(1) Tampa Bay Rays vs. (5) New York Yankees
In advance of the Division Series starting today, we’re going to break down each series for you. In this article, we cover the top-seeded Rays’ series against the fifth-seed Yankees, broken down by Amanda Levine and Alex Kleinman, respectively.
*Game Four: Thursday, October 8th at 7 p.m. ET on TBS – TBD vs TBD
*Game Five: Friday, October 9th at 7 p.m. ET on TBS – TBD vs TBD
Tampa Bay Rays (40-20)
In a season where the New York Yankees were the favorite to win the AL East, the Tampa Bay Rays pulled off a 40-20 season to win the division. With the No. 1 seed in the expanded playoffs, the Rays held off the Toronto Blue Jays in a Wild Card sweep. Now the Rays will take on the Yankees — a team they have some history with.
The big question mark for the Rays heading into the Wild Card Series was their lineup, and how would they do without Yandy Díaz and Ji-Man Choi. Both players were considered questionable to be ready for the Wild Card Series due to injuries. The two both played in the series and played in a simulated game on Oct. 3rd. In Game 2, the Rays put up eight runs (three earned) against Hyun-Jin Ryu. Tampa showed their lineup could suffice without Choi and Díaz. Mike Brosseau, who was Choi’s replacement in Game 2, went 2 for 3. Díaz (0 for 2, 2 BB’s) started at third in Game 3 before being replaced by Joey Wendle.
Austin Meadows was also on the IL for the series against Toronto after an oblique injury at the end of the regular season. As of Oct. 3, John Romano said Meadows took batting practice and OF work. Marc Topkin said there’s a chance that he could be an option in the series off the bench as well. Manuel Margot and Randy Arozarena replaced Meadows in left field for the series. The two combined for four extra-base hits against the Blue Jays with four RBI.
In the Wild Card Series, we only saw Snell and Glasnow, both of whom were dominant in each of their starts. In Game 1, Snell only gave up one hit over 5.2 innings, with two walks and nine strikeouts. Glasnow had a more shaky track record of postseason appearances, but gave up just two runs in Game 2. Over six innings, he walked one and struck out eight. In a five-game series, there’s no off day this year, which means some starters may have to pitch on shorter rest. Charlie Morton (who finished in the top three of the AL Cy Young award in 2019) will be the Game 3 starter, while the starters for Games 4 and 5, if necessary, will depend on how many pitches Snell and Glasnow throw in their first starts. Tampa could also go with Ryan Yarbrough or Josh Fleming if they feel Snell and Glasnow aren’t available. The Rays have the advantage here, even though the Rays had 14 pitchers land on the IL this season. Despite having Gerrit Cole as their ace, the Yankees have a weaker back end of the rotation.
Morton was set to pitch Game 3 in the Wild Card Series if needed. He’ll now get the ball in the third game of the division series, which means he’s pitching on 11 days rest. Morton wasn’t as efficient as he was in his previous year’s campaign. This year he didn’t have any quality starts, but on the other hand, still struck out 9.9 batters per 9 innings. It’ll be an interesting matchup, as the Yankees have a lot of power hitters in their lineup, with the likes of Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Luke Voit. Morton also was effective for the Rays playoffs last season. Against the A’s and Astros, he threw 10 innings, giving up two runs (one earned) and struck out 13. Who advances in this series will most likely come down to the better pitching depth. If Snell, Glasnow, and Morton can silence the Yankees’ bats, they’ll be successful.
Tampa’s bullpen got the job done in the regular season and Wild Card Series despite the injuries that impacted the staff. Deemed “the stable” by Rays manager Kevin Cash, the Rays bullpen gave up just one run over 6.1 innings against Toronto. Nick Anderson led the bullpen in ERA this season with a 0.55 ERA over 16.1 IP. Against the Blue Jays, he gave up two hits over 2.2 innings with two strikeouts. Peter Fairbanks had a 2.70 ERA over 26.2 innings and was only used in the first game of the Wild Card Series. He closed out the game giving up one hit and striking out two. Tampa’s starting pitchers are backed up by a lights out bullpen, an area where the Yankees also excel; a matchup of dominant bullpens could very well be on the horizon.
New York Yankees (33-27)
The 2020 Yankees exhibited a serious case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde syndrome, ending the season with a 33-27 record that is simultaneously both disappointing given their sky-high preseason expectations and impressive considering their multiple prolonged slumps. While the potential behind this roster is immense, it is difficult to predict which version of the Yankees will appear in this postseason.
Overall, the Yankees had one of the best offenses, averaging 5.25 runs a game behind a team wRC+ of 116 (fourth-best for both metrics). Their pitching staff, on the other hand, was league average, finishing with a 4.35 ERA/4.39 FIP (14th and 12th best, respectively). The Yankees’ overall run differential of +45 was the seventh-best in the entire league. Arguably the worst aspect of this team was their defense, finishing the year with 1 DRS (17th best), a UZR/150 of 0.9 (13th best), and 47 errors, tied with the Pirates for the most in the league.
There were some very pleasant surprises this year. Giovanny Urshela continued upon his fantastic 2019 by hitting .298/.368/.490 with a 133 wRC+. His great arm strength at the hot corner led Urshela to 6 DRS and a UZR/150 of 14.4, making him one of the five best third basemen across the league in 2020. Clint Frazier found himself with regular playing time due to an injury-depleted roster, and he became one of the Yankees’ best all-around players, hitting .267/.394/.511 with a 149 wRC+. He made a complete defensive turnaround from his rough performance in the past to become an above-average outfielder (2 DRS and 12.6 UZR/150). Let’s not forget the phenomenal DJ LeMahieu, who became the first player in MLB history to win a batting title in both the AL and NL by hitting .364/.421/.590, good for a 177 wRC+ and a league-best OPS of 1.011. Luke Voit led the Yankees’ quest for home run dominance, hitting a league-leading 22 homers alongside 59 runs, 52 RBIs, a .277/.338/.610 line and a 153 wRC+.
As for pitching, Gerrit Cole turned in a great first season in pinstripes. He started the year slightly missing his spots, which led to a career-high 1.7 HR/9. Although his performance through July and August was a “slump” by his standards, he still posted a 3.91 ERA, 60 K : 12 BB, and an opponents’ OPS of .776 over 46 IP. But he went into another gear in September, with 27 IP of 1.00 ERA dominance, recording 34 K: 5 BB with an opponents’ OPS of .432. The Yankees’ No. 2 and 3 starters, Masahiro Tanaka and J.A. Happ, also had solid seasons. Tanaka had a 3.56 ERA and 1.17 WHIP over 48 IP, while Happ rebounded from a below-average 2019 to throw a 3.47 ERA and 1.05 WHIP over 49.1 IP. The Yankees bullpen was pretty solid, with Zack Britton being the team’s best reliever, pitching to a 1.89 ERA and 1.00 WHIP over 19 IP. Aroldis Chapman, who dealt with an injury, pitched well in his limited regular-season time, with a 3.09 ERA and 0.86 WHIP over 11.2 IP with 22 K and 4 BB.
Not everything was glitz and glamor for the Yanks, as they suffered some serious disappointments. Gary Sánchez looked lost for almost the entire season, hitting just .147/.253/.365 with 64 Ks in 178 PAs. Adam Ottavino couldn’t improve upon a phenomenal 2019 as he posted a 5.89 ERA and 1.58 WHIP over 18.1 IP. The Yankees bench could not replicate last year’s magnificent fill-in performance. Mike Tauchman, Miguel Andújar, and Mike Ford were all net negatives for the Yankees lineup, hitting below an OPS of .650/OPS+ of 85. One explanation for the team’s disappointing regular-season performance could be that the Yankees’ lack of depth (especially compared to last year) prevented them from overcoming yet another persistent injury problem.
In 2020, almost every important player spent time on the 10-day IL. This includes Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, who combined to play just 51 games. When those two were healthy, they hit pretty well, with Judge hitting .257/.336/.553 for a 140 wRC+ and Stanton going .250/.387/.500 for a 143 wRC+. Other key contributors with short-term injuries included Gleyber Torres, DJ LeMahieu, Zack Britton, and Aroldis Chapman, to name a few. I forgot to even mention Luis Severino, James Paxton, and Tommy Kahnle, who are currently on the 60-day IL and were essentially absent the entire season. Naturally, this led to significant concern heading into the postseason.
However, these concerns vanished almost immediately as the Yankee hitters recorded three homers in Game 1 of the Wild Card series. They punished the Cy Young-favorite Shane Bieber almost immediately with a LeMahieu lead-off single and a Judge bomb to quickly go up 2-0. Every Yankees batter reached base, scoring 12 total runs while tallying 7 ER on Bieber, who had allowed only 14 all season up to that point. Cole, meanwhile, was electric, going 7 IP with 2 ER, 13 K, 6 hits, and no walks.
Game 2 was a wild back-and-forth fight that just so happened to be the longest nine-inning game in history. Tanaka was inconsistent, going 4+ IP with 6 ER, 5 H, 3 BB, and 3 K, although most of the damage came in the first inning after he had to sit through multiple rain delays. The Yankees were saved by Urshela, who got revenge against the Indians, who had previously DFA’d the third baseman, with multiple defensive gems and a go-ahead grand slam in the fourth. The Yankees built upon their Game 1 offensive success by scoring 10 runs total, thanks to homers by Stanton and Sanchez, and a clutch game-winning single in the ninth from LeMahieu.
With their end-of-season offensive woes disappearing in their rear-view mirror, the Yankees will need to keep up their electric hitting to survive against a dominant Rays pitching staff.
As Tampa slowly became a contender, their rivalry against the Yankees has grown. Recently, the two teams got into a beanball game with Aroldis Chapman throwing a fastball behind Brosseau’s head. The benches cleared and barbs were thrown through the media over the next few days.
Although the two teams have never faced each other in the postseason, the Rays went an impressive 8-2 against the Yankees this year. To be fair, New York was missing Judge, Stanton and Urshela during some games when the teams faced off, whereas now, Tampa has to face a healthy New York lineup that just battered around Cleveland for 22 runs in 2 games.
This season, Snell faced New York twice, going 2-0 with eight innings pitched, giving up three runs, and striking out eight. Glasnow had one more appearance against New York than Snell. He finished 2-1 with 14.1 innings, six runs, and 22 strikeouts. The likely Game 1 starter, Snell has one glaring weakness facing the Yankees lineup, and the name of that weakness is Sanchez. Yes, Sanchez has struggled mightily this year. But in his career, he has 5 HR and 8 RBIs in 20 ABs against Snell, good for a 1.581 OPS. On the other hand, Snell has dominated Judge (.381 OPS in 16 ABs), Urshela (.286 OPS in 14 ABs) and Frazier (.282 OPS in 10 ABs).
Besides one bad start in which Glasnow gave up four runs against the Yankees, he was efficient in the other two starts.
The Rays will also have to face Yankees ace Cole and Masahiro Tanaka. In 16.1 innings against the Rays this year, Cole gave up nine runs; he also struck out 27 Rays in three starts. Tanaka, who is known for his ability to pitch in October, had three starts against Tampa this year. He threw 15 innings, gave up seven runs (though five were in one start) and struck out 14. Tanaka was pulled early from his Game Two start against Cleveland, but that had more to do with the start and stop of the rain delays than his pitching performance. The seven-year veteran Tanaka is a familiar foe for this Rays team, and Kiermaier and Zunino have performed the best in their matchups so far. Kiermaier has a .957 OPS with 2 HR in 39 ABs against Tanaka, while Zunino also has two homers, but a slightly lower .941 OPS in just 22 ABs.
Cole’s weaknesses against the Rays are the two players who missed time in the Wild Card Series. Choi and Díaz came back to the lineup at the perfect time, as they went a combined 13 for 24 against Cole this year. If they can hit Cole like they did in the regular season, that’ll be another deciding factor in this series.
This won’t be the first time the Rays have faced Cole in the postseason. In the 2019 ALDS, Cole, then a pitcher for the Houston Astros, dominated Tampa’s offense, throwing 15.2 innings with one run and 25 strikeouts in the two games he pitched. Cole’s outstanding postseason performances are a big factor in how the Yankees will do against the Rays. In 11 postseason starts, Cole has pitched to a 2.60 ERA over 72.2 innings with 91 Ks. It’ll be interesting to see how their ongoing drama/tension from the regular-season carries on to the postseason.
The Yankees may be looking forward to their likely Game 3 showdown against Morton, as multiple hitters have performed exceptionally well in previous games. The biggest offensive threat is actually Gardner, who has a 1.280 OPS with 3 HR and 6 RBIs in 22 PAs against Morton. Stanton (.952 OPS in 26 ABs) and Hicks (1.029 OPS in 15 ABs) have also been great, while Judge (.602 OPS in 13 ABs) and Sanchez (.527 OPS in 14 ABs) have struggled.
The Rays never faced a healthy Yankees lineup this season, but they have the stronger pitching rotation. Even though the Yankees’ bats tore through Cleveland, they’ll have to keep that momentum going against Tampa. New York will also have to rely heavily on Cole as it’ll be interesting to see if they use him on short rest for a possible game four or five start. Rays in 5.
– Amanda Levine
The Yankees’ red-hot offense is clicking on all cylinders right now and it will pose a formidable foe to the Rays’ elite pitching. This series will be an extremely even matchup that could easily go either way, but it will come down to whether the Yankees’ starting pitching besides Cole can keep up with the Rays’ 1-2-3 of Snell, Glasnow, and Morton. But Yankees fans will also be relieved that this series is taking place in San Diego and not the dreaded Tropicana Field. Yankees in 5.
– Alex Kleinman
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)