As the Major League Baseball playoffs begin, you’re going to hear a lot about how the teams with the largest payrolls are favored to win the World Series.
It makes perfect sense. The Boston Red Sox won last year with a payroll over $200 million and the Los Angeles Dodgers ($184.5 million), Houston Astros ($183.3 million) and New York Yankees ($216.7 million) are generally considered the favorites to dethrone them.
And yet, the Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays are here to tell us you can be smart with your money and still be a major success.
For those who favor coupon cutting and value shopping, the A’s and Rays have already won the World Series for making the most without spending the most.
Both teams have only one player making over $10 million. A’s outfielder Khris Davis ($16.5 million) accounts for 18 percent of his team’s total payroll. And Tampa starter Charlie Morton ($15 million) eats up 24 percent of his team’s.
And yet they are proven winners, annually distinguishing themselves by being more competitive than more established and wealthier franchises like the Detroit Tigers, Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays.
It’s unfortunate this meeting will be limited to a one-game exploration of enterprising roster construction. There are so many elements about both teams that make them eminently more interesting than those who indiscriminately throw money at players.
In a year where home runs became the biggest story in the game, the A’s and Rays have pitching staffs noted for not allowing them. They swayed back and forth all season for the fewest homers allowed in the game. The Rays allowed the fewest on road, a tremendous accomplishment considering the clubbers in the lineups of the Yankees, Twins and Astros.
Tampa, which won 96 games, but hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2013, needed a great pitching staff because, among the 10 teams in the postseason, they might have the weakest offense, even though it collected 10 walk-off hits this season. They hit a combined .228 this season against the other four AL teams in the playoffs. Call them opportunistic and clutch. But don’t give Austin Meadows anything to hit.
One of Tampa’s unheralded pitchers is reliever Nick Anderson. In August and September, he struck out 41 hitters in 22 innings while allowing just one walk. He’s especially important on a staff that essentially invented the concept of openers – relievers starting games.
It’s the depth of Tampa’s pitching (none making even $1.5 million) below the acknowledged level of Morton and reigning Cy Young winner Blake Snell, that has led this team to its success. Their relievers have the most wins of any bullpen in MLB this season, the second-most total appearances. They are also tied for the best bullpen ERA in the majors.
“I would not want to play them,” one scout told ESPN. “I was advancing them. They way they piece their bullpen together is ridiculous. I’ve seen Andrew Kittredge up in the second inning and seen him close. Chaz Roe pitched in the eighth inning one day and (Blake) Snell was struggling in the second and Roe picked him up. They don’t work it conventionally. They’ve got (Brendan) McKay, who can give them some length. (Peter) Fairbanks is throwing hard. Kittredge is throwing hard. They’ve got sidearmers. (Nick) Anderson’s got a 70(-grade on a scale of 20-to-80) breaking ball. Roe’s slider. These guys have pieced together a very impressive group.”
Morton, who left the Astros to sign with the Rays, set career-high in wins (16), ERA (3.05), innings (194 2/3) and strikeouts (240) and his is scheduled to start the Wild Card game. Opponents are hitting just .151 against his curveball with 136 strikeouts.
Like the Yankees, Tampa, which went 37-12 after July 28, also survived a number of key injuries, the most prominent sidelining Snell. They used a team-record 57 players this season.
“It was a challenge,” general manager Erik Neander told The Athletic. “It was hard. To respond on the fly was difficult. Our staff is wonderful. The players are ready to go. Our player development staff prepared them. Next man up. Cliché a little bit. But these guys are the best.
“It’s a lot when you’re talking 50-something players to get to this point, but to have the staff that we do, it’s absolutely amazing. This is as good as it gets. The players, the culture, their drive and what they want — they make it go. They take a near-impossible incredibly challenging situation and they make it this. We made it. The credit goes to them.”
Of all their acquisitions, none had more of an impact than catcher Travis d’Arnaud, who started the season with the Mets and Dodgers before arriving in Tampa. He hit 16 homers.
“This organization has created a very winning culture,” manager Kevin Cash said. “We get to hang a banner and we want to hang some more. Really happy to be a part of it.”
The A’s are in the Wild Card for the second straight season. They were beaten by the Yankees in New York last year. But they will host this game and more than 45,000 tickets have already been sold. Oakland was 52-29 at home this season.
The A’s finished with a record of 97-65 for the second straight season, the first time since 2001-02 that they’ve won at least 97 games in consecutive years.
Like the Rays, they’ve relied a lot on their pitching, which made his reputation with its ability to throw fastballs for strikes. And there are not a lot of teams with a better defense, led by one of the best, third baseman Matt Chapman. Along with having over 80 extra-base hits, Marcus Semien could win his first Gold Glove at first.
Here’s a great stat about the potency of their defense: The three AL teams who struck out fewer batters than Oakland this year averaged more than 100 losses.
“They have a better chance to beat (the Astros) than New York,” one scout told ESPN. “They have a better chance to beat them than anyone outside of the Dodgers.”
The A’s do need to get their offense rolling. Since Sept. 24, they’ve averaged only 2.6 runs in six games with only 40 hits.