Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Playoff Preview: Rangers-Rays

The other AL divisional series will pit the winners of the West, the Texas Rangers, against the champions of the East, the Tampa Bay Rays. This series has a little bit of everything, with two true aces starting game one, several true superstar hitters, two of the best closers in the league, and the start of a journey that each team hopes will end in the first championship in the history of their respective franchises.

This series will start tomorrow, kicking off MLB’s postseason in Tampa. They’ll play in Tampa again on Friday, and then head to Texas for games Saturday and Sunday. If necessary, they’ll head back to Tampa for a final game on Tuesday.

Both teams rely on prolific offenses to outscore their opponents, with the Rays ranking 3rd in the league with 802 runs scored and the Rangers in 5th after plating 740 runners this season. However, they arrive at these numbers quite differently. The Rays lead the league in walks, with 672. They pair this with great speed and aggressiveness on the basepaths to create runs with, well, running. They lead the league in steals, with 172, and are also tops in baseball with a speed score of 6.0. If you’re not familiar with speed score, I’d suggest you check it out. It’s a metric that Bill James laid the original groundwork for, combining a hitter’s stealing ability with his ability to do other things with his legs that help his team win, such as taking the extra base and beating out double plays. Anyway, the Rays get on base by walking a ton, and then take calculated risks on the basepaths to create runs. Don’t expect Bengie Molina to have much success in curtailing the Rays’ running game, as he’s been below average in throwing out baserunners. Frankly, I watched the guy for half of the season with the Giants, and he’s dreadful defensively.

The Rangers, on the other hand, are a slightly more balanced team. They’ve got 4 hitters with 20 or more home runs, led by all-world outfielder Josh Hamilton’s 32. They’ve got 5 different players with 14 or more steals, with sparkplug Elvis Andrus’ 32 leading the way. Their power-speed combination has been very successful, and having one of the best hitters in the league this year in Hamilton certainly won’t hurt.

For game one tomorrow, the pitching matchup will be stellar. David Price and Cliff Lee, both potential Cy Young candidates, will toe the rubber. Look for them to keep these prolific offenses in check somewhat. Later in the series, however, the bats could come out firing, as these teams’ rotations drop off pretty quickly, especially in Tampa’s case. After Price, the Rays will come with James Shields (2.2 WAR this year), Matt Garza (1.8), and Wade Davis (0.8) for game 4 if necessary. The Rangers will counter with CJ Wilson (4.4), Colby Lewis (4.4), and Tommy Hunter (0.7). Wilson and Lewis have both been impressive for the Rangers this year, although Hunter’s 3.73 ERA is mostly smoke and mirrors (4.99 FIP). 

The Rays will hope to close this pitching gap with their outstanding bullpen. Rafael Soriano led the AL in saves, and though his 1.73 ERA is a little too low to be totally real, there’s nothing wrong with a 2.81 FIP. Joaquin Benoit will be the man looking to get him the ball, and he’s been one of the best 8th inning men in baseball. With an 11.19 K rate and a FIP of 2.43, this is probably the best tandem to close out the 8th and 9th innings that you’ll see in the playoffs. Neftali Feliz has been a shutdown closer all year, putting up a 2.96 FIP. However, whoever the Rangers throw at the Rays in the late innings, they won’t be able to match up with their counterparts in the other bullpen.

Despite that, I’m going to take the Rangers to win this one. Having a deep rotation is always key to the postseason, and after the first game, the Rays’ starters don’t match up to the guys the Rangers will be putting on the mound. This should be a great series to watch, however, and if Josh Hamilton isn't fully healthy, that could make or break this series. Assuming he's in decent shape, Texas in the full five games. 

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