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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 12, No. 71
October 5, 2020
If I ask you to name the teams in history that won two-thirds of their games, you could probably put together about half the list. You’d pick off the 1998 Yankees and 2001 Mariners and 1908 Cubs. Next would be the 1954 Indians, and that would remind you that the 1995 Indians did it in a shortened season. The 1986 Mets and 1969 Orioles might take you a second. In all, 39 teams have done it since 1904, when the two major leagues started playing 154-game schedules, which is more than I would have guessed.
The 2020 Rays may never have the gravitas of those teams that got to play full seasons, but they’re now included in this select group, having gone 40-20 in their 60 games. I’ll admit to some surprise; I tracked the Dodgers' attempt at a .700 winning percentage pretty closely without ever noticing what the Rays were up to. In my defense, they made a late run, winning their final four games, and nine of their last 11, to get to .667.
As we enter the Division Series round, though, the Rays are being positioned as “opponent” to the Yankees, who scored 22 runs in 18 innings while sweeping the Indians out of the playoffs. The Rays, like the Indians, have an excellent pitching staff that misses bats and doesn’t give up the long ball. Unlike the Indians, the Rays have actual major-league outfielders playing in support of that pitching staff. This team went 40-20 against an above-average schedule, and they finished seven games ahead of the Yankees in the shortened campaign. They’re not extras here.
It’s an interesting note that the Rays, who pioneered the use of an opener two years ago, mostly moved away from the strategy this year. That reflects the quality of the rotation they’ve assembled. Tyler Glasnow, Blake Snell, and Charlie Morton were never, uh, opened. Ryan Yarbrough was twice, both in the season’s final weeks as Kevin Cash experimented a bit. Josh Fleming made five starts of at least 18 batters, and in two others came in after an opener. For all the experimentation they have done with pitcher usage, their model for getting through the next two compressed weeks is likely as traditional as you’ll find in MLB. They’re a rare team with four above-average starting pitchers.
Where the Rays are different is in how they run their bullpen. They have one truly dominant reliever in Nick Anderson, and they don’t tie him to the save rule. Anderson will come in as early as the seventh, he’ll pitch the eighth if that’s where the danger is, he’ll pitch the ninth. If there’s a pattern, it’s that Kevin Cash doesn’t use him to inherit runners very often: just twice since early August, plus one appearance starting the tenth with the ghost runner on second.
Cash has other options for just about any scenario. Even with injuries picking off many of his effective relievers, he can fill a 13-man playoff staff without wasted roster spots. The Rays had 17 pitchers produce positive value this year, second only to the, uh, Orioles. They have eight who produced at least half a win, tied for third behind the Blue Jays and Astros. (The Yankees had four.) It’s a largely anonymous group, and like Anderson, consists of many pitchers not originally drafted or signed by the Rays, but developed into effective relievers by them. Just three pitchers on their Division Series staff were Rays originals: Snell, Fleming, and Diego Castillo.
The bullpen may be their biggest advantage against a Yankees team built almost entirely out of right-handed hitters. They have a lot of depth in guys who just eliminated righties this year.
Right-on-Right, Right? (vs. RHB, selected Rays’ relievers, 2020)
AVG OBP SLG
Nick Anderson .034 .097 .103
Aaron Slegers .175 .230 .246
Diego Castillo .164 .246 .364
Oliver Drake .176 .211 .412
John Curtiss .250 .288 .446
Since joining the Rays in August 2019, Nick Anderson has allowed four hits to right-handed batters.
The Rays boost their pitching staff with an excellent defense. At times, they play Manuel Margot, Kevin Kiermaier, and Hunter Renfroe across the outfield, which is the best defensive outfield in the majors right now and one of the best in recent memory. The infield isn’t quite as strong, though it's better when Joey Wendle plays. In what could be a downside to their aggressive defensive positioning, Rays opponents led MLB in steal attempts of third (nine) and were second in successful steals of third (seven).
The Rays support their run prevention with maybe the best offense in franchise history, posting a 109 wRC+ that ties the 2009 squad for their best ever. The catching situation is a mess -- Mike Zunino and Michael Perez frame and catch and throw and hit .157 between them. The rest of the Rays draw walks (second in the AL) and hit for power (second in the AL in doubles+triples, third in isolated power). They were 48-for-57 stealing bases and six Rays had at least three.
The Yankees seem a lot more threatening than they did a week ago. Anything can happen in two games, but when you erase Shane Bieber, and then come back against Carlos Carrasco, James Karinchak, and Brad Hand, you remind skeptics (ahem) that you can hang a dozen on almost anyone, anywhere, at any time.
Let’s update some Yankees numbers. After the two wins in Cleveland, the Yankees are now 19-7 when both Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are in the starting lineup. That’s the Death Star team that started 10-4 and then disappeared for most of the rest of the shortened season. That’s the team they have now, at least until the next nagging injury takes out one of the two sluggers. With dingers in their two playoff games, the Yankees are now 33-13 when they go deep, and just 2-14 when they do not. The Indians, one of the best homer-prevention teams in the regular season,* allowed seven Yankee homers in 18 innings.
(*With all seven Central division playoff teams losing in the first round, the conversation about how good any of those teams were became louder. I doubt a satisfactory answer is coming, but any Central team’s accomplishments do come with a bit of a question mark at the end of them.)
The Yankees have the best starting pitcher left in these playoffs in Gerrit Cole. The new format hurts them, as they can’t likely get more than three starts from Cole over the next two rounds. Cole has never started on three days’ rest, and while many of the pitchers who have done so in the playoffs in recent years also had little experience doing so, the Yankees have 300 million reasons to not mess with Cole. This will become a story as the series plays out if a Game Five comes into view. We’ll probably see the Yankees use a tandem model in Game Four, with some combination of Deivi Garcia and Jordan Montgomery.
This isn’t the recent-vintage Yankees with a deep and terrifying bullpen. The names will be familiar; Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman were effective in and around injuries, and Chapman showing up with a splitter may literally render him unhittable. However, the right side of this pen was a problem all season long; no Yankees right-handed reliever of note had a FIP lower than 3.52. Only Luis Cessa had an ERA below 3.50. There will be no way to avoid that part of the roster in this series, so the Yankees’ fate may very well come down to what they get from Chad Green and Jonathan Loaisiga and maybe even Adam Ottavino in leveraged spots in the sixth, seventh, and eighth. The revised schedule affects both managers -- each used a reliever three straight days exactly once all year -- but it probably affects Boone, with a less-deep bullpen, more.
The Yankees and Astros have eaten up five of the last six spots in the ALCS. The Rays and A’s, famously, have struggled to even climb to that level; the Rays haven’t been there since 2008, their only trip. The A’s haven’t been to an ALCS since 2006, their only trip since 1992. The Rays and A’s were the far better teams over 60 games, but 21st-century baseball standards mean that their next five will be what fans remember.