AL Wild Card Series Preview: Toronto Blue Jays vs. Tampa Bay Rays

Baseball’s playoff format has always thumbed its nose at analysis. Five games in a divisional series, five piddling games, to determine which team is more worthy of a championship? Those teams might be separated by 20 games in the standings, and still, three hot starts by so-so pitchers could send either squad home.

This year, that arbitrary nature is in overdrive. The Blue Jays and Rays will play at most three games to settle who moves on and who goes home. Blink, and the Rays could be a game away from elimination despite winning eight more games in the regular season, the equivalent of a 22-game gap in a 162-game season.

Don’t mistake the fact that three games feels short, however, for some statement that this series is a toss-up, a 50/50 proposition. The Rays are favored, and they should be! They’re better, and while better might not mean as much over three games as it does over 60, it’s not meaningless. Tampa Bay is a full-blown juggernaut, while Toronto is an exciting team that still has more work to do to build a year-in, year-out contender.

Statements that the playoffs favor offense or defense are short-sighted. The playoffs favor outscoring your opponents by any available means. The Rays aren’t favored in this series specifically because their pitching is better — but make no mistake, their pitching is better. In fact, they’ll inarguably have the advantage in all three potential games of this series, after accounting for starters and the bullpen.

In Game 1, the Jays look likely to send Hyun Jin Ryu to the mound. He’s the team’s best starter, and he was brilliant this year; his 2.69 ERA and 3.01 FIP ranked ninth and 12th, respectively, among qualified starters. As a left-handed starter, however, he’s always somewhat at the mercy of the opposition lineup; jam enough right-handed batters in there, and he’ll be at a small disadvantage relative to his normal form due to natural platoon splits.

And the Rays can bring that righty-heavy lineup. Yandy Díaz, one of the team’s best right-handed bats, looks ready to return for the playoffs. That gives the Rays the ability to play Díaz and Mike Brosseau on the infield corners, with an all-righty outfield of Randy Arozarena, Manuel Margot, and Hunter Renfroe. That would leave them with only Brandon Lowe and Yoshi Tsutsugo facing a platoon disadvantage.

When someone tells you a hitter “crushes lefties,” or “can only hit opposite-handed pitching,” it generally pays to be skeptical. The smart move, mathematically speaking, is to assume that all right-handed hitters have roughly similar platoon splits until you get an overwhelming preponderance of evidence to suggest otherwise. Just because there aren’t righties who are particularly suited to hitting opposite-handed pitching doesn’t mean that it’s not an edge, though. Right-handed batters accrued a 107 wRC+ against southpaws in 2020, and a 101 against righties.

The Rays don’t have anyone with Ryu’s 2020 statistics, but they’ll bring a fearsome lefty of their own in Blake Snell. Like the Rays, the Jays can put together a righty-heavy lineup to build some platoon advantages; Cavan Biggio is their only must-start lefty hitter. That makes the first game a battle of strength on strength; maybe you’d prefer Snell to Ryu or vice versa, but the margin is small. Both lineups have pop, and both can bring in a boatload of righty hitters for left-handed opposition. This game gives the Blue Jays their best chance at a win.

The problem with the series, from Toronto’s perspective at least, is the next two games. The Jays will send Taijuan Walker to the mound for Game 2, and the Rays can counter with a lefty-heavy configuration. Arozarena has been starting against both lefties and righties, and Willy Adames will play regardless, but that’s it; the Rays can swap out everyone else for left-handers. That’s a tough matchup for Walker, who would be a fringe starter for most playoff teams but has been thrust into the number two slot by a series of Toronto injuries.

The Rays, meanwhile, will likely use Tyler Glasnow in Game 2. Unlike Tampa Bay, Toronto can’t counter by bringing in a pile of lefties. Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Teoscar Hernández, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and Randal Grichuk all project to play against right-handed pitching because the Jays simply don’t have lefty bats worth replacing them with. They’re reduced to using Travis Shaw and Joe Panik, which brings me back to a key point about the platoon advantage: facing opposite-handed pitching makes you better, but it doesn’t make you good. Joe Panik facing a righty is still Joe Panik, just a slightly upgraded version.

Game 3 will be more of the same. The Blue Jays are deciding between Matt Shoemaker and Robbie Ray, but whoever starts will have a short leash and the other starter waiting in the wings. The Rays, meanwhile, can run out Charlie Morton and present the same righty/righty matchups as before.

Don’t take any of this to mean that right-handed hitters are somehow incapable of hitting right-handed pitching. They’re just less capable than they are of hitting left-handed pitching. Bichette doesn’t turn into a pumpkin when he faces righties; he’s just not as good. The Rays and Blue Jays offenses both managed a 109 wRC+ on the year, but Tampa will get to deploy more of their hitters in an advantageous position, and they’ll bring better starters to the series to boot, even if you call Snell and Ryu a wash.

Don’t sell the Rays’ bullpen short, either. Their four highest-leverage relievers — Nick Anderson, Pete Fairbanks, Chaz Roe, and Diego Castillo — combined for a 1.95 ERA and 3.04 FIP this year. They struck out 32% of the batters they faced. Anderson is one of the very best relievers in the game — he had a 0.55 ERA this season and a 1.35 FIP, while striking out an outrageous 44.8% of his opponents and walking only 5.2%. If baseball were an old-timey map, Tampa Bay’s bullpen would be the part emblazoned with “Here there be dragons.”

Toronto’s bullpen, like Tampa’s, will feature roughly nine major league pitchers. The similarities end there, however. Rafael Dolis, the nominal closer with Ken Giles out, strikes out his fair share of opponents, but walks more than you’d like. He developed a splitter while spending four years pitching in Japan, but is otherwise all sinkers and sliders. He’d probably be the sixth- or seventh-best reliever in Tampa’s ‘pen.

That’s not to say that Toronto has no interesting relievers. Ross Stripling has had a tough season, but he’s historically been more effective in relief. Nate Pearson didn’t have time to build up his stamina while recovering from injury, but he’s an exciting high-leverage option. Thomas Hatch, Ryan Borucki, and Patrick Murphy are all intriguing young arms. Julian Merryweather probably won’t be ready for this round of the playoffs, but he’d be a nice extra piece to have if he’s healthy.

Intriguing will only take you so far, however. Even if you strip out Stripling’s poor 2020, this group can’t match up with the Rays’ relievers. They’ve struck out 26.2% of opponents while walking 13.1%. That’s shaky middle reliever territory, not fire-breathing monster. Unless Ryu is on the mound, the Rays will have the pitching advantage in every inning of this series.

You could convince me that the Blue Jays have a better overall offense than the Rays. Both teams put up a 109 wRC+ on the year, and both dealt with injuries while doing so. Toronto has a number of young players who could always take a step forward. If this series were a home run derby against generic opposing pitching, it would be roughly a dead heat.

But that’s not how the playoffs work. The Rays had the sixth-highest strikeout rate in baseball this year and the fourth-lowest walk rate. Adjust for their home stadium, and they had the fourth-lowest ERA. The Jays were 20th in strikeout rate, second-last in walk rate, and 18th in park-adjusted ERA.

In addition, Tampa Bay can put their hitters in a better position to succeed by switching lineups around. Toronto has a puncher’s chance, and they have offensive stars, but those stars will have to succeed through difficult initial conditions while Tampa’s hitters face their preferred type of pitching.

Because this is a three-game series, the Blue Jays stand a fair chance of pulling off an upset. Our playoff odds see them winning roughly 40% of the time, with others slightly more sanguine. The human brain isn’t particularly good at distinguishing a 40% chance from a 50% chance, so this probably feels like a tossup.

But it isn’t. The Rays are the better team. If the Blue Jays pull off an upset, they’ll do so despite facing an incredibly difficult gauntlet of pitching. They’re decided underdogs. They aren’t big enough underdogs for my taste — the brevity of the series ensures that — but they are all the same. Should they win, they’ll have pulled something unlikely off, something unexpected. That makes the fact that it could happen — and it could totally happen! — all the more exciting.





Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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J. Paquin
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J. Paquin

Good analysis, most Jays fans feel the same. Not expecting a win, but would not be surprised. Just happy were not stuck up against Biebs and the Clevelanders…

carter
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carter

Really? If I was a Blue Jays fan I’d much prefer playing Cleveland.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Depends on whether you think you have a better shot against a team that can roll out an entire platoon lineup against you and above-average pitching or one that has the best pitching in baseball (and far better than anyone else in AL) but a mediocre offense. I’m not sure there’s a right answer here, since the answer in both cases is to hope you’re playing at 95% of your potential and the other team is playing at 75%–but that’s hard because both teams are fairly consistent.

carter
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carter

I know that the numbers show the Indians had the best pitching in baseball, but they also had quite a favorable schedule. Obviously Bieber is great, but he has nearly 30% of their pitching WAR. Beyond him I don’t think anyone is too worried about Carrasco, Plesac, and Civale regardless of what they did this season.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Carrasco and Plesac have been good! Civale’s most likely a 4th starter but they have the rarest of all rarities: The platonic ideal for a rotation: A guy who is a good bet to top 5 wins, another at 4, a third at 3, etc. Plus, Karinchak and Hand have been great and Maton hasn’t been too shabby either.

There are teams that have better relievers or better starters but Cleveland has the complete package. Top-end, depth, rotation, bullpen.

rochekp
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rochekp

If you completely removed Bieber’s WAR they would still have the 4th most pitching WAR in baseball…

carter
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carter

I get what you are saying. And I realize all those pitchers have been good. But bad pitchers don’t usually pitch in the playoffs, so comparing entire squads to me is foolish, and Bieber can’t throw every game. Their 2-4 isn’t better in my opinion than most other squads.

Mitchell Moore
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Mitchell Moore

And Hand, Maton, and Karinchak (now there’s a Cleveland name for a Cleveland ballplayer) collectively pit up 2.9 WAR in 70.2 innings, Bieber-like value per inning. Yikes.

carter
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carter

I’m in on Karinchak. Regardless of how good Hand was this year, if I was a fan of a team I’d much rather face him down 1 in the 9th than most playoff closers.

carter
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carter

Bump. How was that Indians staff?