Barber: Sean Manaea wasn't the easy choice, but he was the right one for A's in wild-card game
OAKLAND — Bob Melvin didn’t make the easy choice when he selected a starting pitcher for Wednesday’s American League wild-card game. He made the hard choice. And the right one.
The easy choice would have been Mike Fiers, because Fiers has done so much to earn the honor.
He was probably the A’s top starter after joining the team last year in an Aug. 6 trade. And he has certainly been their most reliable arm this season. Fiers was here before Homer Bailey arrived, and after Frankie Montas was suspended for a positive PED test, and before Sean Manaea returned from rehabbing a shoulder injury.
Fiers was a rock throughout the 2019 campaign. He led the A’s in starts (33), innings (184⅔) and wins (15). He threw the A’s only complete game this season, a no-hitter against the Reds on May 7.
And it isn’t just that slice of recent history. It’s a debt the A’s have owed Fiers for a year.
He earned the wild-card nod last year, too. But the Angels had battered Fiers in his final start of the regular season, and his road splits in 2018 were terrible compared with his starts at the Oakland Coliseum, where he had gone 3-0 with an ERA of 2.91 and a strikeout-to-walk ration of 33/5.
Melvin didn’t fully trust Fiers to walk to the mound in Yankee Stadium and tame the Yanks’ powerful bats. In fact, the manager didn’t trust any of his starters. He had reliever Liam Hendriks open the game, and it was a disaster. The Yankees scored two runs off Hendriks in the first inning, the New York crowd raised a din and the A’s never fully recovered in a 7-2 loss that sent them quietly into the offseason.
By handing the ball to Fiers this Wednesday, Melvin could have make amends for that previous playoff decision while rewarding a pitcher for his consistency and effort. Instead, Melvin announced Tuesday that he is going with Manaea.
“It was a difficult decision,” the manager said. “We went round and round with it, make sure everyone got their opinion out and talked in depth about it. Mike Fiers has had an absolutely terrific season. He’s been great here at home.”
But he will not face the leadoff batter in the AL wild-card game. Imagine how uncomfortable it was for Melvin to have that conversation with the 34-year-old right-hander, one year after a very similar interaction. Fiers is popular in the A’s clubhouse. In bypassing him, Melvin risks being second-guessed within and without the organization. And yet it was the right thing to do.
This single game is hugely important for the A’s, and Manaea is the superior pitcher.
Fiers has thrown a pair of no-hitters in his MLB career. He knows how to get batters out. But he isn’t what you’d call dominant. He’s more of a battler.
Fiers averaged 6.1 strikeouts per 9 innings this season; Manaea averaged 9.1 after returning to the team on Sept. 1. Fiers gave up 1.5 home runs per 9 innings in 2019; Manaea surrendered 0.9. There are other numbers to measure a pitcher’s effectiveness, for sure.
The point is that Fiers is built to keep his team in the game. Manaea is a guy who can frequently throttle an opponent.