The Rays are here. They showed up a little late to the party, but boy, did they make an entrance. Overcoming what was a nine-game deficit in the wild card race at the end of August, Tampa took advantage of Boston’s swan dive and stole away the Red Sox’ postseason berth in the most dramatic way possible.
The Rays are obviously generating some excitement; what does their postseason situation look like?
A formidable rotation
The key to the Rays is their starting pitching staff. James Shields and David Price have been doing it at the top all year long (5 fWAR seasons from both of them); Shields has contributed 249.1 innings, which leads the majors. Both have strikeout rates over eight per nine innings, which is good to have in a short series.
Behind Shields and Price, manager Joe Maddon could go with either Jeff Niemann or Jeremy Hellickson. Hellickson seems like the more obvious choice given his 13 wins and sub-3 ERA, but you couldargue that Niemann’s actually been the better pitcher over the past three months. Hellickson’s success has been driven mainly by a very low average on balls in play—very difficult to sustain over extended periods of time. If you compare his and Niemann’s peripheral stats side-by-side, it looks a little bit different:
Though Hellickson’s ERA is a full run lower, Niemann walks fewer, strikes out more, and gets more ground balls. Hellickson’s run prevention in 2011 gives him the better standing short-term, but the defense-independent numbers show that Niemann is probably the better bet.
The Rays also could turn to Wade Davis, whose ERA/FIP/xFIP stats are all hovering in the mid-high 4s. He’s not having a strong year, but he has looked better since his DL stint, which ended in mid-July (1.1 K/BB before, 2.2 after).
Note that since Price had to pitch the final game of the regular season, he won’t be ready for a Game Two start.
Some questions in the bullpen
For most of the season, the Rays’ bullpen was anchored by surprise star Kyle Farnsworth, who’s reinvented himself by getting his walk rates to career lows and groundball rates to career highs. Some arm trouble sidelined him for a while in September, at which point setup man Joel Peralta filled in admirably. But other than those two pitchers, it hasn’t been great for the Rays’ bullpen. The stats in the table below are for the relievers who have pitched the most for the Rays this year.
Control is an issue for the relief corps: All of the guys on the list aside from Peralta and Farnsworth have 2011 BB/9 rates above four. Do note, however, that this list doesn’t include recent call-up Matt Moore, who had the best strikeout rate as a starter in the Southern League last year.
Just enough offense?
With a team wRC+ of 101, the Rays are pretty much a league average offensive team. Evan Longoria, arguably their best player (and the hero on Wednesday night), had a down year for him but still contributed a wOBA of .358 with 31 home runs. Ben Zobrist, Matt Joyce and Casey Kotchman all have similar wOBAs from the middle of the order.
The top of the order has also gotten a shot in the arm with the midseason arrival of rookie Desmond Jennings. The 24-year-old hit .271/.368/.470 in 63 games with the big club, combining patience (11 percent walks) and power (.200 isolated slugging) with his good speed (19 steals). The strong showings are offset by unspectacular years from Sean Rodriguez, Reid Brignac (hitting .194/.228/.222), and the catching tandem of Kelly Shoppach and John Jaso. The team’s offense isn’t scary by any means, but it’s not a glaring weakness.
This is a good team, and having two legitimate aces at the front of the rotation is quite a luxury in a five-game series. Their bullpen and offense might not be top-flight, but anything can happen in a Division Series. The Rays’ run thus far has been beyond miraculous. Can they keep it going?
References & Resources
Stats are from Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference.