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Series Preview: Rays vs Yankees

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MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The Rays have had a pretty great few weeks. One loss to the Kansas City Royals was the only minor speed bump in a sea of wins. They’ve won four in a row and 15 of their last 16 games after sweeping the Philadelphia Phillies last weekend.

The Rays hold a one game lead in the American League East over the Boston Red Sox. They are tied with the San Diego Padres for the best record in the majors.

The New York Yankees limp back home after being swept by the Detroit Tigers and losing five of their last six games. They sit 4.5 games back in the AL East.

Matchups:

Monday 1:05 PM: Rich Hill vs Jameson Taillon
Tuesday 7:00 PM: Tyler Glasnow vs Domingo German
Wednesday 7:05 PM: Shane McClanahan vs Jordan Montgomery
Thursday 1:05 PM: Ryan Yarbrough vs Gerrit Cole

The Yankees pitching staff has carried the team through the first third of the season. Their 3.22 ERA/3.55 FIP/3.66 xFIP all rank in the top six in the majors. Their 3.60 runs per game allowed comes in fourth best in the majors just ahead of the Rays 3.87 runs per game allowed that is tied for seventh.

Jameson Taillon has pitched better than his ERA suggest after missing the 2020 season. He has a 5.06 ERA/4.50 FIP/3.96 xFIP. His 27.9% strikeout rate, if he can keep it going, would be a new career high that is up over 5% from his best previous season. His 6.7% walk rate is still very good and just a tick higher than he’s shown in career to this point. He has struggled a bit with the long ball, with a slightly elevated 16.4% HR/FB rate, but the biggest cause has been his flyball rate ballooning from upper 20%s to 47.8%.

He does not pitch deep into games. In his start against the Rays earlier this month he allowed four runs in 4.2 innings. He only has one start that he’s thrown more than 5.0 innings. For the most part Taillon is a three pitch pitcher who throws his 93.7 four-seam fastball just over 50% of the time. He’ll throw his 87.3 mph slider mostly against right handed batters and his 80.8 mph curveball against left handed batters. He will very rarely sprinkle in a 87.1 mph changeup to lefties.

Domingo German has bounced back after being optioned after his first start against the Rays. Injuries forced that to be a very short lived demotion. In 50.0 innings he has a 3.06 ERA/4.23 FIP/4.01 xFIP. His strikeout rate is down to 23.6% while he’s also lowered his walk rate to 5.0%. The Rays knocked him out early in his second start of the season after allowing four runs in 4.0 innings. In his last seven starts he’s only allowed more than two runs once. German’s main pitch is a 81.1 mph curveball that he throws 33% of the time. He’ll back that up with a 93.2 mph four-seam fastball and 86.2 mph changeup that he throws 25% each. To right hand batters he’ll add a 93.6 mph sinker.

Jordan Montgomery has been very solid with a 4.22 ERA/3.68 FIP/3.80 xFIP over 53.1 innings. His 24.7% strikeout rate and 6.0% walk rates are very good and a tick better than his career rates. He’s been everything the Yankees have needed with an opening day rotation with several pitchers who barely played last year. In his first two starts against the Rays he got hit hard and allowed four runs and two homers each time out. However in their last meeting he limited the damage to a solo homer as the only run allowed in 6.0 innings. The left hander has a mix of five pitches that he throws frequently with no pitch representing more than 25% of his usage. He’ll throw a 92.8 mph four-seam fastball and 92.7 mph sinker as his fastball offerings. His most used pitch is a 79.9 mph curveball. He throws a 88.1 mph cutter that he has yet to throw to a left handed batter. Right handers will also face a heavy dose of 83.1 mph changeups that he rarely throws to lefties.

It’s hard to have a better start to the season than Gerrit Cole has had. Through 70.2 innings he has a 1.78 ERA/1.71 FIP/2.25 xFIP. His strikeout rate is at 36.9% and his walk rate is at 3.4%. He’s only allowed five homers. In his first start against the Rays they were able to stick him with a loss as they scored three runs, two earned, over 6.1 innings. In his second start Cole held the Rays scoreless and only allowed four hits in 8.0 innings. The stuff from Cole is elite. He throws a 97.2 mph four-seam fastball nearly 50% of the time. He throws a 88.3 mph slider mostly to right handers. He’ll throws a 83.2 mph curveball to batters of both hands equally. He wraps out the arsenal with a 89.1 mph changeup he throws more frequently to left handed batters but is very willing to throw a right on right changeup.

The Yankees bullpen has been fantastic. They have a 2.88 ERA/3.65 FIP/3.65 xFIP as a group. Aroldis Chapman has been lights out with a 0.45 ERA/1.31 FIP/1.43 xFIP. He’s striking out 52.1% of batters but will allow walks with a 12.3% walk rate. Surprisingly outside of Chapman strikeout rates of Yankees relievers haven’t been that high.

One of these two teams hasn’t been scoring runs this year. Guess which?

It isn’t the Rays whose 5.00 runs per game rank fifth in the majors. The Yankees have scored 3.79 runs per game and rank as the eighth lowest.

Yankee hitters are batting .230/.317/.372 and putting up a 97 wRC+. They walk a lot (10.8%) and strike out a lot (25.0%), but the most surprising part of the offense has been the lack of power (.143 ISO). That’s the eighth lowest ISO in the majors. Their 61 homers are middle of the pack (14th), but their 58 doubles (29th) and 2 triples (30th) are where they fall well behind the league.

Aaron Judge (.301/.398/.563, 168 wRC+) leads the way with 13 homers and has been their best offensive player by a mile.

Giancarlo Stanton just returned from the Injured List on Friday, but has hit .266/.338/.504 and put up a 134 wRC+. His nine homers rank second and he’s been their second major contributor.

After that it gets very mediocre. Gio Urshela (103 wRC+), Gary Sanchez (102 wRC+), DJ LeMahieu (101 wC+), and Gleyber Torres (101 wRC+) have all been slightly above average offensive performers but have under performed expectations as a whole.

The outfield has lost one of their key contributors in Aaron Hicks who had surgery on his wrist and is out for the season.

Clint Frazier (75 wRC+) and Brett Gardner (53 wRC+) have stepped into everyday roles but not produced to the level needed.

Luke Voit (58 wRC+) had a slow start to the season after having knee surgery but landed back on the Injured List last week with a strained oblique. He will miss the next couple of weeks at minimum.

They recalled 2018 ROY finalist Miguel Andujar after injury-plagued 2019-20 limited his availability. It hasn’t been pretty as he’s hitting .226/.226/.242 and putting up a 29 wRC+ over his first 62 plate appearances.

The last trip to New York ended in a sweep

The Rays have owned the head to head matchup over the last two seasons. In the regular season they are 14-5 against the Yankees. This doesn’t include knocking them out in the American League Division Series last October. This year the Rays are 6-3 against the Yankees.

But let’s remember, regression lurks around every corner; the Rays won’t win every series all season, and the Yankees are a better team than the one we saw lose its way in Detroit. A series victory would be a great outcome and add to their five straight series victories the Rays have locked up.