Technically, the Oakland A's are still chasing the Texas Rangers for the AL West title.
Realistically, though, the signs point toward the A's having to earn their first postseason berth in six years via a wild-card berth. They entered their Thursday matinee against the Rangers in Arlington with a three-game deficit in the division, and that's a pretty big deficit to make up in less than a week.
And since they're currently losing to the Rangers as I'm sitting here writing this, their deficit could be an even more insurmountable four games heading into the weekend.
The A's would no doubt prefer to go into the playoffs via a division title, of course, as that would give them a couple days to rest up and align their starting pitching for the American League Division Series. They'd also have the added security of knowing that they'd be guaranteed at least three games in the playoffs, rather than just one.
However, if there's a team in the American League that's perfectly equipped to handle the new wild-card setup, it's the A's.
The new rules that Major League Baseball has put in place for the wild card play-in games appeal to the A's. As ESPN's Buster Olney detailed in a recent article (Insider subscription required), the two teams that qualify to play in their respective league's wild-card game will use 25-man rosters as usual, but the catch is that these rosters don't have to carry over to the next round.
What that means is that the two wild cards in each league don't need to carry more than one starting pitcher if they don't want to. Instead, they can use those roster spots to add extra arms to their bullpens or extra bodies to their benches.
Most teams around baseball are carrying extra pitchers right now as a result of September roster expansion, and the A's are no different. They have 18 pitchers on their active roster, to be exact, and we could see Bob Melvin retain some of the extra relievers he has at his disposal for use in the wild card play-in game.
It's a given that usual suspects in the A's bullpen like Ryan Cook, Grant Balfour, Sean Doolittle, Pat Neshek, Jerry Blevins and Evan Scribner would find their way onto Melvin's roster for the play-in. Since Melvin doesn't have to set aside roster spots for more than one starting pitcher, he could retain relievers like Jim Miller, Tyson Ross, Jesse Chavez or Pedro Figueroa for the wild-card game. Jordan Norberto would also be fair game if his shoulder tendinitis clears up by the end of the month.
Bear in mind that this is one of the top bullpens in the league we're talking about. Per FanGraphs, Oakland's bullpen ranks second in the American League behind the Tampa Bay Rays with an ERA of 3.04. An already deep bullpen would thus become very deep for one crucially important game.
And it would need to be deep. The way things are looking right now, the A's are going to end up playing the Baltimore Orioles in the wild-card game. The O's also have a very deep bullpen, one that specializes in keeping games close or tied long enough for them to come away with improbable wins.
The advantage the A's have over the O's, however, is that their bullpen is more well rested at this point in the season. A's relievers have logged roughly 50 fewer innings than Orioles relievers. Such a relatively small workload is an advantage that the A's can enjoy both in the short and long term.
There's a stylistic difference between the two bullpens as well, as Buck Showalter's relievers have more defined roles than Melvin's relievers. The O's could carry just as many relievers as the A's in the wild-card game, but the extra relievers wouldn't cause Showalter to abandon Jim Johnson as his closer, Darren O'Day as his primary eighth-inning guy and so on. Melvin uses his relievers almost entirely based on matchups, so it's not hard to see him having a field day with extra relievers in a play-in game.
Or, Melvin could choose to fill out his bench rather than fill out his bullpen. That could be the direction he chooses to go simply because there are probably more toys to pick and choose from where Oakland's bench is concerned at the moment.
The A's have used a metric ton of different position players throughout the course of the season. That proud tradition has continued in September thanks to roster expansion, as players like Brandon Hicks, Collin Cowgill, Daric Barton and Jemile Weeks have found themselves back in the fold this month.
A player like Cowgill could be retained for the wild-card game because he's capable of playing all three outfield spots. Weeks could be retained because he has the speed to steal a base in a pinch. Barton would be an excellent late-inning defensive replacement at first base in place of Chris Carter or Brandon Moss.
In the event that the A's have to settle for a spot in the wild-card game, Melvin would still have a full toolbox thanks to the funky rules MLB has put in place. Ideally, he'll be able to use this full toolbox at home in the comfort of O.co Coliseum.
If the season ended today, the A's would head to Baltimore for the wild-card game. However, the A's could easily leapfrog the O's in the standings in the next few days, meaning the Orioles would have to head west all the way from Tampa Bay to meet the A's in a death match.
The A's have one of the top home records in the American League this year at 44-31, and there's a good reason for that. Their bats may perform slightly better on the road than they do at home (.720 OPS vs. a .698 OPS), but their arms perform significantly better at home than they do on the road.
On the road, Oakland pitchers have a 3.87 ERA and an opponents' OPS of 7.25. At home, they have a 3.12 ERA and an opponents' OPS of .641.
A major part of the success Oakland's pitchers have enjoyed at home is their ability to keep the ball in the yard. Per FanGraphs, A's pitchers have a HR/FB rate of 8.0 when pitching at home, lowest in the American League. On the road, their HR/FB rate jumps up to 10.1.
That's still very good, but a two-percent difference in HR/FB rate over the course of the season equates to a significant number of home runs. In this case, Oakland pitchers have given up 19 more homers on the road than they have at home.
Oakland's ability to keep runs off the board at home is an advantage that the Orioles don't have. Their pitchers have a 4.23 ERA at home, as opposed to a 3.69 ERA on the road. They hold hitters to a .695 OPS on the road, versus .750 OPS at home.
A pitching-driven win at home would put the A's on a path to do some damage in the ALDS and beyond. As Barry M. Bloom of MLB.com outlined when the new rules were first announced, this year's playoff expansion comes with a certain change that could be a boon for the teams that win the wild-card games.
Instead of heading elsewhere, the winners of the wild-card games will get to play the first two games of the division series at home. That means the A's could conceivably open the postseason with three straight home games, the latter two of which would be against the AL's top seed.
In all likelihood, that's going to be the Rangers. And if I'm the A's, I'd much rather face the Rangers at home than on the road, for reasons that are both obvious and not-so-obvious.
The A's entered Thursday's action with an 8-7 record against the Rangers on the season, but they're 4-5 against the Rangers in Arlington. The Rangers, meanwhile, are 2-4 in Oakland with a team ERA over 5.00. A's pitchers have limited Rangers hitters to a .577 OPS when they've faced them in Oakland.
Given those numbers, the Rangers would almost be an underdog against the A's in an ALDS matchup. The A's could easily take the first two games from them if they happen to meet up in the first round.
If so, the A's would only need one win on the road in Texas to advance to the American League Championship Series. The rules for the ALCS aren't any different this year, but the A's won't need any special rules to do them any favors in the event that they do make it to the ALCS. If they make it that far, they'll be hot enough to go all the way to the World Series.
It's a feat that wild-card teams have a tendency to pull off. The Marlins won the World Series as a wild card in both 1997 and 2003. The Angels won it as a wild-card team in 2002, as did the Red Sox in 2004 and the Cardinals last season. The 2000 Mets, 2002 Giants, 2005 Astros, 2006 Tigers and 2007 Rockies all went to the World Series as wild cards.
The addition of the wild card play-in game isn't going to stop wild-card teams from playing the role of the underdog hero. With their deep cast of characters, their solid pitching and their ability to hit home runs in bunches, the A's are as perfectly suited for that role as any team in the AL.
Note: Stats come from Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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