AL Wild Card Series Preview: Guardians vs. Rays by Dan Szymborski October 6, 2022 Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports Of the 12 teams in the playoffs in 2022, only one was projected by both ZiPS and FanGraphs in the preseason as a sub-.500 team: the Cleveland Guardians. But this lone Cinderella in a sea of mean stepsisters toppled the White Sox handily this year, pulling away from the pack late to finish with an 11-game cushion in the AL Central. As the league’s No. 3 seed by virtue of winning the division, Cleveland now hosts the Tampa Bay Rays in the three-game Wild Card Series. Broadly speaking, there are broad similarities between the Guardians and the Rays. Both play in smaller markets and, depending on how you look at the issue, have a payroll attitude somewhere on the spectrum from admirably thrifty to Ebenezer Scrooge on tax deadline day. However they got there, these teams embraced modern analytics early on, long before it was de rigeur in baseball, and have seen advantages. The Rays were the league doormat during the early, very non-sabermetric days of the franchise, but after an abrupt change in direction, they have the fourth-most wins in baseball over the last 15 years. The Guardians are not far behind. Win-Loss Record, 2008-2022 Team W L Pct Los Angeles Dodgers 1358 970 .583 New York Yankees 1337 991 .574 St. Louis Cardinals 1289 1037 .554 Tampa Bay Rays 1267 1062 .544 Boston Red Sox 1256 1072 .540 Atlanta Braves 1225 1101 .527 Cleveland Guardians 1208 1118 .519 Milwaukee Brewers 1204 1125 .517 San Francisco Giants 1198 1130 .515 Los Angeles Angels 1195 1133 .513 Houston Astros 1179 1148 .507 Chicago Cubs 1176 1150 .506 Oakland A’s 1171 1156 .503 Toronto Blue Jays 1170 1158 .503 Philadelphia Phillies 1169 1159 .502 Texas Rangers 1159 1170 .498 New York Mets 1156 1172 .497 Washington Nationals 1143 1183 .491 Minnesota Twins 1127 1203 .484 Chicago White Sox 1120 1208 .481 Seattle Mariners 1111 1217 .477 Detroit Tigers 1108 1216 .477 Cincinnati Reds 1103 1225 .474 Arizona Diamondbacks 1096 1232 .471 Colorado Rockies 1086 1242 .466 San Diego Padres 1082 1246 .465 Pittsburgh Pirates 1063 1262 .457 Kansas City Royals 1063 1265 .457 Baltimore Orioles 1047 1280 .450 Florida Marlins 1045 1280 .449 Despite both teams regularly making the playoffs, they’ve only met in the postseason once before, in the 2013 AL Wild Card Game. Things didn’t go Cleveland’s way then, as Alex Cobb and Tampa’s bullpen combined for a shutout, causing a quick exit from October. Now Cleveland has a three-game series to get its revenge. So, why were the projection systems so down on Cleveland going into the season? While I can’t presume to speak for Steamer, the main grumbles that ZiPS had involved the lack of star potential in the outfield, an offensive famine behind the plate, and an uninspiring back of the rotation. Looking at the hits and misses in the projections is probably the quickest way to see where the Guardians made up the shortfall. The projected WAR is adjusted to be the same playing time as the actual WAR, so we’re comparing apples to apples rather than apples to hand grenades. All told, 10 players beat their pro-rate ZiPS WAR projections by at least half a win. ZiPS Projection Beaters, 2022 Guardians Player Actual WAR Projected WAR Difference Andrés Giménez 6.0 3.3 2.7 Trevor Stephan 1.7 0.3 1.4 Steven Kwan 4.3 2.9 1.4 Triston McKenzie 3.6 2.4 1.2 Oscar Gonzalez 1.6 0.4 1.2 Sam Hentges 1.1 0.1 1.0 Josh Naylor 1.6 0.8 0.8 Emmanuel Clase 2.4 1.7 0.7 Aaron Civale 1.3 0.6 0.7 Enyel De Los Santos 1.0 0.5 0.5 ZiPS liked Kwan, but he comfortably beat even an optimistic projection and would be a serious Rookie of the Year contender in a season without Julio Rodríguez and Adley Rutschman wreaking havoc around the league. Along with Gonzalez’s solid year, the Guardians’ outfield combined for a wRC+ of 99, their best performance since those mid-2010s outfields that featured peak Michael Brantley. McKenzie was one of my breakout pitcher picks prior to the season and worked out marvelously as he cut his walk rate back down to where the peripherals suggested. (If you follow that link, I’d greatly appreciate it if you avoided the Yusei Kikuchi section! Ouch.) The only preseason problem place that didn’t get a considerable boost was catcher, though with the usual caveat that gauging defensive value there is a controversial subject. And then there’s Giménez. Projected for a perfectly acceptable three WAR in 557 plate appearances, he had a legitimate superstar-level season and is set up for continued success along these lines. It’s pretty fortunate for the organization that he took his challenge of replacing Francisco Lindor so literally! ZiPS still prefers the back of Tampa Bay’s rotation and bullpen and, in a five-game or seven-game series, sees the Rays as a solid favorite over Cleveland, 58%–42%. But in a three-game series, ZiPS sees the results tighter — nearly a coin flip, as depth is less of an issue. ZiPS Projection – Guardians vs. Rays Team Win in Two Win in Three Victory Guardians 24.7% 22.5% 47.2% Rays 25.1% 27.7% 52.8% Game One looks like the pivotal one. The Guardians struggled against lefties all season, finishing with a wRC+ 20 points higher against righties; only the Marlins had a larger platoon split in that direction. Franmil Reyes, one of the team’s few unmitigated disappointments this season, had a lot to do with this, as the disappearance of his bat took away one of the team’s best lefty-killers. This problem did subside as the season went on and the eventual roster took shape, with Cleveland’s offense going from a wRC+ of 75 against lefties in the first half to 94 over the second half. (The Rays are likely to throw two lefties at them as of press time, so I’ve projected them starting Jeffrey Springs in Game 3.) This is where Shane McClanahan’s health should be a significant concern for the Rays. Since missing time with a shoulder impingement, he’s been much less effective, with his strikeout rate practically disappearing. The velocity’s still there, but hitters have suddenly started to make contact against him, with a significant change between contact rate before the injury (67%) and since (80%). If these struggles continue, a half-run dropoff in McClanahan’s RA is enough to make the game a pure 50/50 affair (50.1% Cleveland, 49.9% Tampa Bay). The platoon differentials may also come into play for Tampa Bay’s lineup. Rays hitters had a smaller split in 2022 than Cleveland’s, with a nine-point advantage against lefties in wRC+. But the projections actually suggest that this difference should be larger, with the Rays missing, for one reason or another, some of the left-handed hitting they had earlier in the season. Brandon Lowe had a reverse platoon split in a small sample, but if healthy, he still projects as the best hitter against righties in the organization. (“If healthy” is a big qualifier, though, given that he was placed on the injured list three separate times during the season and missed the last three weeks of the year with lower back discomfort.) The Guardians seem likely to have only two southpaws on the postseason roster at best: Hentges and (maybe) Kirk McCarty. ZiPS Platoon Projections – Rays Hitters Name OPS vs. L OPS vs. R Brandon Lowe .757 .813 Yandy Díaz .826 .803 Wander Franco .816 .801 Randy Arozarena .835 .779 Ji-Man Choi .665 .758 Isaac Paredes .783 .755 David Peralta .655 .752 Christian Bethancourt .746 .746 Harold Ramírez .778 .740 Jonathan Aranda .693 .731 Manuel Margot .751 .709 Jose Siri .708 .682 Vidal Bruján .643 .655 Taylor Walls .636 .636 René Pinto .690 .632 Not having Lowe available knocks about four percentage points off Tampa Bay’s chances in this matchup. The Rays did get a late-season boon to compensate them for this loss with the return of Tyler Glasnow. His velocity picked up right where he left off before his Tommy John surgery, and he even arrived with enough time to spare to get two tune-up starts in the majors at the end of the season. The likely McClanahan-Glasnow-Springs rotation in the Wild Card round reflects one of the more exploitable weaknesses of Cleveland’s lineup. The Guardians had the second-worst offense in baseball against fastballs in 2022 at 40 runs below league average and combined for a .383 slugging percentage on heaters. Both those numbers edged out only the Tigers, who fielded a lineup that usually looked like a group of Little Leaguers having a pickup game against Randy Johnson. Despite the successes that Cleveland and Tampa Bay have had over the last decade, both still lack that one crowning achievement: a World Series championship. The Rays were bested in both of their Fall Classic appearances, and the Guardians have been waiting for a title since 1948. Crapshoot or not, flags fly forever. By the end of Sunday, we’ll know who will end 2022 with disappointingly unfinished business.