Entering the final weekend of the regular season, we have three teams vying for the two AL Wild Card playoff spots. We even have the possibility of a Game 163.
All three divisions are represented, and one of the Oakland Athletics, Tampa Bay Rays or Cleveland Indians will find themselves battling against the Houston Astros in the ALDS.
This is how it works …
If two teams tie for the first Wild Card spot, they simply meet in the Wild Card game on Wednesday 2 October. But, if two teams tie for the second Wild Card place, they will face off in Game 163 on Monday 30 September.
Let’s take a quick look at the three teams.
Oakland Athletics are the favourites to claim one of the Wild Card spots. Such an enviable position usually enables a team to adjust their rotation so that their ace can start in the Wild Card game. However, the A’s don’t have a clear number one.
One thing for sure is that they won’t give the ball to their starting pitcher from the 2018 Wild Card Game. Liam Hendriks gave up two runs in the first inning against the Yankees, and the team never recovered. Hendriks, who is now the A’s lockdown closer, was followed by Lou Trivino, Shawn Kelley, Fernando Rodney, Blake Treinen and Jeurys Familia in a bullpen game that the Yankees won 7-2.
The rest of the rotation is made up of veteran pitchers. They are experiencing a mixed month: Brett Anderson 3.60 ERA, Mike Fiers 9.19 ERA, Tanner Roark 6.30 ERA and Homer Bailey with a double-take worthy 2.28 ERA.
In Marcus Semien, the Athletics have one of the most underrated players of the season. According to Baseball Reference, only Mike Trout and Cody Bellinger have enjoyed a better 2019. Look over at Fangraphs, and he is the best player since the All-Star break. An MVP-calibre season going unnoticed is an unavoidable consequence of playing for Oakland.
First baseman Matt Olson’s year started badly. He injured his hand in the Toyko series and missed 34 games. It took a while to get up to the pace of the game, but over his final 100 games, the 25-year-old has launched 30 homers with .924 OPS. A full season of that production and Olson would have challenged Pete Alonso for the home run title.
I see more of Ramon Laureano than any other A’s player, but that is just because his stunning throw appears on the MLB Flashback loop during a break in the action. But he is more than just a dynamic arm. Since the start of June, the centre fielder is slashing .321/.378/.632. That’s 1,010 OPS.
Matt Chapman is probably the A’s player with the highest-profile. Everyone knows the third baseman is one of the greatest defenders in the game, but year on year, Chapman has improved his offensive production. He has ten more homers than his previous career-high, which means that he has more than Kris Bryant or Rafael Devers or Manny Machado.
In the Athletics first 50 games, Mark Canha completed only 10 of them. He was a bit-player hitting .206. Since then, he has a batting average of .290 with .944 OPS and is quietly putting together a season which will set career-highs in all three components of his triple slash.
With 40-plus homers in three straight seasons, including the home run title with 48 in 2018, it was not a great surprise that Khris Davis was the first MLB player to 10 home runs this year. It didn’t last long as the Yelly & Belly show took over, but Davis looked to be reinforcing his reputation as the A’s most reliable power source. Since that tenth home run, Davis has endured a near-season-long slump, hitting just another 12 home runs with .611 OPS in his last 400 at-bats.
The other disappointment has been the 2019 campaign from Jurickson Profar. Being the worst number one prospect of the decade isn’t a great title, but he finally seemed to be putting it all together in the latter half of last season with the Rangers. Unfortunately, he is back to being replacement-level.
Rookies have, as usual, made the Athletics one of the most intriguing teams to watch. A.J. Puk will compete for a spot in the Oakland rotation next season, but watch out for his massive fastball out of the bullpen in October.
With all the usual proviso about small sample sizes, Sean Murphy’s emergence is fantastic; .946 OPS since he was called up at the start of September. In a loser-goes-home, one-game contest, a bit of pop from behind the plate could make all of the difference.
Oakland has a winning record against the other two WIld Card contenders; 5-1 against the Indians and 4-3 against Tampa Bay. They face the Seattle Mariners in their final series of the regular season. Maybe 2019 could finally be Billy Beane’s year.
TAMPA BAY RAYS
Forget Yankees & Red Sox or Cardinals & Cubs, the biggest rivalry in baseball is between the Rays and Athletics. This is the battle to be the most popular team in the eyes of neutrals. Both teams offer a level of underdoggedness that makes you want them to succeed.
You’re not going to get anyone admitting that they thought last season’s tally of 90 wins was an unrepeatable fluke, but the bookies didn’t fancy them. Coming into the season, the Rays weren’t even in of the top-10 favourites for the World Series.
Injuries have restricted the 2018 AL Cy Young award winner Blake Snell to a little over 100 innings. Just imagine how good the Rays season would have been with a repeat of Snell’s 2018. The 26-year-old is working his way back from injury and will feature if the Rays progress.
The signing of Charlie Morton during the offseason was inspired. Durability was always a concern, but he has set career-highs in games started and innings pitched. Morton’s 33 starts of 3.15 ERA, is more than the Rays front office could have imagined.
The resilience of the team is epitomised by the way they overcame the loss of Tyler Glasnow with a forearm strain in May. He was 6-1 with 1.86 ERA. Glasnow, a welcome returnee, is stretching out and has fired 12 strikeouts over six scoreless innings across his last two starts.
Ryan Yarbrough, the 16-game winner from 2018, has pitched better than last season but with worst results. The Rays will be more interested in his lower walk-rate, lower FIP and greater groundball rate, than the uptick in his ERA. He has become more of a traditional starting pitcher having started in his last eight of appearances and averaged just under six innings.
Austin Meadows has been a revelation. That trade with the Pirates which sent Chris Archer to Pittsburgh in exchange for Meadows, Glasnow and first-rounder Shane Baz looks worse with each passing month. Meadows leads the team with 143 wRC+.
Before he hit the IL at the start of July with a bruised shin, Brandon Lowe was in the hunt for Rookie of the Year accolades. The left-hander posted .862 OPS to give the Rays useful production from second base. Picture Gleyber Torres, but without the hype. After nearly three months absence, and with the media having reported that this rookie season was over, Lowe is back and picked up where he left off.
In Kevin Kiermaier, the Rays have one of the best defensive centre fielders in the game. His 77 wRC+ tells you all you need to know about his offensive prowess this season.
Rookie Nate Lowe, no relation to Brandon and bizarrely with a different pronunciation of Lowe, splits time at first base with journeymen Jesus Aguilar and Ji-Man Choi. All three have the capability of coming up big in crucial moments of the game.
The Rays finish the regular season with an undemanding series against the Blue Jays. We know that they have a losing record against the Athletics, but they are 6-1 this season against the Indians.
Let’s be honest, losing this week’s series against the White Sox has probably blown the Indians’ postseason chances, but hey, this is baseball. Anything can happen.
Preseason, it was difficult to look beyond the Indians as probable AL Central champs again. The Tigers, White Sox and Royals were inevitable whipping boys, and surely the Twins just weren’t at the same level. After all, on paper, Cleveland’s rotation of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber was unquestionably the best in baseball.
I’m sure some old git has said that baseball isn’t played on paper, and so it was proved. Kluber & Carrasco have combined for 20 starts of 5-plus ERA.
The Indians flipped Bauer and his petulance for Yasiel Puig and Franmil Reyes at the deadline to provide a boost in outfield power. Puig is hitting over .300 while increasing jersey sales. Reyes has gone yard nine times but looks a little one dimensional. Maybe he will shine in 2020.
Cleveland outperformed the Twins in the second half, but Minnesota applied the gas and will take their 300 home run sluggers to New York for a long-ball extravaganza against the Yankees in the ALDS.
One of the reasons for the second half resurgence is the reappearance of the real Jose Ramirez. He was beyond dismal in the first half with .652 OPS, yet he has outplayed Mike Trout, Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger since the All-Star break.
Francisco Lindor might be the greatest player in the game not from New Jersey. Three straight 30-plus homer seasons, averaging well over 100 runs with 20 stolen bases. But the numbers only tell half of the story; the proud Puerto Rican is as well-known for his compassion and his charitable work, as he is for his exquisite defence or unwavering smile.
The return of switch-hitting Carlos Santana to Cleveland is one of the main reasons why the Indians are still in contention. His patience at the plate has never been in doubt, so another 100-plus walk season was not a surprise, but few people would have suggested career-highs in runs, home runs and RBI.
One of the most pleasant surprises has been the emergence of catcher Roberto Perez as a force with the bat. In his first year as the primary catcher since the departure of Yan Gomes, the 30-year-old has gone deep 23 times, which is more than he has in this entire five-year career.
Rookie Oscar Mercado solved the centre field problem in Cleveland and his heating up at the right time. He already has 15 homers in his debut season, and five of those have come over his last 10 games.
The rotation has taken a beating with Kluber injured, Bauer in Cincinnati and Carrasco diagnosed with leukaemia. One of the best storylines of the season is Carrasco’s return, and he will be a bullpen weapon for manager Terry Francona to employ if the Indians make it to the postseason.
Mike Clevinger missed a good chunk of the season but made 20 starts with 2.39 ERA and 12.3 K/9. Put your money on Mr Sunshine winning the 2020 AL Cy Young award.
The rotation looks a little dodgy outside of those two. Adam Plutko and Zach Plesac both have FIPs north of 5.00, and although Aaron Civale had a tasty looking 1.82 ERA before the White Sox got to him this week, his sub-7.00 K/9 strikeout rate gives little room for error.
The scheduling Gods were not kind to the Indians who must play their final series of the regular season without their designated hitter as they face the Nationals in DC.
Make sure you keep up with @BatFlips_Nerds for all of the postseason news.