September 30, 2013
AL Game 163 Preview
PECOTA Odds of Winning: Rays 65.3 percent, Rangers 34.7 percent
In his return from a 50-game suspension due to involvement in the Biogenesis scandal, Cruz will bring some thunder to a lineup sorely in need of it, despite a seven-game winning streak that has led them to the precipice of a playoff spot. Cruz’s presence threw a wrench into the process of predicting the Rangers’ lineup, as it is difficult to predict whether he’d be in the lineup (likely, thanks to past success against Price and that aforementioned anemic production) and if he is, where he’d play. Designated hitter seems to be an ideal spot for the poor fielder, and with Rios in town, there is more incentive to keep Cruz there despite a mere six appearances at DH on the season.
The biggest impact for the Rangers may well come from the top of the order rather than the middle, with Adrian Beltre struggling even through the seven-game winning streak. Instead, it’s been Kinsler, Andrus, and Rios doing much of the damage, while Moreland and Pierzynski have joined Beltre in the slow going. Craig Gentry has been pitching in at the bottom of the order, slashing .350/.409/.400 with four stolen bases during the winning streak.
The Rays present lineup difficulties of their own, of course, with Joe Maddon being hard to predict from game to game. We have to acknowledge the possibility that Sam Fuld starts this game (as he has the last two against southpaws), or that Tim Beckham could man the keystone or, hell, Wil Myers could see time behind home plate (please please please) because really, nothing can be put past Maddon. While the 46 runs the Rangers have scored over their last seven games is impressive, 12 of those runs came in one shot against the hapless Astros. Meanwhile, the Rays have been scoring as well, with 36 runs over that same seven-game span. So while the Rangers have an advantage when it comes to the lineups, it’s not as drastic as it may seem.
Where the Rays will seek to impose their will is on the mound with staff ace David Price going against Rangers rookie Martin Perez. If history teaches us anything though, that advantage could be anything but, as Price is 1-4 with a 5.98 ERA in eight career starts against the Rangers with the numbers deteriorating to 1-2 with a 10.26 ERA in four starts in Arlington. Small sample size caveats apply and ERA doesn’t always tell the full story, but we can all agree that six and 10 are concerning numbers in this situation.
Price of course hasn’t been himself nearly all season, averaging two full miles per hour less on his fastball and sinker than he did in 2012, with the results to match as his strikeout rate has dropped close to four percentage points. To Price’s credit, he’s cut his walk rate nearly in half from the last two seasons and his FIP sits at 3.05, exactly the number it was in 2012 and tied for his career low.
Another important factor for Price is how he can help neutralize what has become a signature of this Rangers’ team as the season has gone on. Since the All-Star break, the Rangers are pacing all of baseball in stolen bases with 89, led by Alex Rios (15-for-16 in stolen-base attempts in his 45 games with the team) and Elvis Andrus (22-for-27 in the second half). To his credit, Price has only allowed two steals in four attempts in 14 second half starts this season.
The matchup to watch for Price throughout this game will be against the Rangers’ hitters who had had the most success against him in his career: the aforementioned Nelson Cruz. In 21 career at-bats against Price, Cruz is hitting .429/.478/.905 with three homers. This includes a homer in Game One of the 2010 AL Division Series. However, since Cruz is fresh off his suspension and (like almost every member of the Rangers) hasn’t faced Price since 2012, this history should be viewed through even more of a squint than we’d usually view hitter/pitcher matchups. In fact, Alex Rios is the only member of the Rangers who has had even a single at-bat against Price this season, picking up two hits in seven at bats against him while with the White Sox.
On the other side of the equation, Martin Perez will take the mound for his first career start against Tampa Bay. In fact, the only time in his career that he’s faced the Rays was a five-inning relief outing in support of Roy Oswalt on September 9, 2012—just the third outing of his major league career. In that outing, he held the Rays in check, limiting them to just two solo B.J. Upton homers in five innings while walking one and striking out three. Of course, he also had the luxury of facing Matt Joyce and Carlos Pena, who were both allowed to stay in the game to face a left-hander because the game was already somewhat out of control thanks to Roy Oswalt doing late-career Roy Oswalt things.
Perez has been finally starting to make good in 2013 on some very lofty expectations levied on him from his prospect status as a teenager. In August and September, Perez has racked up seven wins with the help of a 3.26 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, and 47 strikeouts in 66 1/3 innings. He’s also continued to keep the ball on the ground with a 49.3 percent ground-ball rate in that span.
On the other hand, one who sees the glass half-empty for the Rangers lefty could merely point to his schedule as a handsome factor for his recent success. After all, he’s faced the Astros twice, the Mariners twice, and the Angels, Royals and White Sox once a piece—and his only two losses in that stretch came to the Athletics and Pirates, two playoff teams who were top-10 offenses in 2013 against southpaws. Not helping matters in this matchup is that the Rays were also a top-10 offense against lefties this seasons.
On this side of the lineup card, the most intriguing matchup will be how Perez handles the man he will be looking up at in AL Rookie of the Year voting this off-season: Wil Myers. Since they’ve reached the big leagues, Perez and Myers have not faced each other; however, while they were both in Triple-A last summer, Myers went 3-5 off Perez with two doubles. By itself that’s just a fun fact, but when digging into their tendencies, it becomes clear that this is a strength-versus-strength matchup. Perez has relied on the changeup as his out pitch, generating a whiff rate of over 39 percent—as has been the case ever since he was levied Johan Santana comps as a 17-year-old in the Northwest League. Enter Myers, who is hitting .347/.427/.488 in games where the starting pitcher has been a southpaw. On top of that, he’s also been worth 3.5 runs above average against the changeup in his abbreviated 2013 season and is hitting .350 against ones thrown by left-handers.
This game will mark the first time there will be a play in game to get into a play in game, which may feel unnatural to baseball purists, but feels very natural to TV executives. It also will clearly not be the last. Will the Rays finally get their revenge in Texas, after being eliminated by the Rangers in the division series in both 2010 and 2011? Will the battle of the lefties be won by the Cy Young Award winner or the Rookie of the Year contender? What sort of reception will Nelson Cruz get in his return to the Ballpark at Arlington after his suspension? Can 38-year-old Joe Nathan pitch on a fifth consecutive day if he’s called upon for the Rangers? Will this list of questions ever stop? Tune in tonight for Game 163 and find out which of these teams will take on the Indians in Cleveland on Wednesday night.
Craig Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @cdgoldstein