The Oakland A’s will host the AL Wild Card Game on Wednesday, facing the Tampa Bay Rays at the Coliseum in a one-and-done elimination game. That much is for sure, but we’re still waiting to find out exactly who will be playing in that game.
The Rays have officially announced that they will start Charlie Morton on the mound, but the A’s have not yet settled on who will start for them. They will make that announcement on Tuesday.
At the very least, it seems the A’s will use an actual starter in the game, though technically we don’t even know that yet. In 2018 they eschewed a starter entirely and cobbled together a bullpen game against the Yankees, but this year their rotation was much stronger and they have a couple of particularly attractive options to choose from. It’s possible they could try to get fancy again, but for the time being there’s no indication of that happening so let’s assume they’ll use a traditional starter to begin the game.
The decision boils down to two names: Sean Manaea, and Mike Fiers. There’s also Homer Bailey, who would be on plenty of rest and finished the year strong, but there doesn’t seem to be any word that he’s in the running. Brett Anderson and Tanner Roark started over the weekend and won’t have full rest yet, and the other swingmen on the roster are firmly in the bullpen for now. It’s either Manea or Fiers.
The case for Fiers
Fiers is the guy whom many fans had hoped would start this game last year, and it was a story when he was snubbed in favor of the bullpen. Just based on that alone, it would be neat to see him get the start this time — he re-signed last winter, turned in another wonderful year, and now would get a second chance to start the same big game, a year later.
But that emotional plea isn’t really enough to drive this critical decision. It has to be based on who gives the A’s the best chance to win. Fortunately, Fiers grades well in that department too, as the rotation’s most reliable arm this season. He started cold in April but then reeled off 17 straight quality starts, including a no-hitter in early May and two strong outings against these very Rays (total 12 ip, 3 runs). After a brief late-season hiccup, including an injury scare with some arm nerve irritation, he bounced back with a dominant effort in his penultimate start to ease any concerns about him fading out or being hurt.
Fiers, 2019: 3.90 ERA, 184⅔ ip, 126 Ks, 53 BB, 30 HR, 4.97 FIP
The key stat for the right-hander is his home/road split: In 16 starts at the Coliseum he boasted a sparkling 2.54 ERA, while in 16 starts on the road he was at 5.14. It’s possible that’s just a small-sample fluke, but as a flyball pitcher it’s feasible that the power-suppressing conditions of Oakland’s park does indeed help keep a few of those flies in the yard — at home he allowed a dinger every 30 plate appearances this year, and on the road it was every 22 PAs. Of course every pitcher gets this same benefit, and Manaea induces lots of flies too, but the point is that Fiers at the Coliseum appears to the best possible version of himself, and can look quite a bit better than the solid stats posted above.
Fiers wasn’t exactly an ace this year in the full sense of the word, but he did a great impression of one. He was the rotation’s top guy in a post-Montas world, and for over half the season he was just about an automatic victory every time he took the mound. It’s a common saying that in the big moment you should go with the guys that got you there, and this is one of those guys.
The case for Manaea
While Fiers stepped into the role of pseudo-ace this summer, he was really just keeping the spot warm for Manaea. The big lefty made good on his top prospect status and became a strong MLB starter, tossing a no-hitter of his own in 2018 and beginning to establish himself as a star. But then shoulder surgery ended his breakout year last August, and he didn’t return to the majors until the beginning of this September, just over a year later.
Once back, though, he wasted no time rediscovering his groove. He debuted with five scoreless innings at Yankee Stadium, and then put up four more excellent outings, albeit against much weaker competition. In five starts he allowed just four total runs, and despite averaging just under 90 mph on his fastball he still generated a ton of swinging strikes.
Manaea, 2019: 1.21 ERA, 29⅔ ip, 30 Ks, 7 BB, 3 HR, 3.42 FIP
The key stat for Manaea might be that low innings total. Of course his ERA wouldn’t stay that low if he’d pitched all season, but that’s just it — he didn’t pitch all season, which could make him the fresher arm. Fiers just endured a six-month slog through the marathon regular season, but Manaea sat out a big chunk of time during his recovery and made much shorter outings even when he did begin minor league rehab. Building on that point, whereas Fiers pitched well twice against the Rays this year, barely any of them have any experience against Manaea, who last faced them in May 2018 (with an entirely different lineup).
Manaea has the stuff to be at the top of a rotation, and the question is how much you believe in his September audition, which mostly came against the dregs of the AL. If you think he’s truly back to form then he’s surely the more talented pitcher of the pair. If you’re worried that he only faced one MLB-caliber lineup all month, then Fiers might be the safer bet with the more tested recent track record.
Since these two pitchers throw with different hands, there could be the chance to gain a platoon advantage. However, the Rays are well-equipped to face either side. Perhaps you could make a marginal case for one side over the other based on some small-sample platoon splits, but this isn’t a lineup that can be significantly neutralized in this fashion. They’re going to have a bunch of good opposite-hand hitters either way.
The Rays’ very best hitter is lefty Austin Meadows, but he doesn’t have notable splits, though his underlying K/BB has suffered against southpaws in his career. Their next best is probably righty Tommy Pham, who has generally been a bit better against lefties, as you would expect. Starting Manaea could remove tough lefty Ji-Man Choi from the equation, but Tampa has some righty mashers on the bench to replace him.
My hunch is that for every argument you could make for one hand, you could make an equally compelling case for the other. I would just pick the pitcher you think is better overall right now.
One final wrinkle in this section: Jesus Luzardo is a popular pick to enter in relief, so if you really want to disrupt the Rays lineup then you could set it up to switch from a righty starter (Fiers) to the lefty reliever Luzardo. Of course, you could also achieve this by inserting a righty reliever (like Yusmeiro Petit) for an inning in between lefties (Manaea and Luzardo), perhaps at a key point in the lineup against tough righty hitters.
Setting up for a potential Houston series?
Nope, not even going there. Win this game first, and then worry about how the ALDS rotation schedule might line up.
For now, all we can do is guess and debate. The rumors seem to be leaning toward Manaea, as Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle reported that VP Billy Beane “hinted” that the left-hander “might have the inside track.” But we’ll have to wait and see for sure!
As for me personally? I really could go either way, and I won’t be disappointed whichever starter the A’s choose. If I really had to pick then I guess I’d give the edge to Manaea, but this is one of those things where I might change my mind every five minutes from now until 5:09 tomorrow.
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Who should the A’s start in the 2019 Wild Card Game?
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