Playoff Preview: Rays vs. Astros
For our matinee battle on this four-game slate today, the Tampa Bay Rays (96-66) and the Houston Astros (107-55) will square up in a classic David and Goliath matchup. Tampa Bay already started its journey to its first franchise title with a win over the Oakland Athletics in the American League Wild Card game on Wednesday, while Houston looks to commence its journey to win its second title in the past three seasons.
Game 1: Friday, Oct. 4, at Houston, 2:05 PM EDT.
Game 2: Saturday, Oct. 5, at Houston, 9:07 PM EDT.
Game 3: Monday, Oct. 7, at Tampa Bay, 1:05 PM EDT.
Game 4 (if necessary): Tuesday, Oct. 8, at Tampa Bay, 4:15 PM EDT.
Game 5 (if necessary): Thursday, Oct. 10, at Houston, 8:37 PM EDT.
Tampa Bay Rays
Despite having the lowest payroll in baseball this season, the Tampa Bay Rays reached 96 wins—the second-highest total in franchise history, just a game behind the historic 2008 AL Pennant-winning squad. This incredibly high and rare return on investment speaks to how great the Tampa Bay front office is in acquiring players—many of them from trade.
Acquiring Austin Meadows, Tyler Glasnow, and Tommy Pham at last year’s deadline made the Rays a deadly force to close out 2018—but that success also carried into 2019. By adding Charlie Morton, Emilio Pagan, and Yandy Diaz in the offseason, then buffing the bullpen with Nick Anderson at the deadline, the Rays were able to use openers and make their lineup the modern version of the assembly line to reach this stage.
The Astros have won 311 games the past three seasons. I don’t know what the highest number of wins over a three-year span in baseball history is, but it can’t be much higher than that.
If I were to name all the elite contributors Houston had this year, the list would get long awfully fast. That’s how talented this roster is. You’ve got Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and trade deadline acquisition Zack Greinke leading the rotation, while usual suspects George Springer, Jose Altuve, and Alex Bregman have combined with offseason addition Michael Brantley and rookie sensation Yordan Alvarez to carry the load offensively. To make all other teams look inferior, the Astros won 107 games this season despite star shortstop Carlos Correa only playing 75 games. He’s back for the Division Series, so Houston is about to get even better.
|Tampa Bay Rays||Houston Astros|
|Runs Scored||769 (16th)||920 (3rd)|
|Runs Allowed||656 (3rd)||640 (2nd)|
|OBP||.325 (13th)||.352 (1st)|
|ISO||.178 (20th)||.221 (3rd)|
|wRC+||102 (9th)||125 (1st)|
|SIERA||3.83 (2nd)||3.77 (1st)|
|K-BB%||19.2% (2nd)||20.4% (1st)|
Houston is first in all offensive categories except for ISO, where only the Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees rank higher. Nonetheless, you can see that Tampa Bay’s makeshift offense is no match for Houston’s star-powered one. However, for pitching, these two teams lead the league in both SIERA and K-BB%, speaking to team dominance on the mound.
Additionally, in honor of the Statcast coverage of the AL Wild Card game, here are some outside-the-box statistics that should be considered in this series’ context:
|Tampa Bay Rays||Houston Astros|
|O-Swing%||30.3% (8th)||29.3% (6th)|
|Contact%||75.3% (23rd)||80.7% (1st)|
|SwStr%||11.6% (20th)||8.6% (1st)|
|xwOBA on FA in upper third||.321 (4th)||.299 (13th)|
|Swing% in Hitter’s Counts||51.9% (12th)||46.6% (29th)|
The battle that happens at the plate is crucial for success, particularly in the playoffs. Controlling the strike zone while limiting swings and misses will help hitters fight their way to hittable pitches, thus driving the ball for extra-base hits. In Houston’s case, they are near the top in each of those top three categories, while Tampa Bay lacks the same hitting ability overall.
Things to Look Out For
In the AL Wild Card game, I noticed that all four home runs from Tampa Bay came on fastballs, most noticeably when the hitter was seemingly sitting dead red. While three of them were in hitter’s counts, the one exception was Diaz’s second home run that came on a 2-2 count, where the sun was clearly playing a factor with his eyesight, making it a foregone conclusion that Diaz was going to swing looking fastball.
While some of this could be a slight on A’s rookie catcher Sean Murphy for calling that many fastballs in hitter’s counts, the more important discussion is about the Rays’ approach at the plate. As shown in our previous table, Tampa Bay is the 12th-most aggressive team in hitter’s counts on the season, while Houston is a lot more passive with a ranking of 29th. In the postseason, players on both sides want to be the heroes for their respective teams. For hitters, that’s hitting home runs. For an aggressive team such as Tampa Bay, once the count is in their favor, it is imperative that the Houston pitchers, particularly Verlander, Cole, and Greinke, throw non-fastballs in hitter’s counts to keep Tampa’s offense in check.
This will be a fascinating battle to watch in this series, as Tampa Bay will likely work the counts to get into the aforementioned favorable situations and look to capitalize. If they are, the Rays may be able to steal some extra runs to aid their cause and go deep into the series.
Speaking again to that same Wild Card game, the first three home runs Tampa Bay hit—two from Diaz and one from Avisail Garcia—were all on high fastballs from Sean Manaea. Now, Manaea does not have the velocity nor spin rate of Verlander and Cole, but it makes us curious about Tampa’s ability to hit high fastballs.
On four-seamers in the upper third of the zone, Rays hitters have an xwOBA of .321, which is fourth-best in baseball. For Houston, their hitters have an xwOBA of .299 on those same heaters, which is 13th in the league. Tampa Bay’s top three—Glasnow, Blake Snell, and Morton—all throw high four-seamers regularly too, so we shall see how that battle ensues throughout the series.
Roberto Osuna has to lock down the ninth inning this series. I suspect that every game played will be within the save margin, thus making Osuna a vital cog in Houston’s success. Despite a career postseason 2.27 ERA, Osuna was brutally dealt with in last year’s American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox, where he notably gave up a grand slam to Jackie Bradley Jr. The bullpen hasn’t generally been thought of as a strength of the Astros, but Osuna will surely have to be that strength in this series.
The Tampa Bay Rays are going to need to take every opportunity presented with runners in scoring position if they are to beat the Astros. That starts with first baseman Ji-Man Choi, who will likely start the first three games of the series as Verlander, Cole, and Greinke are all right-handed. Hitting in the middle of the order will present Choi with plenty of RBI opportunities to get Tampa’s offense flowing.
Tampa Bay won the season series four games to three this year, buoyed by taking three out of four in the opening series back in late March at Tropicana Field. The more recent series was in late August in Houston, where the Astros took two out of three, including a bludgeoning of the Rays by the score of 15-1 in the opening game.
I expect Houston to win this series, though not without its fair share of excitement. Tampa Bay should be able to ride the bullpen complemented by timely hitting to push this series to the fifth game in Houston, where the Astros will then win a low-scoring thriller to move on to the ALCS.
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)