Wild Card Preview: Will Royals Run Wild?

The Kansas City Royals were the best team in the American League at stealing bases in 2014. The Oakland A's struggled to control the running game defensively. Will speed on the bases determine the winner of the American League Wild Card game?

In low-scoring games, it is often the little things that mean the difference between a win or a loss. With James Shields and Jon Lester set to face-off in the American League Wild Card game, runs will likely be at a premium.

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

Based on year-end season stats, the Oakland A’s have the advantage offensively over the Kansas City Royals. But every A’s fan is well aware of how deceiving year-end stats can be, especially as they relate to the A’s offense. Oakland struggled mightily at the plate over the last two months of the season and barely resembled the offensive juggernaut that they were during the first half of the year. When looking at the offenses of the two clubs since the All-Star break, the A’s and Royals are almost even in terms of runs scored. Both teams will be looking to maximize every opportunity with runners on-base in Tuesday’s game.

With Coco Crisp, Sam Fuld, Craig Gentry and Billy Burns, the A’s are hardly the station-to-station team that they were during the early 2000s. Oakland finished 10th in the American League in stolen bases this year with 83 (in 105 chances; 81%). The Royals, meanwhile, finished first in the league in stolen bases with 153. Kansas City not only stole bases with frequency, they also were as efficient about it as the A’s were. The Royals had an 81% success rate.

What makes this statistic most daunting for the A’s is the fact that Oakland pitchers and catchers struggled to control the running game this season. The A’s allowed 100 stolen bases in 2014, tied for fourth-most in the American League. They caught just 22% of would-be base-stealers, which was the third-worst total in the AL. Kansas City, meanwhile, allowed just 69 stolen bases this season and threw out 30% of would-be base-stealers (good for the fourth-best percentage in the AL).

Kansas City’s team speed is well distributed throughout their line-up. Five players finished the year in double-digits in steals, with Jarrod Dyson (36), Alcides Escobar (31) and Lorenzo Cain (28) leading the way. Alex Gordon led the Royals with a .351 OBP this season and he swapped 12 bases in 15 chances. All four of those players will be threats to turn every single or walk into a “double” with a stolen base. The Royals will also likely have speedster Terrence Gore available off the bench. Gore is the Royals’ equivalent to the A’s Burns. Gore swapped 47 bases between High-A and Triple-A this season; Burns stole 54 between Double-A and Triple-A. Both could be used late in critical pinch-running situations.

Previewing the Scheduled Starters

Given that both teams will be looking to manufacture runs, the running game could play an even more significant role in the Wild Card match-up than it does in a normal game. With that in mind, the A’s will have a difficult decision to make when it comes to deciding who will catch Lester on Tuesday.

Derek Norris has caught all 11 of Lester’s starts since Lester came to the A’s, but Norris has been playing through a myriad of injuries that have impacted his play at the plate and behind it. The A’s went with Geovany Soto during three of the A’s final four games in Texas, in large part because Soto is throwing the ball better right now. In 2014, Norris caught just 17% of would-be base-stealers. Soto has nabbed 53% in his 14 games with the A’s.

Soto, who was acquired on August 24th from Texas, hit .262/.354/.357 in 49 at-bats for the A’s down-the-stretch. Norris was an AL All-Star and had a better overall line in 2014 (.270/.361/.403), but he struggled during the second half of the year while batting injuries. He hit .261/.338/304 in September and .202/.268/.292 in August. Norris homered eight times before July 1st and only two times after that. But he and Lester have a good working relationship, so it will be a tough call for A’s manager Bob Melvin to make when determining his line-up on Tuesday.

The A’s won’t likely attempt many stolen bases during the AL Wild Card game, although they could put some runners in motion to stay out of double-plays. Shields is one of the best starters in the AL at controlling the running game, and the Royals have one of the best defensive catchers in the game in Salvador Perez.

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