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With absolutely no apologies to the Orioles and Red Sox, this is the Yankees first big intra-divisional series of the season. The Yanks will play four games in three days against the Rays with an opportunity to create even more distance from the team that’s supposed to be the Bombers toughest competition in 2020. Right now, Tampa Bay (5-7) is four games behind the Yankees (9-3) in the American League East.

Their story so far

It’s been a bizarre start for the Rays thus far. After starting 4-1 against Toronto and Atlanta at home, Tampa Bay lost five straight. All of those were on the road. Two of those were in Atlanta, which in the scheme of things isn’t terrible considering the talent of that club. However, things turned for the worse from there. The Orioles swept the Rays in three games at Camden Yards, during which Tampa Bay mustered just eight runs. This came right after the Yankees won two in Baltimore and scored 17 runs while doing so.

As usual, Tampa Bay’s pitching staff has been just fine (3.63 ERA), but it’s offense has really held them back. You could probably glean that after I told you how many runs they scored in Baltimore. Granted, Austin Meadows just returned and has only played two games thus far, but the return of one player isn’t going to make or break an offense. They have a .211/.303/.365 batting line in 442 plate appearances to date and have swatted just 10 home runs. The only team with fewer home runs that hasn’t had postponements due to COVID-19 are the Diamondbacks, who have just 6.

As a result of this slow start, the Rays have seen their division title chances drop precipitously. It stood at 34.3 percent at Opening Day, but is now down to 15.5 percent. Tampa Bay’s playoff hopes are certainly still in tact though, especially with an expanded postseason.

Injury Report

  • OF Randy Arozarena and LHP Brendan McKay are unavailable for undisclosed reasons.
  • RHP Yonny Chirinos was just placed on the injured list with triceps inflammation retroactive to August 3rd.
  • LHP Colin Poche is out for the season. He had Tommy John surgery on July 29th.
  • Not an injury, but LHP José Alvarado was placed on the paternity list today and could miss this series.

Spotlight: Nick Anderson

Who? Nick Anderson, perhaps the league’s best reliever, that’s who. The 30 year-old righty is basically unknown, and understandably so. Anderson’s been around the block, but finally got his chance to shine last season in time with the Marlins and Rays. It took a while for him to get here, though.

The Brewers drafted Anderson in the 32nd round back in 2012, but the righty did not sign and instead pitch in Indy-ball through 2015. The Twins were the first to bring him into affiliated ball, where he eventually reached Triple-A in 2018. There, he recorded a stellar 36.2 percent strikeout rate in the Rochester bullpen, but there was still no room for him in the big leagues. Minnesota traded him to Miami that offseason.

The Marlins gave Anderson his first shot, and he succeeded right away. In 43 2/3 innings, Anderson delivered a 3.92 ERA/2.71 FIP and struck out 69 opponents. Maybe the entire league hadn’t taken notice yet, but the Rays certainly did. Tampa Bay sent Ryne Stanek and prospect Jesús Sánchez to the Marlins to pick up Anderson. After that, Anderson really burst onto the scene.

In 21 1/3 post trade deadline innings, Anderson recorded a 2.11 ERA/1.62 FIP. He struck out a whopping 51 batters (52.6 percent!) and walked only two (2.6 percent). He’s off to a similarly fast start this season: in four games, Anderson has yet to allow a run or walk in 3 1/3 innings. He’s given up just two hits and fanned four batters. I think it’s safe to say that not only is he the best reliever you’ve never heard of, but he also might be the best reliever in baseball, period.

What makes Anderson so dominant? It’s the way he effectively pairs his fastball and curveball. He basically has Chad Green’s fastball paired with the curveball that Green’s trying to incorporate now. Take a look at the fastball:

Metric (2019)GreenAndersonLeague Avg.
FB velo 969693
FB spin246323262287
FB drop (in.)121016
FB Whiff %29%30%22%

Pretty similar! And even though Green has more spin on his fastball, Anderson’s doesn’t drop as much (i.e. it appears to rise more than Green’s). This is because Anderson’s release point is a bit more efficient to maximize that spin rate (not that Green’s is bad, or anything).

That’s not where the similarities end, by the way. Even though it’s really tough to square up Anderson and Green, hitters do make loud contact when they’re fortunate enough to do so. Last year, both were near the bottom of the league in exit velocity and hard hit percentage against. Green was in the 1st (!) percentile for both, while Anderson was in the 12th and 10th, respectively. Of course, making contact against these two is easier said than done.

Now, what differentiates Anderson is the curveball. On the face of things, it doesn’t look terribly impressive. It’s spin and movement are way below league average, in fact. The spin is in the 7th percentile and it drops about seven inches below average as well. Yet, it’s an incredibly effective offering for Anderson. He garnered an absurd 54.2 percent whiff rate against the pitch last year, for reference. How does this happen in spite of low spin and little movement? Deception.

Anderson is incredibly consistent with his release point between his curveball and fastball. Take a look:

Red = Fastball, Blue = Curveball. (via Statcast)

On top of that, his curve is a true 12-6 offering. With almost no horizontal movement, batters are either getting a (seemingly) rising fastball or a hard curveball with a quick downward drop coming out of the same arm slot. That’s not easy to decipher. See below:

Lighter graphics with dotted lines represent league average. (via Statcast)

Unfortunately for the Yankees, Anderson is pretty fresh coming into this series. He hasn’t pitched since Tuesday when he recorded an 11 pitch save against the Red Sox. Let’s hope we don’t have to see much of him this series.

Projected lineup

I’d look that frustrated if I was Kevin Cash, too. Tampa Bay has the league’s 20th-ranked wRC+, and even though Austin Meadows is back, this lineup wasn’t supposed to be particularly great anyway. Here’s the Roster Resource projected lineup:

  1. Austin Meadows, LF (.250/.250/.500, 104 wRC+)
  2. Brandon Lowe, 2B (.302/.375/.605, 175 wRC+)
  3. Yandy Díaz, 3B (.211/.362/.263, 97 wRC+)
  4. Ji-Man Choi, 1B (.148/.273/.333, 77 wRC+)
  5. Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, DH (.182/.289/.303, 78 wRC+)
  6. Willy Adames, SS (.290/.389/.419, 138 wRC+)
  7. Hunter Renfroe, RF (.184/.279/.395, 95 wRC+)
  8. Kevin Kiermaier, CF (.171/.237/.229, 38 wRC+)
  9. Mike Zunino, C (.077/.200/.192, 23 wRC+)

Off the bench, Tampa Bay has two catchers (Michael Perez and Kevan Smith) along with infielders Mike Brosseau and Joey Wendle. José Martínez (136 wRC+) is the team’s platoon bat vs. southpaws, so we’ll likely see him against James Paxton this weekend.

Pitching Matchups

Tonight, 6:40 p.m. EDT: Masahiro Tanaka (vs. Rays) vs. Blake Snell (vs. Yankees)

As sweet as it would be for the Rays to beat the Yankees, it’d be just as sweet to put a sock in Snell’s mouth tonight. He’s made two starts so far, but has only thrown five innings as he’s still getting stretched out following some elbow soreness back in spring training. That same elbow has been in rough shape since last year: he had arthroscopic surgery to remove some loose bodies last July and had a cortisone shot in it this spring.

He hasn’t been the same since his excellent Cy Young campaign in 2018 when he posted a 1.89 ERA. Given his health, I guess that’s not a surprise. He had a 4.29 ERA (3.32 FIP) in 107 innings last season and has been so-so in an extremely limited sample this year. On the bright side, his fastball velocity (95 MPH) hasn’t gone away. It sounds like he could pitch four or five innings tonight.

Snell.

Masahiro Tanaka will probably go a similar distance as Snell tonight. Tanaka tossed 2 2/3 innings in his first start of the season last week against Boston. His fastball velocity and usage were unexpectedly up from past years, so that’ll be something to keep an eye on tonight.

Saturday (Game 1 of 2), 2:10 p.m. EDT: Gerrit Cole (vs. Rays) vs. Bullpen/Tyler Glasnow (vs. Yankees)

Glasnow is likely to pitch one of the two games in Saturday’s doubleheader. He’ll be a handful for the Yankees’ lineup whenever he does go. He’s got incredible stuff. Glasnow looked like a Cy Young contender last year before he got hurt. The young righty had a 1.86 ERA in 48 1/3 innings through early May before suffering a forearm strain.

Glasnow.

Glasnow’s one downside: he doesn’t provide much length. He’s averaged roughly five innings per start in his Rays career and hasn’t thrown more than 4 2/3 innings in either of his two starts this season. That said, he did average six innings per start last year before he got hurt. It also helps that this will be a seven inning game.

Cole is slated for the first game of the doubleheader for the Yankees. It’ll already be his fourth start in pinstripes even though it’ll be just the 14th team game for the Bombers. Oddly enough, those postponements against the Phillies a couple of weeks ago really benefited the Yanks’ starting staff by essentially giving Cole an extra turn. Though it’s a little bit of a different Tampa Bay lineup, Cole absolutely eviscerated the Rays in the ALDS last year. He won both Game 2 and Game 5 thanks to 15 2/3 innings, one run allowed, and 25 strikeouts. More of the same here, please.

Saturday (Game 2 of 2): TBD vs. Bullpen/Tyler Glasnow

Surprisingly, the Rays haven’t done an official opener/bullpen game yet this year (though Snell’s short starts effectively were bullpen games). A couple of candidates to get the starting nod: Trevor Richards and Andrew Kittredge.

Similar to the Rays, the Yankees will have a bullpen game during this doubleheader. Jonathan Loaisiga seems like a plausible candidate after he served as an opener on Thursday. Luis Cessa, David Hale, Michael King, and Nick Tropeano are candidates as well.

Sunday, 1:10 p.m. EDT: James Paxton (vs. Rays) vs. Charlie Morton (vs. Yankees)

This is going to be a battle of two pitchers still working out the kinks. Morton didn’t look very sharp in his first couple of outings, particularly with diminished fastball velocity. He sat 92 in his first two starts, but average 93 in his most recent game against Boston. This is still well down from 96 in 2018 and 95 in 2019. Overall, Morton has a 5.52 ERA in 14 2/3 innings.

Morton

Paxton’s yet to go more than three innings in his two starts this season, and that wasn’t by design. His fastball velocity is way down and his mechanics are all over the place. The Yankees need to see some progress for him really soon. The Big Maple was really good against Tampa last year (12 innings, 18 strikeouts, 3.00 ERA), but it’ll be hard to repeat that without his usual velocity.

Bullpen Status

RHP: Nick Anderson, Oliver Drake, Diego Castillo, Chaz Roe, Peter Fairbanks, Andrew Kittredge, Trevor Richards

LHP: Aaron Loup, Jalen Beeks, Sean Gilmartin

Per Fangraphs, this is the league’s top bullpen. I’d argue the Yankees have a better crew, but that’s neither here nor there. There’s no set closer in this bullpen, though Drake is the only one with saves (2) on the roster. Anderson or Castillo can do the job as well. Alvarado has closer experience with Tampa Bay, but as noted earlier, is inactive to start the series. The other big absence is Poche, who’s out for the year as mentioned before as well.


Considering that this series is at the (hated) Trop and the Rays are going to trot out three of their best starters, I think a split would be satisfactory. Especially with a double header in line for Saturday, as those are generally tough to sweep. Taking three of four or sweeping Tampa Bay would virtually put the Rays’ hope for a divisional title out of reach, however.