Talk of low payrolls and stadium issues will be afterthoughts when MC Hammer throws out the first pitch before Wednesday’s American League Wild Card tilt between Tampa Bay and Oakland. Both teams created necessary distance between themselves and Cleveland to take a bit of a breath in the season’s final days, though Tampa’s late-September gauntlet (they played consecutive series against the Dodgers, Red Sox, and Yankees, then flew from Toronto to Oakland for this game) seems fairly exhausting. The reward for winning Wednesday is a Friday date with a juggernaut in Houston.
Oakland has yet to officially announce their starter (10 AM Wednesday is the roster deadline) though it’s expected to be lefty Sean Manaea, who will be on an extra day’s rest after throwing in Seattle on Thursday. Righty Mike Fiers threw on Friday and is also a possibility to start. Tampa Bay has already announced that 6-WAR righty Charlie Morton will take the ball. Let’s take a look at our starters (**denotes out pitch**).
|Pitch Type||Type||Use %||Velo (mph)|
|Fastball||Mix of 4-seam and 2-seam||49%||avg 94, t97|
Morton is a Cy Young candidate having a career year despite losing a few ticks off his fastball. Expect to see a lot of curveballs from him as it’s his best pitch, a nasty, upper-70s hammer used to put away hitters, especially lefties. He’s very unpredictable in 1-0 counts, mixing in all of his offerings pretty evenly if he falls behind. Between the quality of Morton’s stuff, the year he has had, and the extra rest leading up to this start, things might be set up for him to coil around Oakland’s lineup and squeeze, single-handedly snuffing out a top-heavy Oakland lineup.
|Pitch Type||Type||Use %||Velo (mph)|
|Fastball||Sink/Tail||63%||avg 90, t94|
Manaea had shoulder surgery last fall and only made 13 starts this year between his rehab outings, which began in early July, and his five September big league appearances. Those five starts were strong — 29.2 innings, 30 strikeouts, just 16 hits and 7 walks — despite depressed velocity. Manaea’s velo has been slowly declining since his 2016 debut season and it continues to do so coming off surgery, and trended downward over the course of his five big league starts. It remains an effective pitch because of its combination of sink, run, and the funky angle caused by Manaea’s delivery.
Curiously, Manaea’s pitch usage has changed pretty dramatically. It’s possible five starts is too small a sample to identify a real change in his approach to out-getting, but his fastball and slider usage are up compared to career norms, while his changeup (his best pitch) usage has been halved. In my looks at Manaea’s starts, he’s been more apt to try to get his slider over for a strike on the second pitch of at-bats, perhaps because he doesn’t want to double up on his slower fastball.
The reason Oakland has been cagey about naming a starter likely has to do with Tampa Bay’s desire to tailor their roster in a way that enables them to play matchups with some combination of in-game platoon tactics, or an extreme shift toward run scoring or prevention if the game state dictates it. With Manaea likely starting and Lou Trivino and Blake Treinen shelved due to injury, Oakland has a very left-handed staff. That increases the chances we see righty-hitting Jesus Aguilar, the recently activated Yandy Díaz, versatile Michael Brosseau, Guillermo Heredia, and Daniel Robertson all on the roster and in the game.
Postseason scheduled off days mean built-in rest for relievers, giving one less reason to withhold your best arms from any game, especially in a do-or-die Wild Card contest. Oakland called upon Liam Hendriks for three consecutive days at the end of the year and it’s conceivable Bob Melvin could ask him to get four, five, or six outs on Wednesday. Early trouble for Manaea could mean Oakland turns to ageless righties Joakim Soria and Yusmeiro Petit to thwart a righty-heavy Rays contingent in the middle innings.
But we’ll likely see high-leverage work from several relievers who began the year as rookie-eligible players. The high profile names are Oakland’s Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk, two of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball. Puk’s usage (a 25-to-30 pitch appearance every five days) and Luzardo’s (multiple high-leverage innings with an off day in between late in the year) have been pretty different. If there’s a Francisco Rodriguez October star turn here, it’ll probably be from the latter.
Tampa Bay paid a premium in prospects to acquire Peter Fairbanks and Nick Anderson ahead of the deadline to assemble the deepest, nastiest pitching staff they can for right now, seemingly in anticipation of games like this one. Anderson will be called upon in a high-leverage moment, even if that moment occurs pretty early in the game. I think the Rays’ weirdo mix of pitchers has a better chance to give the top of Oakland’s lineup fits, and also think the bottom of Tampa’s lineup has a better chance of doing damage at some point during the game because of what the club’s roster flexibility affords Kevin Cash.
Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.