Series Preview: Tampa Bay Rays (91-71) at Texas Rangers (96-66)

I’m going to write my usual previews for each of the playoff series. I’ll say flat out that I don’t follow the AL at all, so any of you Rays fans who aren’t still in a daze should feel free to chime in with comments/inevitable corrections to anything I say here.

Before we get to the Rays, let’s stop and applaud Texas for their great season. Unlike the Rays heart-attack finish, Texas has either led or shared the AL West division lead since May 16. However, despite the fact that their eventual margin of victory over the Angels was ten wins they kept it close for nearly the entire season. During that streak of 121 games, their division lead was three games or less for 94 of them, so the Angels made them sweat. They finished one game ahead of the Tigers for the honor of not playing the Yankees in the first round.

There’s not much more I can say about the Rays season that wasn’t said on Wednesday night. That was probably the most exciting night of baseball I’ve witnessed since September 14, 2008.

Team Overviews

Team stats, with AL rank in parentheses

Rays Rangers
wOBA .320 (7th) .348 (2nd)
UBR 4.8 (3rd) 23.0 (1st)
UZR 53.7 (1st) 25.9 (4th)
DRS 77 (1st) 45 (3rd)
SP FIP 3.99 (8th) 3.80 (3rd)
RP FIP 4.14 (10th) 4.38 (13th)

The rangers have been undersold by just about everyone. They’re a great team. Most surprising was that baserunning number – the team just doesn’t make many mistakes on the bases. Andrus, Kinsler, and Young all have very good numbers, and slugging CF Nelson Cruz is the only non-catcher with a significantly negative number.

Offensively, the most amazing line was put up by 2B Ian Kinsler, who posted a .370 wOBA despite a .243 BABIP, good enough for 6.2 oWAR. Angels castoff Mike Napoli might have been the difference between Texas making the playoffs and the Angels watching from home – he posted a .444 wOBA in 432 PAs. No batter had a truly putrid year – about the only negative thing you can say about the Texas offense is that their first baseman, Mitch Moreland, is barely better than replacement level. Hilariously, Michael Young was getting a lot of MVP love from the twitters despite the fact that he ranked 6th on the team in WAR among offensive players alone (too lazy to compute, but about the same by oWAR). Maybe I’m forgetting the extra 5 gWAR (gritWAR).

Pitching is always what held Texas back, but Colby Lewis aside they all had good years (and Lewis’s was merely average). Most importantly, all five of their starters stayed healthy. There were only five games this season that weren’t started by C.J. Wilson, GW’s boy Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, Alexi Ogando, or Colby Lewis. Their bullpen was a little shakier, but in the playoffs the top relievers matter more, and they have a good unit fronted by Neftali Feliz, Zombie Darren Oliver, and former Padre Mike Adams.

I’ve barely looked at Tampa’s numbers this year, so bear with me Rays fans. What I find most amusing at first glance is that while Longoria had a “down year”, I’m guessing due to an injury, he still managed to post a 6 WAR season (merely 5 oWAR) with a .239 BABIP. And he was paid only 2 million! It’s going to be a long time before a team gets more value out of a contract than Tampa with Longoria, unless he looks back, fires his agent, and his new agent tells him to hold out for more money (sorry for that image, Rays fans). The only players to put up significantly poor offensive numbers were Reid Breignac (-1.1 oWAR in 264 PAs) and Dan Johnson, though I think Rays fans might forgive him.

On the pitching side the Rays stayed mostly healthy, with the exception of Jeff Niemann who missed a month or so in May/June with a back injury. His back was bothering him a bit in late September as well, so it’s something to keep an eye on. The other four members of the rotation threw 29 or more starts, but the most intriguing pitcher is top prospect Matt Moore, who was called up during the playoff push and struck out 11 Yankees in his first MLB start. The Rays must trust him, seeing as they gave him the first start in the playoffs over the more experienced Niemann and Davis. Aside from Moore’s inexperience and Niemann’s back, the Rays other cause for concern could be likely Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson. He’s going to be a solid pitcher for many years with the Rays, but his 2.95 ERA is more a product of a .223 BABIP as his peripheral numbers give him a 4.72 xFIP on the year. He’s not seeing a huge innings jump from last year (31 innings), but if the Rays move further into the postseason he may look tired. I don’t think the team would complain if they made it far enough to worry about his innings load however.

Pitching matchups

ERA, FIP, and xFIP listed

Friday: Matt Moore, LHP (2.89, 2.17, 1.85) vs C. J. Wilson, LHP (2.94, 3.24, 3.41), 4:07 PM CT

After watching the Cubs all season this series will feel strange given the number of left-handed starters on each team.

Moore has thrown mostly fastballs in his brief stint in the majors, which average out at around 96. He also throws the occasional curveball and changeup. There’s not much we can say from his major league numbers, but his minor league numbers certainly suggest that fastball is a pretty good one. The highest FIP that Moore has produced since he was promoted to A-ball in 2009 was 2.83, and he’s easily struck out well more than a batter per inning at every level he’s pitched at. He’s only pitched 20 or so more innings than he did last year so fatigue shouldn’t be that big of a problem either.

Wilson had the best season of his career, perfect timing from his standpoint as he’ll be a free agent this offseason. It’s hard to believe that any pitcher playing half his home games in Texas (especially this summer) could put up a 2.98 ERA, though to be fair he did pitch better on the road. A big part of his success this year was finding the plate – he walked slightly less than three batters per nine, much better than his earlier numbers which were comfortably around the four batters per nine range. He also upped his strikeouts and continues to get ground balls. Some team, possibly the Cubs, is going to pay him a lot of money this offseason.

Saturday: James Shields, RHP (2.82, 3.42, 3.25) vs Derek Holland, LHP (3.95, 3.94, 3.76) 6:07 PM CT

Shields was the poster child for regression to the mean (and then some) this season. I can’t count how many times I heard people talking about how Shields’s 5.18 ERA last year was largely driven by his .341 BABIP and some bad HR variance. The batted-ball script flipped almost symmetrically this year, as he posted a .258 BABIP this year on the way to his 2.82 ERA, while his peripherals stayed almost exactly the same. He also pitched nearly 250 innings this year, which might lead to some problems this postseason. He’s not showing any signs of it though, going seven innings or more in every start since the beginning of August, and holding the Yankees to two runs over eight and two thirds innings on Monday.

I’m looking for something interesting to say about Holland but can’t seem to find anything at all (laughing). He’s a solid, consisten pitcher who puts up good-to great numbers without standing out in any particular area. According to fangraphs his fastball is his best pitch, which averages around 94 mph.

The starters for the rest of the games are all TBA, so I’m just going to spitball these depending on who is the best pitcher available

Monday:  Colby Lewis, RHP (4.40, 4.54, 4.10) vs  David Price, LHP (3.49, 3.32, 3.32), 4:07 PM CT

I think these two are the most likely starters for this game. Lewis hasn’t had the greatest year, but Ogando has more than doubled his workload from last year (and was showing signs of wearing down), and while Harrison has had a nice 2011 he was hammered in his three previous years when called up to the majors so they might want to ease him in a bit. Lewis, of course, is a pitcher who sucked early in his career, bouncing around between the Rangers, Tigers, and A’s before saving face in Japan and resurrecting his career. He came back last year and posted a 4.6 WAR season with Texas, but things were a little rockier this year, mostly due to the gopherball. Lewis is an extreme fly ball pitcher, so the Rangers are likely to avoid pitching him in Arlington this postseason.

Hellickson would be available for this game, but there’s little question that the Rays would start him over their nominal ace given the chance. Price was nails as the Rays began their playoff push (or more accurately, the Red Sox began their collapes), posting back to back double digit strikeout games vs Toronto and Baltimore after going 8 innings in three straight starts against fellow playoff contenders NYY, BOS, and DET. Since then Price hasn’t quite been able to replicate that success (well, regression), and was hit hard by the Yankees in game 162 before Longoria and Dan Johnson slugged them to the win.

Tuesday: Matt Harrison, LHP (3.39, 3.52, 3.85) vs Jeremy Hellickson, RHP (2.95, 4.44, 4.72), TBA

Harrison’s success is a bit of a head scratcher. He posted FIPs above 5 in each of his stints in the majors going back to 2008. They weren’t just cups of coffee either – he posted at least 60 innings in all three seasons. It’s not that surprising given that he’s a ground-ball pitcher, but this year he did a better job of finding the plate and had a bit of luck with home runs, which led to a successful season. As I alluded to above, Harrison only threw 85 innings last year (since the Rangers bullpen-tested him) so they need to keep an eye on him. Unlike Ogando, however, he finished the season strong posting a 2.73 FIP in September.

I don’t have much to say about Hellickson that I didn’t mention above. He’s had a lot of luck with BABIP and HRs this year, but on the other hand his strikeout and walk rates are much worse than his minor league record would suggest. I can’t wait until the Rays somehow manage to sign him and Moore to 8 year, $14million dollar contracts.

Thursday: James Shields, RHP vs C. J. Wilson, LHP, TBA

If this series goes five, I’d be shocked if anyone other than these two get the starts. That’s a great potential matchup

Prediction

This should be a great series, probably the best of all the divisional matchups. I think Texas takes it in four games, though if the Rays had clinched earlier and were able to line up their rotation it would be too close to call (though I’d still give Texas the slight edge).


berselius

About berselius

How appropriate. You fight like a cow.

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