Oakland Athletics (88-74) at Kansas City Royals (89-73)
Time/Place: 8:00 p.m., Kauffman Stadium
Pitching Matchup: LHP Jon Lester (16-11, 2.46 ERA) vs. RHP James Shields (14-8, 3.21 ERA)
Jon Lester quietly had one of the best seasons of his career in 2014, compiling 6.1 WAR and a 4.58 strikeout-to-walk ratio in a career high 219 2/3 innings. He spent the first half of the year pitching for the hapless Boston Red Sox, who went 13-8 with him on the mound and 35-52 in all other games before the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline. Lester was nearly untouchable in Boston, holding opponents to a .637 OPS while striking out 149 batters in 143 innings. He had 13 starts with seven strikeouts or more with the Sox this year, and pitched into the eighth inning on eight separate occasions.
Then, Lester was traded to the A's on July 31st and got even better. He allowed a 2.35 ERA and 3.13 FIP in 11 starts with the A's, carrying the club to a 7-4 mark when he was on the mound. Seven of Lester's starts in an A's uniform resulted in two runs or fewer for the opposition, including a three-hit shutout of the Minnesota Twins (seriously, eff those guys) on August 7th. He didn't quite strike out a batter per inning in an A's uniform, but held opposing batters to a .232 average and .632 OPS. He was particularly stingy against right-handers all season long, limiting them to a .230 batting average and .617 OPS.
By the numbers, James Shields was a better pitcher in 2013 than he was this year. He was worth 4.4 WAR last season compared to 3.7 in 2014, and had a better ERA, FIP, and strikeout rate. However, Shields put the Royals on his back after a subpar first half (by his standards). He allowed a 2.62 ERA and 3.38 FIP after the All-Star break, including nine starts with two runs or fewer allowed. This included a pair of wins over these same A's, who scored just five runs in 14 innings.
Shields pitched to contact more often in 2014, simultaneously posting his lowest strikeout and walk rates of his career. This resulted in a career-best 4.09 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and also to a career-high 10.6 percent pop-up rate. Was it by design? It's difficult to say, but Shields stayed away from his signature changeup with two strikes relative to his final season in Tampa Bay, where he used it 45 percent of the time. Instead, Shields relied on his four-seam fastball and cutter, making him less predictable in those counts. This wasn't necessarily a great thing, as opposing batters had a slightly higher OPS with two strikes against Shields this year compared to his career norms. One positive: he went to 30 fewer three-ball counts than in 2013.
After months of hoping they would lose a game seriously just one why can't they ever lose one flipping game, it should be fun to hop aboard the Royals bandwagon for a week. While they are seen by many as the plucky upstart, they played well enough down the stretch to lap the A's and earn the home field advantage in tonight's do-or-die contest. Shields came up huge for the Royals in late August and September, allowing a 2.14 ERA in his last six starts of the season. Lester played a similar stopper role for the A's, holding opponents to three runs or fewer in each of his 11 starts with the team. The A's have the experience and the better manager, but Kansas City's bullpen and home crowd should prove to be the difference tonight.
The Royals move on in a low-scoring nailbiter.
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