Who’s Got the Edge: Athletics vs Yankees in AL Wild Card Game

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Yesterday, we previewed the National League Wild Card Game, examining which of the Colorado Rockies and Chicago Cubs had advantages in the important aspects of the game. The game turned out to be an instant classic, one that nobody could predict.

Rockies’ third-string catcher Tony Wolters, pinch-hitting against Cubs right-hander Kyle Hendricks in the 13th inning, knocked an RBI single through the middle of the infield and allowed Trevor Story to scamper home with the winning run. Scott Oberg would strike out the side in the bottom of the frame to lock down the save.

So, how can the American League Wild Card Game even come close to equaling that level of excitement and raw emotion? The New York Yankees and Oakland Athletics certainly have their work cut out for them, but if one thing is certain in baseball, it’s that you have to expect the unexpected.

The Yankees play host to their surprising opponents from the bay area on Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium in the second consecutive AL Wild Card Game to be played in the Bronx, and the third out of the last four.

The @Yankees and @Athletics are about to square off in the AL Wild Card Game. Who holds the edge, and why?Click To Tweet

This game had essentially been set for weeks, maybe even months, and the two clubs have had quite awhile to prepare for the clash. On account of that, it is important to look at which of the two teams hold an upper-hand on the other in a variety of categories.

We’re going to take a look at six tactical aisles: starting pitching, relief pitching, offensive firepower, defensive prowess, managing, and historical trends. In a do-or-die game, even the slightest edge over your opponent can make the biggest difference in the world.

Note: Neither team had released their lineup before we began writing this on Wednesday afternoon.

Starting Pitching

Yankees: Luis Severino
Athletics: Liam Hendriks

In the case of the Athletics, disregard that “starting pitching” heading. The A’s are going with relief pitcher Liam Hendriks in the “opener” role, and planning to pull the righty at the first sense of trouble.

Hendriks will likely be replaced early (after the first inning, perhaps) by Edwin Jackson, the only starting pitcher on Oakland’s Wild Card roster. So your “starting pitching” is a reliever and then literally Edwin Jackson.

The advantage rests with the Yankees and we’ve hardly even mentioned Luis Severino, a finalist for the AL Cy Young Award last season. Severino had a rough home stretch, but still compiled 19 wins, 220 strikeouts, and nearly five bWAR on the season, and will be starting the game with considerable rest as his last start fell on September 25.

Severino is not perfect and certainly will not be on Wednesday night, but he should be good for somewhere around 15 outs until the Yankees can transfer things to the bullpen. I would take that over risking everything with a reliever and, again, literally Edwin Jackson.

Advantage: Yankees

Relief Pitching

Yankees: Dellin Betances, Zach Britton, Aroldis Chapman, Chad Green, J.A. Happ, Jonathan Holder, Lance Lynn, David Robertson, Masahiro Tanaka
Athletics: Ryan Buchter, Jeurys Familia, Edwin Jackson, Shawn Kelley, Emilio Pagan, Yusmeiro Petit, Fernando Rodney, Blake Treinen, Lou Trivino, J.B. Wendelken

Common sense would point to the Yankees’ bullpen as the far better unit. I mean, look at all of those names. Betances, Britton, Chapman, and Robertson would all be number-one options in a normal, less-loaded ‘pen, and yet, they’re all at Aaron Boone‘s disposal.

Plus, you have starters with the potential to pitch in relief if things get tight, like Chicago did with Hendricks and Cole Hamels on Tuesday.

However, you just have to go with Oakland. Are they the more talented bullpen? No, but the fact that team management feels so confident to go full bullpen for the entire game should scare the hell out of Yankees fans.

All-out talent doesn’t exactly matter in postseason baseball; none of the regular, conventional aspects of the game matter at all. See, Tony freaking Wolters was a hero for the Rockies last night. The group of A’s relievers is so collectively lethal that one-inning specialty pitchers is all Oakland needs to get 27 outs tonight.

If the A’s have a lead in the seventh or eighth inning, the game is all but over thanks to super-relievers Blake Treinen and Lou Trevino, who are each capable of getting more than three outs. Familia (Mets) and Rodney (Twins) each held down closer roles before midseason trades and are ready to take on a big role tonight, as well.

Advantage: Athletics

Offense

Yankees: Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Didi Gregorius, Gary Sanchez, Andrew McCutchen, Gleyber Torres, Luke Voit, Aaron Hicks, Miguel Andujar, Brett Gardner, Neil Walker, Austin Romine
Athletics: Matt Chapman, Jed Lowrie, Khris Davis, Matt Olson, Stephen Piscotty, Nick Martini, Ramon Laureano, Marcus Semien, Jonathan Lucroy, Chad Pinder, Matt Joyce, Mark Canha

Each of these offenses absolutely crushed baseballs in the regular season, with both groups finishing in the top five in the majors in basically every meaningful offensive categories.

It’s a close one, but the Yankees — just barely – squeak out the advantage here. The team mashed an all-time record 267 home runs in the regular season, while ranking second in runs (851), second in RBI (821), second in OPS (.781), and second in total bases (2,490), all behind Boston because Boston was ridiculous.

They also seemed to get increasingly hotter as the final weeks of the regular season were winding down. The Bronx Bombers scored seven or more runs in five of their final six games, and did so against some pretty capable pitching on the road against Tampa Bay and Boston.

Though Matt Chapman was good for eight bWAR and Khris Davis paced all of Major League Baseball in long balls this season with 48, Stanton and Judge are, let’s put it this way, pretty decent too. Add Gregorius and crew and put them in the hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium for tonight’s game and you have a desirable offense.

Advantage: Yankees

Defense

Yankees: Didi Gregorius, Gleyber Torres, Andrew McCutchen, Aaron Hicks, Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Brett Gardner, Luke Voit, Adeiny Hechavarria
Athletics: Matt Chapman, Marcus Semien, Jed Lowrie, Ramon Laureano, Stephen Piscotty, Jonathan Lucroy, Matt Olson, Franklin Barreto, Nick Martini

Matt Chapman might be the best defensive baseball player in the world, Laureano has as good of an arm as anyone on the club, Semien was worth nine defensive runs saved this season, and Jed Lowrie is still getting it done at 34 years old.

This one is pretty obvious, especially with the defensive blunders of Andujar (-25 DRS) and Torres (-7.7 Ultimate Zone Rating) all throughout the season; the Athletics have a far superior defense.

Last night’s game proved that infield defense can make or break the game. Trevor Story and Nolan Arenado each made diving stops and subsequent bullet throws to keep runners from reaching base. Chapman is a shoo-in for AL Gold Glove at third base, Semien is a well above-average defensive shortstop, and Lowrie has been better at second base than Torres this year.

Infield defenses only, and the A’s win, then combine Laureano and Martini’s excellent outfield range and you have the far superior defense here. New York’s defense isn’t one that will completely lose them a game, it appears, but against Oakland’s, they can’t exactly steal one either.

Advantage: Athletics

Managing

Yankees: Aaron Boone
Athletics: Bob Melvin

For different circumstances, both managers are contenders for the AL Manager of the Year Award. But Boone has been fortunate to have a 100-win squad to manage in his freshman managerial campaign, whereas Melvin has stuck around in the A’s clubhouse and built the team up himself.

That doesn’t matter much in a one-off Wild Card Game, but that maturity and experience makes me lean toward Melvin. Not only has he been a playoff manager before — something Boone is unable to boast — but he was tasked with winning alongside a roster built for the opposite and did a magnificent job just to get here.

Boone will also have less work to do on Wednesday night. In utilizing a conventional starting pitcher, all Boone has to do, at least early on, is watch his man pitch. Melvin is in charge of an ambitious, somewhat crazy bullpen-only strategy that could blow up in his face, but it could be the best thing since sliced bread if it works.

I would be willing to take the chance on Melvin.

Advantage: Athletics

Historical Trends

Yankees: 1-1 record in Wild Card Game
Athletics: 0-1 record in Wild Card Game

Luckily for each team, they don’t have to deal with the superhuman efforts of the two reasons as to why they have a “1” in the loss column. For the Yankees, Dallas Keuchel isn’t there to fool everyone, and for the A’s, there are no concerns about the Kansas City Royals’ legendary baserunning.

Instead, New York is looking for Didi Gregorius to explode like he did in last year’s WCG, while Oakland is hoping Melvin can outmanage Boone the way he stymied Ned Yost in 2014.

Yankees: 11-13 postseason record in Wild Card Game era
Athletics: 4-7 postseason record in Wild Card Game era

Winning in the postseason is hard, and neither team can get past those difficulties.

Nonetheless, there are major differences in the recent postseason successes of these two clubs, and the edge goes to New York in one regard: they were a game away from winning the pennant last season, falling to the eventual World Series champions from Houston.

They also did it with basically the same core group of players. Judge, Gregorius, Severino, Sanchez, and the nasty bullpen were critical parts of their run to the AL Championship Series last year, and they’re even more dangerous with Stanton in the mix.

The Athletics haven’t smelt the October air since 2015. Either they come in without experience and get beat up early, or use that youthful, fresh exuberance to catch the Yankees napping.

Yankees: 7-3, 6.9 runs scored per game, 4.9 runs allowed per game in last ten
Athletics: 6-4, 7 runs scored per game, 4.5 runs allowed per game in last ten

These two teams come into the game as mirror images of one another from a momentum standpoint.

Game Prediction

Yankees: 2
Athletics: 4

The only tricky thing about picking Oakland to win is this: who would get the win out of the 74 pitchers they’re planning to use tonight? Overall, I think the ever-changing presence on the hill will be too much for the Yankees’ offense, who will be able to muster up some runs, but can’t string enough hitting together.

The A’s will get to Severino early and ride their relievers to the win. If they can’t get on the board in the early going, however, they are deep trouble, as their relievers have not been as effective this season when pitching from behind.

Another thing to observe about this team: the A’s just seem loose and laid back entering this one.

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