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October 5, 2010
ALDS Preview: Rays vs. Rangers
In hindsight, the titans of the East were what we thought they were, even if a rash of injuries ensured that the Red Sox weren’t always whom we thought they were. As expected, eastern teams have called dibs on two of the AL’s four coveted tickets to the promised land, though no asses were crowned until the season’s final weekend, when the Rays nabbed the title by taking two out of three in Kansas City while the Yankees dropped a pair in Boston. Tampa Bay’s second division championship was won with an even smaller margin of error than the first, but the small-market-team-that-could again proved that it belonged in a bracket formerly dominated by high-payroll organizations—though this year’s Rays had to expend significantly more salary than the 2008 model in the process.
Before any accusations of East Coast Bias surface, let’s turn our attention to Tampa Bay’s ALDS opponent. While the Rays and Yankees carried their low-stakes race into October, finishing just a game apart, the Rangers more or less ran away with things at the other end of the continent, holding onto the top spot in the West from June 8 on, and concluding their season with a double-digit cushion. Though the Rays may still seem like fresh young upstarts compared to their old-money division rivals, the 2008 AL East title under their belt actually makes them the more experienced squad of this series—an important factor only if you subscribe to the notion that playoff experience matters—seeing as the Rangers haven’t been represented in postseason play since the offense-first, Rodriguez-and-Gonzalez-led teams of the late 1990s.
The Rays enter the playoffs with the league’s highest win total, although our Adjusted Standings Report narrows the gap between the Rays’ and Rangers’ records to only three games. For the Rays, home-field advantage signifies more than just bragging rights; not only could the cash-strapped club use every possible addition to their gate receipt sum (though the Rays won’t host the majority of games unless the series goes five), but as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, the Rays have historically enjoyed a pronounced home-field advantage, which jibes with Matt Swartz’s research on the tendency of domed teams to play well in domed stadiums. The Rangers actually exhibited a more dramatic home/road split this season, winning at a .630 clip in Arlington while playing below .500 on the road, but we shouldn’t expect a single season’s home-road splits to enlighten us about a team’s true tendencies. When circumstances do find them playing in St. Petersburg, both teams will need to be aware of some new ground rules. That’s right—“do-overs” have come to the ALDS.
Both teams played their best baseball in the first half, and the Rays took the season series 4-2, but that doesn’t tell us much either. A head-to-head breakdown of the AL’s two youngest teams might help us call it one way or the other, so let’s kick things off by taking a look at the lineups (all numbers in the following tables represent full-season totals).
The Rangers outhit the Rays, .276/.338/.419 to .247/.333/.403, but that’s Rangers Ballpark talking. Take the park out of the equation (or, more accurately, factor it in), and the Rays come out smelling slightly rosier, boasting a .269 TAv to the Rangers’ .263. The two teams take different approaches to offensive value: the Rays led the AL in walk rate, but also paced the circuit in strikeout rate, finishing with the second-lowest batting average in the league. In contrast, the Rangers excelled at putting the ball into play, posting a league-high .276 team batting average, but their 8.1 percent walk rate placed in the middle of the pack.
The Rays’ lineup kills opponents softly, wearing pitchers down by taking pitch after pitch. Rarely do we see a catcher leading off or a playoff team with two regulars hitting under .200, but Tampa Bay hasn’t suffered as a result of its unorthodox batting order. From top to bottom, every hitter evinces a patient approach, which goes a long way toward compensating for some of the subpar slugging percentages on the roster. In contrast—or, I should say, in Matt Treanor/Bengie Molina and Julio Borbon—the Rangers have a pair of low-OBP black holes at the bottom of their lineup, giving opposing pitchers an NL-style breather that the Rays’ lineup doesn’t permit.
The Rays do send three left-handed hitters to the plate consecutively on occasion, which would make them susceptible to lefty specialists if they weren’t adequately stocked with righty backups (consider that a plug for the “bench” section of the article). However, on the whole, the Rays are capable of neutralizing pitchers of either handedness, batting .246/.331/.406 against righties and .248/.336/.397 against lefties. The Rangers struggle against southpaws in a relative sense, putting up a .266/.326/.391 line that fell short of their .280/.343/.429 performance against righties. That’s good news for David Price.
Much of the Rangers’ firepower is concentrated in the persons of Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz, both of whom recorded higher TAvs than anyone on the Rays; Hamilton has played only three games since returning from a nearly month-long layoff, but his homer on Saturday reassured Rangers fans that his skills, while perhaps rendered rusty, weren’t corroded by his September vacation. Ron Washington might want to consider moving Vladimir Guerrero out of the cleanup slot, where he’s been penciled in for every one of his starts this season; the venerable free swinger has hit .278/.322/.426 after the All-Star break, looking even older and creakier than usual in the process.
The offensive attacks of the Rays and Rangers do share one common element: excellent baserunning. The Rays lead the majors with 12.8 EqBRR, while the Rangers ranked third, with 10.1. Even here, though, the two teams arrive at their production via disparate routes. The Rays have stolen 172 bases at a 78.5 percent success rate, counting Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton as their most prolific threats, while Texas has managed 123 at a 71.9 percent rate.
The Rangers have actually cost themselves a couple of runs through attempting to steal: Elvis Andrus is the Rangers’ lone 30-steal man, but his 32 swipes have come at the cost of 15 times caught red-handed. Despite accruing nearly three times the plate appearances that he amassed last season, Borbon failed to match his 2009 stolen-base total; that’s what happens when you don’t get on base, kids. The Rays will need to keep a close eye on Cruz, who seems to have attended the same “big, lumbering guys who still manage to steal bases efficiently, at least until they get even bigger” school of baserunning from which Carlos Lee matriculated.
What the Rangers lose in steal attempts, they make up in advancing at other opportunities. The Rangers have managed to post their lofty EqBRR total despite the continued presence of one of MLB’s worst baserunners in their lineup: Guerrero, who’s limped and hobbled his way to a -4.9 EqBRR. Andrus atoned for his inefficient thieving by being a baserunning ninja in all other respects, excelling at advancing on hits, in particular. Pitchers and fielders on both teams will need to stay alert for the duration of the series, since its course could well turn on a pivotal extra base.
Like a baseball version of Q, the Rays have the ability to requisition a weapon for every occasion. The lineup listed above is something of an approximation of the team’s offensive alignment against righties; against lefties, platoon specialist Kelly Shoppach would likely start at catcher, and Ben Zobrist would take Matt Joyce’s spot in right, allowing Sean Rodriguez to start at second. Finally, Willy Aybar might inherit the DH slot, and even the lineup stalwarts would shuffle positions on the lineup card. Desmond Jennings would fill the Fernando Perez role from 2008, offering an enticing late-inning pinch-running possibility. Since rosters have not been finalized, Rocco Baldelli, Brad Hawpe, and Dioner Navarro remain in the picture.
As Evan Grant observed recently, only four of the 40 ALDS competitors from the last 10 seasons have used their entire rosters. Given Joe Maddon’s hands-on style, this series stands a very good chance of minting at least a fifth, and Washington will likely undertake some machinations of his own. Starting Jeff Francoeur in right against Price would shift Cruz to left, allowing Hamilton to push Borbon to the bench, a series of events that would augment the Rangers’ firepower while giving the team its own pinch-running weapon (Borbon’s impact on the bases might be greater if he doesn’t have to get there himself). Jorge Cantu could also sniff a start against the Rays’ young lefty. As Grant wrote, somewhat melodramatically, “everything really comes down to the relative health of David Murphy’s groin.” If Murphy’s muscle is up to the task, the Rangers may opt to carry 11 pitchers; if not, Esteban German and Chris Davis would receive consideration for the final two spots.
After all that talk about revamped training programs and heavy workloads, the Rangers finished with the AL’s lowest percentage of innings thrown by starting pitchers. So does that mean that their plan was ill-conceived or poorly implemented? Well, not necessarily. For one thing, it’s a process, and like some other processes, this one may take a few years to pay dividends. For another, there’s relatively little separation between teams when it comes to the percentage of innings absorbed by the rotation: the Rangers trailed the rest of the junior circuit at 65.0 percent, while Seattle paced the league with a 70.5 percent mark. With a range that narrow, one inefficient starter can skew the results; as BP alum Jonah Keri noted when I ran those numbers by him, the Rangers’ statistical standing may well have been depressed by the 18 starts they awarded to Rich Harden, who averaged fewer than five innings per outing.
Cliff Lee certainly wasn’t responsible for the dubious endurance of the Rangers’ starters; the midseason ace-quisition fell just short of averaging 7 2/3 innings per start in 2010, leading the AL in that regard (and trailing only Roy Halladay in the major leagues). The Rangers have decided to rely on a four-man rotation in the short series rather than ask Lee to pitch the opener and return to action in Game Four, as he did to great effect for the Phillies in last year’s NLDS. The difference this time around is that these teams will have only one off day between Games One and Four, as opposed to the two of leisure that last year’s competitors enjoyed.
Lee has never pitched on three days’ rest, and his employers haven’t seemed eager to test him; the Phillies decided to sacrifice Joe Blanton to the Yankees in Game Four of last year’s World Series rather than subject their ace to a Sabathian schedule, and the balky back that plagued Lee down the stretch gave the Rangers additional incentive to go to Tommy Hunter in Game Four, lining up a rested Lee to start a decisive fifth game in Florida. Lee’s apparent inability to shoulder a much heavier load in October hurts the Rangers, since Hunter’s low strikeout totals make him something of a low-BABIP illusion waiting to be shattered by Tampa Bay’s bats.
Aside from Lee, who authored a historically low walk rate, the Rangers’ staff handed out free passes rather freely this season. C.J. Wilson, in particular, dished out walks with abandon, letting 93 slip in his 204 innings. The Rays are well-suited to capitalize on any lapses in control, having seen the second-most pitches per plate appearances in the American League (3.94), trailing only the Red Sox. Wilson’s conversion from closer to starter surpassed expectations, but the southpaw’s peripherals didn’t fully support his ERA. In contrast, Colby Lewis was every bit as good as his ERA indicated (if not better), making him one of last winter’s best pickups, as well as one of its most interesting muses.
Among AL competitors, the Rangers’ 13.3 team SNLVAR topped the totals of only Baltimore, Cleveland, and Kansas City, but only the cream of the Rangers’ starting crop will see action in this series. Beyond Lee, it’s not a dominant group, but considering that the last Rangers division winner sported a rotation cobbled together out of complementary pieces Rick Helling, Aaron Sele, John Burkett, and Mike Morgan, Nolan Ryan can be proud of the collection of rotation talent that he’s assembled.
If SIERA had its way, the Rays’ first two starters might find their roles reversed. Price’s campaign garnered the headlines and the Cy Young votes in this season’s Rays rotation, but James Shields, the team’s 2008-era Game One starter surpassed the young ace from a component perspective, posting a 3.57 SIERA in comparison to Price’s 3.82. By choosing to start Shields in Game Three, Tampa Bay’s front office thumbed its collective nose at the predictive powers of ERA and some of the shriller elements of the fan base alike, choosing to disregard Shields’ abnormally elevated .354 BABIP. Although any pitcher can be perfect on any given night, the latter half of the Rays’ playoff rotation doesn’t inspire fear, so an early series deficit would put the pressure on in Florida.
The Rays’ 12.683 WXRL led the American League, while the Rangers’ 10.435 ranked second; furthermore, the two relief units finished in a virtual tie for first place in reliever FRA (Texas at 3.61, Tampa Bay at 3.62), so on paper (assuming you’ve printed a hard copy of our “Reliever Expected Wins Added” Report), these pens appear fairly evenly matched. The difference between them lies in the late innings, where the Rangers have no one to match the dominant late-inning work of free-talent-pickup Joaquin Benoit and high-priced (by Rays standards) addition Rafael Soriano; the Rangers’ closer, Neftali Feliz, boasts peripherals little better than the Rays “seventh-inning guy,” Grant Balfour. Maddon may still choose to leave Jake McGee out of the picture in favor of Chad Qualls, whom he’s used in high-leverage situations as a double play inducer, but his feel for a bullpen is among the game’s best.
The Texas pen lacks former closers Frank Francisco and Chris Ray; the former was recently put out to pasture for the ALDS with a sore right rib cage, and the latter went to San Francisco in the Molina trade. The loss of Francisco, who pitched better than his ERA would indicate, particularly hurts. Including three lefties on the roster for a five-game series might be a little excessive, though the Rays’ lineup is well-stocked with southpaws. As a LOOGY, Clay Rapada is something of a luxury, but If Washington doesn’t anticipate a need for further position players, he can at least force Maddon to burn his bench in repeated attempts to escape a platoon disadvantage.
In the absence of Francisco, Washington might want to consider giving a more prominent role to Alexi Ogando, who’s been effective despite (or, perhaps, as a result of) his low-leverage usage. Ogando has amassed a leverage score of exactly 1.0, meaning that his usage has been one semi-important outing away from that of a mop-up man. Darren O’Day and his .226 BABIP are a regression waiting to happen, but it’s unlikely that Washington would relegate his bullpen’s second-highest WXRL earner to a reduced role at this late date.
Both the Rays and the Rangers can catch the ball with the best of them. The Rays boast the game’s third-best defensive efficiency (.710), while the Rangers rank sixth (.705). Post-park adjustments, the Rangers’ talents shine through even more clearly, leading MLB with a 2.16 PADE (the Rays place sixth with a 0.83 PADE). Both UZR and DRS think highly of the Rangers’ optimal defensive outfield alignment of Hamilton in left, Borbon in center, and Cruz in right. There’s only one bit of bad news for the Rangers on the defensive front: while Michael Young’s fielding numbers at the hot corner aren’t as ugly as they were at shortstop, both UZR and DRS suggest that his future might lie at DH.
Crawford, Evan Longoria, and Zobrist appear to have turned in their usual stellar work with the leather. The Rays lose little defensively when drawing from their bench: John Dewan’s dedicated team of video analysts awarded a +18 rating to Rodriguez’s work at the keystone, and Reid Brignac’s stylings at shortstop also drew favorable reviews. UZR suggested that Jason Bartlett’s glove-work trended downward for a fifth consecutive season in 2010, and DRS essentially supported that position, which might prompt the Rays to experiment further with Brignac during Bartlett’s upcoming walk year (or unload Bartlett entirely).
Maddon is one of the few true “field generals” left in the game, a man who never met a batting order or defensive alignment that he didn’t like, as long as he thought it might benefit his team. Of course, he has the support of a progressive front office, which makes being adventuresome easier. Maddon has demonstrated his willingness to optimize his lineups even in situations that might call for traditional archetypes to be upended, and thinks nothing of risking his reputation on moves that aren’t yet in vogue around the league; as R.J. Anderson theorized, if Maddon will shift on Derek Jeter, he might also shift on Young. Maddon’s bullpen usage yields few opportunities for complaint, and he clearly isn’t fazed by Shields’ superficial struggles.
Washington has put his pre-season PR problems behind him, and the whispers of clubhouse dissent and tenuous job security that have plagued him in the past have not resurfaced this season. A former middle infielder, Washington has emphasized infield defense, and while it’s difficult to give him full credit for their play, his infield charges have acquitted themselves well. Washington might be wise to signal fewer green lights on the bases, given his players’ proclivity to run themselves into outs while attempting to steal. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his style as a player, Washington’s team has also been more than a little bunt-happy, leading the AL with 53 sacrifices.
Predicting the outcome of a five-game series might be folly, thanks to the prominent role played by chance over such a small sample of performance, but the Rays have an awful lot going for them, including superior regular-season performance, health, bench and bullpen depth, and managerial ingenuity, not to mention home-field advantage. The Rangers boast perhaps the best pitcher-hitter tandem on the AL side of the playoff draw in Lee and Hamilton, and have the requisite supporting parts to make this series competitive. As Marc Normandin mentioned to me earlier, the Rays would have to take a page out of Scott Pilgrim’s comic book (sorry—graphic novel) and outlast a League of Evil Ex-Outfielders in the playoffs–Hamilton, Delmon Young, Jonny Gomes, Pat Burrell, and Aubrey Huff—in order to earn their rings, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves: this is just round one, and plenty of baseball remains to be played. Though I’m tempted to apply the oldest and most applicable of clichés—“It could go either way”—I’ll take the Rays in four.