Apparently four games against one AL East foe wasn’t enough, as the Yankees embark on their second-straight four-gamer tonight in Tampa Bay (making it eight straight contests on turf for the Bombers), meeting up with the Rays for the third time this season. Fortunately for the Yanks, the Rays are coming off a big three-game set with first-place Boston in which they dropped two and were the tough-luck losers in last night’s 16-inning 1-0 contest. One would hope that this leaves the Tampa bullpen a touch short.
The Rays boast a slightly below-average offensive attack (.313 wOBA, 99 wRC+) and a good, though not great pitching staff (95 ERA-, 106 FIP-, 102 xFIP-). The Rays’ rotation this season has been paced by the two-headed monster of James Shields (3.2 fWAR) and David Price (3.0 fWAR), the former having rebounded from one of the worst years in the AL last season to one of the best this year, while Price has continued along his merry way as one of the top five lefthanders in the AL (in fact, he’s currently the third-most valuable southpaw in the league, behind our own CC Sabathia and C.J. Wilson).
Fortunately, the remainder of the Rays rotation hasn’t performed at quite the level of Shields and Price, even if Jeff Niemann did own the Yankees a week-and-a-half ago. No other Rays starter has managed even 1.0 fWAR, and none of Price’s and Shields’ rotationmates even boast a K/9 over 6 save Niemann, who also won’t beat himself with walks. Uber-stud Jeremy Hellickson has a shiny ERA (3.21) and has only yielded more than three runs in a start twice in 16 tries, so despite somewhat questionable peripherals (5.90 K/9, 33% GB%, 4.31 FIP) he’s managed to limit the damage, thanks in no small part to the lowest BABIP in the AL.
The Rays’ bullpen — such a strength last season — hasn’t fared quite as well after losing literally every relief pitcher from their 2010 ALDS roster, posting a 3.59 ERA, 4.19 FIP (9th and 10th in the AL, respectively) and 4.40 xFIP (13th). While the ERA isn’t terrible, Tampa Bay has outpiched its FIP by more than half a run, and so the unit’s likely benefited from a bit of luck — even if their 72% strand rate says otherwise. Of course, the Yankee relief corps has been one of the most effective in the AL, and has outpitched its and has the third-highest strand rate in the league, so I suppose luck is a bit relative in this instance.
On offense, the Rays have gotten big-time production from Ben Zobrist, who has already out-fWARed his 2010 total (his current 4.7 fWAR is the 3rd-best(!) in the AL) and is apparently intent on repeating his unspeakably impressive 2009 (8.6 fWAR, which was 2nd in the Majors that season to Albert Pujols). Matt Joyce has cooled down some (.320 July wOBA) after a torrid start, but he was so hot that his season wOBA is still .370 (137 wRC+), and you know he’ll torture the Yankees this series. Evan Longoria‘s currently in the midst of what would be his worst offensive season (.332 wOBA, 111 wRC+) but he’s always a major threat to do damage (though check out this post from Mark Simon showing how the Yankee pitching staff has limited Longoria’s power since 2009), while Casey Kotchman has magically resurrected what appeared to be near-death career and is currently sporting his best wOBA (.373) and wRC+ (140) ever. B.J. Upton‘s having a B.J. Upton-ish year, with 111 wRC+, and even old friend Johnny Damon has chipped in with a 109 wRC+. With seven players at 100 wRC+ or higher, I’m actually surprised that the Rays’ overall numbers on offense aren’t stronger, because there don’t seem to be too many weak links in their lineup. It appears that John Jaso (81 wRC+), Sam Fuld (83 wRC+) and Eliot Johnson (69 wRC+) are bringing up the rear, so hopefully the Yankee pitchers can dispatch of the bottom third of Tampa Bay’s lineup without too much difficulty.
In tonight’s opener (all four of these games start at 7:05pm), A.J. Burnett faces rookie Alex Cobb, who has five career MLB starts under his belt and has never faced the Yankees. Cobb’s pitched well in his brief time in the Majors, and is yet another Ray that primarily relies on a fastball (50% of the time) and changeup (33% of the time). Cobb hasn’t struck many out thus far (sub-6 K/9) but gets his groundballs (50% GB%), and with the Yankees having never seen him before, it’s probably best to avert your eyes from this one. Additionally, who knows what the Yankees will get from Burnett, who got taken to the cleaners his first time against the Rays, in a game that started out quite well and rapidly went downhill in the 6th inning, and fared OK in his second start against them, which was Jeter’s 3,000th-hit game (5.2 innings, 3 ER).
On Tuesday, Bartolo Colon squares off with Jeremy Hellickson. Hellickson has also never started a game against the Yankees, which sounds like a recipe for disaster, although they have seen him a couple of times in relief. Hellickson throws his fastball about 50% of the time and makes judicious use of a changeup that he throws more frequently than anyone in the league (33%) and that has also been superb, ranking directly below rotationmate Shields’ at 12.3 runs above average. The Yankees should expect to see a lot of off-speed stuff this week. Bart’s coming off hos two worst starts of the season and was roughed up by the Rays last time out, so it’ll be great to see if he can attack them with a different game plan, as they appeared to be completely ready for the steady diet of fastballs he fed them.
Wednesday’s game features Freddy Garcia against David Price. There isn’t much I can tell you about Price that you don’t already know. Third-fastest and sixth-most valuable fastball in the AL, complemented by a plus-changeup and slightly above-average slider. Dude’s a beast and the fact that the Yankees have hung nine runs on him across 10 innings this season almost certainly means he’s due for a shutdown performance against the Bombers. Freddy hasn’t seen the Rays this season, and I really have no idea what to expect from his performance.
And the Thursday finale features a rematch of CC Sabathia versus James Shields. As mentioned earlier, Shields is also having himself a remarkable season, and his calling card, the change, has been the second-most valuable wCH in the AL this season. Shields is also having success with his cutter and curve, pitches that were highly ineffective for him last season. Shields continues to be uber-tough on the Yanks, having surrendered just three earned runs in 15 innings against the Yanks this season, and if you take away his September 21, 2010 outing against when he shockingly gave up five first-inning runs, he threw 32.1 innings of nine-run ball (2.52 ERA) against the Bombers last season. Sabathia, as you’ll recall, turned in his finest performance of the season when these two teams last met.
The Rays have played the Yankees well at home of late (6-5 in their last 11 contests) and the Trop is currently the unfriendliest offensive environment overall in the American League, so I’d expect runs to be at a premium this series. I’d be plenty happy with a split of this set, and pleasantly surprised at anything better than that.
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