Tampa Bay Rays (0-0) Vs. Toronto Blue Jays (0-0)
2019 Season Series: Rays won 13-6
*All above stats from 2019 season
Rays: The Rays would’ve come into a normal 2020 season with big expectations for a deep postseason run. An elite pitching staff combined with a versatile offense offers hope to finally thwart the New York Yankees as the top team in the AL East. Tampa Bay is arguably the best organization in baseball when it comes to strategic decision making. All of those factors will be an immense help as they, like everyone else, play through this sixty game season caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Residing in the current worldwide COVID-19 epicenter certainly doesn’t make life easier on the Rays and they have already felt the impact of the pandemic sweep through their roster. Star pitcher Tyler Glasnow, rotation mainstay Yonny Chirinos, and newly acquired DH Jose Martinez have all already been diagnosed with and fully recovered from the virus in time for opening day. Austin Meadows recent positive test marks the first in-season obstacle. He is undeniably their best position player and the team went as he did in 2019. During the months (March, April, May, and September) in 2019 when Meadows had a 1.000 OPS, The Rays’ record was 52-28. During the months he was below, often well below, that figure, they went just 44-38. If there is a sign of hope however, it’s the fact that they won 16 of the 24 games in which he was absent in 2019. His presence and power, often from the leadoff spot, will be missed during his still undetermined length of absence.
Blue Jays: Toronto has been in the headlines recently because they are currently unable to find a home ballpark. Canada has denied them the opportunity to play in their home ballpark due to the pandemic. They have also tried to negotiate sharing PNC park with the Pittsburgh Pirates, but were denied by the state of Pennsylvania as well. Their remaining options appear to be their triple-A affiliate in Buffalo or their spring training home in Dunedin, Florida. Buffalo offers a close alternative, but the stadium may not be Major League ready soon enough as the Blue Jays’ first scheduled home game is this coming Wednesday. Dunedin also carries safety issues due to the aforementioned spike in COVID-19 cases in Florida.
Off-field distractions aside, the baseball operations side actually provides some hope for Toronto fans. Second-generation studs Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, and Cavan Biggio have the pedigree and talent to carry the Jays’ offense for years to come. Backed by several other decent bats like Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Randal Grichuk, and Teoscar Hernandez, Toronto has the potential to be a top ten offense. Guerrero will be in the spotlight defensively too, as he was recently moved from third base to first base to negate some defensive shortcomings. This move was projected to be made eventually anyway, similar to Miguel Cabrera, but the Blue Jays felt it was better for Guerrero to build on his solid offensive rookie year.
Toronto’s pitching staff offers a bit of mystery. Nearly the entire starting rotation will be filled with new faces, headlined by ex-Dodger Hyun-Jin-Ryu, who was signed to a four-year, $80 million contract this past winter. He led the Majors in ERA last season while finishing behind only Jacob DeGrom in the NL Cy Young race. Other acquisitions include Chase Anderson and Tanner Roark, who had several productive years in Milwaukee and Washington respectively. Saturday starter Matt Shoemaker will also seem like a fresh face because he only made five starts for the Jays last year due to a torn knee ligament. Top prospect Nate Pearson also waits in the wings as a future ace, though the Rays won’t see him in this series. It is likely that the Rays will see Roark or Trent Thornton on Sunday.
Matchup to Watch
The relative youth of both rosters and the Rays’ general unfamiliarity with Toronto’s new starting rotation leads to small samples of data to find any meaningful individual matchups to watch. The Rays will probably be testing out their new righty-heavy lineup, featuring Jose Martinez, Hunter Renfroe, and possibly Manuel Margot, on opening day. The real matchup to watch is more of a broad philosophical one. Part of the reason that the Rays dominated the season series last year is that their pitching philosophy is essentially the antithesis of the Blue Jays’ offensive tendencies. Consider these 2019 Blue Jays team statistics (courtesy of Fangraphs):
- Last in MLB in batting average
- 27th in on-base percentage, yet 17th in slugging percentage
- 6th-highest strikeout percentage
- 2nd-highest fly ball percentage
- Highest percentage of batted balls pulled
What does it all mean? The revolution of shifting and batted ball data created the widespread offensive philosophy of pulling the ball in the air. This led to the biggest leaguewide home run spike baseball has ever seen. In response, pitching staffs have shied away from inducing groundballs and cutting corners in favor of high fastballs and a higher usage rate of breaking balls. Rays starters, including their famous openers, had the second-highest fastball velocity and curveball usage rate in the Majors. Their reliever stats are harder to gauge to due their common use of a soft-tosser like Ryan Yarbrough or Jalen Beeks in the “bulk innings” following a high-velocity opener. These strategies helped their staff to allow the fewest home runs in baseball while ranking among the ten best in flyball percentage allowed, pull percentage, and hard contact percentage. Bottomline: The Jays love to pull balls in the air. The Rays aren’t having it.
Keys to Success
Rays: Someone will have to be hot offensively from the beginning with Austin Meadows absent. Winning matchups is great, but the Rays are going to need their few everyday players to start strong. Brandon Lowe, Willy Adames, and Kevin Kiermaier come to mind. They also need their new crop of right-handed hitters to improve the Rays’ offense against southpaws. Meadows is a big loss and someone has to pick up the slack.
Blue Jays: Given what we’ve researched in the previous section, Toronto will have to make adjustments at the plate to beat the Rays head-to-head. Their young hitters are likely to improve, but they will struggle if they do not become more versatile and less high-risk, high-reward.
Prediction: The Blue Jays should improve this year and this series will likely be tight, but they are still young and the Rays have too much pitching and too high of aspirations to let this series get away from them. Rays win two out of three.