The Wild Card Game is shaping up to be a real doozy. Despite many bumps along the road, our 2018 Yankees have secured home-field advantage and are finishing strong, with two consecutive series wins against their divisional rivals and all of their key contributors healthy.
Meanwhile, the Oakland Athletics have kept on winning like crazy despite a decimated starting rotation, due to great play on both sides of the ball by their position players and a terrifying bullpen. Anyone who thinks that the Oakland A’s are the underdogs here are severely underestimating their abilities. This is a matchup between two great teams, and my liver will probably not live to see the end of it.
How can the Yankees beat the A’s and move on to the ALDS? The easy answer would be to write “don’t suck, and score more than the A’s do” and post 800 gifs of Luke Voit bench pressing 135 pounds with one arm, but that would probably cost me my gig. However, there are some specific things the Yankees can do to gain a clear advantage over the A’s. Three, to be exact — two pertaining to the lineup, and one pertaining to the pitching staff. Here they are, in no particular order.
1. Hit ‘em where they ain’t (out of the park or into the gaps)
One thing to understand about the Oakland A’s: their infield defense is really, really freaking good, led by an exceptional defender in third baseman Matt Chapman (29 DRS, 9.3 UZR/150), a much-improved Marcus Semien at shortstop (8 DRS, 6.2 UZR/150), and the surprisingly good Matt Olson at first base (14 DRS, 8.8 UZR/150). Combine that with the A’s willingness to make liberal use of infield shifts, and the Yankees are going to have a hard time if they hit the ball on the ground.
Meanwhile, the A’s outfield defense is, uh, not so good. As a unit, the A’s outfield is ranked 21st in the majors by DRS (-14) and 13th in UZR/150 (1.3). With that in mind, it’s clear that the Yankees should stick to their guns and keep doing what they’ve been doing for the whole year — swing hard and aim for the fences. Even if their air balls don’t quite go over the fence, they’re still more likely to find the outfield grass than any contact on the ground.
2. In the spirit of Missy Elliott, Work It (“it” being the count)
If any team is going to bullpen the Wild Card Game, it’s the Oakland A’s. Their starters rank 20th in MLB with a combined 7.7 fWAR, while their bullpen ranks fifth in the majors with 5.7 fWAR. Their most valuable pitcher is closer Blake Treinen, whose 3.6 fWAR ties him with the Mariners’ Edwin Diaz for the league lead. If the A’s are going to use a starting pitcher, it won’t be for long. As such, this point is written with a bullpen game in mind.
One of the dangers of bullpenning is that, as a side effect of using so many relievers in one game, you run both of the following risks: a) you run out of good relievers, or b) one of your good relievers has a stinker of an outing. The Yankees’ batters can help accelerate that process by being patient and inflating the A’s relievers’ pitch counts, thereby forcing Bob Melvin to make some tough decisions.
A patient approach matches up well with the A’s team-wide pitching philosophy as well. Their relievers own the majors’ fourth-lowest first-pitch strike rate (57.7%) and ninth-lowest Zone% (42.6%). Their success relies on how often they can get hitters to swing at junk out of the strike zone. The Yankees’ bats would do well to not play their game, and let them nibble at the zone and use up pitches.
3: Trouble with the curve (no, not the Clint Eastwood flick)
In order for the Yankees to win, both the hitting and the pitching have to show up. Quelling this Oakland A’s offense is going to be a challenge, as their team wRC+ of 110 is just behind the Yankees’ league-best 111 mark. The length of their lineup rivals that of the Yankees’ too, as they have nine hitters with a wRC+ of 110 or higher (min. 170 PA). There will be no black holes in the A’s lineup which the Yankees’ hurlers can breeze past. Every at-bat has a chance to be dangerous for the Yankees.
However, the A’s offense has one major weakness - curveballs. As a team, the A’s have produced a run value of 11.3 runs below average against benders. Meanwhile, the Yankees’ pitching staff throws some of the best curveballs in the league, generating 13.7 runs above average with the pitch as a team (5th-best in the majors). I think you know by now what the Yankees’ pitchers should throw to the A’s lineup. I’m not saying they should pitch nothing but curveballs. But maybe something like 50% wouldn’t be out of the question.
So, taking into account the A’s strengths and weaknesses, the Yankees’ hitters should aim for the fences and work the count, while their pitchers should employ a curveball-heavy approach. Sounds simple enough. Of course, the hard part of strategy is actually executing it. Let’s hope the Yankees are up to the task.