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Rays-A’s Wild Card Preview

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East Coast Moneyball vs. West Coast Moneyball. Buckle up

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Oakland Athletics Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

It’s here. After wandering the desert (aka golfing Octobers) for the previous five seasons, your beloved Tampa Bay Rays are back in the postseason, baby!!

The last time the Rays made the playoffs, they played in the second year of the one-game Wild Card playoff format, winning their matchup over Cleveland before falling in four games to the Red Sox in the ALDS. This time, once again, it’s win or go home right off the bat.

You thought your ulcers were bad last week; hoo boy.

So let’s lean away from the stress by hyper-analyzing every possible inch of what should be an awesome Wild Card Game showdown between a pair of mirror-image teams. The Rays and A’s share a broad lens philosophy; they are often compared as innovators in the field of sabermetrics and examples of success on a small budget. And they both play in much-maligned stadiums. Theirs has floods of raw sewage, ours has catwalks; you decide who has it worse.

The Basics

Date: Wednesday, October 2

First Pitch: 8:09 p.m. ET

How to Watch: ESPN (Although all the statheads will be locked and loaded on ESPN 2 starting at 7:00 p.m. for the Statcast AI Alternative Viewing Experience.)

Oakland A’s 2019 record: 97-65; Second in the AL West; 97-65 pythag. record (845 runs scored, 680 runs allowed); .584 Third Order Winning Percentage (6th in MLB)

Tampa Bay Rays 2019 record: 96-66; Second in the AL East; 93-69 pythag. record (769 runs scored, 656 runs allowed); .613 Third Order Winning Percentage (3rd in MLB)

Pitching Matchup: Charlie Morton @ (Potentially) Sean Manaea*

* We’ll obviously be coming back to the “potentially” part of that equation later in the preview

Vegas Line: Oakland -129; Tampa Bay +114 (no over/under set as of yet)

FiveThirtyEight Projection: Oakland A’s 54%, Tampa Bay Rays 46%

Background

While the Rays are playing postseason baseball for the first time since 2013, the A’s find themselves in the exact same spot as last season, having won 97 games and yet still needing to win a play-in game to get to the ALDS. Last year the A’s drew the New York Yankees, and they fell behind early (two runs in the first) and never caught up, falling 7-2 in what was a bullpen game for Oakland and a Luis Severino start for the Yanks.

)nly one player remains from that Rays 2013 team, and it’s their current face of the franchise, Kevin Kiermaier, who was so fresh-faced (and, boy, what a face!) at the time that the then-22-year-old didn’t actually make the Rays playoff roster. So, this is a Rays roster with zero (Rays) playoff experience.

However, not surprisingly given the churn with which players make their way around the league, the Rays do have a couple players with playoff experience elsewhere, including a rather important arm with some rather impressive playoff bona fides. Speaking of which...

Tampa Bay Rays v Houston Astros Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

When the A’s are Hitting

Charlie Morton has already been named the starter for the Rays on Wednesday, and it’s not at all shocking. This is the player to whom the Rays handed their largest contract in franchise history this offseason, and he’s been worth every penny so far.

A Cy Young candidate in his own right, the 6’ 5” New Jersey native has dazzled with a 16-6 record (5.1 rWAR, 6.1 fWAR), a 3.05 ERA (2.82 FIP, 3.29 xFIP), and 240 strikeouts over 194.2 innings (23.2 K-BB%) as the Rays ace this year.

And about those playoff bona fides: The righty has 31.1 career playoff innings, with four of them standing out in particular. In the 2017 World Series, he took the ball in the bottom of the sixth, after having started four days early in Game Four, and never handed it back. Morton closed out Game Seven with four lockdown innings that anyone who has watched any postseason baseball over the past decade remembers as some of the finest work.

That’s not to say “Ground Chuck” won’t be challenged on Wednesday, because the A’s lineup is going to be putting the ground ball-heavy profile to the test.

Only four teams in baseball left the yard more often than Oakland in 2019, with their offense overall (by wRC+) also ranking fifth in baseball.

Their lineup has pop top to bottom, with seven hitting leaving the yard at least 20 times, and three of them topping the 30-homer mark.

Most notably, the big three of Marcus Semien (a low-key MVP candidate), Matt Chapman (the most unheralded legitimate star in baseball), and Matt Olson (89 homers in 359 career games) all legitimate threats to go deep at any moment in time.

The good news for Rays fans is two-fold. First, of the 62 qualified starting pitchers in baseball in 2019, no one had a lower HR/9 rate than Charlie Morton. Mike Soroka tied with Morton atop the standings, allowing just 0.69 home runs per nine innings.

Second, the Coliseum in Oakland (which is opening up “Mt. Davis” and hoping to draw some 56,000 for this Wild Card Game) is one of the tougher ballparks in baseball to homer in. By ESPN 2019 ballpark factors, only four stadiums were less homer-friendly than Oakland Coliseum this year. (This is not just a one-year fluke either, as it ranked third-hardest in 2018.)

Morton is a ground ball specialist who lives on keeping the ball in the yard. Anything can happen in one game (and Lordy, do I hope I didn’t just jinx him), but you have to go with the best you’ve got, and Morton is THAT.

When the Rays are Hitting

Of course, a lot of what can be said about when the A’s are batting can be said about when the Rays are holding the sticks. The Coliseum is a tough stadium in which to hit (vast outfield; tons of foul territory), and although the A’s don’t have an undisputed ace to match against “Uncle Charlie,” they have options.

Which brings us to that pesky asterisk from the pitching match-up above. Right now, the A’s have announced nothing official, but it seems likely that one of three situations will play out:

  • The A’s start Sean Manaea, probably the team’s best starter, as a classic starting pitcher.
  • The A’s use an Opener (you’re welcome) in front of Manaea, who then gets a typical starter-in-an-elimination-game workload.
  • The A’s go full Bullpen Game like they did last year, using no pitcher for more than two, maybe three, innings.

If you’re the Rays, honestly: Who cares?

You want to be prepared for what you’re going to face (Manaea a lefty who throws a low 90s fastball 60+ percent of the time, an 80 mph slider 20+ percent of the time, and an 82 mph change-up 15 percent of the time), but honestly, the Wild Card Game is the ultimate case study for “The best laid plans of mice and men.” Especially a team like Oakland, which doesn’t have the stud they trust (like the Rays are more likely to do with Morton), there’s a decent chance even if Manaea starts, he only goes two or three innings.

What I think is far more interesting is how Rays manager Kevin Cash will choose the lineup, knowing just how crazy this game might get. If the A’s turn to Manaea, a lefty, to start, will Cash do the unthinkable and start Kevin Kiermaier on the bench? If it’s an opener, but a lefty opener, does that change the calculation?

The Rays biggest strength, easily, is their depth. But sometimes balancing that depth can be tricky, especially in an insane win-or-go-home one-game series.

If it’s a righty on the mound, I think the calculus gets a little easier, but I still think there’s some tricky determinations based on who you want late in the game as a pinch-hitter or defensive replacement in what seems like it is bound to be a close game.

Here are the lineups I personally would like to see against each-handed pitcher:

Potential Wild Card Game Lineups

Versus LHP Versus RHP
Versus LHP Versus RHP
Yandy Diaz - DH Tommy Pham - LF
Travis d'Arnaud - C Austin Meadows - DH
Tommy Pham - LF Ji-Man Choi - 1B
Austin Meadows - RF Brandon Lowe - 2B
Avisail Garcia - CF Avisail Garcia - RF
Brandon Lowe - 2B Travis d'Arnaud - C
Matt Duffy - 3B Matt Duffy - 3B
Willy Adames - SS Willy Adames - SS
Jesus Aguilar - 1B Kevin Kiermaier - CF

Potential X-Factors

There are of course multiple story lines likely to unfold, but here are two players who will be fascinating to watch: Yandy Diaz and Khris Davis.

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees - Game One Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

It didn’t appear as though Diaz was going to be in the Rays conversation come playoff time, but thanks to what has been an All-Star Rays medical staff this season, he’s back and hitting scorchers already. Diaz hit leadoff in the final game of the season on Sunday, the first game action he had gotten since July 22. How did he look? His first at bat was a 107.3 mph lineout. He topped 100 mph twice in his return and looked good enough to give yours truly full confidence sending him out there if the A’s turn to a lefty on Wednesday. Now, whether Cash will have that confidence, and whether I am falling victim to the tiniest of sample sizes is why Diaz is here, in the X Factor section. Why would the Rays bring him back for just one game (and have to DFA Cole Sulser as a result) if they weren’t serious about using him on Wednesday? He’ll almost certainly appear at some point, hopefully in the leadoff spot if it’s a lefty, and hopefully he’s indeed as fresh and healthy as he appeared on Sunday.

For the A’s, there’s also a chance (albeit very small) that the face of their franchise may not quite make the starting lineup on Wednesday. Khris Davis, the 2018 home run champ and hitter of 133 home runs over the past three seasons before this one, has been mired in the worst season of his professional career. Davis, who hilariously hit exactly .247 every year from 2015-2018, has seen his average drop to .221, but far more worryingly, has seen his OPS plummet from a career-high .874 in 2018 to .679 in 2019. It’s only gotten worse as the season has gone along, with a paltry .582 OPS over the final three months. (For comparison, the lowest OPS among the 137 qualified hitters in 2019 was Orlando Arcia of the Brewers at .634.)

Davis has a case for being the worst position player on the A’s in 2019, as his -0.9 fWAR ranked last on the team, with his 81 wRC+ not nearly being able to make up for his spot as the likely DH.

Of course, all that will be forgiven in the eyes of A’s fans should he come up with a big moment in the Wild Card Game on Wednesday. And although he’s struggled in 2019, I’m still going to be a bit scared every time he digs in against the Rays.

Prediction(s)

So here we are. This game should be fun, and my number one prediction is that it will indeed be a great game.

However, since that’s weak sauce and a cop-out (so is saying the game is basically a coin flip—of course it is!), I’ll go on record here with a way-too-detailed prediction, so that there’s no possible way I get it correct...

I think the A’s end up starting Manaea, and I think the Rays jump out to a quick lead. Yandy (having earned Cash’s trust) gets a leadoff double, and the Pham brings him in a batter later, looking hungry as ever.

Morton keeps the A’s off the board through the first three, but in the fourth he walks a couple batters and starts to scare us. Ryan Yarbrough starts warming. Morton gets out of the fourth with minimal damage, but the A’s have tied it up, 1-1.

Manaea is out of the game by now, and the A’s have handed things over to their bullpen (3.90/3.98/4.61 ERA/FIP/xFIP; fourth in baseball by fWAR). The Rays meanwhile have made a few changes of their own, with Ji-Man Choi entering now that there’s a righty on the bump, and he does what Ji-Man has been doing all month and hits a massively important homer and celebrates in a way that somehow makes us love him even more. Top of the fifth, Rays up 2-1.

Cash decides to leave Morton in, which immediately tightens the sphincters of the legions of CFM doubters out there, but Our Man Morton is up to the task. Not only does he cruise through the fifth, he goes 1-2-3 in the sixth as well, handing the ball over to Diego Castillo with the one-run lead.

That lead evaporates instantly when Khris Davis (of course!) goes deep in the bottom of the seventh to tie things up.

Meanwhile, the Rays offense has gotten a little quiet, with the A’s pen having sent down the last eight in order. However, true to his weird 2019 form, Willy Adames doubles to lead off the eighth because, hey, he’s facing a righty on the road, so he simply has to hit like Jimmie Foxx.

After a pair of Rays fail to even more Adames over, it’s that man Travis d’Arnaud with another clutch hit in a season full of them, driving in Adames for the 3-2 lead.

Now it’s up to the Rays bullpen to get six outs. The Rays bullpen that ranks first in baseball by just about every metric available and has been EN FUEGO the past month, but still, there’s not a calm fan to be in Bay East (Oakland, of course, being Bay West in the Battle of the Bays).

Doesn’t matter. Colin Poche slays in the eight; Emilio Pagan ensures that there will be a generation of Emilio’s in the greater St. Petersburg area born in June, 2020, and the Rays head back to the ALCS to take on (and slay) the mighty Houston Astros.

Other scattered predictions from DRB writers (of differing levels of serious):

Dominik Vega: 6-9 Rays win.

Carl Gonzalez: 5-1 Rays win — We strike early with three in the first.

Adam Sanford: 4-3 Rays win — In 11 innings.

Mister Lizzie: Too nervous for brain to deal with numbers.

What are all your predictions?