The Cleveland Indians vs. the Tampa Bay Rays.
If you just look at the names of the teams, a couple of thoughts likely strike you.
When you think of the Tribe, you likely ponder a team that hasn’t been all that good in a long, long time. The Indians haven’t been to the playoffs since 2007, and they essentially been a have-not since that season. Some will point to a .500 season in 2008 and a near .500 season in 2011, but in the other three seasons, they were 65-97, 69-93 and 68-94.
When you think of the Rays, you likely think just the opposite. The Rays 90-win seasons in five of the last six years, have been to the World Series once, and been to the playoffs four times. This is a team that has utilized draft picks and trades to become and maintain a high level of play. Their business model is being mirrored by several teams across baseball who are playing in a small market.
The problem with 2013 is that you can’t really look at the past with either team to gauge what may happen in the 2013 wildcard.
These are two very different ballclubs from their past.
I’ve discussed with regularity the changes in both the Indians 25-man roster, and with regards to their philosophy and money spending over the past 12 months. It started with the hiring of Terry Francona, and it ended with the signing of Michael Bourn. The Indians were aggressive, spent money, took advantage of rule-quirks, and recreated their one-field management, extended their lineup, and bulked up their depth. They supplemented their rotation with some gambles, and they also used a high quality hire at pitching coach to help mold struggling starters.
The Rays made some shrewd signings and trades to stay afloat and excel in 2013. The lost Carlos Pena at first base, but managed to sign James Loney to a one year, two million deal after he struggled mightily for the Red Sox and the Dodgers the previous year. They traded a middling prospect for Yunel Escobar, which was a massive upgrade over Elliot Johnson in 2012. Evan Longoria was healthy in 2013, after missing much of the 2012 season.Wil Myers came to the Rays in the big James Shields trade, and he’s turned into the stud many thought. Their rotation wasn’t as good as last season, with Shields gone and Price struggling, but was still outstanding. Alex Cobb was vastly improved, with Matt Moore becoming stud, and Price still being Price. Their pen has struggled a bit this year as well, after being fairly dominant in 2012, but was still pretty darned good.
These are really two different looking teams than what we’ve seen in the past, and they are converging together on Wednesday in a pretty interesting match-up.
The teams have played six times this year, with Tampa holding a 4-2 lead. The Rays went 2-1 in Tampa way back in April behind a Matt Moore-led 4-0 shutout, and an Alex Cobb-led 6-0 shutout. Masterson got a bit back for the Tribe with a 13-0 led Indians shutout to close out the early series.
They played again at the end of May in Cleveland, and it was a similar story to the April series. The Rays won game one 9-2 after early rain ended a promising starter match-up between Matt Moore and Corey Kluber. The Indians rebounded with a 5-0 shutout behind Ubaldo Jimenez, who dominated the Rays that day. The final start saw Zach McAllister get shelled in an 11-3 loss. McAllister wouldn’t play again until July 23rd.
Sure, the Rays won the match-up, but did we really learn anything? In the rain delay-ed game, the Rays jumped onScott Barnes. He is home fishing. Zach McAllister was clearly hurt. He won’t see the mound on Wednesday.
These teams seem evenly matched.
Much of this game could depend on the match-ups.
Let’s take a look at the possible starting lineups, and utilize the September statistics. With both teams playing several meaningful baseball games in September.
|1st Base||Rays||James Loney||29||107||11||30||9||0||3||16||8||1||15||0||0||0.280||0.330||0.449||0.779|
|2nd Base||Rays||Ben Zobrist||28||114||13||31||4||0||2||8||13||1||12||1||1||0.272||0.346||0.360||0.706|
|3rd Base||Rays||Evan Longoria||29||112||15||31||7||1||4||16||11||1||27||0||0||0.277||0.349||0.464||0.813|
At catcher, you have the Rays Jose Lobaton or possibly Jose Molina vs. the Indians Yan Gomes. The only noticeable advantage here for the Rays may be veteran presence. The problem with that theory is how Yan Gomes carries himself. He’s far superior offensively, and may hold a defensive edge as well. Gomes only has one knock, and that’s inexperience.
At first base, I suppose there could be some conjecture about who will be there for the Indians. Santana will either play first or DH, but with Gomes locking down the catcher role, I’d have to say that Santana will get the nod here. He’s played there the last few games in which the Indians’ fast right-handers, so I doubt that changes here.
If that stands true, Loney and Santana match-up fairly well. The only discernible difference is that Santana holds a big edge in getting on base via the walk, and Loney likely holds the defensive advantage. Santana has owned Cobb in their meetings though, and while I would like to call this a wash, I give the advantage to Santana and his .429/.500/.571 slash line. Santana could very well win this game for the Indians offensively.
At second base, it’s Ben Zobrist and Jason Kipnis. I’ve always like Zobrist, and he does many, many things well, as he’s been a 4.5+ WAR player for five years now. He just does everything well. He walks a ton, runs the bases with the best in the league, and is a fantastic defender. He can play anywhere. So many will just lump second to Kipnis, but not me.
Kipnis isn’t as good a defender, but he is a superior offensive player, especially recently. He strikes out more, but gets on base more, and has better speed. Here’s the thing. I really believe Kipnis is a big game player. This is his first true big game in the majors. If he catches fire, he can carry a team. Let’s see if that happens.
There is some question, I believe, at third base. Not for the Rays, who may have the best in the majors in Evan Longoria. The Indians will either start Lonnie Chisenhall, who’s a good hitter against righties, or Mike Aviles. My gut tells me that the veteran Aviles gets the start. He’s a better defender, and while he’s really, REALLY been struggling offensively, my belief is that Francona likes Aviles in key situations. This is a massive advantage to the Rays. Longoria is the best offensive player (today) on either team.
The shortstop position is also interesting, with Yunel Escobar going up against Asdrubal Cabrera. Cabrera has really struggled this year, and while some point to his power as being a step back in the right direction, I just can’t count how many empty at bats he has. Escobar isn’t an offensive juggernaut, but he is so good defensively. Cabrera is not. I give the power edge to Asdrubal, which is the only reason why I think these two guys are close. I give the edge to Escobar, although I don’t see much impact. Of course, Asdrubal can change the complexion with one swing (or miss). If the SS’s win this offensively, then the pitchers were dominant.
At left, we have an intriguing match-up between Desmond Jennings and Michael Brantley. Both have educated bats. Both play nice defense. Both get on base. Both can hit for extra bases when they have to. Both are likely underrated. The September numbers point to Jennings, but anyone who has watched the Indians, know just how many big hits Brantley has. He’s hitting .375 with runners in scoring position, and .364 with runners in scoring position with two outs. He’s had big hit after big hit, and this may be a guy call, but I’m going with Brantley here. He’s 0-7 against Cobb, but this isn’t the same hitter. With that said, Jennings has to be watched.
In right, you have the rookie juggernaut known as Wil Myers for the Rays, and Nick Swisher for the Indians. I love some Wil Myers. This kid is going to be a big-time major leaguer, and the Rays made a brilliant move to get him. Myers has a fantastic extra-base hit bat, that carries for home runs because of swing-type. He had a phenomenal end to the season, and I doubt that stops here.
Likewise, Swisher has stepped up for the Indians when they’ve needed him the most. His power during the September swing has been outstanding, and his OPS and WAR have seen the benefits of his continued improvement. The problem here is that he’s struggled against righties a bit thanks to his injury earlier in the year. If he’s healthy, he’ll be fine, but the injury makes this a suspect match-up. I’ll give it a slight Myers lean, but Swisher could break it open with a big hit, similar to his two-run jack at the start of the Indians final game of the year. Swisher is 3-for-10 against Cobb lifetime, so there could be a Swish advantage.
In center, you have David DeJesus vs. Michael Bourn. Bourn has struggled down the stretch, but so has DeJesus. In a normal year, I’d give this to Bourn. Any other month of struggle, and I give this to Bourn. Because he’s whimpered into the playoffs, and had an injury scare a week ago, I have to call this one a wash. Nothing stands out here for either player.
At DH, I’m really not sure if Ryan Raburn is going to get the nod here, or if it’s Jason Giambi for the Indians. I equally am not sure if Delmon Young gets the start, or if it’s Kelly Johnson. I’m just going to go with my gut here and go with Raburn and Young. It may be neither, but both should have a say in this outcome.
Who gets the advantage? If Raburn starts here, I’ll be pretty okay with that. He’s had some success against Cobb (3-for-9, .375 average), and may be the one guy that could find another 2013 big moment. I also like the potential of Giambi in a big moment opportunity.
Overall, offensively, the Indians haven’t been all that good against righties. While I’m behind the eight-ball with sabrmetrics, I’ve fallen in love with wRC and wRC+ (weighted runs created, and plus). wRC quatifies a players total offensive value and measure it by runs. The plus version of the metric compares a player team against the league average.
The Indians are fantastic with regards to wRC+, with a 107 wRC+. The Rays are one spot above the Indians with a 108. Neither are excellent numbers, but this really wasn’t an elite year with regards to wRC or wRC+. The Indians and the Rays were at the top of the heap.
Where things really change are against right-handers. The Indians wRC drops a bit to a 103 wRC+, which is still good, but slightly comes behind the Rays at 108.
My boy Michael Hattery also preaches his love for weighted on-base average, and this shows more interesting data. The Indians and Rays are tied with a .324 wOBA, which is tied for fifth. Things change a bit against right-handers thought
The Rays drop to eight with the same .324 wOBA, which shows you how consistent they are against righties and lefties. The Indians drop to .318, and 13th in the league. Again, both numbers are far from elite, but the Rays do separate a bit.
Neither is an indicator that one team will be better necessarily than the other. That will all come down to the big game players, and perhaps the pitchers.
Alex Cobb is facing off against Danny Salazar, and you can see, their numbers in September are certainly similar, and certainly elite. The Indians have faced Cobb and were shut down, but this was April, and this was a different team.
The Rays have never faced Salazar.
Can the Indians overcome their Cobb-struggles?
Can the Rays overcome never facing Salazar?
Let’s check out more numbers from both. Cobb has an 8.41 K/9, which is his best in the big leagues. Danny Salazar is at 11.25.
Cobb has a 2.83 BB/9, which was in line with his average. Salazar is at 2.60.
Salazar leads both categories.
Let’s go deeper. FIP is another category that Mr. Hattery has schooled me on, with 2.90 being a phenomenal FIP (what an ERA should look lke assuming that performance on balls in play and timing were league average).
Alex Cobb’s FIP comes in at a very respectable 3.36, which is still above average.
Danny Salazar comes in at 3.16.
xFIP takes the unstable home run out of the FIP equation, and places an estimation of how many home runs they should have. I’d get more into that, but this piece isn’t about sabr, but about performance and who has the best chance of winning.
Alex Cobb’s xFIP is a stellar 3.02.
Danny Salazar’s is an obscene 2.75.
Alex Cobb is an exception starter.
Danny Salazar is flat out elite….
…and the Rays have never faced him.
Does that give the final advantage to the Indians here?
Maybe, but not by much.
Some will say that the Rays have an advantage in the bullpen. If you say this, then you are only looking at the closers. Rodney is better than…well…nobody. Chris Perez isn’t the closer anymore. The Indians are going to close by committee, and Justin Masterson is available.
The Rays pen on the season has a solid 3.59 ERA, with a 3.36 FIP, and 3.60 xFIP. The Indians are right behind, with a 3.62 FIP, a 3.79 FIP, and a 3.83 xFIP.
The Indians pen sucked in the first half.
In the second half, things change considerably. The Indians 2nd Half pen ERA falls to 3.00, with the Rays growing to 3.67. The Indians FIP is 3.27, with the Rays at 3.47. The Indians xFIP is at 3.72, while the Rays are at 3.75.
The advantage there seems to go to the Indians, and those numbers include Perez. He won’t pitch on Wednesday.
The benches are interesting, but the Indians seem to have the advantage there, with Stubbs coming off the bench, and the already mentioned Jason Giambi. The Rays have Kelly Johnson and Matthew Joyce, so it’s not like it’s a huge advantage either way.
Which leads us to the managers.
Joe Maddon may be the most respected manager in baseball. He’s been in charge of a small market Rays team, and after two bad seasons, has had his team in the thick of things for six seasons running. Maddon is an advanced metrics guy, utilizing strengths that other don’t see.
Terry Francona may be the most respected manager in baseball. He took the Boston Red Sox two their first two World Championships since the Babe Ruth was a pitcher. Now, in Cleveland, he’s taken a 68-win team, and launched them to a 24-win differential, with 92 wins on the year. He has as much feel as any manager in the game. He surrounds himself with metrics guys as well.
They may be the two best managers in baseball.
One piece to this puzzle that many won’t be talking about is the simple fact that the Indians are playing this game at home. The Indians are 51-30 at home, and will be playing in front of a raucous, sold-out crowd. You haven’t been to a baseball game until you’ve seen one in Jacob’s…er…Progressive Field, in October, sold out.
These teams are very similar, but there are some intangibles about the Indians that I think will play into this. Yes, you could point to the Indians 10-game streak. Yes, you could point to their ability to bounce back. But at the end of this game, Danny Salazar will be the deciding factor, with a little help from Carlos Santana and Michael Brantley and Justin Masterson…and they may not even need him.
They really ARE that good.
Will the Indians win this game?
I’m throwing my hat in with a rookie pitcher.
I’m throwing my hat in with a big-time manager.
I’m throwing my hat in with a sold-out, home-town crowd.
I’m throwing my hat in on a team that is clearly playing for more than a one-and-done game against a similar scrabbling team
It’ll be the Tribe in this one.
Mark it down.