The New York Yankees won 100 games and the Oakland A’s won 97—good for the third- and fourth-best records in Major League Baseball in 2018—but thanks to the presence of the Boston Red Sox (108) and Houston Astros (103) in their divisions, they face elimination at Yankee Stadium in the AL Wild Card Game.
This is hardly a David vs. Goliath matchup, regardless of the $100 million payroll difference. Instead, it's a clash of heavyweights between two teams boasting two of the league's best bullpens by Win Probability Added, and two of the five best offenses by OPS, wRC+ and most other metrics.
How They Got Here
The Yankees didn’t do anything wrong to wind up in the Wild Card game, they just had the misfortune of being in the same division as one of the 12 winningest teams of all time. There were just a few little things that separated great from historic. The Yankees went 11-9 against the NL while the Red Sox went 16-4. The Yankees went 12-7 against the 47-win Orioles; the Red Sox went 16-3. When the two teams matched up, the Yankees finished 9–10.
The race for the division was neck and neck through the season’s first three months before Boston pulled away. On July 1, the Yankees beat the Red Sox 11-0 to win a three-game series at home and pull back into first place. It was the 28th day they spent atop the AL East, and it was also the last. The Red Sox went 19–6 in July and never looked back, making the Yankees just the fourth team since the divisional era began in 1969 to win 100 games and finish in second.
On June 24, the A’s were just above .500 and sitting in fourth place in the AL West (11.5 games behind Houston), with the Mariners the surprise team chasing the Astros. Oakland won 41 of its next 58 games and spent four days tied for the division lead before the Astros pulled away with a 21-win September.
For the second consecutive season, the Yankees will send Luis Severino to the Yankee Stadium mound to start the Wild Card game. The odds are pretty good that this year’s start will go better for Severino than the last one; in the 2017 game against the Twins, he allowed five of the first six batters to reach and was pulled with his team down 3-0. Severino was a bit of a surprise choice by Boone, considering he has struggled to the tune of a 5.57 ERA since the All-Star Break. Some speculated J.A. Happ or Masahiro Tanaka would get the call instead, but Boone is going with the guy who has been the Yankees’ ace over the past two seasons. Severino’s walk and strikeout rates have improved slightly from their already-elite 2017 numbers, but a minor increase in hard contact and some bad luck have contributed to a .42-point increase in opponent BABIP. He’ll try to keep the ball in the park this time around, which won’t be easy against an A’s lineup that leads the majors in fly ball rate and is third in homers.
The Yankees figure to give Severino every opportunity to go five or six innings if he’s sharp but will have a quick trigger if he struggles. He likely won’t see the A’s lineup a third time unless he’s absolutely dealing. In Aroldis Chapman, Zach Britton, David Robertson, Dellin Betances and Chad Green, Boone has a dynamic group of powerful, swing-and-miss relievers to deploy.
Oakland manager Bob Melvin has elected to go with a bullpen day, starting with “opener” Liam Hendriks and going from there. Hendriks has put together 11 straight scoreless appearances over the past month, lowering his season ERA from 7.83 to 4.13. If Hendriks pitches a quick first, he may get a chance to get some outs in the second. Once he’s out of the game, the A’s have nine more relievers ready to go. If they can get to eighth with a slim lead, lights-out closer Blake Treinen—the best reliever in baseball by WAR (3.6) and ERA (0.78)—may be asked to get a six-out save.
Anyone else is in play to bridge the gap between Hendriks and Treinen. Lou Trivino and Jeurys Familia seem like locks to make appearances, and at least two of Yusmeiro Petit, Shawn Kelley and J.B. Wendelken should get an inning. Lefthander Ryan Buchter could be utilized against Didi Gregorius or Aaron Hicks, the latter a switch-hitter who is better from the left side of the plate. Veterans Fernando Rodney and Familia lead the way with 13 postseason appearances apiece.
With Aaron Judge returning from a wrist injury a couple weeks ago, the Yankees’ record-setting lineup is back to full strength. Giancarlo Stanton and AL ROY candidate Miguel Andujar have been the offensive MVPs with matching 126 OPS+ figures in 600-plus plate appearances. Hicks and Gregorius will get most of their ABs against righties and are players to watch. General Manager Brian Cashman made a couple midseason trades that have panned out wonderfully; Andrew McCutchen and Luke Voit have been outstanding since donning pinstripes and are major upgrades from Brett Gardner and Greg Bird. Voit has been especially brilliant with a Trout-ian 188 OPS+ in 39 games as a Yankee. Gleyber Torres and his 118 OPS+ hit ninth, which tells you a lot about this lineup. The only real hole is catcher Gary Sanchez, who has hit .186 this year with just 18 homers. Gardner and Neil Walker could be utilized off the bench.
The A’s hitters might not have the same level of name recognition, but Oakland actually had a higher team OPS+ in 2018 (109 to 108). This is an elite lineup with a similar lack of holes and plenty of pop. Matt Chapman (136 OPS+) and Khris Davis (136 OPS+, 48 homers) have been phenomenal all year long, Stephen Piscotty just left the yard eight times in September, and Jed Lowrie is 6-for-11 in his career off of Severino. Matt Olson is always a threat to go deep, especially at hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium. New York’s Andujar and Torres are the better-known rookies, but Oakland has a talented pair of their own in centerfielder Ramon Laureano (128 OPS+) and lefty Nick Martini (.397 OBP), who may get the start in left field over Mark Canha.
Everything matters in a one-game playoff, including defense. These teams have different strengths and weaknesses from a fielding perspective that could play a big role in determining the outcome. The most notable one is that the A’s have the best defensive infield in the league. It starts with Chapman, the best third baseman in baseball according to every advanced defensive statistic. His 29 defensive runs saved (DRS) are 22 more than the next-best third baseman, and he passes the eye test, regularly making incredible plays look routine. At first base, Olson is also the best at his position by DRS and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). Up the middle, second baseman Lowrie and shortstop Marcus Semien both have top-5 UZRs. By contrast, Andujar (3B) and Torres (2B) are the worst defenders among qualified players at their position according to UZR, and first baseman Voit is below average as well. In the outfield, though, the Yankees have the advantage. Led by Judge, the Yankees outfield ranks in the top-5 in DRS and UZR, while the A’s are mediocre (though they do have Laureano’s arm).
There’s very little to separate these teams, but Severino’s recent struggles and the mental hurdle of trying to avoid another Wild Card clunker are causes for concern. The A’s get to him early and Treinen emphatically closes the door late, setting up an ALDS matchup with the Red Sox.