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Losing might benefit A’s more than winning during final week of season

Playoff seeding matters more than “momentum”

Oakland Athletics v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s have six games remaining in their 2020 regular season, before the playoffs begin next Tuesday. And I wouldn’t mind if they lost every one of those final games this week.

Obviously I want the A’s to play well, and I’d like to go into the postseason with as much momentum as possible. But if you’ve watched enough 21st-century Oakland baseball, then you’ve seen some of the hottest September clubs in history fall flat and fail to win a single series in October. Momentum isn’t the crucial factor it’s made out to be, considering how it can turn on a dime at any moment for any reason.

What might actually be important, though, is who the A’s play in that first round. Some prospective matchups are more promising than others, and Oakland’s record over the next few days will have a significant effect on which opponent they draw.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that they should intentionally lose games. Rather, I’m pointing out why, from a fan perspective, we shouldn’t be worried or even unhappy if they do drop some contests this week.


To begin, let’s establish an important premise: Momentum doesn’t exist in sports.

When your team is going to the playoffs, it’s natural to want to see them playing their best heading into it. If they played well yesterday and the day before, it feels likelier they will play well again tomorrow.

But the truth is, it doesn’t necessarily work out that way. The 2000 A’s finished the season on a 22-6 run, but got bounced in the ALDS. The 2001 A’s were even better at the end, at 23-3 including their last six in a row, but once again it made no difference in the ALDS. In 2002 they went 35-8, including a famous 20-game win streak you may have heard of that lasted into September, and they still lost in five in October. Here’s a list of recent A’s team to finish hot and still lose immediately in the postseason:

  • 2000: finished 22-6, or 10-2, or 3-0
  • 2001: 23-3, or 6-0
  • 2002: 35-8, or 9-2, or 4-0
  • 2003: 23-11, or 4-3
  • 2012: 33-13, or 8-1, or 6-0
  • 2013: 24-9, or 7-3
  • 2018: 16-9, or 3-3
  • 2019: 18-7, or 3-2

None of those scorching-hot teams won a single postseason series of any kind. And it’s not just the A’s — how about the 2014 Angels and their huge second-half charge, finishing the year 21-11 but then getting swept out of the ALDS?

On the other hand, the 2006 A’s finished a modest 14-14 down the stretch, and lost three of their last four, and six of their last nine. Not only were they the only 21st-century Oakland team to win their ALDS matchup, they even swept it from the favored Twins (and they beat the amazing Johan Santana along the way).

And who beat those A’s in the ALCS? Why, it was the 2006 Tigers, fresh off one of the most spectacular meltdowns in recent memory (not unlike the 2014 A’s). They had led their division by 10 games on Aug. 7, but they went 19-31 the rest of the way, including losing their final five games in a row, all of which cost them their division title on the final day of the season (not unlike the 2012 Rangers). But they still qualified for the Wild Card, and then when the postseason began they snapped awake, winning seven out of eight games to breeze through to the World Series — where the momentum again shifted and they lost in five to an 83-win Cardinals team.

The point is not that slumping at the end of the year is a good thing. It’s that “momentum” is a completely made-up concept that doesn’t exist and doesn’t matter in either direction, something abstract and nebulous that you have right up until the moment you don’t. It’s a placeholder explanation for the vagaries of probability and luck that we can’t otherwise quantify or tangibly interact with, and it only takes one big play by the other side to completely reverse it. Just ask the 2001 A’s about those kinds of flips.

Or how about the 2019 A’s? On four occasions last year alone, Oakland lost three straight games, and then immediately followed that by winning three straight games. On two of those occasions, they then followed the win streak with another five or six losses in a row. Teams ebb and they flow. If it’s because of “momentum,” then the good news is that momentum is never a good bet to last more than five minutes into the future. Just ask the 2016 Indians about that.

So, if the A’s go 1-6 this week to limp into the first round? No worries, it all resets in Game 1. Just score some runs on Tuesday and you can be right back in the driver’s seat.

And why bring all this up? Because Oakland’s record still matters.

Playoff seeding

The A’s have already clinched the AL West division crown, but their full future isn’t yet set in stone. They’ll be at least a top-three seed, which guarantees them home-field advantage in the Wild Card Round at the Coliseum, but they could still finish first, second, or third in the American League. Which spot they end up in will dictate who they play in that opening series.

The AL field is pretty much set, in terms of who will be there. Unless something crazy happens in the next few days, the Astros are going to be the No. 6 seed, as the worst second-place team. The Indians and Blue Jays are going to be the Wild Cards, as the best third-place teams, and it’ll be Indians as No. 7 and Jays as No. 8.

The A’s most preferable matchup is the Astros, and it’s not close. That’s also who Oakland is currently lined up to play, as the No. 3 seed themselves, while CLE and TOR will play the top two seeds.

To begin, the Astros simply aren’t as good as they used to be. They’re barely .500 despite playing in what might be a weak division, and they’re several games behind Cleveland in the standings and tied with the Jays despite each being in much tougher divisions. Their rotation isn’t the superstar powerhouse it once was, their closer is hurt, and half their star hitters had awful campaigns.

Furthermore, given this season’s regional schedule, Houston is the only one of those possible opponents that the A’s have even played against this year. Oakland beat them seven out of 10 times, and all three Astros victories came in abbreviated seven-inning doubleheader contests. The A’s swept every full-length game they played against Houston this summer.

On the other hand, how does Oakland match up against the Indians and Blue Jays? We have no idea! Maybe well, maybe not. But let’s not find out in a three-game series, if we can instead put it off until a five-game ALDS or seven-game ALCS. The unfamiliarity heightens the chaos and randomness, more and more the shorter the series gets, which favors the lower seed. The high seed playing at home should want to face the familiar club they know they can beat rather than the mystery behind Door Number 2.

In particular, the danger in a short series is running into an opponent’s ace pitcher, like the A’s did last year with Charlie Morton of the Rays. Houston’s ace is Zack Greinke, who is great, but they already faced him three times this year and Oakland won twice. Once they scored three off him in five innings, and once they scored four in six frames. He’s always a threat, but not an insurmountable one, and they have plenty of recent practice against him.

The Indians, though? They have Cy Young favorite Shane Bieber, who leads the majors in ERA (1.74) and is currently striking out 14 batters per nine innings while not really walking anybody. And whaddya know, the A’s rely heavily on walking, while strikeouts are their biggest weakness, and they haven’t faced him since 2018 (before he even broke out into an ace). Facing Cleveland likely means spotting the opponent a victory in the first game, and forcing yourself to win the next two in a row — and they have four more terrifying starters behind Bieber.

(Note: Yes, in a longer series you’ll see the ace twice, but the second time you see him will be the second time you see him that week, which can make a huge difference. You get more opportunities to figure out the other ace/team and overcome the challenge, rather than getting ambushed by a novel opponent and eliminated in the span 48 hours.)

And the Blue Jays? Hyun-jun Ryu was the runner-up for NL Cy Young last year and is great again this year, and the A’s have faced him once ever, in 2018. Toronto’s rotation is weak after that, but the Jays only have to split the final two games after Ryu wins his. And they’ve got a lineup full of young stud hitters who represent another huge mystery for Oakland that can easily wait until a longer series.

Nah, I’ll pass. Bring me the watered-down Astros. Sure, Lance McCullers or Jose Urquidy is fully capable of beating the A’s, and everyone in Houston’s lineup has probably broken our hearts at least once before. But someone has to be the weakest good team, and right now it’s Houston.

That’s where this all gets so counter-intuitive. If the A’s win games this week, they risk improving their seed, which would give them a tougher matchup in the first round. It’s not how brackets are supposed to work, but it’s not an uncommon situation in sports, especially when teams are split into divisions rather than using league-wide standings (where Houston would be the No. 8 seed right now).

Entering Wednesday, Oakland is tied in the loss column with the No. 2 seed White Sox, and they have only one more loss than the No. 1 seed Rays. Tampa Bay will probably hold the tiebreaker over both (intra-divisional record), but the A’s and Sox are separated by only one loss there too. In terms of how the top three spots could shake out after Sunday, it could end up in any order, and especially the A’s and Sox are almost a coin-flip to face the Indians or Astros.

Perhaps the rest of Oakland’s schedule is convenient after all. They have two more against the MLB-best Dodgers, and then they have to play four in three days against the Mariners. Going more than .500 in that stretch would be a tough task anyway, but maybe it’s not even something we should be rooting for.

If the A’s win some games this week, then great. That will always make us happy. But if they don’t? That might be even better, for their fortunes next week in the games we actually care about. The momentum won’t matter, but the seeding just might.