On Monday, we highlighted how the Rays' starting pitching edge, plus just enough offense, would propel them to victory over the Rangers in Game 163. The starting pitching matchup is much tougher to call for Wednesday's Rays vs. Indians wild-card elimination game, which — along with the 10 million kooky things that can happen in a single game — makes calling the result for either team a hell of a challenge.
Here's a best guess at the lineups:
Tampa Bay Rays
LF David DeJesus
DH Wil Myers
1B James Loney
3B Evan Longoria
2B Ben Zobrist
CF Desmond Jennings
RF Matt Joyce
C Jose Molina
SS Yunel Escobar
CF Michael Bourn
RF Nick Swisher
2B Jason Kipnis
1B Carlos Santana
LF Michael Brantley
SS Asdrubal Cabrera
DH Jason Giambi
C Yan Gomes
3B Mike Aviles
The Indians come in as the hottest team in baseball, winning 10 in a row to storm into the playoffs. They went 21-6 in September, turning a decent bounce-back year into the team's first postseason berth since 2007. They surgically dismantled teams at times. Then when situations demanded it, they delivered magical moments to pull out unlikely wins.
Terry Francona is going to get a lot of Manager of the Year love for skippering a team that improved by 24 games. Tito has long had a reputation as a good manager and certainly got a raw deal at the end of his tenure with the Red Sox; even if you think he should have been fired, the smear job executed by his former bosses and local media was awful, even by Boston standards. But any manager worth his salt would concede that players make most of the difference, that you can't make chicken salad out of chicken shit. The Indians were a bad team in 2012 and a good team in 2013. For that, we need to start by recognizing the huge improvement in the team's starting pitching.
Last year's rotation was a raging disaster. Only two pitchers made more than 22 starts. One was Justin Masterson, who served the role of nominal ace but was no more than a league-average pitcher, struggling with command problems for much of the season. The other was Ubaldo Jimenez, and man was he terrible. In his first full season with the Indians, Jimenez posted a 5.40 ERA and 5.06 FIP, posting the third-highest walk rate among all starters with as many innings pitched and generally having no idea where the ball was going. The rest of the staff consisted of flotsam from other teams and kids not yet ready for prime time; even 39-year-old Derek Lowe logged 119 innings for the Tribe last year.
That has all changed in 2013. Indians starters ranked second in the American League with a 3.70 FIP. Some of that was due to much better performance from incumbents, including Masterson, Corey Kluber, and Jimenez. (Have fun trying to pinpoint the specifics of Jimenez's improvement. Someone once asked a Rockies official to describe Jimenez's repertoire. His reply? “Good luck charting him. We don't know what he's throwing half the time.” Jeff Passan made a good stab at it, though.) But Cleveland has also reaped big production from several new faces. Scott Kazmir emerged as a leading Comeback Player of the Year candidate, making 29 starts and fanning more than a batter an inning. Meanwhile, the most dynamic young arm on the staff belongs to Danny Salazar.
It's Salazar who gets the call Wednesday against the Rays, after Francona started Jimenez, his unlikely ace, in Game 162. The 23-year-old rookie right-hander fires an absolutely explosive fastball, at 96.2 mph tied for the highest velocity of any heater among starters with as many innings pitched as Salazar had. That pitch helped fuel a 30.8 percent strikeout rate that's second only to Yu Darvish among pitchers with Salazar's innings total.
Thankfully, Grantland's genius-in-residence Kirk Goldsberry has rolled out version 1.0 of his brand-new pitching graphics. As you can see below, Salazar throws a ton of high heat. A three-pitch pitcher who also features a changeup and a slider, Salazar chooses his fastball about two-thirds of the time. Other than guessing right on an occasional off-speed pitch, the Rays' success tonight will largely depend on their ability to hit that four-seamer.
The thing that jumps out at you here, other than the big red splotches all over this heat-driven chart, is Salazar's split vs. lefties and righties. That fastball has confounded left-handed hitters, who've managed just a .193/.323/.327 line against it. Compare that to righty hitters, who've batted .241 against that pitch, with a .281 on-base percentage … but also a huge .574 slugging average. There's a massive, honking caveat we have to mention here: We're dealing with a sample size of just 10 starts and 52 innings pitched. With that relatively small packet of data to deal with, there could be some statistical noise in here, and we might find over the long haul that Salazar's results aren't as split-sensitive.
Still, if you're looking for a potentially impactful matchup in this game, it might be the red-hot Evan Longoria and his recent tendency to smash pitches from the middle of the plate to the outside edge, with lots of hits to right-center. Again, granting the small sample size in play, Longoria has gone opposite field so often lately and with such authority (including a homer and a double on Monday) that you wonder if he might try to do the same with Salazar's fastball tonight.
One area in which the Indians did not improve much this year is their defense. According to Ultimate Zone Rating, Cleveland had by far the worst team defense in baseball last year … and ranked 28th this year. Other advanced defensive metrics didn't think much of their glovework either. The Rays haven't been quite as airtight defensively as other points during their six-year run of success, but if you're betting on one of these teams making a costly miscue, the Indians are the stronger wager.
Meanwhile, the Rays will have their hands full with a balanced Indians attack. Everyday players like Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana have been not only productive but also nearly weakness-free, hitting well against both lefties and righties, getting on base and also providing power. Part-time players like Ryan Raburn and Yan Gomes have also offered plenty of sock. You can pitch to the bottom of the order. But one through six will offer a blend of power, speed, and on-base ability that'll give Cleveland a chance to forge rallies and keep the streak going.
You can't argue with the Rays' decision to start their ace, David Price, in Monday's win-or-go-home game in Texas. After all, Price is the senior member of the staff, the one who's been in the most big moments. After a rough start to the season, he was very good from July on, except for a couple of choppy starts. And if you believe that the end justifies the means, you can't ask for much better than Price's 118-pitch gem, a complete game that propelled Tampa Bay back into the playoffs and saved the team's overworked bullpen to boot.
But if Alex Cobb is your consolation prize, that's pretty damn great.
The 25-year-old right-hander was expected to pick up some of the slack left behind when the Rays traded James Shields as part of a blockbuster deal for Wil Myers. Through his first 11 starts this year, Cobb was easily Shields's equal — or maybe even better. Over that 75⅓-inning span, Cobb struck out 69 batters, walked just 17, posted a 2.39 ERA, and held opponents to a batting line of just .223/.272/.350. Things turned south in a hurry, though. In his next start, the potent Red Sox lineup strafed Cobb for six runs in just four innings. Then, in the fifth inning of a game against the Royals, a line drive struck him in the head, casting a pall over Tropicana Field and leaving onlookers to wonder how badly Cobb had been hurt; thoughts of when he would pitch again and how effectively he'd do so weren't at the top of most people's minds. But Cobb did make it back after a two-month absence, and he's dominated again since that return. In nine starts since August 15, Cobb has averaged more than seven innings per outing, striking out about a batter an inning, allowing just 46 hits and four home runs over 59⅔ frames, and posting a 2.41 ERA. His final three starts of the regular season were especially masterful: 23⅓ innings, 26 strikeouts, five walks, no homers, and a 1.16 ERA.
It's not just the quality of his performance that elicits comparisons to Shields, though. Like Shields (and several other Rays pitchers), Cobb leans heavily on his changeup. He also nets great results from the pitch, with Cobb's changeup being the ninth-most valuable in baseball this year for any starter with as many innings pitched. (Four of the top 12 changeups belong to pitchers with a Tampa Bay pedigree: Shields, Cobb, Matt Moore, and Price.) Tommy Rancel of The Process Report recently delved into more detail on the Cobb-Shields comps, and Shields aside, we can gain a better feel for Cobb's change thanks to another set of images from Goldsberry.
As you can see, Cobb has owned hitters of all stripes with his changeup, limiting left-handed hitters to .214/.245/.325 and righties to .200/.302/.267. Those results are a bit unusual, since changeups are often meant to neutralize opposite-handed hitters in particular, as a tough-to-hit pitch often thrown low and away. But whether it's the element of surprise, the quality of the pitch, or both, right-handed hitters have had loads of trouble squaring up Cobb's changeup when it breaks inside on them too.
Here's where the plot thickens. The Indians were the sixth-best hitting team in baseball this year on a park-adjusted basis, just behind the Rays, in fact. But the Indians were the best team in baseball at smashing changeups in particular. When Cobb's at his best, he's also throwing a big curveball for strikes to complement his fastball and change. The Rays are zealots about advance scouting, and there's no way in hell they're going to miss something like Cleveland laying a hurt on changeups. So don't be surprised if Cobb starts breaking off a bunch of benders tonight.
Meanwhile, look for a Rays lineup that's improved a lot from where it was at the start of the year. Wil Myers has made up for his late call-up with a Rookie of the Year–caliber season in a weak AL freshman class. David DeJesus has come up with some big hits since coming over in an August 23 trade, chipping in a big run-scoring double Monday against Texas. Even Delmon Young has been surprisingly effective as a late-season pickup, up to and including showing flashes of patience (!!!) at the plate. We'll probably see two of those three in tonight's lineup. Desmond Jennings showed his injured hamstring wasn't close to 100 percent when he tried to stretch a single into a double to start Monday's game only to get thrown out by a mile; he makes it easily if he's running at his usual excellent speed.
Though the Rays lost one more game than the Indians did this year, there's a case to be made that the Rays are the better team. There's the schedule issue, in which Tampa Bay faced tougher opponents than the Indians did. Then there's how Cleveland played against specific levels of competition. Against sub-.500 teams, it flashed an incredible 56-18 record. But against teams with better-than-.500 marks, they went just 36-52. Cleveland's finishing 10-0 kick this year came against the hapless Astros, White Sox, and Twins. Obviously the Rays represent a much tougher challenge.
Ed Feng, who runs an excellent analytical blog called The Power Rank, sees another gap between the two teams. Comparing teams based on win-loss record can be misleading, since winning teams might, for instance, benefit from a bunch of one-run wins and thus show a relatively weak run differential. As the Orioles showed in their 2012 results versus what happened in 2013, that can be a formula for significant regression toward the mean. But Feng argues that even run differential can be misleading. Certain teams will score more runs and win more games than their fundamental skills would suggest because of a phenomenon called clustering. Simply put, those teams might rack up about as many hits as others, but because those hits get bunched together, they'll score more runs and win more games. Feng's MLB Rankings by Base Runs aims to smooth out that noise, assigning a more random distribution to hits and walks for both teams' pitchers and hitters. By taking that step, Feng argues, you can gain a clearer understanding of a team's quality, and how it's likely to fare going forward.
Based on this formula, the luckiest team in baseball was the St. Louis Cardinals. Among the unluckiest? None other than the Tampa Bay Rays in second-to-last, a team that Feng ranks as the fourth-best in baseball by his metric, trailing only the Tigers, Red Sox, and A's (and seven spots ahead of the Indians).
Of course all that fancy math mostly amounts to macro stuff. Even if you believe the Rays are a better team, in a one-game playoff, such broad trends don't necessarily mean all that much. Do-or-die games can get decided on the tiniest of factors: a seven-hopper that squeaks through the hole, a long fly ball that curls three inches foul, a blown call by a home-plate umpire that gives an opponent new life and leads to a backbreaking home run.
So here are those factors: Cobb pitches another strong game, further underscoring that the top of the Rays rotation can hang with nearly anyone. Longoria gets a Salazar fastball he likes and gets a big hit out of it. And a bullpen well-rested after Price's complete game will lock it down. Make the final 5-3 Rays.