverage spot or inning.
Shifting things over to the offense now, the Oakland Athletics would seemingly have a bit of an edge over the Tampa Bay Rays because they feature more star studded names and power overall throughout their lineup, but the differences between both lineups certainly isn't vast. As mentioned previously, for the Tampa Bay Rays, a lot of their power has come from outfielder, Tommy Pham, and rightfielder/designated hitter, Austin Meadows, both of whom have been outstanding this season and were deserving of All-Star nominations. However, when you look at the Oakland Athletics, their lineup is deeper in the sense that they have a very good 1-6 combination of hitters. At the very top of Oakland's lineup is shortstop, Marcus Semien, who as mentioned before is having an MVP caliber type of year followed up by rightfielder, Ramon Laureano, and third baseman, Matt Chapman, down in the three hole. Once you get through those top three hitters, you move into an even more potent part of the lineup with first baseman Matt Olson occupying the four hole followed by centerfielder Mark Canha and designated hitter Khris Davis.
On the season as a whole, the Oakland Athletics lineup combined for a slash line of: .249/.327/.448 with (1,384) hits, (292) doubles, (23) triples, (257) home runs, and (800) RBI. Beyond that, the Oakland Athletics showed a very high amount of plate discipline, as they tied for the eighth highest walk rate (9.2%) in all of baseball with the Cleveland Indians and put up an overall WAR value of (28.5), which was the fifth highest amount in all of baseball. When you compare that to the lineup of the Tampa Bay Rays, the Rays finished the 2019 regular season with a slash line of: .254/.325/.431 with (1,427) hits, (291) doubles, (29) triples, (217) home runs, and (730) RBI. On the whole, those batting lines are virtually the same with very few changes. Despite that, the Rays ended the season with a cumulative WAR of (23.0), which was (5.5) points less than the WAR of the Athletics, and posted an overall walk rate of (8.6%), about a (0.6%) change from the walk rate of the Athletics.
During the 2019 regular season, the Oakland Athletics squared off against the Tampa Bay Rays on seven different occasions in which the Athletics lineup scored (26) runs with a slash line of: .223/.307/.384. Among the most potent hitter within the Oakland Athletics lineup against Tampa Bay was designated hitter, Khris Davis. Davis appeared in all seven games and put up a slash line of: .321/.345/.464 over (28) at bats with (9) hits, (1) double, (1) home run, (1) RBI, (1) walk, and (9) strikeouts. Interestingly enough, over his career, Khris Davis has recorded (21) at bats against Charlie Morton in which Morton held Davis to a .143/.280/.429 batting line. As mentioned in yesterday's article, regular season statistics don't always matter when it comes to the postseason, but you have to think that front offices discuss them in their overall equation when planning for the game and potential matchups that could occur throughout.
For the Tampa Bay Rays, they managed to put up a cumulative slash line of: .255/.319/.402 this season against the Tampa Bay Rays. Over that span of seven games, Tommy Pham came away as the winner of the hitter who did the most damage against the Rays pitching staff as he put up (7) hits, (2) home runs, (2) RBI, (4) walks, (4) strikeouts, and a (.808) OPS over that span. One aspect of Tommy Pham's game that has been especially impressive this season is his ability to hit with runners in scoring position with 2 outs in the inning. In those situations, which have accounted for approximately (52) of the total at bats that Pham had this season, he put up a .237/.349/.366 batting line with (22) hits, (3) doubles, (3) home runs, (3) RBI, (15) walks, and (24) strikeouts. That most likely explains why a significant amount of Pham's at bats have come in the two hole because he has had the opportunity to capitalize on his at bats during situations with runners in scoring position and 2 outs in an inning.
Besides Tommy Pham, one of the other hitters that the Oakland Athletics pitching staff will need to watch out for is rightfielder/designated hitter, Austin Meadows. Meadows, who was acquired by the team in the Chris Archer trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates, finished the 2019 regular season with an Isolated Power value of (.268) along with a (.331) BABIP and a (4.0) WAR value. Overall, a lot of his offensive value has come in high leverage situations where he has posted a slash line of: .257/.447/.543 with a walk percentage of (23.4%), a wOBA of (.378), and a wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus) value of (141). Therefore, if the Tampa Bay Rays need a clutch hitter to come through in a key situation during the course of the game, they are guaranteed to do something big with Austin Meadows at the plate. The best part is that Meadows is only 24-years old and is just starting to reach his peak years which means that even more offensive development could take place over the next few seasons increasing his value to the Rays even more.
All in all, tomorrow night's game between the Oakland Athletics and the Tampa Bay Rays is bound to be an exciting one and is going to peak the interest of those baseball fans that are into the savvy analytics of the game today and those that enjoy watching two small market teams, with limited payroll and resources, square off against each other. In terms of who will end up winning the game, look for the Tampa Bay Rays to advance onto the American League Divisional Series against the Houston Astros with a final score of 6-2. While it will be a shame for the Oakland Athletics to be done after one game, they still have a lot to be proud of considering that they were able to clinch a postseason berth in the first place and once again prove, that money doesn't always matter, when it comes to being a postseason contender.