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Sean Manaea would line up nicely as A’s Game 1 starter in 2020 Wild Card Round

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The lefty started last year’s lone playoff game as well

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

The Oakland A’s will open their 2020 postseason on Tuesday, at home in the Coliseum for a best-of-three series in the Wild Card Round. The only question that remains is what team they will be playing against, with a list of possible candidates that’s still seven long.

Well, that’s not the only question, just the biggest. Another thing worth considering is who will start on the mound for the A’s, beginning with Game 1.

No official announcement has been made, but the next best thing is a prediction from Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle. She speculates that it could be Sean Manaea, Chris Bassitt, and Jesús Luzardo, in that order.

That setup would make plenty of sense. Manaea was slow to heat up this year but is now pitching great, Bassitt has the best ERA on the team, and Luzardo has the best raw stuff. But let’s focus on just Manaea in this post.

It’s almost hard to remember now, despite being only six weeks ago (that’s six years in 2020 time), but Manaea struggled hard to begin the season. His first four starts went the same way — he would dominate the first time through the lineup during the first three innings or so, but then the opponent would smash him on their second time through the order and knock him out in under five frames.

In his seven starts since, with some of his velocity and movement finally returning, the lefty has done a much better job of getting through lineups a second time. In those games, the second time thru, opponents have batted 14-for-59 (.237) with three homers, three walks, and 15 strikeouts. The third time through they’ve only managed a .273 average (6-for-22), with one more dinger.

Even still, Manaea’s overall season splits demonstrate a massive difference:

  • 1st time thru: .204/.212/.286, .498 OPS, 24.0 K/BB
  • 2nd time thru: .330/.375/.568, .943 OPS, 3.0 K/BB
  • 3rd time thru: .320/.333/.480, .813 OPS, 3.0 K/BB

As a group, MLB starers are generally better the first time through the order, to the tune of 40 points of OPS on average compared with the second time through. Manaea’s gap is FIVE HUNDRED points of OPS. Even if you cut down to just the last seven starts, since he became effective that second time through the lineup, the difference is still 300 points (.444 to .743).

The point is, Manaea is virtually unhittable the first time hitters face him that day, which is a welcome concept after what happened to the A’s the last two years in the Wild Card Games. Each time, they served up a homer in the 1st inning, and last October in particular Manaea himself allowed runs in each of the first three frames (four runs total). Getting off to a better start in the early innings of Game 1 will be crucial, and the southpaw appears to be one of the best in the league at doing so — and now he’s also able to continue succeeding even after those initial nine at-bats.

It might seem risky for Oakland to turn right back to the guy who lost the Wild Card Game last year, but remember he was only in that position because he was the best option back then too. Manaea is a quality starter, and in the first few frames of each game he’s apparently an elite one. If his main drawback is that he won’t work deep into the game, then that’s OK, because the A’s have a fierce bullpen that they would love to turn to as early as possible.

We’ll have to wait to see the official word on who is starting Game 1, but Manaea would make a lot of sense regardless of who the opponent turns out to be. He’s also lined up to play that day anyway on a couple extra days rest. And as an extra bonus in this year’s playoffs, even if he does get beaten again, Oakland will still get another chance the next day, in a best-of-three series instead of one-and-done.