Wild Card Preview: Jon Lester v James Shields

On Tuesday, September 30, the Oakland A's and the Kansas City Royals will battle for the right to play in the American League Division Series. The A's and Royals will call on their staff aces in that game. We take a close look at the expected starting pitchers in the AL Wild Card game: Jon Lester and James Shields.

Starting Pitching Match-up: Battle of Two Aces

The AL Wild Card game will feature two starting pitchers who have built a reputation for coming up big in high-pressure situations: ”Big Game” James Shields for the Kansas City Royals and Jon Lester for the Oakland A’s. Both the A’s and Royals gave up a lot to acquire these aces for just this sort of game, and both pitchers figure to be the most coveted free agent starters on the market this winter.

American League Wild Card
A's vs. Royals
When: September 30 at 5:07pm PT
Where: Kaufmann Stadium

Shields, in his second season with the Royals, went 14-8 with a 3.21 ERA in 227 innings this season. The right-hander had a 1.18 WHIP, a 4.09 K:BB and he allowed a 0.9 HR/9. In other words, he played every bit the part of team ace. Shields’ strike-outs were a bit down in 2014, but his walk-rate was his lowest since his 2008 season with Tampa Bay.

While with Tampa, Shields appeared in three post-seasons (2008, 2010 and 2011) and he made six starts. In those six outings, his ERA was 4.98. His last two post-season starts were ones to forget, as he allowed 11 runs in 9.1 innings over two outings against the Texas Rangers. The Rangers went on to advance to the World Series in each of those two years (2010 and 2011).

A career American Leaguer, Shields has plenty of experience pitching against the A’s. He has made 15 starts versus Oakland and he has a 6-4 record with a 3.82 ERA. Twice he has thrown complete games and he has a 4.14 K:BB in 103.2 career innings versus Oakland. This season, Shields faced the A’s twice. He allowed five runs in 14 innings (3.21 ERA) and struck-out seven while walking one. On August 3rd, Shields earned a win in Oakland when he allowed just two runs in eight innings. On August 14, the Royals would win a start that Shields had a no-decision in at Kaufmann Stadium. Shields allowed three runs in six innings in that outing.

Not surprisingly, there aren’t many A’s hitters who have had a lot of success versus Shields during their careers. Josh Reddick has, by far, had the best track record versus Shields. He has seven career hits in 22 at-bats, including three homers, a double and a triple. Two of those homers came in that August 3rd start and the double and triple came in the August 14th outing. Josh Donaldson and Adam Dunn are the only other A’s hitters to have homered against Shields. Coco Crisp has really struggled versus Shields historically. In 24 at-bats, he has just three hits and he has never drawn a walk off Shields.

Shields gives a lot of teams trouble, but he is the sort of pitcher who can be especially tough on the A’s – even when they are swinging the bats well – because he is aggressive in the strike-zone and rarely walks batters. The A’s thrive on driving up pitch-counts, but Shields isn’t one to build up a lot of pitches thrown early in a game. Shields can also exceed 100 pitches without trouble, although the Royals have a very strong bullpen, so Kansas City won’t have to work Shields beyond his limits. The A’s won’t have many opportunities to run on Shields, either. He controls the running game extremely well and only three runners attempted a steal off of him this year (one was successful).

Shields has pitched better on the road this season than he has at the “K”. His BABIP has been much higher at home (.317) than it has been on the road (.279), however, suggesting that he has pitched better than his home ERA would indicate. Shields’ 2014 splits versus right- and left-handed betters have been roughly the same. Nonetheless, the A’s figure to stack their line-up with left-handed hitters.

In many ways, Lester is the left-handed version of Shields. Like Shields, Lester has been in the American League throughout his career and he cut his teeth in the AL East. Lester has 13 career post-season appearances (all for the Boston Red Sox) and a career post-season ERA of 2.11 Most recently, Lester made five starts for Boston in the 2013 post-season, winning four games as the Red Sox won the World Series.

Lester, like Shields, will be a free agent this off-season and he is coming off of an outstanding season. In 32 starts for the A’s and Red Sox, Lester posted a 16-11 record and a 2.46 ERA. His ERA in 11 starts for the A’s was 2.35. He had a 1.07 WHIP with the A’s and an 8.3 K:BB. His ERA+ was 159.

Lester walked just 48 in 219.2 innings this season. Like Shields, Lester never nibbles and generally works deep into games (he averaged just a shade under 7 innings pitched per start). He struck-out more than a batter an inning this season (220).

In his career, Lester has a 9-3 record and a 1.84 ERA in 13 starts versus the Royals. He has a 3.10 ERA in five career starts at Kaufmann Stadium, posting a 2:1 K:BB and a 1.31 WHIP. This season, Lester took on the Royals three times. He went 3-0 in those starts with a 2.61 ERA. He struck-out 20 and walked five in 20.2 innings and he didn’t allow a homer. In his one start at the “K”, Lester allowed three runs in six innings, striking out nine and walking two. The A’s won that game (their only win in the three-game series), 11-3. Lester was the winning pitcher in the A’s only two wins versus KC this season (Oakland went 2-5 against KC).

While Lester’s career numbers against the Royals are good, there are a handful of KC batters who have had success versus the left-hander. Raul Ibanez has five hits in 15 at-bats, including a homer, and Eric Hosmer has four hits in 13 at-bats with a homer and three walks. Jayson Nix has eight hits in 26 at-bats, while Lorenzo Cain has five hits in 16 at-bats (including three doubles) and Salvador Perez has three hits in six at-bats.

The running game figures to play a prominent role in the Wild Card game, and runners have had their way with the A’s of late. Lester has allowed 16 stolen bases in 21 attempts this season. The Royals will likely challenge Lester and either Geovany Soto or Derek Norris at every opportunity. Norris has caught all of Lester’s starts since Lester came to Oakland, but Soto has had more success controlling the running game than Norris. It remains to be seen which direction the A’s go behind the plate in this game.

The A’s finished fourth in baseball and third in the American League in runs scored this season with 725, while Kansas City ranked 15th in MLB with 645 runs scored. Those numbers are deceiving, however, as the A’s haven’t been the same offensively since the start of August, when they lost outfielder Yoenis Cespedes in the Lester trade and saw many of their top hitters slowed by or lost to injuries. Since the All-Star break, the A’s rank 13th in MLB in runs scored with 259. Kansas City ranked 12th with 262 runs scored. A low-scoring game is a strong possibility given the two starters and the offensive-makeups of both clubs.

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