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Rays vs Red Sox Preview: So You Think You Can Handle Lefties?

The Rays get to mess with Chris Sale on Saturday

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox played three hours and 37 minutes of baseball Friday night, culminating in a 10-5 series-opening win for the Rays. The win wasn’t the prettiest - it included a nervy bullpen showing in the final innings - but it counts all the same. It was a nice way to break a three-game losing streak at the hands of the New York Yankees, and the Rays now sit at 6-5 on the young season, right ahead of Saturday’s opponents from Beantown. Saturday will be a nice, early-season test for the Rays.

Starting Pitchers

Jake Odorizzi

Through two starts in 2017, Odorizzi has been incredibly pedestrian. He has gone six innings in each start, giving up four runs in season debut against the Yankees and two runs in his follow up against the Blue Jays. Those six runs make for a 4.50 ERA that is nearly matched by a 4.55 xFIP. Odorizzi struck out four batters in each start with three combined walks. Everything about the 27-year-old has been perfectly average in 2017.

What is interesting about Odorizzi’s first two starts is (small sample size alert!) he has actually had normal handedness splits. Lefties have been going to town against him, slashing .313/.389/.688 compared to just .143/.200/.393 for righties. This might not sound interesting on the surface, as most pitchers do worse against batters of the opposite hand, but Odorizzi has been the rare pitcher who has done the opposite throughout his career (.285 wOBA for lefties; .326 wOBA for righties).

It is early in the season, but it will be interesting to see if Odorizzi continue to struggle against lefties, as the Red Sox lineup will throw four hitters who can come up to the plate with the handedness advantage against Odorizzi on Saturday.

Chris Sale

How the Rays’ lineup would fare against lefties was a big talking point throughout the offseason, but the Rays have actually been quite successful against southpaws early in the 2017 season. They currently sport a 127 wRC+ against left-handed pitching, sixth in all of baseball. Of course a good chunk of that success came in one brief outing from Francisco Liriano, and Saturday’s matchup (Sale) is basically Francisco Liriano if Liriano was consistent.

Since 2012, Sale ranks third among all pitchers in fWAR, as well as third in ERA, fourth in FIP and second in xFIP among pitchers with as many innings. His pitching motion resembles Medusa’s hair, winding and twisting with deception laden around every corner. Fail to spot a Sale slider out of his hand, and you will assuredly be turned to stone. Sale also hides the ball incredibly well, as his 10.09 career K/9 rate can attest to.

Sale relies almost exclusively on three pitches, his fastball (55 percent career usage), his slider (25 percent career usage), and his changeup (20 percent career usage). Brooks Baseball also gives him credit for a sinker, but really it’s heat, offspeed, and breaking pitch, with the exact classifications not mattering as much.

Sale isn’t afraid to throw any pitch on any count, as his 19 percent changeup use and 20 percent slider use in 0-0 counts shows. When he gets two strikes on a hitter, he does love the slider (44 percent), but will mix in enough fastballs (43 percent) that you can’t merely assume breaking ball.

All things considered, this will be the stiffest test for Rays against lefties so far this season, and may be the toughest they will face all year.

Narratives

As noted, the Rays come into Saturday having won Friday night, but the vibes aren’t entirely positive. Austin Pruitt is likely glancing over his shoulder every 15 seconds in fear of an imminent demotion to the minors, while Steven Souza has quietly tripled his strikeout total for 2017 over the past three games. Pulling out a win over Sale would do wonders to alleviate some of those pressures, and in order to do so, the Rays will need a big-time effort from Odorizzi.

The Red Sox, for their part, will have plenty of motivation to hit the Rays’ righty hard, after he took a big of a pot shot at their home stadium after Friday’s win, telling the Tampa Bay Times:

"It seems like there's always germs flying around here regardless if there is a flu going around, whatever it is. Everyone feels kind of sluggish after we leave here, but I guess that's kind of the territory when your park is 100-plus years old."

That’s not egregious shade from Odorizzi, but athletes love to look for slights wherever they can find them, so one has to imagine the Sox will have this quote on the bulletin board even if it was said in a tongue-in-cheek manner.

Starting Lineups

Today’s Lineups

Tampa Bay Rays Boston Red Sox
Tampa Bay Rays Boston Red Sox
Steven Souza Jr. - RF Dustin Pedroia - 2B
Peter Bourjos - LF Andrew Benintendi - CF
Evan Logoria - 3B Mookie Betts - RF
Rickie Weeks - DH Hanley Ramirez - DH
Derek Norris - C Mitch Moreland - 1B
Logan Morrison - 1B Xander Bogaerts - SS
Daniel Robertson - 2B Pablo Sandoval - 3B
Kevin Kiermaier - CF Chris Young - LF
Tim Beckham - SS Sandy Leon - C