(1) Tampa Bay Rays vs. (6) Houston Astros
With the Rays and Astros set to kick off the American League Championship Series tonight, we’re breaking down how these teams got here and what to expect. Zach Hayes and Alexander Chase, respectively, combine to break down these two teams.
The entire series will be broadcast on TBS and played at Petco Park in San Diego, California.
Game 2: Monday, October 12, 4:37 PM ET – TBD vs Lance McCullers Jr.
Game 3: Tuesday, October 13, TBD
*Game 4: Wednesday, October 14, TBD
*Game 5: Thursday, October 15, TBD
*Game 6: Thursday, October 16, TBD
*Game 7: Thursday, October 17, TBD
The Rays and Astros aren’t natural enemies. Since Tampa Bay’s formation in 1995, they’ve played just 65 times. Most of those games have come since Houston moved to the AL in 2013, so almost the entirety of their history has come since the Astros’ current window started to open. Even so, Tampa leads to the lifetime series 38–27. But their history comes with more than a few interesting wrinkles. They’ve seen each other in the postseason just once, but that was last year’s five-game ALDS showdown. The Astros rocked Rays starter Tyler Glasnow in that outing, and admitted after the game that they knew Glasnow was tipping his pitches. Given what we now know about the Astros, that takes on some new meaning.
The teams have traded a few players in their short history, with the Rays picking up then-prospect Ben Zobrist in exchange for the last year of Aubrey Huff’s contract in 2006. More recently, the Rays signed Charlie Morton before the 2019 season after he ran down his contract with the Astros. The Rays were able to sign him to a team-friendly two-year deal worth a maximum of $15m if he spends fewer than 30 days on the IL per season. Morton’s more than repaid the value on that deal, putting together a career-best season last year.
Tampa Bay Rays (40–20)
Playoffs in Review:
What an ALDS it was for the eternal underdog Rays, who snapped a streak of four consecutive Division Series losses in a five-game nailbiter against the Yankees. After dispatching Toronto/Buffalo in a relatively painless two-game Wild Card sweep in which they outscored the Jays 14-3, New York’s offense proved a much tougher nut to crack for Tampa Bay’s pitching staff.
Tyler Glasnow and Charlie Morton picked up the slack for a dud of a Game One start from Blake Snell, grinding out ten innings and allowing five earned runs between Games Two and Three. They were shaky, and the numbers reflect that, but more importantly, they were able to hold a lead through the middle innings and hand things off to the bullpen. And most importantly, Glasnow stepped up when his number was called, opening the Rays’ Game Five victory two and one third no-hit innings. On the offensive side, Randy Arozarena (.421 BA, 8 H, 3 HR), Ji-Man Choi (.267, 4 H, 3 BB, space in Gerrit Cole‘s and Aaron Boone’s heads), and Mike Brosseau (sweet revenge) made their playoff star turns count, and the pitching and defense did the rest.
The key there is keeping them in the game long enough to give the keys to the bullpen. When push came to shove late in the series, the Rays danced with what brought them there, utilizing in Game Four the opener-and-bulk strategy they revolutionized, and executing bullpen matchups to perfection in a tense 2-1 Game Five clincher. We’ll get to the individuals in a minute, but it’s safe to say the Rays are tough to beat when their bullpen does its job: relief pitchers combined to allow just three runs in 14.2 IP between their three ALDS wins.
The Rays lineup is always an object of fascination. It’s the baseball embodiment of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts; platooning and positional flexibility are a big part of the team’s identity. In the regular season, they ran out 59 batting orders in 60 games. Meaning, they only used the same lineup twice a single time in 2020. Hitting can be as much about comfort and rhythm as much as anything else, and the fact that this always-in-flux lineup managed to come together as the sixth-highest scoring in the AL is quite the feat.
That being said, their lineup remained relatively static in the ALDS. Two-thirds of the order went completely unchanged over the course of the series, with the two through four spots occupied by Brandon Lowe, Arozarena, and Choi, followed by Joey Wendle, Willy Adames, and Kevin Kiermaier hitting sixth through eighth. Mike Zunino started four of five ALDS games in the nine-hole, but having sat against righties for most of the year and having struggled against Lance McCullers Jr. in the past, we may see Michael Perez make another couple appearances. Finally, it appears that primary DH Yandy Díaz will continue to rotate between the leadoff role and fifth spot, depending on which of Manuel Margot and Austin Meadows is playing RF.
Meadows, who showed some signs of life with two homers in the ALDS after a dismal regular season, seems likely to draw starts against whichever combination of Zack Greinke, Cristian Javier, and Jose Urquidy the Astros go with after Framber Valdéz and McCullers in the first two games. However, despite making only a single pinch-hit plate appearance against the Yankees, Hunter Renfroe should be a candidate to see several starts in this series. A matchup with the sinker-happy Valdéz is particularly enticing. Not only does Renfroe crush lefties, he demolishes lefty sinkers in particular, running a .453 wOBA against them in his career. Additionally, he has quite the history with Zack Greinke, registering six hits and taking him deep three times with just four punchouts in 21 PAs.
Of course, the bulk of this series probably hinges on that one-two-three punch of Lowe, Arozarena, and Choi. Whiffs are still Arozarena’s biggest problem (36.8%), and while he mashes fastballs, he’s still struggled against everything else. All five of Houston’s potential starters rely more on changing speeds, movement, and weak contact than drawing whiffs with high-velo fastballs, so it will be interesting to see whether Arozarena’s bat stays hot. It wasn’t a problem against Masahiro Tanaka, but he wasn’t able to do much against Jordan Montgomery. Lowe has obliterated pitchers of all hands this year, but taking into consideration how much more effective against right-handers Choi (113 wRC+), Wendle (102 wRC+), Kiermaier (102 wRC+) and Brosseau (198 wRC+) are, some of Tampa Bay’s most critical players have more than a few potentially favorable matchups. If the offense can click and spot them five-plus runs in three or four of these games, they’ll probably like their chances.
The rotation is much simpler than either their lineup or bullpen. The question is less “who” than “in what order.” With no days off, it feels unlikely that Game One starter Blake Snell or presumptive Games Two and Three starters Charlie Morton and Tyler Glasnow (in either order) go very deep into their games, as their ability to give potentially crucial elimination game innings later in the series may be critical, given Houston’s lesser top options and dearth of bullpen depth. Both Snell and Morton averaged fewer than five innings per start this season, with Glasnow barely topping it. It seems likely we’ll see the same game plan they’ve employed all season: keep them in the game for five innings, give the offense a chance to snatch the lead, and hand the keys to the bullpen.
Before we get to that bullpen, there are a few matchup notes worth making. The rotation doesn’t stop at Snell, Glasnow, and Morton; Ryan Yarbrough made nine effective starts during the regular season, and if he doesn’t start one of the series’ third or fourth games, he’ll almost certainly be used as a bulk man behind an opener, as he was in Game Four against New York. Yarbrough will be an important bulwark, as the Astros have an extensive history of beating up on all three of the Rays’ top starters. Current Astros hitters have managed a .940 OPS with 7 HR in 103 PAs against Snell, a .913 OPS and 3 HR in 59 PAs against Glasnow, and an .841 OPS with 10 BBs in 94 PAs against their erstwhile teammate Morton.
The real crown jewel of the Rays’ roster building is, of course, their bullpen. Kevin Cash’s assertion that he has a stable full of guys who throw 98 may have been highly unnecessary, but it wasn’t a lie. The three Tampa Bay relievers with the highest average game leverage index–that’s gmLI, which tells us what pitchers a team is turning to most often in high-leverage situations–are Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo, and Peter Fairbanks, all of whom flash triple-digit velocity and who combined to strike out 17 while allowing just 3 runs in 11.2 ALDS innings.
We know plenty about those guys, and they’re the ones most likely to be seen in the series’ biggest moments. The beautiful thing about this ‘pen is that it’s more than the collection of high-octane fireballers that teams have been putting together since Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland won the Royals a pennant. John Curtiss offsets average velo and stuff with outstanding control, running a minuscule 3% walk rate. Aaron Slegers throws a slow sinker, but nobody can square it up, running a 96th percentile overall barrel rate.
The diversity doesn’t end there. Thanks to the Yankees lineup bein overloaded with right-handed power, lefties Josh Fleming, Aaron Loup, and Shane McClanahan combined for just 1.2 IP–all from McClanahan–in the ALDS. Fleming was utilized effectively as a fifth starter and bulk man during the season, running a 2.78 ERA on the strength of an elite 65% groundball rate generated with one of baseball’s lowest spin sinker/slider combinations. Veteran sidewinder Aaron Loup should find work against Houston’s lefty trio of Tucker, Brantley, and Reddick. And after making history in the ALDS, McClanahan and his 101 MPH lefty velocity would seem liable to be called upon in any given big moment.
On the whole, this bullpen is special and will play a huge role in this series not just because it contains a ton of high-quality options, but a ton of high-quality options who all do different things well. Whatever the matchup might be, Cash almost certainly has the right guy to deal with it.
Houston Astros (29–31)
Is it wise to throw out the results of 60 regular-season games after five playoff wins? Probably not. But whether or not this version of the Astros is even a hint as good as previous versions, they’ve made their fourth consecutive ALCS and are just eight wins away from a second World Series crown.
It’s impossible to discuss this Astros playoff run without talking about the fact that their last three come tainted by a cheating scandal that led only to off-the-field consequences. A.J. Hinch and Jeff Luhnow may be unemployed and watching from home, but the players who orchestrated it and benefited from it are still playing. I’m not going to tell people not to root against them or disguise my belief that they don’t deserve to be in this position. José Altuve wasn’t the person who opted not to suspend any players or ban the Astros from the postseason, and he also wasn’t the one who expanded the MLB playoffs this year. The Astros’ social media team can pretend they’re evil genius masterminds all they want, but the reality is that they serve in that role at the pleasure of Rob Manfred.
As a real on-the-field baseball team, the Astros are still and interesting story. They did make the playoffs as the sixth seed thanks to Manfred’s new rules. But their 29–31 record didn’t tell the full story: Alex Bregman (hamstring) and Michael Brantley (quad) both missed more than a week on the IL, and both George Springer (wrist) and Carlos Correa (ankle) played through injury for part of the season. When the Astros finally got healthy, rested, and playoff-ready late in the season, they had the luxury of having nothing to play for with several games to go. This meant that we didn’t get a real glimpse of what the lineup that the Astros rolled out against both the Twins and A’s was capable of until just days ago.
If you’re so inclined, it’s possible to sell this as a redemption arc. Should they make it all the way to the World Series, they’ll have defeated three division winners to get there. But doing so ignores just what’s allowed them that chance, a chance they frankly don’t deserve.
Reviewing the Past Two Rounds
The Astros’ performances against the Twins were in line with late-regular season form on the offensive side. Kyle Tucker, Michael Brantley, and Carlos Correa were the offensive heroes, but Yuli Gurriel and José Altuve failed to justify their high spots in the order. They needed some late heroics against imploding Minnesota relievers to put enough runs on the board to nab a win. But the pitching performances far exceeded any expectations. Zack Greinke, Framber Valdez, José Urquidy, and Christian Javier combined to give up just two earned runs over 16.2 frames after Dusty Baker decided to sidestep his bullpen almost entirely.
Against the A’s, it was a different story. Over four games, they scored 33 runs while giving up 22. Their only starting pitcher to last five innings and give up fewer than four earned runs was Valdez in Game 2. That put huge pressure on their bullpen to perform, and several of them buckled as well. Ryan Pressly and Brooks Raley, who have handled the highest-pressure situations in the past few weeks for the Astros, each allowed two runs.
What was different? The bats got hot. By the end of the series, all but three Oakland pitchers had given up a home run. Bregman, Altuve, Brantley, Bregman, and Correa each had an OPS over 1.000 in the four-game series, and Tucker batted .412 (albeit without an extra-base hit). Maldonado, Gurriel, and Reddick might have struggled, but with the 1–6 hitters producing, the Astros concentrated their production.
The Astros’ offense has been, to put it lightly, a subject of some focus this season. Below are their regular-season numbers; while these weren’t terribly reflective of the team’s results against Oakland, they do help to explain how the Astros ended up 14th in runs scored this year.
|Spot||Name||Position||Bats||PA||HR||R||RBI||AVG||OBP||SLG||wRC+ vs RHP||wRC+ vs LHP|
I’ve previously written about the not-so-strange issues the Astros have had with how they’ve arranged this lineups this year, most of which boiled down to a reluctance to look at the relevant data and just place the team’s strongest hitters at the top of the Order. Altuvé still claims the second spot in the order as his own, Yuli Gurriel was hitting in the heart of the order up until the ALDS. The team’s 1.000 Altuvé-tall second baseman has since rewarded his team’s patience with a strong series against the A’s, and Gurriel did get kicked down the order. The team did make some other changes recently, moving Correa up and showing more willingness to rotate Díaz and Reddick. But otherwise, what I have listed above is what we should expect.
Heading into the team’s matchup with the A’s, one of more interesting things storylines could be that the team still doesn’t reorganize the order to maximize platoon splits. ZiPS creator Dan Szymborski likes to remind us that a player’s personal platoon splits aren’t more meaningful than generic lefty/right splits until we have multiple seasons of data. But in general, it’s much harder to hit a baseball when the pitcher you’re facing is releasing the ball behind your back, and the Astros seem content to ignore this. I’ve included each player’s personal wRC+ splits as a way to show how this has hurt the team so far; Altuvé and Brantley aren’t guaranteed to turn into pumpkins when Blake Snell is on the hill, but it’s worth following.
My quibbles with how it’s arranged aside, this is still an extremely potent lineup built that’s at the forefront of what the data tells us a lineup should be doing. Their 19.7% strikeout rate was the lowest in the league, and most of their decline from last year to this year can be accounted for in their drop in HR/FB%. They’ve always relied more on placing more balls in play than other teams and taking advantage of their home park’s friendly dimensions for right-handed pull-hitters; this year those pulled fly balls just didn’t leave the park like they had in years past.
Should that trend continue, though, Petco Park won’t be all that friendly to them. While both parks turned barrels into home runs at roughly the same rate this year (0.607 Barrel/HR in San Diego, .481 Barrel/HR in Houston), Minute Maid was substantially kinder to non-barrelled home runs. While 34% of all home runs at Minute Maid weren’t barrels, that number was only 5% at Petco. For a team like Houston that’s among the highest in FB% rate in baseball while being fairly low in barrel%, that could spell trouble in the form of a parade of easy fly ball outs.
Losing Gerrit Cole to free agency was a contingency that the Astros had planned for. The team traded for Zack Greinke last year not just to beef up their rotation for 2019, but to partially replace the man who ended up winning the AL Cy Young. But losing Justin Verlander to a torn UCL wasn’t something that the team was built to withstand. Since then, the Astros’ rotation has been held together by duct tape and a prayer. But considering how normal that is for all things in Texas, it might just be enough to get the job done.
|Lance McCullers Jr.||55.0||56||3.93||1.16||24.7%||8.8%||32.8%||3.70|
I’ve previously noted that the Astros’ pitchers faced an exceptionally weak group of opposing hitters to close the season, but after the A’s series, things did unravel somewhat for the team. Lance McCullers Jr. in particular finished the year extremely strongly, not giving up more than three earned runs in a start for all of September. And Urquidy didn’t give up more than one earned run in any of his five regular-season starts. But after the lineups got a little tougher against Oakland, the Astros’ pitching started to let them down. Only Framber Valdez, who posted a 5.01 ERA in August, notched a quality start against the A’s.
The trends and underlying numbers for this group don’t point toward them shutting down the Rays. Before his start against the Twins, Greinke’s last start of less than three earned runs was on August 18 against the Rockies. He’s still striking batters out, but he’s also giving up hard contact regularly. Valdez is also a strange case, having a 4th percentile hard hit rate; if the Rays see his sinker well and limit called strikes, he’s a blow-up risk. Urquidy’s main skill has been contact management, but huge gaps in his expected and actual stats suggest that his defense has been managing the contact more that he has. His 2.73 regular-season ERA came with a 5.22 xERA and a 4.71 FIP.
I’m including Cristian Javier in this grouping despite him operating exclusively out of the bullpen because he did see most of his action as a starter his year. He’s yet to give up an earned run out of the bullpen this postseason, and while FIP doesn’t like him, Statcast’s xERA does: his 2.94 xERA is backed by a 90th percentile hard-hit rate; if he can sustain his 25% strikeout rate, he can be a valuable piece no matter when he’s pitching.
After giving brief appearances only to Brooks Raley and Ryan Pressly against the Twins, Dusty Baker was forced to give his bullpen a much greater workload against Oakland. His most trusted arms somewhat failed to deliver in that outing — Raley was charged with the loss after giving up two earned runs — but many of the younger pieces continued to get the job done despite peripherals pointing in the opposite direction.
Ryan Pressly looks like the complete opposite of several Astros starters in terms of his profile. He was elite at drawing strikes, finishing the regular season sixth in CSW% among pitchers who threw at least 100 pitches in 2020. But when batters made contact, things weren’t great: his 42.6% hard hit rate was in the 18th percentile this year. On the whole, he profiles as an arm worth relying on, but after giving two earned runs in three innings against the A’s, it will be worth watching whether the contact he generates against the Rays manages to find gloves. The starters he’s supported have had that luck — we’ll see if he gets it.
Aside from Pressly, the names are less well-known, and walks have been a big issue. Blake Taylor, Enoli Paredes, Andre Scrubb, and Cy Sneed have all been pressed into extended action as rookies and delivered in terms of runs while also managing to allow runners on base at huge clips. Midseason addition Brooks Raley has likewise been an unexpected contributor, putting up big strikeout numbers in his first year back in the MLB after five years in the KBO as a starter without big strikeout stuff. Regardless of who gets the call, there’s going to be some risk; whether the Astros can give their bullpen enough cushion will be key.
Tampa Bay’s hitters should be easily better than the Houston pitchers. Houston’s hitting might win on a Rays bullpen day, but the Tampa starting rotation is far better than anything Houston has seen in the last month. Rays in 6.
— Alexander Chase
Houston has the unquantifiable advantage of having been in this spot many times before, and with a (questionable) chip on their shoulder and a target on their back, they may attack this series with more intensity than most teams nearing the back end of their contention window. Still, I don’t think the Astros’ lineup is necessarily better or deeper than New York’s, and if Snell, Glasnow, and Morton can once again keep them down just long enough for the bullpen to do its thing, it seems likely the Rays lineup can put enough offense together to make it work. I have a sneaking suspicion that Tampa Bay might be even more well-equipped to handle the Astros than we’re giving them credit for. Call it a gentleman’s sweep: Rays in 5.
– Zach Hayes
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)