The Yankees are absolutely riding high as they hit their West Coast trip this week, heading out to Oakland on an 11-game winning streak, their longest since 1985. They are 3 games ahead of Boston for the first wildcard spot, and are chasing Tampa for first place in the East, just four games back. The Oakland A’s are also in the hunt, a mere 1.5 games behind Boston, so this upcoming three-game set is important to both teams trying to cement their status as postseason contenders.
Their Story So Far
The Athletics are coming into this series on a 4-game losing streak and are 2-8 in their last 10, but overall this season have been formidable. They bounced back from a 1-7 start at the beginning of April with a 13 game win streak, and have capably rivaled the Astros for much of the season. Their recent slump has them 4.5 games behind Houston in the West, but even the red-hot Yankees shouldn’t underestimate Bob Melvin’s squad.
The A’s have been unspectacular but above-average on both sides of the ball, with a 109 staff-wide ERA+ and a 103 OPS+. Their lineup has been bolstered by Matt Olson, who’s having a fantastic year with 32 home runs and a 161 OPS+, and Starling Marte, who has slashed .353/.391/.490 since being traded from the Marlins last month. The rest of their offensive, while not putting up eye-popping numbers, has been overall solid.
The starting rotation of Cole Irvin, Sean Manaea, Frankie Montas, and James Kaprelian are all pitching to sub-4 ERAs, and prior to his injury Chris Bassitt had a 3.22 ERA and 12 wins, tied for the league lead. Closer Lou Trivino has 21 saves, despite blowing his last two opportunities, and Yusmeiro Petit, Jake Diekman, and the eternal Sergio Romo have capably held down middle relief.
The A’s are not really a powerhouse by any means this year, but despite their recent slump are fundamentally solid. They have the third-fewest errors in the majors, and allow the third fewest runs per game in the AL. The Yankees’ recent success has put them in a good position with regards to the playoffs, but the A’s are right there with them in the standings and should not be an easy matchup.
For much of the afternoon, it looked like another annoying afternoon in the Bronx, but the Yankees rode some clutch late-inning hitting to even the series with the Oakland Athletics, showing signs of continued life in a hard-fought, 7-5 win. At times it wasn’t pretty, but it got the job done. The Yankees have now won four of their last five games, all of the wins in that stretch of the come-from-behind variety. On to the takeaways:
German struggles. Domingo German has been one of the Yankees’ most consistent, solid pitchers this season, but struggled mightily last weekend in Philadelphia and was once again not his best self today. He showed flashes of brilliance, striking out the side in the second inning and recording 6 strikeouts total in just 4 innings. He had great movement on his breaking pitches this afternoon but struggled to command his fastball and wound up being chased from the game with nobody out in the 5th after surrendering four runs, including two home runs. German has now surrendered 14 home runs in 69.0 innings.
Nestor Cortes makes his way into the circle of trust. Nestor Cortes Jr. was tasked with cleaning up a starting pitcher’s bad day for the second time in a week and responded brilliantly. He inherited a first-and-third, nobody out situation from German in the 5th with the Yankees down 4-1, and got two strikeouts and a popup to hold the A’s scoreless. He finished the day with three innings where he surrendered no runs, just one hit, and struck out three. Great day for him.
The bats heat up. As has been discussed ad nauseum, the Yankees’ primary issue thus far in 2021 has been that the people who are supposed to be reliable hitters have been less than reliable. The team got production from up and down the lineup, especially from guys whose bats they really need to get going. Aaron Judge, who has been in a funk of late, got two hits; Gary Sanchez hit a monster home run to close the gap to 4-2 in the 6th inning; and Clint Frazier, who has mostly been relegated to the bench recently, hit two hard doubles. It would be really great to see him get on a roll.
The early innings featured a lot of missed opportunities, but the “clutch” started to come through in the 7th. After Frazier doubled to lead off the inning, it appeared as though the Yankees would once again be unable to capitalize on the opportunity as Brett Gardner struck out and DJ LeMahieu grounded out; however, Sanchez took a two-out walk to chase starter Chris Bassit from the game, and Judge and Giancarlo Stanton hit back-to-back singles to tie the game.
The Yankees broke it open a little bit in the 8th after Gio Urshela, who also recorded two hits today, led off the inning with a go-ahead home run. After walks to Chris Gittens and Frazier, Gardner demonstrated the elusive solid fundamentals by putting down a well-executed sac bunt to move the runners, and LeMahieu came through with a big hit to put the team up by three and cap the Yankees’ scoring at 7.
Chapman’s weird inning. The top of the ninth was a lot more stressful than it needed to be. Chapman overall looked pretty good, and his velocity was back to its peak after dipping last week. With one out, he walked Mark Canha on borderline pitches that could have been strikes; Aaron Boone had some words in response for home plate umpire Sean Barber and got thrown out. After the walk, Chapman induced a fly out to Judge and then what looked to be a game-ending ground ball behind first base, but he dropped the ball covering first, raising the blood pressure of a fanbase as the tying run came to the plate. He gave up a run on a single to Ramon Laureano before settling down to strike out Matt Chapman on three pitches, the last of which was clocked at 103 miles per hour. Weird inning, but no harm, no foul.
Tony Kemp is a pain in the butt. After his go-ahead home run yesterday, he hit another home run in the first this afternoon to put the A’s up early, and robbed Judge of a base hit in the bottom of the first. Annoying.
Chad Green threw a fantastic eighth inning, striking out the side on 13 pitches.
In the 2nd inning, Urshela hit a double play grounder where it appeared as though the bat shattered and shards of wood flew into his eye, hindering his ability to run out the play. Scary moment, but Gio was back on the field in the top of the inning and certainly seemed healthy enough for some late inning heroics.
Directly after driving in a few big insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth, LeMahieu got picked off first base, proving that even when they win the Yankees can’t help but make dumb outs on the basepaths.
There are a few notable things going on in Yankee land worth mentioning as they prepare to face the A’s this weekend.
Starting with this. The Yankees and Angels were the last two holdouts in MLB for holding a pride night, and it is great to see the Yankees show their public support for the LGBTQ+ community at a game and through their actions. Secondly, the stadium is open for full capacity starting tonight!
It is going to be great to hear the place rocking like it did before the pandemic. If you’re planning to go, please be safe and remember that although we’re in the home stretch thanks to vaccinations, we’re not home safely yet and we all still have to do our part to get back to normal. And normal is worth getting back to for the Yankees, who are coming off a sweep of the Blue Jays! It is just their 3rd sweep in 10 tries this season, and according to STATS, it is the first time in franchise history they have swept a road series after trailing in the late innings of each game.
That’s what’s up in Yankee-land, now let’s talk about their opponent for this weekend and what we can expect watching these games against the Oakland Athletics.
Their story so far
The A’s are currently leading the AL West with a 43-27 record and they are coming in hot, winning 8 of their last 10 and 6 straight. They have a +30 run differently, and an expected W/L record of 38-32, meaning they have been lucky thus far.
As usual, nothing stands out about the A’s and why they have been so successful. Their offense is solid to above average, ranking 7th in OBP, 11th in OPS, and 11th overall in runs scored. Matt Olson, Mark Canha, Ramon Laureano, and Tony Kemp all have wRC+ above 130 which is dribng hte offense.
On the pitching side, the A’s do exactly one thing well, and this is limit walks. Their starters rank 2nd in BB/9 and the bullpen ranks 6th in that metric. They do not strike batters out, with the 20th overall K/9 for starters and worst K/9 for relievers. They are decent at limiting the home run ball, however, ranking 9th for starters and 8th for relievers. So, expect few walks, few home runs, and few strikeouts this weekend. Basically, the opposite of what we are accustomed to watching in modern baseball.
Spotlight: Matt Olson
Along with 3B Matt Chapman, Olson is one half of the corner-infield Matt duo who has been integral for the A’s success these past few seasons. Olson broke out in 2018 bashing 29 home runs playing in all 162 games and followed that up with 36 home runs in a down-ballot MVP year in 2019.
Pandemic ball was not kind to Olson, however. In the shortened season last year he slashed just .195/.310/.424 giving him a 103 wRC+ after his 135 wRC+ in 2019. The biggest culprit was a career-high strikeout rate of 31.4% last year after never being above a 25% K rate before. That led to career lows in average, obp, slugging, and hard hit%. So what happened?
In a great piece by Mike Axisa at CBS Sports, Olson describes how like several other hitters, he struggled with his swing last season. This year, Olson and several other A’s hitters have worked on staying on top of the ball which is helping lead to a reduced strikeout rate, which in turn is leading to a career year for Olson. You can see the change in his Statcast metrics from last season to this season:
So far, Olson is mashing to a .297/.378/.603 line with 18 home runs and a 167 wRC+ – all of which represent career highs. Notably, he has a 51% had hit rate according to Statcast which is also the highest of his career. As a lefty hitter, Olson is mighty scary in Yankee Stadium and containing him will be key for the Yankees pitchers this series.
Mark Canha, LF (.251/.374/.457, 138 wRC+)…been an underrated offensive force the last 3 years.
Ramon Laureano, CF (.255/.329/.511, 134 wRC+)…strong power but does strikeout 27% of the time
Matt Olson, 1B (.297/.378/.603, 167 wRC+)…see above for spotlight
Jed Lowrie, 2B (.247/.329/.379, 103 wrC+)…only played in 9 games in 2019-2020 combined
Mitch Moreland, DH (.243/.298/.390, 94 wRC+)…his worst offensive season so far since 2016
Matt Chapman, 3B (.224/.327/.375, 101 wRC+)…career lows across the board after 2 MVP caliber seasons in 2018-2019
Seth Brown, RF (.187/.265/.417, 89 wRC+)…has accrued more value via baserunning than offense or defense
Sean Murphy, C (.219/.321/.421, 112 wRC+)…is having an incredible defensive year behind the plate
Elvis Andrus, SS (.221/.272/.290, 59 wRC+)…is the reason everyone is predicting Trevor Story will get traded to Oakland
Aramis Garcia, C (.190/.227/.302, 50 wRC+)…stereotypical backup catcher who made his MLB debut at age 26
Chad Pinder, INF/OF (.261/.313/.455, 114 wRC+)…solid offfensive year in a utility role
Tony Kemp, 2B/OF (.275/.392/.417, 132 wRC+)…if he could play shortstop he would easily displace Andrus in the starting lineup
Stephen Piscotty, OF (.217/.284/.357, 83 wRC+)…a rare case of negative offensive, defensive, and baserunning WAR so far this year
Tonight, 7:08pm eastern:
RHP James Kaprielian
The former Yankee first rounder made his MLB debut this year and has pitched to a 2.51 ERA thus far, though some regression is coming with a 4.89 xFIP (No stats vs. Yankees)
RHP Jameson Taillon
Taillon continues to be an enigma as he adapts to his new mechanics and repertoire. His 5.74 ERA does not match his 3.92 xERA. Hopefully that regression hits soon (Stats. vs. Oakland).
Saturday, 1:08pm eastern:
RHP Chris Bassitt
Having an excellent year with career highs in K/9 and BB/9 with ERA, xERA, FIP, and xFIP all in the 3’s (Stats vs. Yankees).
Germán had his first clunker since April last time out giving up 7 runs against the Phillies. Hopefully he can turn it around here despite Matt Olson’s ownership of him (Stats vs. Oakland).
Sunday, 1:08pm eastern:
LHP Sean Manaea
The lefty is having a great year with a 2.99 ERA and recently threw a CGSO against the Mariners. He hasn’t allowed more than 1 run in a start in over a month, let’s change that here (Stats vs. Yankees).
LHP Jordan Montgomery
Monty’s peripherals all look good and he is on his way to his best MLB season, hopefully with some better luck coming soon in this southpaw matchup (Stats vs. Oakland).
With just 2.5 weeks left in the season, the Yankees are almost certainly going to hold homefield advantage in the ALDS. They hold a five-game lead on the Twins and would need a genuine collapse to be playing in Minnesota.
But it is time to start thinking about potential opponents to roll into the Bronx on Oct. 4 for the American League Division Series. With the Red Sox all but eliminated, there are four realistic first-round opponents: The Twins, Rays, Athletics and Indians.
If the Yankees finish with the AL’s second-best record, they get the Twins. If they beat out Houston, they place one of the latter three teams.
Do any of these teams pique the fear index? Not really. The Yankees should win a series against any of these teams. But which is the most fearsome? That is what I want to find out. Let’s peruse the question, shall we?
Minnesota Twins Fear Index: 2 out of 5
The story of the Minnesota Twins has been home runs. They’ve hit 276 of them this season and broke the 2018 Yankees’ record … before the 2019 Yankees tied them last night. They’ve been rewarded by the juiced baseball for shoring up their roster in free agency. While these Twins have very little postseason experience, those home runs should carry over into October.
In two series with the Bombers, they lost two of three both times, though they were both tightly contested series. It’s hard to forget the slugfests in Minnesota. The Twins were able to get to the Yankees’ late-inning relievers, though they did most of their damage against Domingo German, CC Sabathia and J.A. Happ.
As a team, they have a 117 wRC+, trailing just the Yankees and Astros. Their 4.07 staff FIP is fourth-best in baseball and their 4.17 ERA is eighth.
However, here’s why the Twins are better on paper than in playoff series: They’re shorthanded. Byron Buxton is out for the year. Nelson Cruz is dealing with a wrist injury. Max Kepler has had multiple injuries in his breakout season.
Meanwhile, their best pitcher in the second half, Michael Pineda, was suspended for PEDs and is done for the year. The rest of their starting pitching has struggled in the second half and their bullpen might not hold up in October. Starter Kyle Gibson is dealing with an intestinal issue and returns to the team Thursday.
You can throw out the Yankees’ postseason history with the Twins. Most of that involves players long since retired and this Minnesota team actually gets strikeouts and hits homers. However, the Yankees have a clear advantage on Minnesota when they aren’t using their back-end starters.
Tampa Bay Rays Fear Index: 0.5 out of 5
On paper, the Rays have one of the best pitching staffs in baseball. They’re second only to the Dodgers with a 3.63 ERA and lead MLB with a 3.67 FIP and 22.6 fWAR. They strike people out at a high rate and the team boasts Charlie Morton at the head of their rotation.
However, they’re thin going into the stretch run. Morton has a 4.52 ERA in the second half. Though he’s matched up well with the Yankees, he would be the Rays’ best Wild Card Game starter, so they might not see him more than once. Meanwhile, both Tyler Glasnow and Blake Snell are on the mend from injuries and neither will be fully stretched out in all likelihood.
Tampa Bay’s bullpen has held its own this season … except against the Yankees. Colin Poche, Diego Castillo, Emilio Pagan, the Yankees have hit all of them. While deadline acquisition Nick Anderson has been electric in Tampa, the Rays’ depth won’t confer them the same advantage in October. It’s hard to imagine a team bullpenning its way through 3-4 games in a series and surviving.
As for their lineup, it’s fine. Austin Meadows and Tommy Pham are both above-average players and the team sports a collection of good but not great hitters. They don’t stack up with the rest of the AL contenders.
The Yankees beat them 12 out of 17 so far this year. Considering that track record, the Rays’ injured pitching staff and the lack of homefield advantage at Tropicana Field, Tampa Bay is undoubtedly the team the Yankees would most want to face. A series loss to Tampa would be a terrible look.
Oakland Athletics Fear Index: 2.4 out of 5
Over the past few weeks, the A’s made their case as a team to fear. They took four of six from the Yankees and could have easily won the two games they lost. They showed off their offense led by Marcus Semien and Matts Chapman and Olson. Those same players anchor an impressive defensive infield.
Oakland’s pitching staff also is at full strength. Sean Manaea has had two fantastic starts since coming off the injured list and is able to make full appearances. He’s already a prime candidate for a Wild Card Game start, should they get there. They can follow him with Mike Fiers, Tanner Roark and Homer Bailey, each of whom has a win over the Yankees this year.
Meanwhile, their bullpen has holes. The Yankees beat Liam Hendriks in last year’s Wild Card Game and in their series finale before Labor Day. For manager Bob Melvin, it’s been Hendriks, Yusmeiro Petit and a cadre of sub-par options. Rookies A.J. Puk and Jesus Luzardo could be a boost.
Coupled with holes at the bottom of their lineup, the Athletics certainly have exploitable weaknesses for the Yankees to beat. The Bombers took two of three in the Bronx and would only need to play twice in Oakland at most. As they stand now, the A’s are probably the top ALDS competition.
Cleveland Indians Fear Index: 2* out of 5
Cleveland sports the best rotation of these four teams with Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber as a 1-2 punch. Zach Plesac and Adam Plutko don’t hold up quite as well as Oakland’s veteran back end, but the chance to use their top two for the majority of a series carries significant weight.
This team also features Francisco Lindor, one of the more dynamic players in baseball. He can change a series and is a player you can’t let beat you. Carlos Santana has had a career-year in the middle of the lineup and deadline acquisitions Yasiel Puig and Franmil Reyes extend the lineup.
But there’s that asterisk above. That’s for Jose Ramirez. With him in the lineup, Cleveland probably surpasses the Athletics as a threat. He had just returned to MVP candidate form before he broke his hand in August. I’d assume he’s out for a potential ALDS, but that hasn’t been confirmed.
As with the other ALDS opponents, the Indians have outs at the bottom of their lineup and a creaky bullpen. Brad Hand has blown five saves and the rest of the pen relies on pitchers like Tyler Clippard. Can he hold up in October? Hmmm.
The Yankees should be overwhelming favorites in any first-round series. They’ll either be hosting a banged-up Twins squad — the most-likely scenario — or will be playing a team that used its best starter or band of relievers in the Wild Card Game. We saw in 2017 how exhausted the Yankees were from that one game and it nearly lost them the ALDS. The Bombers get the rest advantage this year, and they’ll have the talent advantage, too.
The Yankees return home in search of revenge, facing the Athletics just a week after a sweep in Oakland.
Since They Last Met
Since that sweep, the Athletics lost two games to the Giants at home before heading east and winning three of four in Kansas City. They now lead the Rays by one game in the wild card (two games in loss column) and are 1.5 games back of Cleveland for the first wild card spot. Since they are on a roll, I must mention that Boston is just 5.5 games back of Oakland.
The Athletics have called up a pair of hitters who combined for 64 home runs in Triple-A Las Vegas, Seth Brown and Sheldon Neuse. Neuse has yet to make his debut and should some time this weekend, particularly with Khris Davis on paternity leave and Stephen Piscotty on the IL.
Piscotty sprained his ankle and is on the 10-day IL, while 3B Matt Chapman took a hit-by-pitch to the dome and was out of the lineup Thursday. OF Ramon Laureano is on the 10-day IL and will likely miss this series. RHP Daniel Gossett is on the 60-day IL.
LHP Sean Manaea, their best pitcher last season, is still on rehab assignment as he works back from shoulder surgery.
Player Spotlight: Marcus Semien
Semien is one of the best player development success stories of the last decade, though all that development came at the Major League level. The shortstop was the top piece in the 2014 Jeff Samardzija deal with Chicago and immediately inherited the position in Oakland. However, he was an error machine.
In 2015, he committed 35 errors at short, a pretty even split between fielding and throwing miscues. Though he had the athleticism and talent to man the position, it wasn’t shining through.
In addition to his turnaround in the field, Semien has exceled at the plate, as the Yankees got to see firsthand last week. Like many players, he’s steadily added power in recent seasons, culminating in a career-best 24-homer year in 2019 with 34 doubles, one away from his personal-high. With contributions on both sides of the ball, he’s a 5+ WAR player by both Fangraphs and Baseball Reference, someone who deserves All-Star love.
Marcus Semien, SS (.277/.360/.494, 127 wRC+)
Robbie Grossman, RF (.252/.347/.364, 95 wRC+)
Matt Chapman, 3B (.259/.344/.528, 129 wRC+)
Matt Olson, 1B (.261/.344/.517, 125 wRC+)
Mark Canha, CF (.277/.391/.547, 149 wRC+)
Seth Brown, LF (.368/.368/.474, 126 wRC+ in four games)
Sheldon Neuse, DH (.317/.389/.550, 126 wRC+ in Triple-A)
Jurickson Profar, 2B (.214/.292/.405, 83 wRC+)
Josh Phegley, C (.257/.298/.431, 91 wRC+)
On the bench, the Athletics have backup catcher Chris Herrmann (52 wRC+), infielder Corban Joseph (40 wRC+) and utility man Chad Pinder (85 wRC+).
Friday (7:05 p.m. EDT): CC Sabathia (vs. A’s) vs. Brett Anderson (vs. Yankees)
For the first time in four years, Brett Anderson has made 25 starts in a season, and the left-hander has been an effective pitcher for the Athletics. He has a 4.08 ERA in 150 innings with a better-than-average home run rate to buoy his minuscule strikeout rate.
Seriously, his strikeout rate is in the 1st percentile in baseball as the 31-year-old fans just 12 percent of opponents. He is able to win games by keeping the ball on the ground with a GB rate above 50 percent.
However, he’s facing a Yankees team that demolishes lefties. They’ve won their last 13 starts vs. southpaws and the Yankees have traditionally raked against Anderson. With the caveat that the team and Anderson have changed over the years, you have to mention that Anderson has a 6.86 ERA in 40.2 IP against the Yankees. The team hits .339/.384/.508 with seven homers against him.
Saturday (1:05 p.m. EDT): Domingo German (vs. A’s) vs. Homer Bailey (vs. Yankees)
Homer Bailey has an opportunity to do something extremely rare: Beat the Yankees three times in the regular season without playing on an AL East team.
The right-hander topped Domingo German in April with the Royals and last week with the A’s. Normally, with the current system, a pitcher will face a non-division team twice in a season, but Bailey’s trade to Oakland in July created this situation.
Bailey has good peripherals in Oakland despite a 5.52 ERA, and he held the Yankees to just one run in the series opener last week. He gave up seven hits and walked none, settling down after a solo homer by Gary Sanchez in the first inning.
Sunday (1:05 p.m. EDT): J.A. Happ (vs. A’s) vs. Mike Fiers (vs. Yankees)
Fiers has been the A’s best starter this year and found a way to beat the Yankees in Oakland despite allowing nine baserunners in 5.1 innings. However, there’s reason to believe he won’t be quite as effective this time out.
Fiers is an extreme flyball pitcher, tied for 16th in baseball among qualified starters with a 40.2 percent groundball rate. He’s been able to cull his high home run rate this season, though that should be more difficult at Yankee Stadium (even if it’s played like a pitcher’s park this year).
Fiers has allowed four homers in two career starts at the Stadium. It’s worth noting that he’s been better than ever this season and his 3.40 ERA isn’t a total fluke, even if he’s outpitching his FIP and other indicators. He’s a talented righty who makes up for his lack of velocity, but he could struggle in the Bronx.
Here’s a reminder of who they have in the pen:
RHPs: Liam Hendriks, Yusmeiro Petit, Joakim Soria, Blake Treinen, Lou Trivino LHPs: Ryan Buchter, Jake Diekman, A.J. Puk
The Athletics had to ride their bullpen hard on Thursday, getting Petit, Soria and Diekman each facing four hitters and Hendriks throwing 31 pitches to eight batters to narrowly close the game. Diekman has pitched in back-to-back games.
Petit remains the middle innings fireman while Hendriks closes things out. Puk is the wild card as the multi-inning option who has just a few games to his MLB career after debuting vs. the Yankees.
Treinen has fallen off significantly in 2019, taking another loss Wednesday. Buchter is a LOOGY while Soria and Trivino sit somewhere in middle relief.