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Oakland A’s 2020 ALDS: Chris Bassitt will start Game 1, Sean Manaea in Game 2

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They’ll face Lance McCullers and Framber Valdez, respectively.

Cleveland Indians v Oakland Athletics
With the since-DFA’d Daniel Gossett in the middle
Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images

The next round of the 2020 postseason has arrived, and the Oakland A’s are still in the tournament. On Monday they’ll open their best-of-five ALDS against the Houston Astros, played at Dodger Stadium, with Oakland serving as home team in the the first two contests.

The A’s will call on Chris Bassitt to start Game 1, and Sean Manaea to start Game 2, first reported by Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle.

Meanwhile, Houston will start right-hander Lance McCullers in Game 1, and lefty Framber Valdez in Game 2, first reported by insider Brian McTaggart.

As for Astros ace Zack Greinke, he will also pitch in the series, likely in either Game 3 or 4, reports McTaggart. However, McCullers wasn’t needed in the Wild Card Round and hasn’t pitched since Sept. 26, so Houston chose to get him back in action as soon as possible. Remember, a five-day series with no off-days already reduced the chance of seeing any one pitcher make two starts, so the precise ordering might not matter as much as usual.

Game 1: Bassitt vs. McCullers

These two have faced off once already this year, but a lot has happened since then.

While McCullers didn’t pitch in the Wild Card Round, Bassitt sure did. In a performance that A’s fans won’t soon forget, he spun seven scoreless innings against the Chicago White Sox before finally seeing a run charged to his record in the 8th. The sparkling effort in an elimination game saved Oakland’s season, and the next day they won again to clinch the series.

Bassitt, playoffs: 7+ ip, 1 run, 5 Ks, 1 BB, 6 hits, .307 xwOBA

That gem was nothing new for Bassitt, who’s been pumping them out for weeks now. Over his last five starts including the playoffs, he’s allowed just two total runs in 33⅔ innings, with five strikeouts per walk. His final numbers for the season were excellent, and along the way he earned AL Pitcher of the Month honors for September, making him the A’s latest unexpected breakout star.

Bassitt, 2020: 2.29 ERA, 63 ip, 55 Ks, 17 BB, 6 HR, 3.59 FIP, .288 xwOBA

Against Houston specifically, the right-hander has been good two out of three times this year. In early August he worked seven innings with just one run allowed, in a lineup missing George Springer. The Astros got revenge in late August, in a doubleheader opener with Springer back but now missing Alex Bregman, to the tune of four runs in three-plus innings. Then Bassitt got the last laugh a week later, firing seven dominant shutout frames against a lineup missing Bregman and Jose Altuve.

So, Bassitt hasn’t faced the full-strength lineup he’ll see on Monday, but he’s mostly handled whoever the Astros have sent his way. In the loss, Kyle Tucker and Josh Reddick homered off him, and Carlos Correa has also hit him well (.481 xwOBA, 3-for-10, 2 BB).

Bassitt, vs. HOU: 2.65 ERA, 17 ip, 9 Ks, 6 BB, 2 HR, 16 hits, .319 xwOBA

As for McCullers, the 26-year-old had a nice bounce-back after missing 2019 to Tommy John surgery. He picked up right where he’d left off in 2018, with virtually identical rates across the board, including velocity. However, Statcast thought he was slightly more hittable, as his xwOBA rose while the league’s fell.

McCullers, 2020: 3.93 ERA, 55 ip, 56 Ks, 20 BB, 5 HR, 3.70 FIP, .320 xwOBA

Like Bassitt he finished the year strong, allowing no earned runs in his last three starts over 17⅔ innings, albeit with a few unearned runs mixed in. He also pitched well against the A’s in his one appearance against them this summer, which came against none other than Bassitt. It was the late-August doubleheader game in which Houston roughed up the A’s righty, and on the other side of the ball McCullers cruised, working six quality innings to take advantage of his early lead and convert it into a (seven-inning) victory.

McCullers, vs. OAK: 6 ip, 2 runs (1 earned), 7 Ks, 1 BB, 6 hits, .253 xwOBA

For what little Oakland managed against the right-hander in that game, Ramon Laureano led the way with a double and a single, and Robbie Grossman also doubled.

Extra McCullers fact, per McTaggart’s writeup linked above: This is his third career start at Dodger Stadium. The first was Game 7 of the 2017 World Series. The second was the day he hurt his elbow in late-2018, which ultimately led to TJS though he still pitched a couple more games before the end of that year.

Game 2: Manaea vs. Valdez

Tuesday shifts to a battle of lefties. Both of them faced the other team (but not each other) once this year, with similarly strong results.

First up is Manaea, who had a rocky beginning to the summer but then settled in as a reliable five-inning starter. He conquered the woes that initially plagued him the second time through lineups, and his ERA over his last seven starts was 2.77 with eight strikeouts per walk — and he worked at least five frames each time out. That salvaged his season stats, though they didn’t fully recover from his first four disaster outings.

Manaea, 2020: 4.50 ERA, 54 ip, 45 Ks, 8 BB, 7 HR, 3.71 FIP, .292 xwOBA

While the ERA is twice Bassitt’s, they have nearly identical xwOBA marks per Statcast, in a good way where Manaea was quietly as effective as Bassitt. Reasons for that could include Manaea’s tendency to keep the ball on the ground more often, and also his impressively minuscule walk rate, showing how he never helps the other team with free baserunners. There’s also a wide gulf in their strand rate (Bassitt unsustainably good, Manaea unsustainably bad), which is largely small-sample noise especially since their strikeout rates are the same.

In mid-September, Manaea made his only start against Houston and turned in his best effort of the year. It took him only 61 pitches to breeze through a season-high seven innings, allowing just two baserunners along the way. Statcast said it was as good as it looked.

Manaea, vs. HOU: 7 ip, 1 run, 4 Ks, 0 BB, 2 hits, .239 xwOBA

However, Valdez has an even more impressive resume. Statcast loved his season as much as it did Manaea’s, but the box score liked Valdez much better. That included ERA, where he was a run lower; innings, where he averaged one and a half more than Manaea per start; and strikeouts, where he racked up nearly 10 per nine innings and almost five per walk. It was a breakout for the 26-year-old, who topped out his fastball at 96.6 mph (average 93).

Valdez, 2020: 3.57 ERA, 70⅔ ip, 76 Ks, 16 BB, 5 HR, 2.85 FIP, .290 xwOBA

You could make an argument that he’s the best out of all four of these starters, and at the very least he may have had the best head-to-head outing of any of them. In early August he shut the A’s down for seven innings, though he was out-dueled by Frankie Montas and took the loss.

Valdez, vs. OAK: 7 ip, 2 runs (1 earned), 9 Ks, 1 BB, 7 hits, 1 HR, .226 xwOBA

Nah, I’ll take Manaea’s start over that one, if only because Valdez allowed a homer in his — to Marcus Semien. Among other A’s hitters, Mark Canha also had a nice day against Valdez, with a hard-hit single, a loud out, and a walk.

***

These should be two fun matchups. All four have pitched well against their opponents this year. Bassitt and McCullers are quality righties who are well-matched and are both hot right now, while southpaws Manaea and Valdez bring different styles but similar ability to record outs in bunches.

As for Game 3 and beyond, we’ll find those out as the series progresses. Houston still has Greinke up their sleeve, as well as Jose Urquidy, plus Cristian Javier if needed at some point. Meanwhile, Oakland has Montas, Jesús Luzardo, Mike Fiers, and Mike Minor.