The Tampa Bay Rays and the Oakland Athletics will get the American League side of the 2019 MLB postseason underway in just two days as for a second consecutive year a team with 95+ wins will find itself out of contention just one game in. That’s the beauty of the Wildcard games.
However, they’re also designed in a way unique and unseen in typical postseason play. While you undoubtedly need quality starting pitching, which is even harder to be better at since most teams use a three-man rotation, the one-game play-in is designed to give an edge to deeper pitching staffs and efficient bullpen groups.
The Rays, meanwhile, have made a living developing their relievers. They finished the 2019 regular season with the second-best Earned Run Average in the AL with 3.67 ERA, 0.01 behind the Astros. In addition, they led all of baseball in bullpen ERA with 3.71.
Morton on the mound
What’s most important is that they’ll have their ace on the mound in Charlie Morton. His numbers slipped up in the second half; but he’s still a pitcher with 3.08 ERA who will have a support in the bullpen. He’s also been very successful against the Athletics – in two starts, he has 0.68 ERA and has allowed just one run.
Following the simple algorithm, a top-10 strikeout pitcher such as Morton, who faces a team that has 10th-least team strikeouts and pitches in one of the largest ballparks in MLB, would not pitch very deep into the game, but that isn’t a problem; the bullpen can cover him up.
However, Oakland’s biggest strength could be a problem for Morton. Only seven pitchers with 190+ IP have more that his 2.64 BB/9. That’s an issue because A’s have made the most of scoring situations throughout the whole 2019 season.
Oakland’s line-up depth
Firstly, Marcus Semien has had an incredible year in the leadoff spot. What’s fascinating, however, is that he has one of the best batting averages in the majors with runners in scoring positions, .327, including 9 home runs. The reason is that the 9th spot in the A’s lineup has the 6th-best on-base percentage in the league. The result – 9th-spot batters have scored 74 runs, 5th-best in MLB.
But that’s not a consequence. It’s rather been a trend, and Oakland is likely to carry it well into October. Mark Canha, who has a .301 average since the break, concludes a very strong top 4 of the A’s batting order. Matt Olson and Matt Chapman are both top 10 in homeruns.
The A’s rotation is certainly the thing that makes the difference between this and last year’s team, which saw its road ended by the Yankees at the same stage, and this year’s, which has been consistent rather than relying on the hot streak we witnessed in 2018. If the A’s reach an ALDS series against the Astros, it will see their rotation reduced to three men – Mike Fiers will be one of them. The other two spots will be determined from the likes of Brett Anderson, Chris Bassitt and Tanner Roark.
The home team hasn’t named a starting pitcher yet. And despite their 3.89 bullpen ERA, which ranks fourth in the AL, it’s more likely to be Fiers instead of a bullpen game. Sean Manaea has also been reported as a possible option, due to his lights-out performance since coming back from injury and a Tampa Bay lineup that is rich in left-handed batters.
The Athletics won the season series between the two teams, winning four of seven. However, they have lost each of their last two Wildcard game appearances – to the Yankees last year and to the Royals in 2014. They haven’t reached the American League Championship Series since 2006.
The A’s may be the team poised for regular season success more. But the Rays’ bullpen is one of the best in baseball, giving them the edge even if Morton disappoints and leaving the game into the hand of a solid offence (7th in the AL in the second half). Their exciting rotation and the returns of Tyler Glasnow and Blake Snell send Ryan Yarbrough back to the bullpen and sets up the Rays to give the Astros a run for their money if they reach the American League Divisional Series.