Today’s 6-3 loss to Tampa Bay certainly wasn’t as ugly as yesterday’s game, but that’s not saying much. The Yankees have set the bar pretty low this season and are now 5-9. Yes, it’s still early and there’s plenty of time to right the ship. But I must admit: I’m getting tired of writing about how this team is too talented to perform like this. While it’s true, it’s frustrating to watch. Get it together already.
On top of the general sluggish play, that this kind of performance continues to happen against the Rays makes it even worse. The Yankees have now lost four of five to Tampa Bay this season. Clearly, it’s not just about the Trop being a house of horrors for the Yankees, either. Tampa Bay has simply dominated the Bombers for a while now.
The Rays have won 17 of their last 22 games against the Yankees dating back to September 2019 (including Tampa Bay’s victory in the 2020 ALDS).
Kevin Kiermaier (along with other members of the Rays) are none too happy with the Yankees after last weekend. He spoke at length about it after the end of the series in which the Rays won two of three. Yankees pitchers hit Tampa Bay hitters four times in the series, including some high and tight. Intentional or not, that’s understandably scary. And it’s not like there’s already bad blood carrying over from the past few years.
These two sides meet again this weekend, leaving very little time for either side too cool off. Tensions should still be high once the first pitch is thrown on Friday, and there’s always a chance of a spillover at Yankee Stadium. Let’s hope not, but given the history between these two sides, it’s pretty much to be expected. Aaron Boone’s hope is that the past is left in the past:
“I know we hit a few guys in the last series. I get their frustration with that but that’s not for us to get caught up into right now. We’ve got to go out and play good baseball. We’ve got another good team coming to town to kick off a home stand. It’s important that we don’t get caught up in that, we need to put our best foot forward and play good baseball. That will be our focus on Friday.”
Obviously, it’d be best for the Yankees to let their play doing the talking in this rivalry. Especially given the club’s stumble out of the gate. There’s no better time than now.
Breaking balls aren’t easy to hit. The entire league knows this. The Yankees know this. So, why bother swinging at them? That’s apparently the approach the Yankees are taking this postseason. And so far, so good. The Bronx Bombers have tallied 31 runs in 3 playoff games against some of the league’s top pitchers. Against pitchers with great breaking balls, mind you.
The Yankees have already defeated Shane Bieber and Blake Snell, two pitchers with elite breaking balls. Tonight, the offense faces another hurler with a terrific curve in Tyler Glasnow. Why not make it three-for-three? It’s going to be a very similar challenge to what they’ve already faced, after all. Bieber, Snell, and Glasnow all garner elite whiff rates on their breaking pitches. In fact, they had the top three whiff rates against their breaking balls (min. 100 pitches) this season:
Whiff Rate (%)
All three of these guys have some of the best curves/sliders in the game, but the Yankees’ approach has been impeccable to date.
Let’s take last night, for example. Snell threw 13 of his 20 breaking balls out of the zone, per Statcast, and the Yankees offered just twice. Both swings were by DJ LeMahieu. I don’t know if Snell had a tell or if the Yankees are simply locked in, but that’s damn impressive. Especially since Snell had a 37.9 percent chase rate against his curveball during the regular season. Further, the Bombers only went after three breaking balls in the zone. The memorable ones: Aaron Judge’s dinger and Aaron Hicks’s sacrifice fly. The other was a 6-3 groundout off LeMahieu’s bat.
It’s not that I thought they were a bad team; I simply deemed them overrated and beatable this season before their farm system produces more star power. In fact, as the Yankees stomped past the Rays in June, I bemoaned the unlikelihood of a Yankees-Rays postseason series for that very reason.
Now, however, the Rays are one game from doing the dang thing, beating the Astros and advancing to the ALCS while making this writer look foolish. The Athletic MLB’s staff all picked the Astros to win the World Series, and the majority of the baseball writing public did the same. Whether they picked the A’s or Rays in the Wild Card Game, the expectation for the ALDS was all the same.
You may choose to dismiss the Rays’ rise as randomness. Anything can happen in a short series. Verlander was pitching on short rest. Nah, this is remarkable, even if it’s just two games. Tampa Bay just soundly beat two former Cy Young winners — including one presumably on the verge of winning his second — and have forced a winner-take-all contest with the best team in baseball.
The two wins haven’t been flukes, either. The Rays relied upon their ace, Charlie Morton, for one win and explored their identity to the fullest by conducting a pitch-perfect bullpen game in Game 4. Their scattershot offense came alive at (gulp) the Trop while they stepped up their defense.
With the Rays separated from the ALCS by just one more Cy Young contender, it’s time to issue a warning: Tampa Bay is no joke as these Rays actually get stronger as the postseason goes on.
When I ranked them at the bottom of my ALDS Opponents Fear Index, that stemmed from their pitching staff being far from stretched out. Though the Astros are still the better team, the Rays surpass the Twins, A’s and Indians in their abilities later in October. I’ll also readily admit I underestimated the team.
Despite needing Tyler Glasnow to pitch Game 5, Tampa would have Morton on full rest for Game 1 of the ALCS if he isn’t needed in relief. He’d be followed by reigning Cy Young winner Blake Snell in Game 2. Snell, despite getting a save out of the bullpen in Game 4, is about as stretched out as Luis Severino was at the end of the regular season.
Glasnow, meanwhile, is nearing full strength. The right-hander should be good for about 85-90 pitches in ALDS Game 5 and looks the same as he did before his arm injury sidelined him in May. At that time, he’d staked a claim as the early Cy Young favorite before succombing to injury against the Yankees. He’s a young power pitcher with the potential to be a thorn in the Yankees’ side for years to come.
Beyond their three starters, the Rays have the only bullpen that stacks up near the Yankees in October. After all, Tampa has beaten the Yankees with a bullpen game before and just held Houston to one run on the biggest stage. Kevin Cash might need to ride that bullpen heavy again in Game 5, so their freshness for the ALCS is undetermined.
Whether than bullpen can hold up against the Yankees’ top lineup or in a seven-game series remains to be seen. The Rays have to get there first, but they’ve earned plenty of respect just for forcing a Game 5 in Houston. As much as this blog has clowned them in recent months, they are a legitimate contender now.