AL Division Series Preview: New York Yankees vs. Tampa Bay Rays

One of the things 2020’s expanded playoff format robbed us of was a real American League East throw down. The Rays earned bragging rights, winning 13 of their 15 games in late August to turn a two-game deficit into a four-and-a-half-game cushion, ultimately taking the division by an impressive seven games and whomping the Yankees by an 8-2 margin in their head-to-head matchups. But the Yankees never really acted as if their season was in serious jeopardy because in the end, it never really was. After all, the stakes for winning the division versus finishing in second place have never been lower. With the pennant race defanged, a Yankees vs. Rays postseason matchup brings real electricity where their other 2020 matchups did not. The winner will be just one series away from a trip to the Fall Classic; the loser will be sent home to make plans for 2021.

What makes this matchup fun isn’t just that the results actually matter. There’s also a real contrast between how the teams are run. The Yankees may not spend with the same unchecked aggression they did 15 years ago, but they still agree to massive contracts when the right opportunity arises; Gerrit Cole isn’t being paid in exposure. New York is a standard modern juggernaut: big payroll, big power, and big plate discipline, but with an interest in developing players from within rather than cashing every top prospect into veteran deadline help.

If the Yankees are a 21st century Goliath, no team better personifies David than the Rays. There’s no denying that Tampa Bay’s tiny payroll includes a healthy chunk of parsimony, but most observers agree that the team lacks the revenue — and the possibility of such — to realistically challenge the luxury tax threshold. Whatever you attribute the club’s low payrolls to, the Rays have to be careful and clever. And as low-spending teams go, their record matches up with that of bigger payroll clubs exceptionally well. Since they dropped the Devil from their name before the 2008 season, the Rays have won 1081 games, the fifth-most in baseball, despite playing in one of baseball’s toughest divisions.

And the contrasts don’t stop at payroll. The Yankees have the name-brand superstars, while the Rays always seem to find a multitude of average-to-above-average players out of nowhere with almost paranormal ease. Back when we thought the season would be 162 games long, ZiPS projected four Yankees hitters to be worth at least three wins; only a single Ray (Austin Meadows) was projected to eclipse that mark. But the computer also projected 17 Rays position players to put up at least one win if used in a full-time role compared to just 11 Yankees. No Tampa Bay starter was projected to equal Cole, just as no Rays reliever was expected to be as dominant as Aroldis Chapman, but ZiPS saw the Rays as having 38 better than replacement level pitchers in the organization, the most of any team in baseball.

If we glance at the ZiPS projections for the series as a whole, the computer has the Rays as a modest favorite, by a 57.7% to 42.3% margin. That surprised me, but ZiPS has the Rays with a slight edge in every game, including the one Cole starts, with the team’s margin of favor essentially coming down to their slim home-field advantage (if that’s what you call batting second). It’s also a margin that would disappear in a world where both Luis Severino and James Paxton are healthy; ZiPS projects the Yankees as 52% to 48% favorites with a rotation of Cole, Paxton, Severino, Jordan Montgomery, and Masahiro Tanaka. Back in this world, though, J.A. Happ is due for a start.

The value of Tampa’s depth becomes apparent once you start playing around with your assumptions about the seres. If you assume that there will be no extra-inning games in the five-game set, ZiPS projects the Rays dropping from a 57.7% favorite to a 54% one. If nobody is injured, such that they have to leave the series, Tampa Bay’s probability drops by a similar amount; at this stage, no individual player is as important to them as the Yankees’ best and they have better Plan Bs at the majority of positions. If we project a doomsday scenario, in which each team loses three players (chosen at random), the Rays win 64% of those series.

One of the big questions about the Division Series, which teams didn’t really have to contend with during the short three-game sets in the Wild Card round, is what the consequences of having no off days will be. Normally, the 2-2-1 format means having two rest/travel days, resulting in five games played over seven days, enabling a team’s Game 1 starter to pitch in a possible Game 4 on short rest or a Game 5 on normal rest. But five games in five days means that a Game 4 appearance from an ace, at least a full one, is a dicey proposition, and even a Game 5 return would require short rest. Pitching Cole or Blake Snell on short rest in Game 5 has its benefits, but with just a single day off between that game and the start of the ALCS, the winning team’s pitcher would then have to pitch on short rest a second time or be unavailable to make a start until Game 4 of the Championship Series.

Given that, what might we expect from the ALDS? The Yankees bullpen will be tested, and it’s not as deep a group as the one we’ve seen in recent years. The bullpen’s 4.51 ERA is the unit’s worst since 2000 and its 4.67 FIP hasn’t been “topped” since the days before Mariano Rivera was the team’s closer. Aaron Boone has seemingly lost faith in Adam Ottavino, who didn’t enter a single game with a leverage index above one during the last two weeks of the season, and Luis Cessa has generally been relegated to mop-up duty.

The Rays, despite not having five traditional starters in the rotation, are better equipped to face a couple of games without their top three starters, and can populate the back of the bullpen with pitchers they can use for more than just garbage time, such as Josh Fleming or 2018 first-rounder Shane McClanahan. The Rays can have 15 pitchers on their ALDS roster and have each one matter in their roster construction; the Yankees don’t have that luxury.

One good thing for the Yankees: their 2-8 record against the Rays in the regular season almost certainly doesn’t mean anything, even if it ends up getting a lot of play in preview punditry. Both Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton missed the majority of the team’s games against Tampa Bay. And more widely, while we like to think that head-to-head records offer useful insight into how teams fare when facing off, there’s not actually much evidence that they provide predictive value. To that end, I went back through playoff history and projected the outcome of every game in every postseason using only two variables: the team’s regular season winning percentage and the team’s head-to-head winning percentage against the opposing team. The latter variable actually made the model perform worse, though by an insignificant amount. Replacing head-to-head winning percentage with a dummy variable for whether a team won the majority of the time against their opponent during the regular season yielded the same result. If the Rays wallop the Yankees, their regular-season performance will have had little to do with it.

Both teams would be favored in an ALCS over the Astros or the Athletics. But while few of us are in the mood to root for the Astros in 2020, Yankees and Rays fans might want to; both teams project as favorites over the Astros by a heavier margin than they do against the Athletics.

Sneaking a peek at the preliminary 2021 ZiPS forecasts based on the players already signed for next season, the Rays and Yankees both currently project as .580 teams. However this five-game series ends up, there are likely a lot more meaningful Rays vs. Yankees battles to come.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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Mike NMN
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Mike NMN

This is pretty fair-minded. The Yankees at full strength might be the favorites, but under these circumstances, and with the Rays’ superior depth, it might turn into a very quick exit for NY. It could also be a very entertaining matchup, if things go right. I’m surprised at how poorly the Yankee’s bullpen has been this year–it’s hard to see how, suddenly, they figure it all out.

London Yank
Member
London Yank

The loss of Kahnle doesn’t get much press, but it had a massive effect on the Yankees bullpen. He would have been the top right hander and the #3 behind Chapman and Britton. Now Green and Ottavino each move up a place someone like Loaisiga filling in behind. That is a massive drop off.

Matt1685
Member
Matt1685

The loss of Kahnle was big. But bigger has been the relatively poorer performance of each individual in the front line of the bullpen, except Britton, compared to their recent past.