The 2011 Texas Rangers had the best regular season in franchise history, finishing on an incredible hot streak that saw them finish second in the American League and just one game behind the Yankees. Considering where this team was two years ago, or even one year ago, and comparing where it was then to where it is now is truly stunning. From Latin American signings to the minor leagues to the performance by the major league team, your Texas Rangers have positioned themselves as one of the elite franchises in all of baseball.
However, as much as all of this will cause us to look back on the season fondly at some point in the future, it’s time to turn our thoughts to the Tampa Bay Rays. If you had only been watching the FanGraphs leaderboards to see how the Rangers were doing, you know that the Rangers are near the top of MLB in every non-bullpen category. What you might have missed, however, is how good a team the 2011 Rays ended up being. The loss of a significant amount of talent to free agency last year had most assuming that this would be a rebuilding year for the Rays, but they ended up looking like a Coke Zero version of the Coca-Cola Rangers. Take a look at the following WAR-based chart (MLB Rank):
Both teams share good offenses, defenses, starting pitching and below-average relief pitching. In every category except the virtual tie in defense+baserunning, the Rangers hold a lead. So, this makes the Rangers an outright favorite, and we should all start planning for the ALCS, right?
Well, in a word ... no.
First of all, even teams with significant talent advantages find that the randomness of a short series can result in an early trip home a large percentage of the time. Moreover, while WAR generally does a good job of telling you what happened over the past year, looking at season statistics is often a misleading endeavor when trying to project the playoffs. There are a few reasons for this, with the biggest one being that there are a lot of players who are needed over the course of a 162-game, six-month season, but not needed over a five-game series. Fifth starters, middle relievers and some of the bench players who weigh down a team’s overall statistics will not play a role in the final outcome of this playoff series.
Another factor that is especially relevant here is that formerly injured players, trade acquisitions and talented rookies may be performing at a high level, but have not played enough to affect a team’s counting stats like WAR. Last year’s Rangers were underrated going into the playoffs because of injuries during the regular season to Nelson Cruz, Josh Hamilton, and others, as well as only having Cliff Lee for two months. While this year’s Rangers would have an even better record if they had their bullpen additions for the entire year or perfect health, it’s also important to note that Tampa Bay has brought up a couple of impact players who make them a better team than their seasonal statistics show.
Most prospect mavens are familiar with Jennings' ascent and development into one of the top prospects in the game, but his performance as a rookie for the Rays this year has been quite impressive. After getting the call in late July, Jennings has been one of the Rays' two or three best hitters, batting .259/.356/.449 (132 wRC+) while providing solid defense in left field and average defense in center field. His 2.3 WAR in 63 games prorates to a stellar 5.7 WAR over a full season, and has garnered him serious Rookie of the Year support. Rangers fans probably remember him for the 10th-inning, first-pitch, game-winning home run that he belted earlier this month.
Another favorite of the scouting services, Moore is probably a top five prospect in the game right now. A 2007 eighth-round draft pick, Moore has struck out 12 batters per nine innings at virtually every stop along his path of destruction through the minors. Harnessing his command to bring his walk rate down has resulted in his forcing the normally patient talent developers in the Rays' front office to bring him up to the majors in the same year that he first started at AA-ball. The lefty announced his presence loudly with a five-inning, 11-strikeout, one-walk performance against a depleted Yankee lineup eight days ago. He has been relying on his mid-90s fastball 70 percent of the time, and has complemented it equally with his change-up and curveball. All three pitches have at one point during his development been given future grades of 65 or higher by Baseball America, with his fastball being considered his best pitch. Now, he will start Game 1 for the Rays.
That said, it hasn’t all been easy success for Moore; his other two appearances for the Rays this season were in relief, and resulted in four strikeouts, two walks, and a home run in 3.1 innings. Also, his 162 innings this year across three levels constitutes an 18-inning increase from last year and probably limits how deep into a game the generally conservative Rays will let him go. Furthermore, the lefty is going to face one of the toughest lefty-hitting lineups in the majors. Despite the velocity, command, and hype, I have a feeling these guys aren’t going to be too worried:
As a reminder, 100 is average for wRC+. While there are sample size issues with this, I feel it ably shows that the Rangers are quite talented at hitting southpaws, which should also prove beneficial against David Price in Game 3. If both Matt Moore and David Price continue to rely on their fastballs 70 percent of the time, they're going to encounter difficulty capturing their usual level of success against this Rangers lineup, as it is the best at hitting fastballs of any team in the majors. Yes, the Rays' starters are formidable, but let’s not forget about the truly elite talent of the Rangers' hitters.
Game 1: Matt Moore vs. CJ Wilson
Game 2: James Shields vs. Derek Holland
Game 3: Colby Lewis vs. David Price
*Game 4: Matt Harrison vs. Jeremy Hellickson (?)
*Game 5: James Shields vs. CJ Wilson
● I am really happy that Colby Lewis will be pitching in Tampa Bay. While Tropicana Field suppresses offense overall by about four percent, it suppresses home runs at an 11 percent clip for left-handed batters and an eight percent clip for right-handed batters. Lewis has been disappointing this year in large part because of a dramatic rise in homers allowed (1.57 HR/9), as is reflected in his crazy 11.9 percent homer-to-fly ball ratio. Getting away from the Ballpark's 19 percent and 14 percent home run bonuses to LHB and RHB, respectively, and getting to the Trop should give the Rangers a much better chance than is indicated by the 4.7 WAR to 2.3 WAR advantage David Price enjoys.
● James Shields. Already one of the most hated pitchers for Rangers fans, he has taken a step forward this year to become a truly elite pitcher en route to posting a 4.9 WAR season. While it is true that having Holland and his very impressive second half [97 IP, 3.21 ERA, 2.2 WAR] oppose Price gives the Rangers more than a meager hope, I am concerned that Shields represents the exact sort of pitcher that could neutralize this Rangers lineup. He has thrown his fastball only 36 percent of the time on the season, negating one of the Rangers' big advantages; instead, he has thrown cutters and curveballs 15 percent and 21 percent of the time, respectively.
The Rangers have proven especially vulnerarable to curveballs and sliders this year, suggesting that Shields could be better suited to attack the Rangers than some of his fellow rotationmates. This already showed itself over the last month when the right-hander posted two consecutive starts against the Rangers and threw up this caliber of performance: 17 IP, 1 ER, 13 K, 3 BB, 0 HR. A Game 5 between Wilson and Shields could be epic.
● In the interest of fairness, the Rays have shown themselves to be quite capable of hitting southpaws this year. They don’t have quite the ridiculous assortment of lefty mashers that the Rangers do, but they are still quite good:
Make no mistake: the Rays have an above-average offense, one that is more than capable of scoring runs against left-handers. It’s now time to see if Derek Holland and Matt Harrison can translate their regular season success into that of the post-season variety.
● I strongly believe that the difference in bullpens is going to come into play in this series. The Rangers' bullpen spent most of the year in the awful territory than the Rays bullpen still finds itself mired in, but the excellent additions of Koji Uehara, Mike Adams, and now Alexi Ogando to Darren Oliver and the reborn Neftali Feliz vaulted the Rangers' bullpen up from the worst in all of baseball to merely below average on the season. The Rangers’ rapid rise compared to the Rays' bullpen stagnation renders this an advantage for Texas over Tampa Bay.
Given Matt Moore’s likely innings restrictions, there's a chance for the Rangers to attack the tantalizing portion of the Rays bullpen occupied not by the solid Kyle Farnsworth (3.16 FIP, 0.9 WAR) and Joel Peralta (3.37 FIP, 0.8 WAR), but instead by the big bag of replacement-level trinkets filled with Brandon Gomes, Juan Cruz, Jake McGee, and Cesar Ramos. The gains could be lost again the next day if Shields completes yet another of his seven-plus-inning outings, but I’m hopeful that the Rangers make it a point to try to target the weakest component of the Rays -- their bullpen.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, it's almost here. Let’s go and break the Rays' hearts again ... one more time.