Three Strikes: Oakland @ Kansas City

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Hello all! It’s been quite a while since I last posted but that’s only because life got in the way. Between vacationing up in Glacier National Park with Shannon this summer, working 50 hours a week every week, taking a full load of classes at Missouri State, and watching every Derek Jeter at-bat that I could, the ole’ blog has been on the backburner. But with the start of the 2014 playoffs finally upon us, that’s all about to change. Each week I’m planning 3-5 posts that cover a variety of postseason topics, starting with tonight’s long-awaited matchup in Kansas City.

Strike 1 – Oakland’s slumping lumber, meet Kauffman

The struggles of the Oakland A’s since the trade deadline have been well-documented. The team’s been playing .400 ball for the better part of the last two and a half months after posting the best record and run differential in baseball before the All-Star break. And while many have been quick to point the finger at Billy Beane for his myriad of offense-for-pitching moves, those aren’t exactly the culprit. The only player Oakland departed with that was of any significance to the 2014 lineup was Yoenis Cespedes, and while that’s a major blow, it’s really only a small part of the problem.

Extended slumps by Derek Norris, Brandon Moss, and others have sapped nearly a run per game of production from the A’s in the season’s second half. That’s a serious problem for any team to have, even one with a stable of pitching as deep as Oakland’s. One of the real problems appears to be Oakland’s utter dependence on the fly ball. For the past couple of seasons Beane has quietly assembled a roster that hits fly balls more often than any other in baseball and 2014 was no different. The A’s rank as the 9th heaviest fly ball team since the invention of batted ball statistics over a decade ago.

Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing because fly balls turn into homers more often than any other type of contact, but that’s also not exactly the way you want to play against Kansas City. The Royals, thanks to Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson, and Nori Aoki, have the hands down best outfield defense in the league, which is quite useful when you play 81 games a year at Kauffman Stadium. The K is notorious for playing big and by most objective measures, Kauffman has the most amount outfield territory in the Major Leagues, which acts as a big advantage when you play in front of guys who can really go get the ball.

Strike 2 – Is it even possible to win in the postseason without hitting homers?

Look, it’s extremely tough to win Major League games without having some power in your lineup, which makes what the Royals have done this year all the more impressive. Kansas City was the only MLB team this year that failed to top the 100 homer mark as a team, which is historically noteworthy. None of the other 22 Wild Card-era teams that hit fewer than 100 homers in a year managed to make the playoffs. In fact, none of those teams even finished with a winning record. So how did the Royals do it?

The short answer is by doing everything else well. The Royals led the Majors in stolen bases, robbing over 30 more bags than their closest AL competition in Houston. Kansas City also does a great job of putting the ball in play, so much so that the Royals struck out 150 fewer times than any other team in the Majors. They also walked fewer times than anyone else as well, which means more base running opportunities for speedsters like Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain.

It also helps that the pitching and defense have been phenomenal, but you still have to score to win and this contact-heavy approach managed to finish in the middle of the pack. The speed/contact strategy may not be the most sabermetrically supported way to win, but in the run dampening environment of 2014 it’s gotten the job done.

Strike 3 – Does anyone have an edge on the mound?

With Jon Lester and James Shields toeing the rubber tonight, we’re actually going to get a do-or-die elimination game featuring two of the league’s elite pitchers. Both of these aces were acquired to pitch in precisely this type of game and both have plenty of postseason experience.

Lester has been absolutely dominant since coming to Oakland midseason and he’s owned the Royals in his career as well, posting a 9-3 record with a 1.84 ERA. To make matters worse, he faced KC three times this year (once as a member of the Red Sox, twice after the trade to Oakland) and won all three outings. His line: 20.2 innings pitched, a 2.61 ERA, 20 strikeouts, and just 5 walks.

James Shields is no chopped liver though. He just completed his 8th straight season of 200+ innings and his 4th consecutive topping the 225 mark and he’s done exactly what GM Dayton Moore expected when he traded Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi away. He doesn’t quite have the career numbers against Oakland that Lester has against KC, but Shields still managed to go 1-0 with a 3.21 ERA against the A’s in 2014. And if we look at career numbers, outside of Josh Reddick (3 homers and 7 hits in 22 at-bats) the rest of the Oakland lineup has been dominated by Shields, managing just a .205 average.

In all honesty, we’re looking at a pitcher’s duel tonight. We’ve got two aces on the mound, two of the best defenses in baseball, and two offenses that aren’t exactly lighting up the scoreboard right now. I’m guessing we end up with a battle of the bullpens and if that’s the case, I like the Royals to squeeze out the win.

Big thanks to Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs for the statistical support!

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