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2011 ALDS Preview

Texas Rangers vs. Tampa Bay Rays

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 Tampa's number?

Pitching Probables
Game Rangers Rays
1@TEX C.J. Wilson
16-7 2.94
Matt Moore
12-3 1.92 (minors)
2@TEX Derek Holland
16-15 3.95
James Shields
16-12, 2.82
3@TB Colby Lewis
14-10 4.40
David Price
12-13 3.49
4@TB Matt Harrison
14-9 3.39
Jeremy Hellickson
13-10 2.95
5@TEX C.J. Wilson
16-7 2.94
James Shields
16-12, 2.82

Records - Rangers 96-66, Rays 91-71
Runs Scored
- Rangers  855 (3rd), Rays 707 (8th)
Runs Allowed - Rangers  677 (5th), Rays 614 (1st)
Head-to-Head - Rangers 5-4

The Rangers

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.

The Rays

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 deadline.


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 necessary.

The Matchup

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 keith@baseballevolution.com.

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