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Why the Wild Card Game will be harder for the Yankees this year

The A’s make for a much more formidable one-game opponent than last year’s Twins.

American League Wild Card Game - Minnesota Twins v New York Yankees Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Yankees’ 2018 season is going to come down to one game. Next week’s AL Wild Card Game will mark the third time in four seasons that the Yankees will have to play a single-elimination playoff to decide their fate. Most likely, that game will take place at Yankee Stadium, with the Yankees having won the first Wild Card.

The one-game playoff is difficult no matter what. Legends can be made and scapegoats born based on one great play or a single mistake. The stakes are high and the pressure is stifling. This was true when the Yankees were shut out by the Astros in 2015, and when they stormed pasted the Twins last year.

The Yankees managed to get by Minnesota last season, and they’ll be facing similarly surprising upstarts, the Athletics, this year. As challenging as any Wild Card Game is, though, this one will be tougher. Make no mistake, the A’s will pose a much greater threat than the Twins did a year ago.

For one, Oakland possesses a more dangerous roster than the Twins did. Minnesota’s 85-77 record in 2017 wasn’t particularly impressive, nor was their 83-79 Pythagorean record. Moreover, the 2017 Twins posted a merely decent batting line and 102 wRC+, while they ranked 19th in pitching WAR and 19th in team defensive value according to FanGraphs. By all accounts, they mostly performed as an average team in 2017.

If anything, the Twins may have played above their heads just to get to average. They returned largely the same roster this year and are on track to win about 75 games. The Twins won a ghastly 59 games in 2016, and didn’t make many major changes that winter. Last season sticks out like a sore thumb for a team that has mostly been an also-ran in recent years.

That doesn’t apply to the A’s. Oakland has struggled the past three years, but the core of their team is young and talented, and it has coalesced for a great season. The A’s should finish up with 97 or so wins, with a run differential (+136) that suggests they’ve only had modest luck in turning runs into wins. They are no slouch for a second Wild Card.

Beyond mere rosters, however, the Athletics appear likely to pose a greater threat than the Twins based on how they will approach the game. The Twins last season seemed to take a more conventional tact to the one-game playoff. They played not to lose. Oakland will play to win.

Minnesota essentially approached last year’s Wild Card as just another game in terms of strategy. They tabbed their most productive pitcher from 2017, Ervin Santana, as the starter and asked him to go deep, with the bullpen ready to cover the game’s latter stages. As’s Jay Jaffe wrote in previewing the game, “The Twins’ best shot... probably depends upon Santana going deep, with the bullpen getting minimal exposure”. The plan was clear for the Twins: get six or seven strong from their starter, and hope the bullpen can finish it off.

This isn’t meant to be highly critical of the Twins’ tactics; their methods were necessitated by the talent on hand, as they just didn’t have the firepower to enact a creative strategy in the Wild Card matchup. The A’s, on the other hand, will not play things so conservatively. They will throw everything against the wall in hopes of knocking off the favored Yankees.

Just earlier this month, the A’s deployed the “opener” strategy against New York. They started reliever Liam Hendricks, then brought in Daniel Mengden for the second through sixth innings, yielding just one run in the process. The Yankees prevailed in that game, but it demonstrated Oakland’s willingness to go off the book.

The A’s have been more aggressive since then in deploying their bullpen and openers, in large part because they have suffered a severe rash of injuries in their rotation. Yet in a perverse way, the A’s lack of an obvious Wild Card starter could actually benefit them in the Wild Card Game. Instead of asking one of their collection of journeymen and fourth starters to turn over the vaunted Yankee lineup multiple times, Oakland may be forced to let their strong bullpen attack the Yankees hitters.

Oakland’s bare rotation would be a problem in a series, but is hardly an issue in one game. In Lou Trivino, Fernando Rodney, Jeurys Familia, Yusmeiro Petit, and lights-out closer Blake Treinen, the A’s have a deep and diverse relief corp, one that ranks 3rd in MLB in adjusted ERA this year. The A’s, under Billy Beane and manager Bob Melvin, will surely have no problem asking their relievers to come in at any time and for any number of outs versus the Yankees.

Simply put, the A’s are a better Wild Card team than the one the Yankees encountered last year, and a team more likely to put all their chips on the table to win. The Twins let Santana stick around long enough for the Yankees to hang four runs on him; it’s unlikely the A’s will let any of their pitchers last long enough to even give up that many. In all likelihood, the A’s will be aggressive, whether that means using an opener, using Treinen for multiple innings, or using nine different pitchers. They will not let a mediocre pitcher sit out there and get hit by the Yankees.

The Yankees must be wary of this, and ready to get creative in their own right. They should be smart and aggressive in deploying their own vaunted bullpen, and ready to adjust at a moment’s notice. It’s only one game, and anything can happen. The Yankees must be prepared for a tougher fight than they got last year.