by Keith Glab, BaseballEvolution.com
September 30, 2011
This time last season, the Tampa Bay Rays were the best team in the American
League and hosted an upstart Texas Rangers ballclub that only made the playoffs
by virtue of playing in baseball's second-weakest division. I predicted
the Rays to sweep, but the Rangers took the series in five games.
This year, it is the Rays who only make the postseason thanks to an historic
Red Sox collapse and a Yankees team that had nothing to play for in the final
game of the season. Does the underdog win again, or does Texas just have
12-3 1.92 (minors)
Records - Rangers 96-66, Rays 91-71
Runs Scored - Rangers 855 (3rd), Rays 707 (8th)
Runs Allowed - Rangers 677 (5th), Rays 614 (1st)
- Rangers 5-4
Texas allowed 10 fewer runs this year than last and scored 68 more.
They faced tougher competition in the AL West this season to accumulate those
stats. They also enter the postseason healthier than they did in 2010.
By any measure, this is a far better team than Tampa Bay faced last season.
But interestingly enough, this team is not as daunting to face in a five-game
series as it was last season. Texas took the ALDS last year thanks to
Cliff Lee's two runs allowed in 16 innings of work. Lee's replacement as
ace, C.J. Wilson, has walked the fourth-most batters in baseball over the past
two seasons. He's been a very good pitcher since converting to a starter -
certainly better than anyone could have hoped for - but he is no Cliff Lee.
Basically, the Rangers' success this season in run prevention has been due to
a rotation that goes five-deep. Not only do five-deep rotations not
benefit you in a five-game series, but the Rangers are electing to pitch 2010
postseason hero Colby Lewis over the tiring Alexei Ogando (another shockingly
successful reliever-turned-starter) despite Ogando having an ERA nearly a full
run lower. This may not be the wrong move - Ogando's bullpen experience
should bolster a pen that ranked 26th in ERA this year after ranking sixth last
season. But it only highlights the fact that the Rangers' pitching doesn't
really strike fear into an opponent. Even Neftali Feliz, the 2010 Rookie
of the Year who briefly held the record for most saves by a rookie, isn't the
same. His save percentage fell from 93% to 84%, his strikeout rate fell
from 9.2 to 7.8, and his walk rate jumped from 2.3 to 4.3.
Their offense is similar to their pitching. Their are a half-dozen
dangerous hitters in their lineup, but no poop-your-pants scary slugger like
they had in Josh Hamilton last year. OK, Mike Napoli and his .631 slugging
average might make Rays hitters poop their pants, particularly since his
second-half OPS is 1.171 and manager Ron Washington has finally decided that
it's work putting Napoli's name in the lineup every day.
But a postseason offense is the antithesis of postseason pitching, in that
having several threats is far superior to having one or two guys carrying the
lineup. This is because one or two superstars can slump, be pitched
around, or be susceptible to dominant opposing pitching. How do you handle
the Rangers' offense? They have five hitters with 25 or more homers, six
with an OPS of .820 or above, and two with 30 or more steals. Ian Kinsler
leads the way as a 30-30 performer who only got caught stealing four times this
season. This team can outslug you, they can manufacture runs, and there is
no glaring hole in their lineup. They've even figured out how to hit on
the road a little bit, as their .740 road OPS ranks 7th in all of baseball.
To me, this offense is every bit as frightening as what the Yankees boast.
If the adage that pitching and defense win championships rather than offense,
however, the Tampa Bay Rays will not only handle the Rangers easily, but face
off against the Philadelphia Phillies in a rematch of the 2009 Fall Classic.
They allowed fewer runs than any other American League team and are so stacked
that Jeff Niemann (11-7 4.06 ERA) has been left off their ALDS roster entirely.
Of course, the big story regarding the Rays is that 22-year old phenom Matt
Moore is set to make his second-ever big league start in Game One of the ALDS.
He dominated the Yankees in his lone major league start, posted a 1.92 ERA
across Double-A and Triple-A this year, and has fanned 12.7 batters per nine
innings in his minor league career. Assuming he doesn't go Rick Ankiel on
everyone, Moore will give the Rays a boost from the same Postseason Roster
Loophole that allowed David Price to pitch and dominate in the 2008 playoffs.
Moore "replaces" fellow rookie pitcher Alex Cobb on the postseason roster, even
though Cobb had gotten injured nearly a month prior to the August 31 roster
Moore's uncanny ability to whiff batters is almost an embarrassment of
riches, as the Rays arguably have the best defensive team in all of baseball, as
they pace everyone in both fielding percentage and
defensive runs saved.
Evan Longoria has always been recognized as a top defensive third-sacker, but
now that Ben Zobrist has finally settled into a single position, he has become
an elite defensive second baseman. Kelly Shoppach has gunned down 41% of
would-be-basestealers, which should make Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus, and company
think twice before taking off. Sam Fuld made the catch of the year in the
first week of the season and took off from there; he is joined by Desmond
Jennings and Matt Joyce to form a fine defensive outfield rotation that covers
for B.J. Upton's shortcomings.
Whatever combination the Rays elect to use at shortstop will also prove
excellent defensively, however they also represent a gaping hole in the lineup.
Their shortstops have combined to go .193/.256/.282 this season. That's
like having a pitcher in the lineup, and proves a stark contrast to a Rangers
lineup that gives you no breathers. The rest of the offense has been
streaky, to say the least. Joyce hit .414 in May, then .179 in June and
July combined. Zobrist has gone through two months with an OPS over .900
and two with an OPS under .700. Jennings had been setting the world on
fire prior to a .504 September OPS. Upton had been garbage prior to
picking Jennings up with a 1.038 OPS.
The Rays have been fortunate not to have all of their players slumping at the
same time since they began the season 1-8. What happens if that happens
now? Can we trust Maddon to play the hot hand correctly? These Rays
led the AL in steals for the second straight year and cut 100 strikeouts off
their team total from last year (largely due to the removal of Carlos Pena), so
they can manufacture runs to cover for a slumping or overmatched offense when
Everyone talks about the Rays riding a hot streak or momentum or whatever to
an upset win here, but while Tampa won five games in a row to sneak into the
postseason, Texas closed out 2011 with six straight victories. The Florida
boys had a .650 winning percentage over their final 60 regular season games, but
those overlooked Texans posted a .684 mark since July 4th to put the Angels away
in the AL West.
Make no mistake: the Rangers are a better team than the Rays are. Tampa
is just far better suited to win in a short series. They've gone 26-18 in
one-run contests due to their stingy defense and ability to manufacture runs on
offense, while the Rangers actually went 19-24 in such games due to their
questionable bullpen. I expect Texas to blow the Rays out in either Game
One or Two with a Napoli-led offensive explosion, but then lose three other
close games and watch the rest of the postseason from home.
Prediction: Rays in Four
Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Keith resides in Chicago, Illinois and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.