The Tampa Bay Rays don’t have long to savor an intense game five victory over the New York Yankees. Less than 48 hours after their celebratory dance-off they are scheduled to take on the Houston Astros in the American League Championship Series.
The Astros defeated the Oakland Athletics in four games so they come into the series with two days rest instead of one.
This will be the Rays second ALCS in franchise history. They won their first trip in 2008, defeating the Boston Red Sox in seven games.
Last season the Rays and Astros faced off in an exciting five game series in the American League Division Series that went the Astros way.
Sunday 7:37 PM: Framber Valdez vs Blake Snell
Monday 4:07 PM: Lance McCullers Jr. vs TBA
Tuesday TBA: TBA vs TBA
Wednesday TBA: TBA vs TBA
Thursday TBA: TBA vs TBA
Friday TBA: TBA vs TBA
Saturday TBA: TBA vs TBA
Looking at the schedule, it is a bit surprising to see the Rays get the afternoon slot on Monday when the game time was announced in middle of the game against the Yankees. At the same time the only west coast time zone team in the final four was guaranteed to be the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers are the best team in baseball and are getting the prime time slot on the east coast. I don’t expect that to change unless the American League is the only series with games left remaining. So expect late afternoon games for the next week.
Next we turn to starting pitching. After two seasons of bouncing between the rotation and bullpen in 2018 and 2019 Framber Valdez put up one of the best seasons in the majors in 2020, with a 3.57 ERA/2.85 FIP/2.94 xFIP over 70.2 innings. The diminutive left hander stands just 5’11”; he has been a workhorse averaging almost 6.5 innings per outing, which could be important with the teams playing up to 7 games in 7 days. He posted a career best 26.4% strikeout rate but the real area of improvement was a 5.6% walk rate coming after a 13% in both his previous Major League seasons. Valdez is primarily a two pitch pitcher using a sinker and curveball to attack hitters. Neither pitch is a swing and miss pitch; the sinker comes in at a 5.24% whiff rate and the curve at 18.91%. His sinker sits in the low to mid 90s and the curve comes in around 80 mph. He will occasionally throw a changeup to right handed hitters. He has thrown well in both of his playoff appearances allowing two runs on two solo homers in 12.0 innings.
Lance McCullers Jr. is a Tampa native who was drafted out of Jesuit High School in the supplemental first round of the 2012 draft. After missing all of the 2019 season recovering from Tommy John surgery McCullers was able to put up most of a full season thanks to the shortened 60 game season. He made 11 starts and threw 55.0 innings, posting a 3.93 ERA/3.70 FIP/3.68 xFIP — solid results for a guy returning from TJS. His 24.7% strikeout rate and 8.8% walk rates are in line with his career rates. He got hit around in his lone start in the playoffs against the Athletics, allowing three homers and five runs in 4.0 innings.
With Gerrit Cole signing with the Yankees and Justin Verlander succumbing to Tommy John surgery the only pitcher left that started against the Rays in the ALDS last season is Zack Greinke. For people that haven’t followed the 2020 Astros he’s the one recognizable name left from the Astros rotation. He’s been fine, putting up a 4.03 ERA/2.80 FIP/3.51 xFIP, even if the stuff isn’t what it once was. His fastball velocity has dropped two miles per hour from 90.03 to 88.13 over the last two seasons. Despite that his 24.5% strikeout rate is his best rate since 2014. He started game one of the first round of the playoffs but left early due to injury and was pushed back to game four in the last round to make his second start, when he gave up four runs in 4.2 innings. His health is one of the major question marks entering this series. He would be scheduled to start game three on normal rest, but we shall see who they choose when the time comes.
The Astros have a slew of young arms that they can choose for the rest of their series or out of the bullpen if needed. Jose Urquidy and Cristian Javier are the two most likely options to get a start.
The only pitcher who has been announced for the Rays is Blake Snell in game one. He was warming up in the pen in game five, but thanks to Tyler Glasnow and the bullpen’s great work he was not needed. Charlie Morton was also up in the bullpen if needed in game five and I would expect him to start game two.
The real decision for Kevin Cash will when he can turn to Tyler Glasnow. Should he hand him the ball for game three, it would be a day short of rest but Glasnow only threw 37 pitches in 2.1 innings of work so he shouldn’t need full rest. It could be a decision that is made depending on the standing in the series. Game three would allow Glasnow to come back for game seven if necessary on short rest again though we’ve seen that the Rays aren’t afraid to use him on two days rest so he could be available for a game seven even if he pitches game four. Beyond using their top three starters, the Rays will likely rely on Ryan Yarbrough, perhaps behind an opener, and the same mix-and-match we’ve gotten used to seeing.
The Astros bullpen was pretty mediocre this year, posting a combined 4.39 ERA/4.45 FIP/4.82 xFIP. Losing their closer Roberto Osuna to Tommy John early in the season has been a big blow. Ryan Pressley continues to be their top option late in games. Enoli Paredes had a breakout season and has thrown well in the playoffs.
The Astros rely on innings from their starters more than most teams and they’ll probably need to lean on them heavily to get through this series.
The last ride for the Astros core?
The Astros were truly awful for a few years and earned back to back to back overall first round picks securing them Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman (as a compensation pick for failing to sign Brady Aiken). Last season they lost Gerrit Cole to the Yankees and this season George Springer and Michael Brantley become free agents.
Time is ticking for the core of one of the super teams in the American League over the last handful of years. They do have Jose Altuve and Bregman locked up long term, so this won’t be the end of the Astros but things will look different.
The Astros offense was mediocre this year, putting up a .240/.312/.408 line and 99 wRC+.
George Springer (146 wRC+) and Michael Brantley (134 wRC+) continue to be key parts of the offense.
Bregman (122 wRC+) had a down season compared to his standards of 156+ wRC+ in each of the last two seasons. Correa also had a disappointing season putting up a 97 wRC+.
Altuve is the core contributor that has not hit well putting up a 77 wRC+. Yuli Gurriel also struggled with a 79 wRC+.
The Astros offense rookie breakout slugger Yordan Alvarez who has missed almost the entire season with a knee injury.
Top prospect and Plant High School (Tampa, FL) graduate Kyle Tucker finally got his shot to play everyday and put up a 125 wRC+ in 228 plate appearances which was second most on the team.
In the playoffs the top of the lineup has gone off. It will be a similar challenge to the Yankees for the Rays staff to hold down a powerful, top heavy lineup.
Astros next in line on the way to the World Series.
In a season that was unlike any other the Rays were able to keep the focus on the field and take one game at a time. They have continued it during the playoffs. They took care of the Blue Jays in two games and then remained calm as they took down the Yankees in five games despite the tension between the teams.
Now the Rays look to take down the team that beat them last year.
For the Astros, it’s a chance to show the world that they have the talent to win even without the cheating that we know was part of their successful 2017 run.
Dan Szymbroski’s ZiPS projection system gives the Rays a 63.4% chance of winning this series. This is higher than the Rays had over beating the Yankees and higher than the Los Angeles Dodgers have over the Atlanta Braves. ZiPS also predicted a Rays ALDS win, so let’s hope Dan got it right this time as well.
It’s been a weird season and things are sure to get weirder as we see teams take different approaches to a potential seven games in seven days. The Rays are built to survive in and adapt to different situations so so they are reasonably well positioned for this moment. Stay safe and enjoy the run.