Things could not have gone much better for the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday night. They won the Wild Card Game 5-1 to advance to the ALDS. They got five respectable innings from Charlie Morton and didn’t have to use Blake Snell or Tyler Glasnow. The top of the lineup put together by manager Kevin Cash paid huge dividends, as Yandy Diaz homered twice and Tommy Pham added a dinger of his own.
Also, it wasn’t a wasted flight to Oakland, as the Rays now stop in Houston to take on the Astros before going home for Game 3.
In order to have any chance at upsetting the Astros, who had the best record in baseball and will have home field advantage throughout their stay in the playoffs, you have to be in tip-top shape at 100%. This is something that could plague the Nationals in their series against the Dodgers, since they were forced to use Stephen Strasburg in relief in the Wild Card Game and won’t have him until Game 2 at the earliest. The Rays had to use Morton, but were able to keep Snell and Glasnow in the dugout.
It is still an uphill climb of epic proportions. The line suggests as much with Houston -300 at BetOnline. The idea of having to win at least two games against the triumvirate of Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, and Zack Greinke is daunting. It’s entirely possible that all three wins would have to come against those three guys, though AJ Hinch has not named his Game 4 starter as of yet. It would make sense to use left-hander Wade Miley against a left-handed-heavy Rays lineup, but he may not even need a fourth starter.
The Astros are really impressive. Alex Bregman was the only player to suit up for more than 150 games. Michael Brantley, Josh Reddick, and Yuli Gurriel played over 140. George Springer missed 40 games. Jose Altuve missed 38 games. Carlos Correa was limited to 75 games. Yordan Alvarez wasn’t called up until around midseason. They lost Dallas Keuchel to free agency and lost Lance McCullers and even guys like Forrest Whitley to injury. None of it mattered. The Astros won 107 games to set a franchise record and to also cross the century mark for the third straight season.
Rotation health was a big deal, as Verlander took the ball 34 times, Cole 33, and Miley 33. The revolving door of fourth and fifth starters simply meant that the team could showcase its player development prowess, with guys like Framber Valdez, Jose Urquidy, and Corbin Martin all making starts. Still, they felt that there was a need to add more established pitching, so Zack Greinke and Aaron Sanchez were added. Greinke was magnificent in 10 starts. Sanchez showed flashes in four, but was then lost for the season.
The Rays win on run prevention. The offense is serviceable, but the pitching staff is exceptional. If the Rays are able to limit this powerful and potent Houston lineup, they can make this a long series. If they can’t, they cannot outslug the Astros. It just won’t happen.
Run differential isn’t everything, but it is something. Houston scored 920 runs and allowed 640. Remember, I said that the Rays excel at run prevention. They allowed 650 runs. And only scored 769. Division strength plays a role here, as the Rays did have to deal with the Yankees and Red Sox 38 times, but the Rays need to find a way to do exactly what they did against Oakland. Take advantage of the rare scoring opportunities and keep the other team from cashing in.
That is far, far easier said than done against a team like the Astros.
While most Wild Card teams are at a disadvantage burning a starter, it may not be the worst thing in the world that Morton cannot pitch until Game 3. The Astros are intimately familiar with him and can take a lot of the credit for his recent resurgence. Of course, on the other hand, he is a righty against a right-handed-heavy lineup for Houston. If there is one thing the Astros lack, it is lineup balance, but when you have righties that can hit righties, it doesn’t really matter. The Astros led the league in wOBA vs. RHP at .351 and wRC+ at 123. League average for wRC+ is 100, so the Astros were 23% above league average against righties and 8% better than any other team in baseball.
Here are my three keys to the series:
- The Kitchen Sink
If I’m the Rays, I throw everything possible at the Astros. Wonky defensive shifts. Openers. Early pinch hitters. Anything and everything that I can do to try and level an uneven playing field.
Tyler Glasnow is the right call to start Game 1. He’s right-handed, unlike rotation mate Blake Snell. Stealing Game 1 is essential because taking three out of four from Houston is extremely hard. Glasnow spent most of the season hurt, but was dominant when he was able to be out there with a 33% K% and a 50.4% GB%. He is the best rotation weapon that the Rays have for the Astros lineup. He throws super hard and has a hammer curveball that he typically throws about 29% of the time, but I would expect it to be higher in his starts in this series.
If there’s one thing Houston struggles with on offense, it is premium velocity. The top five teams in wOBA against fastballs of 95+ mph are all playoff teams – Dodgers, Twins, Yankees, Cardinals, Nationals. The Braves are seventh. The recently-disposed A’s were 13th and the Brewers were 19th. The Astros are 18th at .318. Right around league average against high velocity. Glasnow brings that to the table.
So does Blake Snell. Snell made 23 starts and they weren’t as strong as what he did last season. His K% was the same and so was his BB%, but his BABIP was 100 points higher and he allowed a 15.4% HR/FB% compared to last season’s 10.7%. His line drive percentage went up from 18.8% to 24.7%. His command just wasn’t as sharp.
Snell’s K% by times through the order went from 39.1% to 30.8% to 22.4%. It will be up to Cash to make the right moves early with his starters and try as much as he can to match up and get his starters out before the stuff hits the fan. His job is much harder than AJ Hinch’s.
- Rays of Hope
This Rays offense is worrisome to me. They are BABIP-dependent and generally don’t hit for enough power. Of course, in the Wild Card Game, they hit four home runs to score all five of their runs. On the whole, however, this offense isn’t known for power. The Rays have tried to buck the launch angle trend by putting more balls on the ground and by using the whole field with high-velocity contact hitters.
To some degree, it has worked masterfully. The problem is that it generally doesn’t work as well in the playoffs, when you face elite strikeout artists and, most importantly, high velocity pitchers. You notice that I didn’t mention how the Rays do against high velocity. Here’s why. On the season, Tampa Bay ranked 26th in wOBA on fastballs of 95+ mph. The other teams in the bottom 10? Marlins, Orioles, Giants, Padres, Diamondbacks, (Rays), Tigers, Blue Jays, Reds, White Sox.
Yeesh. That’s a bad list. The Rays get flamethrowers Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole in this series. The Astros were third in baseball in relief pitcher average fastball velocity, trailing only the Marlins and Reds. The Astros threw 24,023 pitches of 95+. Only the Mets threw more.
The Rays were fourth, for what it’s worth, and you know that the Astros don’t excel against high-velocity pitches. This could be a series with a lot of games that go under the total.
Anyway, the Rays offense does get a little bit of a break in that Houston is right-handed dominant on the pitching side as well. Tampa Bay had the second-highest K% against left-handed pitchers. They were about middle of the pack in K% and also managed a 103 wRC+ against righties. Still, the Astros are the best pitching staff in baseball at limiting contact and Tampa’s entire offensive philosophy is predicated on making high-velocity contact with line drives and ground balls.
- The Chess Match
These are two very advanced organizations. The advanced scouting reports for both teams should be excellent. It will be up to the players to execute. Execution has come easy for Roberto Osuna, Ryan Pressley, and Will Harris, who were all top-30 relievers in the regular season. If, for whatever reason, Cole, Verlander, and Greinke cannot provide length, the Astros do have some middle relief questions. Of course, guys like Joe Biagini, Brad Peacock, and Joe Smith all have skills, but the Astros only have Cionel Perez and Framber Valdez as lefties. It’s entirely possible that Miley gets called upon in relief, but against a Rays lineup with a lot of left-handed sticks, Hinch may have some tough decisions to make.
In all honesty, the Astros wanted the A’s to win the Wild Card Game. They’re a substantial favorite no matter what and are the favorite to get to the World Series, but the Rays present just enough challenges to be dangerous. The A’s just didn’t match up nearly as well.
Tampa runs out a really good bullpen. Nick Anderson has elite stuff and was a great pull from the Marlins. Diego Castillo has gotten back to being himself. Colin Poche has some nasty stuff from a left-handed arm slot. Chaz Roe has one of the game’s most active sliders.
The bullpen battle will be fun to watch. The Rays have a lot of depth and the Astros are very top-heavy. They also lack matchup lefties. That could be a problem in this series that really wouldn’t have been a problem against the A’s.
The Astros are still going to win this series, barring some sort of catastrophe with Verlander or Cole. Verlander’s lone chink in the armor is that he allows a lot of home runs, but the Rays aren’t really that type of lineup.
The series price is a little bit cost-prohibitive, though, as Houston is a really big favorite. If you didn’t have a Houston ticket at the start of the season, it’s hard to find a way to bet them now. Even the game-by-game lines are going to be pretty big. You may want to look at an exact series outcome instead. Astros in a sweep is +275 or Astros in 4 is +250. It would surprise me if it took the full five games for the Astros to win, simply because they are the best team in baseball with two Cy Young candidates, Greinke, and an elite lineup.
Tampa Bay has a fun team and a smart manager and a sharp front office, but there is no substitute for talent and Houston just has more of it all around.