We’ve been waiting pretty much all year for this, right? The Yankees and Rays have been on a collision course all season and this felt like an inevitable playoff matchup. Honestly, it felt a bit more like an ideal ALCS than ALDS, but there’s nothing we can do about that. It’s here now.
Derek has a full preview of everything Rays coming up later today. Until then, here are all of the outstanding thoughts swirling around in my head.
1. The Regular Season Doesn’t Matter Now: As we all know, the Yankees got thoroughly dominated by the Rays in the regular season, going just 2-8 against the AL East champions. It was an annoying display for sure, especially considering the Rays’ unbridled confidence against our Yanks. It was definitely justified to be frustrated. Now, with that said, what happened a few weeks ago is irrelevant now. It does not matter and it has no impact on the ALDS. Please remember this.
Also, these games were a lot closer than a lot of people remember them to be. Here are the scores from 7 of the 8 Yankee losses to Tampa: 1-0 (box score), 5-3 (box score), 4-3 (box score), 6-3 (box score), 4-2 (box score), 5-3 (box score), and 5-2 (box score). An ass-whooping this was not.
The Yankees only lost one (1) game to Tampa Bay by more than 3 runs (a 10-5 loss) despite a slew of injuries. Seriously, look at the lineups the Yanks trotted out in some of those games. Mike Ford was the team’s cleanup hitter at times. The Yankees were still in those games and had a chance to win most of them. I’m sure you remember their embarrassing display with RISP and the frustrating performances by the Yankees’ best relievers. Is that going to happen again? Eh. It’s possible, but I doubt it. And if a few of those performances were even slightly different, this isn’t even a conversation.
The fundamental point is I’m looking forward to seeing a fully-healthy Yankees team take on the Rays. I’ve been waiting all season for it, and I suspect the Yankees have, too. Now let’s get into more detail about how the Yanks and Rays match up tonight.
2. Beating Blake Snell: With that out of the way, let’s talk about Blake Snell, who will start tonight for Tampa. He is a formidable opponent to be sure. Snell went 4-2 with a 3.24 ERA (4.35 FIP) with a 31% strikeout rate and a 9% walk rate in 50 innings pitched. He misses bats (86th percentile whiff rate) and minimizes hard contact (58th percentile exit velocity & a .286 BABIP). He is 1-0 against the Yankees in 2020, throwing 8 innings against the Bombers.
The home run is his big weakness. Nearly a third (29.4%) of his fly balls left the yard in 2020. This is unique for Snell – it’s not a long-standing weakness in his game – but it bodes well for the healthy Yankees. Obviously, the Yanks have power up and down the lineup and will need to capitalize on Snell’s mistakes. They should take the same approach they took against Cleveland last week: lay off the bad stuff, hammer in-the-zone fastballs.
Just 42.3% of Snell’s 2020 pitches were characterized as “in the zone” by Statcast. His bread and butter is getting batters to chase – the 33.2% chase rate against him is far better than league average – and that is where most of his strikeouts come. Of his 63 strikeouts this season, 38 were swinging. And most of those were out of the zone. Check out the locations of those pitches:
I don’t want to say that it’s as simple as laying off his off-speed stuff out of the zone – that’s where most of his non-fastballs end up – but it sort of is. I mean, look at the locations of pitches that ended up leaving the yard:
Almost all fastballs and almost all right over the heart of the plate. Snell won’t make many mistakes, so you have to punish those that he does make – and that becomes a lot easier if you spit on his enticing off-speed offerings and put him on the defensive. It is definitely easy to say this. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to execute. I mean, look at this:
Now, with that said, I feel very confident in the Yankees. They just showed that they are capable of patience and pitch recognition at the highest level last week. This allowed them to hammer Cleveland’s mistakes when they came. I expect a similar gameplan from the Yankees and the key will just be in the execution. They did it last week. Now we just have to hope that they do it again tonight. Let’s hope we get a lot of this tonight:
3. All Eyes on You, Gerrit Cole: The Yankees signed Gerrit Cole to win this game. It’s a heated rivalry and it’s Game 1 of a short series. This is why you pay an ace the big bucks. The state of the Yankee pen – more on that in a moment – means that there is a lot of pressure on Cole tonight. It’s not a must-win in the strict definition of the phrase, but it’s as close as you’re going to get, in my opinion. The Yankees need to apply the pressure to Tampa right away.
Now, I’m confident in Cole against literally anyone. I think he’s the best pitcher still pitching and he’s a top 3 pitcher in MLB at worst. I am especially confident in him against Tampa, though. Here’s why: Tampa really struggles against high-velocity fastballs (defined as 95 mph or faster). Here are some of their stats and league rankings against such pitches:
- Isolated Power: .141 (2oth)
- wOBA: .299 (22nd)
- Expected wOBA: .298 (22nd)
- Slugging Percentage: .341 (24th)
- Batting Average: .200 (28th)
This is obviously a real weakness for Tampa. Gerrit Cole, of course, is primed to exploit this weakness, as nearly half (45%) of his pitches in 2020 clocked in over 95 mph. I expect Matt Blake and Yankees to formulate a game plan that has Cole on the attack from the very first pitch of the game. Just pepper them with fastballs early and often. We’ve seen Cole have some success against Tampa with this approach in 2020. Here are some examples, for pump-up purposes only:
And one more, because why not:
Now, one more quick note on this. Cole had a few stinkers – by his standards – against Tampa this year and surrendered a few homers (especially to Ji-Man Choi). The Rays even have an above-average wOBA (.485) against Cole’s high-velocity stuff this year so far. It may seem like using this aggressive approach could be counterproductive, but I don’t think it is.
First of all, Cole’s velocity is improving. Remember, this would be like June in a normal season – right when pitchers warm up. Here is a graph showing Cole’s velocity month-over-month:
That is an interesting nugget, but it’s kind of irrelevant. Cole is one of the best pitchers in baseball and his blazing fastball is at the root of that success. Abandoning the two-seamer, embracing velocity, and attacking the top of the zone is how he went from a decent pitcher in Pittsburgh to the ace we love today. This is the playoffs. Throw the best you’ve got and hope it’s enough. With Gerrit Cole, it normally is. I am not worried about a few starts earlier in the year.
4. The State of the Bullpen: I can’t believe I am saying this, but the Yankee bullpen is my biggest cause for anxiety in this series. I am confident in all of their top arms and even in Luis Cessa, but I’m wondering if, barring Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman, that confidence is earned. Chad Green has been iffy at best so far in 2020, Adam Ottavino is getting 2017 Dellin Betances treatment (and deserves it), and Jonathan Loaisiga looked overmatched last week in Cleveland.
Compounding matters is the fact that the Yanks won’t have an off-day this week, as you know. They’ll play five in a row if that’s what it comes to. That limits the ways in which Aaron Boone can deploy the pen. Now, as I said last week, I think managing for tomorrow is the best way to lose today’s game. I think the Yankees should trot out the best relievers they’ve got in the highest-leverage situations they have, as they arise. They obviously won’t use guys three days in a row – at least I don’t think – but you deal with those situations when it happens. You can’t plan for it.
This is not the time to get cute and play “stealing out” games. To his credit, this is how I expect Boone to treat these games tonight. He (generally) doesn’t have an issue going to the right guys. Whatever issue he has generally comes from sticking with them for too long.
Anyway, I’m just left wondering if the Yankee pen is going to be enough. I think it is. The Rays are an underwhelming offensive team and I do have full confidence in the talent of the Yankee bullpen. I just hope that we finally see a consistent performance out of all of them, all at once. Now would be a good time for that to happen. They’re going to be needed. Games 2, 3 and 4 will be started by some combination of Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ, and Deivi Garcia. As much as I love two of those three guys, the bullpen will figure heavily into those games. We just gotta hope they show up.
5. Giancarlo Stanton is the Guy to Watch: Every single player in the Yankee lineup and pitching staff is an “x-factor.” It’s sort of a lame game to play, right? I mean, if Yankee Player X goes 12-15 with 5 home runs in 3 games, then obviously you gotta feel good about the Yankees’ chances in the series. With that said, I’m going with Giancarlo Stanton as my key Yankee or whatever for this series.
Like last year, he is showing signs of breaking out in a major way in the postseason. I would also note that his approach in the Wild Card Series typified the Yankees’ strategy of laying off the junk and hammering the good stuff. Look at this chart, which shows the description of each pitch he saw from Cleveland:
And this one, which shows the type of pitches he saw:
Overlay those and you see that his big flaw as a hitter – chasing sliders/curveballs out of the zone – was practically non-existent in Cleveland. It wasn’t perfect, of course, but Stanton only swung at four pitches that weren’t strikes. Stanton also had a key walk in the 9th inning of Game 2, which was nice to see. It should show skeptics that the moment isn’t too big for him and that he is capable of passing the baton when necessary.
And he absolutely obliterated the pitches against which he could do damage. I encourage you to look at the pitch locations of his two home runs:
That’s what I’m talking about right there. This is generally a sign that Giancarlo is about to get in a groove offensively. He is an offensive force who is capable of carrying a team when he gets hot, and it looks like he was getting hot. That is good news for the Yankees and bad news for Tampa Bay.