AL Wild Card Game preview: Aces square off as Royals, A's clash
Start Time: 8:07 p.m. ET
The 2014 postseason kicks off Tuesday night with a single game that contains two of this year's most compelling storylines. The American League Wild Card Game between the A's and Royals is the first postseason game in Kansas City in 29 years and finds the Royals in the postseason for the first time since they beat the Cardinals in the 1985 World Series.
For the A's, tonight's game is when the rubber meets the road for their biggest and most controversial move of the season: the July 31 trade-deadline swap that sent All-Star Yoenis Cespedes and a competitive balance draft pick to the Red Sox for outfielder Jonny Gomes and tonight's starter, Jon Lester (due to be a free agent in November). Earlier that month, the A's also traded their top prospect, shortstop Addison Russell, in a four-player package to the Cubs for rotation reinforcements Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel.
Those trades were both made when the A's had the best record in baseball and were designed to get Oakland, which has won just one of their eight postseason series this century, deep into October. But if the A's lose behind Lester tonight, they wouldn't even make it as far the Division Series, which has been their Waterloo under general manager Billy Beane, and would see their season come to an end before October even began. Anything less than an appearance in the American League Championship Series, then, would paint the Lester trade as a failure. (Samardzija will remain in Oakland for one more year.)
There are similar stakes at play with Royals starter James Shields, who also joined his current team via a controversial hitting-for-pitching trade and who will also be a free agent this November. In his case, it was a December 2012 trade that brought Shields, fellow righty Wade Davis, and infielder Elliot Johnson over from the Rays for a four-player package built around the team’s top prospect, rightfielder Wil Myers.
The trade was unpopular in Kansas City at the time, and Myers, who won't be a free agent until after the 2019 season, was named the AL Rookie of the Year in his first year with the Rays. However, a deep postseason run spearheaded by Shields could vindicate the deal for most Royals fans, no matter what Myers — who had a lousy sophomore season in which he lost nearly three months to a broken wrist and didn’t hit when healthy — does in his next five seasons. Some might even argue that the mere appearance of the Royals in the playoffs has already rendered a positive verdict on the deal, though whether or not the Wild Card Game counts as the playoffs or merely a play-in is the subject of some debate, as well.
The A's are in this position because of a collapse that began in mid-August. On the morning of Aug. 10, the A's had a 3 1/2-game lead in the AL West and the best record in baseball by the same margin over the Angels. From that point forward, however, the only team they out-played was the Diamondbacks. Oakland went 16-30 to fall all the way to the second wild-card spot and didn't clinch that until the final day of the regular season. What fueled that collapse was the offense's sudden inability to score, one that is difficult to separate from the departure of Cespedes, who was the team's No. 3 hitter at the time of the trade. Through Aug. 9, the A's scored 4.9 runs per game. Since then, they have scored just 3.4 runs per game.
The Royals' lineup isn’t a great deal more productive. The only team in the majors to fail to hit 100 or more home runs this season, Kansas City ranked dead last in the AL and 21st in the majors in OPS+. Since the calendar flipped to July, the Royals have scored just 3.9 runs per game. With the teams' respective aces on the mound tonight, we would appear to be in store for a low-scoring pitchers' duel, and if either starter fails to hold up his end of that particular bargain, he will likely go down as the goat of this game, if not his team's entire season.
Lester and Shields are both experienced postseason pitchers who are accustomed to the role of staff ace, but their respective track records in the postseason differ significantly. Lester has been dominant, posting a 1.97 ERA in 11 career postseason starts, including a 4-1 mark with a 1.56 ERA in five postseason starts for the world champion Red Sox last year. Shields, by comparison, hasn't been in the postseason since 2011 and gave up 11 runs in 9 1/3 innings over his last two postseason starts, both coming in the Division Series the Rays wound up losing to the Rangers. Shields did pitch well in his first postseason, helping Tampa Bay to the pennant in 2008, but has never really had a dominant postseason start, and only the first two of the six he has made were quality starts.
One might consider Shields' postseason track record ancient history, or at the very least a small sample, but his home/road splits are both more recent and more significant, and they are no less troubling. Shields is 9-13 with a 4.20 ERA in 35 career starts at Kauffman Stadium, many of which came against weak Kansas City squads, and in his two years as a Royal, he has gone 7-12 with a 3.95 ERA in 31 starts at home, compared to 20-5 with a 2.52 ERA in 37 starts on the road.
Lester, meanwhile, is 9-3 with a 1.84 ERA in 13 career starts against the Royals, including 3-0 with a 2.61 ERA against Kansas City this season. The Royals went 5-2 against the A's this season, all of those games coming near the start of the team's collapse in August, but the two Oakland wins were the two games in that series that Lester started.
All of that said, there are numerous Royals who have had some small-sample success against Lester, including Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain, Salvador Perez, Jayson Nix — the last of whom may have made the playoff roster in part because of that success — and lefties Eric Hosmer, Norichika Aoki, and Raul Ibañez. Meanwhile, the men on the Athletics' bench-heavy wild-card roster have hit a combined .217/.268/.309 against Shields, with only Josh Reddick, who has three career home runs against the Kansas City ace, boasting an OPS above .780 in that matchup.
With two low-scoring teams each facing their opponent's ace in a ballpark that suppresses home runs at the end of a season that has seen a decline in run-scoring league wide, this game should set the tone for what is likely to be a pitching-dominated postseason. It is also likely to lure Royals manager Ned Yost into deploying the small-ball tactics of which he is so fond. Of the ten teams in the playoffs, only the Orioles had their position players bunt more often this year, and none put their runners in motion more often, according to the statistics kept by Baseball Prospectus.
The Royals' major league-leading 189 steal attempts were beneficial in compensating for the lineup's overall lack of power, as Kansas City stole at a strong 81-percent success rate that ranked third in the majors. Those bunts were detrimental, however, not only because sacrifice bunts are almost always ill-advised, but also because the Royals weren't particularly good at executing them, with just 60 percent of their sacrifices being successful. With outs at a premium against a pitcher like Lester, not to mention the fact that this is an elimination game, the Royals have to be careful not to give them away.
Altogether, the A's would seem to be the favorite heading into the game, but they have to be careful not to allow Shields to hand a lead to his bullpen. Thanks to their dominant trio of fireballing relievers — setup men Kelvin Herrera and Davis and closer Greg Holland — Kansas City is 64-4 this season when leading after six innings, 71-1 when leading after seven and 78-1 when leading after eight. On top of that, Herrera, Davis, and Holland have not allowed a run in a combined 8 2/3 innings against the A's this season.