The Yankees took care of business against the Cleveland Indians, earning themselves a date with the Tampa Bay Rays in a best-of-5 ALDS at Petco Park starting on Monday. From an emotional standpoint, there’s a couple of ways to look at this series. One angle would be to say that the Yankees went 2-8 against the Rays in the regular season, and the Yankees can serve up some payback. Another angle, however, is that the Yankees went 2-8 against the Rays and, instead of being excited for payback, one may fear that the Rays have the Yankees’ number.
If I had to guess, though, the mindset for the Yankees going into this series is one of pure revenge, especially given the confidence boost of having won a playoff series under their belt. Let’s also not forget the scuffle these two teams had in their penultimate regular season matchup. Aside from the emotional side, though, let’s take a look at some numbers.
At a Glance
Here’s where the Rays stand in some of the more basic hitting categories:
Exit Velocity: 9th
As for pitching categories, we can see those rankings below:
Exit Velocity: 3rd
We also can’t forget about the Rays defense, which ranks first in the league, according to FanGraphs, and were fifth in Defensive Runs Saved this season. As we know, the Rays are the most creative team in the MLB when it comes to utilizing creative defensive shifts.
From the looks of it, the Rays profile as a slightly above average hitting team, but land somewhere in the elite range when it comes to both defense and pitching. It certainly helps when you have Blake Snell (3.24 ERA), Tyler Glasnow (3.11 xERA), and Charlie Morton on the mound and great defensive talents in Kevin Keirmaier and Willy Adames patrolling such important positions. But it’s not all about the starters and the defense, the Rays bullpen is elite as well.
The Rays bullpen was 2nd in the MLB in HR/9, 3rd in ERA, and 1st in WAR (because they use it so much!). They have, however, been hammered by injuries. Names on the IL from the bullpen include Jose Alvarado, Jalen Beeks, Chaz Roe, Yonny Chrinos, Andrew Kittredge, and Colin Poche. But don’t let that fool you, the Rays still have plenty of options in Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo, Oliver Drake, Aaron Loup, Pete Fairbanks, Trevor Richards and Aaron Slegers. With the Rays, any of their bullpen guys can start a game too. They’ll be unconventional, and the Yankees will be prepared for that.
The Rays’ success, of course, comes down to the sum of its parts. And many good parts there are for this team. We can start by looking at the infield. In their series against the Blue Jays, the Rays infield looked like this:
1B: Ji-Man Choi
2B: Brandon Lowe
SS: Willy Adames
3B: Joey Wendle
C: Mike Zunino
Let’s start with Ji-Man Choi, who the Rays acquired in a 2018 trade with the Brewers, where they swapped Brad Miller for the first baseman. All things considered, Ji-Man actually had his worst season as a Tampa Bay Ray results wise. He slashed .230/.331/.410 with a .267 xWOBA and a .307 xSLG, both numbers that land him in the bottom 5% of the league this year. Choi also caught himself chasing more this season, especially on off-speed pitches, as his chase% is up 5% in that category from last year. He’s also got hid lowest Hard Hit % since 2016 at 39.3%, whereas he usually hovers around 45%. It would appear that Ji-Man is having one of his worst years in terms of contact quality, but he’s capable of hitting for power against right-handed pitching. So while he’s struggling, he can certainly make a difference in a playoff series.
In my opinion, the best player on this Rays team. This season Lowe slashed .269/.362/.554 with 14 home runs and 37 RBI. He also posted a career best .366 xWOBA and was tops in the league in Barrel%, xSLG, and xWOBACON. Lowe is also having his best season in terms of plate discipline, where his 11.2% BB% is the highest of his career. He’s also coupled that with his lowest K% as a Major League player and an eye-popping 150 wRC+. The Rays extended Lowe back in 2019 (they drafted him in the 3rd round in 2015), inking him to a six year deal worth $24 million. That’s a great price for such a great player. And Lowe hasn’t had a bad season since going to the Majors. His career .350 wOBA is nothing to scoff at, and it’s more likely than not that he’s going to give the Yankees some fits.
Willy Adames is a really interesting player, part of the package acquired by the Rays in the 2014 trade that sent David Price to the Detroit Tigers. At the time, everyone knew how good Adames could be, as he was the Tigers 3rd ranked prospect. Adames finished the 2020 season with a .259/.332/.481 slash line with 8 home runs, a .347 wOBA and a 124 wRC+. He would, though, sputter in the last month of the season.
While he came out of the gate scorching hot in July (.985 OPS) and August (.887 OPS), he was only able to record a .668 OPS in September and slashed a tough .203/.263/.405. That’s not so surprising either, considering his BABIP was in the high .300’s in August. And while he’s having his best season in terms of contact quality, he’s not a world beater when it comes to hard hit %, sitting in the middle of the pack in that category. Another indicator of some good fortune? Behind Adames’ pretty .341 wOBA is a not-so-pretty .295 xWOBA. Adames is just 1-for-6 so far in the postseason, so keep an eye out for some continued struggles. And oh yeah, he’s pretty good defensively, too.
Acquired by the Rays in a 2017 trade with the Oakland Athletics, Joey Wendle has emerged as a key piece for Tampa. Before diving into his offense, I want to appreciate his ability to play any of the infield positions, as he made appearances 2nd, 3rd, and shortstop (10 times) this season. His best position, though, being second base. As for his bat, it’s pretty solid too. Wendle slashed .286/.342/.435 this season with a .329 wOBA and a 116 wRC+. Wendle isn’t going to totally scare you at the plate such as Brandon Lowe does, as he had just 4 home runs this season, but he is a tough out. He doesn’t really strike out very often, and he’ll consistently put the ball in play.
The 3rd overall pick in the 2012 draft, Zunino hasn’t exactly panned out the way you think a 3rd overall pick would. He slashed .147/.238/.360 with a .261 wOBA and a 65 wRC+ in 84 plate appearances this season. Usually an elite defensive catcher, Zunino had career worsts FRM (-1.1) and DRS (-2). All in all, I don’t think the Yankees need to worry about Zunino killing them at the plate, but in October all things are possible.
More of a DH than an infielder, Yandy Diaz is probably the Rays’ second best hitter behind Brandon Lowe. Diaz slashed .307/.428/.286 with a .367 wOBA and a 138 wRC+. He is also in the top 5% of the league in K% and BB%, so he’s an awfully tough out. However, you don’t need to worry too much about Yandy hitting one over the fence because, well, he rarely hits fly balls. Yandy Diaz sported a hilarious -7.9 launch angle this season with a 66% GB%.
In 98 Plate Appearances Brosseau slashed .302/.378/..558 with a .394 wOBA and a 157 wRC+. Yankees fans remember Brosseau from the scuffle that followed an Aroldis Chapman 100MPH fastball at his head. Or maybe they remember him more for the revenge home run he hit the next day. Regardless, Brosseau is slowly growing into one of those weird Yankee villains. Let’s hope that growth doesn’t continue in the ALDS.
More of a depth guy than an everyday player, Nate Lowe is an average to below average hitter that won’t scare you very much when he’s at the plate. But as we know with the Rays, sometimes the guys that kill you are the ones you least expect.
As for as outfielders go, regulars in this series will be some of the following, based on who they rolled out in the Wild Card Series.
Before I say anything regarding offense, Kevin Kiermaier is without a doubt a top five defensive center fielder, and he has been for a long time. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was a difference maker with his glove alone this series. With the bat, though, he won’t scare you very much. He slashed .217/.321/.362 with just three home runs. He also sports a measly .301 wOBA and a 93 wRC+. But again, nearly all of KK’s value as a baseball player comes from playing a key position at an elite level.
Similarly to KK, Margot is a player that excels defensively while being a below average hitter. He slashed .269/.327/.352 with a .301 wOBA and a 92 wRC+. Defensively, though, Margot ranks in the 81st percentile in OAA and in the 91st percentile in outfielder jump. Margot is off to a solid 3-for-7 start in the playoffs with one home run. If he is able to even catch a little beat of fire, he could be a quiet difference maker in the absence of Austin Meadows.
Acquired in the offseason in the Tommy Pham deal, Renfroe had himself a tough 2020 campaign. Known for his defense, Renfroe was just in the 20th percentile in Outs Above Average. On top of that, he slashed a measly .156/.252/.393 with a .277 wOBA and a 76 wRC+. He does have some pop, though, as he hit 8 home runs this season. Renfroe is a solid player that had an uncharacteristically bad season. He is also normally great defensively, but wasn’t so much this season. Nonetheless, he rounds out an exceptional defensive outfield for the Rays.
While the guys listed above will be the likely regulars, the Rays have some solid bench outfielders. Yoshi Tsutsugo, Brett Phillips, and the speedy Randy Arozarena (who we saw make a difference against the Blue Jays) could all contribute in their own ways.
The Rays are a really solid baseball team. They couple elite defense, elite starting pitching and an elite bullpen with solid all around hitting with guys that are tough to get out. Not to mention, they are very well managed and very well prepared to do things differently. This series is going to be a battle, albeit an entertaining one. The Yankees, if they want to win, will have to avoid making mistakes, take advantage of their opportunities against Glasnow and Snell, and maybe get a bit lucky while they’re at it.
If you listened to our most recent podcast, we hosted John Vittas, the play-by-play announcer for the Rays High-A affiliate the Charlotte Stone Crabs. We were able to get some of John’s insight on this series, as well as who he thinks will win. Vittas said, “the Rays looked really polished” when referring to their performance in the ALDS. When asked what the Yankees should look for out of the Rays bullpen, John said, ” they definitely have the arms to get through five games in five days,” while also mentioning their loss of key pieces on the pitching staff and how the rays may ” use their bullpen as little as possible.”
John added that we should expect the Rays to ride Snell, Glasnow, and Morton as much as they can, expecting them to each go at least six innings. He also mentioned newly added left-hander Shane McClanahan, who John thinks (if he makes the roster) can be the “fireman” for the Rays bullpen with his plus fastball. He also mentioned the possibility of seeing Wander Franco in this series if Willy Adames were to go down with an injury.
John’s pick to win this series was the Rays in five games, but did mention that it was a “coin flip”. As for his x-factor, he mentioned reliever Nick Anderson, who has been a serviceable arm when it comes to holding close leads. As for myself, I’m saying the Yankees win this series in four games, as the Yankee bats just beat up an elite pitching staff in the Indians and seem to be playing their best baseball.