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The ALDS Preview: Rangers Vs. Rays

The Rangers host the Rays in a rematch of the first playoff series Texas ever won.

When the Rays look for revenge, they have two new weapons to deal with. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
When the Rays look for revenge, they have two new weapons to deal with. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Magic Number: 11

For most of the the 2011 season, it has been likely -- perhaps even a forgone conclusion -- the Rangers would be at this point, a second consecutive season in the playoffs. The question was who they would play. At various points it seemed they would play Boston, New York, or Detroit, with two out of three providing all new playoff opponents for the franchise.

Not until the 11th hour did the actual opponent even seem a possibility: a rematch of the Rangers' first ever post season series win just a year ago, with the Tampa Bay Rays.

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This series perhaps has less emotional build up than last year's for Rangers fans. 2010 was the first appearance in 11 years for a team that had never won anything, facing a team that had won the toughest division in baseball. 2011 comes on the heels of a league pennant facing a team that needed a huge collapse to make the playoffs. Even though the opponent is the same as it was a year ago, however, they are a great story that we unfortunately hope comes to an end by next week.

Much time was spent calling last season the Ray's last shot. They'd be losing Pena! Crawford! Soriano! They play in the AL East with no money! How could they possibly hope to contend?

Well, by having a deep farm system and a smart front office, that's how. Despite the loss of some good players, the Rays spent 2011 as a good baseball team, albeit in the shadow of two super powers. Until, inexplicably, one of those super powers suffered a historic collapse which already has enough bandwidth split over it. The end result is a miraculous run at a playoff berth, the third appearance in four years for a one-time laughing stock, and a shot at revenge over the team that eliminated them a year ago.

What comes from that miraculous run, though, is the narrative that the Rays are "getting hot at the right time" and the American League is in trouble. Ignore this attempt at story-making. Tampa Bay's story is how they have managed to turn limited funds in to a team that has been consistently good for four years running, but they were not a Rockies-style hot streak in to the playoffs. The Rays played well enough in September to make the playoffs thanks to a reeling Boston team, and the Yankees playing their AAA squad at the end. That is not to completely diminish their play, but there was a much hotter team in the last month of the season: the Texas Rangers.

The fact of the matter is, the Rangers are the better team. The way better team. Baseball Prospectus estimates them as something in the neighborhood of nine wins better in true talent. Texas allowed 63 more runs, but scored 148 more. All that without the likes of Nelson Cruz, Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, Mike Adams, or Koji Uehara playing every day, as they should in the coming series. Texas lost four fewer games in the month that gained the Rays the label of "getting hot at the right time."

It is not that the Rays are not a good team, or that they do not "deserve" to be here, or that they cannot win three of five against Texas. They are, they do, and they can. The Rangers, however, are closer to great than good, did not need a historic collapse to reach the playoffs, and should have an easier time advancing to the ALCS.

If we look deeper at the teams, we can start to see how and where the Rangers are better.

Note that the following preview is long, and is not necessarily meant to be read at once in its entirety, unless you really have the time and interest. Instead, there are sections detailing the Rays' best players, how the teams compare in each of the three main aspects of baseball, and an attempt at estimating just how confident Rangers fans should be in seeing victory. Scan for the part that interests you most.

Know Thy Enemy

FANGRAPHS’ TOP FIVE RAYS

POS

PLAYER

PA

AVG

OBP

SLG

wOBA

UZR

WAR

2B

Ben Zobrist

674

.269

.353

.469

.360

10.3

6.6

3B

Evan Longoria

574

.244

.355

.495

.365

11.0

6.1

POS

PLAYER

IP

K/9

BB/9

HR/FB

ERA

FIP

WAR

SP

James Shields

249.1

8.12

2.35

11.1%

2.82

3.42

4.9

SP

David Price

224.1

8.75

2.53

9.7%

3.49

3.32

4.7

POS

PLAYER

PA

AVG

OBP

SLG

wOBA

UZR

WAR

CF

B.J. Upton

640

.243

.331

.429

.337

0.4

4.0

For any stats through the rest of this preview you find unfamiliar, there is a handy glossary down at the bottom. This first table is simply the top five Rays by Wins Above Replacement at FanGraphs, an estimate of how many wins better they made their team this season than a scrub would have done in the same playing time.

The names on here are unsurprising, as they have become the established stars of one of baseball's most successful recent teams. Longoria is firmly entrenched as one of the best players in baseball, and likely would deserve MVP consideration if not for an early injury. As a serious lefty killer, he is also the real danger for the Rangers -- starting lefties in four out of five games -- in this series. Ben Zobrist is now two years removed from a shocking break-out season, and has now likely put to rest any belief that he was a one-hit wonder. B.J. Upton is considered by many a disappointment, but has really now been a very good player in four of his five full Major League seasons.

The two pitchers on the list are the Rays' big shot at making a playoff run, as they meet the oft-cited standard of throwing a pair of elite pitchers at teams in a short series. Price did not have a season that will get much Cy Young contention, but he is still a pitcher most teams could live with at the front of their rotation. Shields, meanwhile, went a long way to prove to people his home run-inflated ERA in 2010 was just a fluke.

Another interesting player not listed is young Desmond Jennings. One of the elite prospects in baseball, Jennings was called up mid-season and became an immediate stud. In 63 games, he hit .259/.356/.449, good for a 2.3 WAR; easily on the list extrapolated over a full season, and tremendous production to get from your rookie.

For reference, the four win territory is loosely considered "All-Star caliber," and the Rays had one other player -- Matt Joyce -- not on this list whose 3.7 WAR would round up to that level. The Rangers, meanwhile, had seven players surpass four wins, and three others reach at least 3.6.

OFFENSE

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Rays Probable Lineup

  1. Desmond Jennings, LF
  2. B.J. Upton, CF
  3. Evan Longoria, 3B
  4. Ben Zobrist, 2B
  5. Johnny Damon, DH
  6. Sean Rodriguez, SS
  7. Casey Kotchman, 1B
  8. Matt Joyce, RF
  9. Kelly Shoppach, C

For an initial comparison of the offense, the chart above compares each player likely to see the most playing time in the series in terms of weighted On Base Average. As you can see, the Rangers dominate. In fact, the only position the Rays lead at is the spot where Ron Washington's line-up decision has been most questionable: Elvis Andrus in the second spot trails B.J. Upton. On the chart, Matt Joyce also comes out ahead of David Murphy, but that ignores the severe platoon disadvantage Joyce will face in this series.

Shortstop Reid Brignac (.203) is a regular player, but tends to sit against left handed pitchers. He should probably be expected to start against Colby Lewis in game three, but not elsewhere. Joyce has frequently sat against lefties lately, but with Brandon Guyer left off the playoff roster, it would seem the lefty right fielder will be playing. With this lineup, only he, Kotchman, and Damon are at a platoon disadvantage against the Rangers' trio of lefty starters, and that's a big reason the Rays wOBA was 15 points better against lefties. While it is not panic territory, the lefty-heavy rotation of the Rangers does pose an advantage for Tampa.

The chart above assumes a Murphy-Hamilton-Cruz outfield for most of the games, but against lefties like David Price, or game one starter Matt Moore, we may well (and might want to) see Craig Gentry (.341) and his incredible glove in center, rather than have David Murphy face a lefty. Those two games might also see the benching of Mitch Moreland in favor of Mike Napoli moved to DH or first base, and Yorvit Torrealba (.306) getting time at catcher. Torrealba over Moreland against lefties is, on paper, a clear improvement.

This is a tad skewed, of course, by the relative ballparks. The Rangers play in a very friendly home park for offense, the Rays do not. Even after considering the parks, though, the Texas offense this season hit to a run production expectation of nearly half a run more per game than Tampa Bay. While the Rays called Jennings up mid-season, and played 29 games without Longoria, Jennings' could well be small sample size noise, while the Rangers had lengthy DL stints for Mike Napoli, Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, and Nelson Cruz. The Rays will also stack-up a little better facing lefties in four out of five games, but on a per-game basis, the healthy line-ups put forth in this series are not even close in run scoring potential. While pitching is certainly important in the post-season, the truisms about its October value have completely clouded how valuable offense is. It still matters this time of year who can score the most runs.

PITCHING

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Probable Starters

  1. LHP Matt Moore vs. LHP C.J. Wilson
  2. RHP James Shields vs. LHP Derek Holland
  3. LHP David Price vs. RHP Colby Lewis
  4. RHP Jeff Niemann vs. LHP Matt Harrison
  5. RHP James Shields vs. LHP C.J. Wilson

The pitching staffs haven't fully been announced, but the projected starters here are a combination of reports and what makes sense. The comparison above is made using Fielding Independent Pitching, essentially an estimate of a pitcher's ERA looking at only the components pitchers express the most control over.

The Rays appear to be going with a pitcher who has started one Major League game in his life to start against the defending AL champs in Arlington. As you can see, Matt Moore breaks the chart, since he has allowed one walk, and no runs, against 11 strikeouts in his tiny Major League career. The kid has nasty stuff, with a ton of movement on his slider -- which constitutes almost all of his secondary pitches so far -- and a fastball that sits in the mid-90s. As an unknown, he is scary. However, he is also a rookie making his second start ever against a murderous offense in a killer park. He has thrown a fastball on 73% of his pitches, and has allowed quite a few fly balls. A ton of fastballs to an all contact, all the time offense like Texas, and a ton of fly balls in Arlington are a bad recipe. He may just have the stuff to continue his dominance, but just because he is unknown does not mean you assume Texas is screwed.

Shields in 2011 got his fly ball rates under control and went from a pitcher with great peripherals to a pitcher with a great ERA. He also goes the distance at will, with 11 complete games. He gives fairly equal time to his fastball (low 90s), change (low 80s) and curve (high 70s), and also gets in plenty of sliders and cutters. Shields became a symbol of the Rangers' AL playoff run in 2011, with an awful performance in game two and literally being bothered in to falling off the mound by Andrus, but that one game is not necessarily what our expectations should be this time. With a bevy of pitches at his disposal, all of which have been successful in 2011, and a newly-reigned in fly ball rate, he poses a serious threat. And all signs point to having to deal with him twice if necessary.

Price is now established as one of the better pitchers in baseball, and matched against Lewis, probably presents the biggest miss-match of the series in the Rays favor. He profiles similar to Moore, with mid-90s fastballs 70% of the time and a lot of fly balls, though he mixes up his slider, change, and curveball a bit more with the other 30% of his pitches. The heavy reliance of fastballs, and the flyball tendencies, are likely a large part of why Price has a career 5.67 ERA against the Rangers.

Jeff Niemann is a solid pitcher, but he might be the "worst" pitcher in this series. He throws a big curve more than a quarter of the time, and fills in the rest of his pitches with fastballs in the high 80s to low 90s. His profile is not quite as Ranger-friendly as Moore and Price, but his stuff and track record lag behind the two lefties. This start could also easily be Jeremy Hellickson (4.44) or Wade Davis (4.67).

The bullpen comparison here is season wide, so the Rangers are held back by their early season woes, with the lack of Adams, Uehara, and Gonzalez. Even with that, and with the Rays pitching in a much more pitcher-friendly park, the bullpen comparison is close, and that should tell you quite a bit. Closer Kyle Farnsworth and set-up man Joel Peralta have each had decent enough seasons, but they would likely be outside of the first three or four options in the Rangers' current bullpen. While the names and repertoires change, the chances of the Rangers winning the game don't a whole lot, whoever the starter is.

The ballpark is important here, as it was with the offense, as it is unaccounted for in FIP. Rangers Ballpark in Arlington keeps the Rangers' offense from looking as good as it truly is. In fact, in terms of Wins Above Replacement, the Rangers' rotation has the Rays beat in 2011 by more than five wins, after ballpark considerations. True, the Rays gain more by leaving out Jeremy Hellickson than the Rangers do from the collapse of Alexi Ogando -- who makes that WAR lead larger than it would be from the playoff staff -- but the Rangers also have C.J. Wilson going twice, a better pitcher than James Shields for two years running, and a superior bullpen should there be struggles.

The Rays strength is their pitching, and it is a strength, but it does not in any way put the Rangers to shame.

As long as Matt Moore is not really the second coming of Stephen Strasburg. . .

FIELDING

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The last component, of course, is fielding; the most difficult to measure. To attempt to capture the fielding performances in 2011 by the starting players, FanGraphs' two major defensive metrics -- Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved -- are used, showing how many runs each metric estimates the players saved -- above average -- per 150 games played.

The result is two good defensive teams, especially the infields. Thanks to the godly trio of Andrus, Kinsler, and Beltre the Rangers have the lead, but the Rays' corner outfielders close the gap a bit. The lead for the Rangers by splitting the difference in the two measures comes out to just under a mere half a run more saved in five games than the Rays.

Anyone with experience with defensive metrics knows the caveat that comes next: not only is the science iffy, but the sample size her is small. One season is small enough as it is, and many of these players have less than that at the position listed. With players like the Rangers' infielders, this matches pretty well what we think of them. For the outfielders, on both squads, it becomes a bit more questionable. Cruz has had multiple good seasons in right, is he really bad now or is it a small sample issue? Is Desmond Jennings really good? Is Sean Rodriguez really bad? We can safely assume that both teams are good in the field, and it may be likely the Rangers are better, but our confidence in how much better they are, if at all, is weak.

In short, defense here might be a game changer, but which team will make the big plays is hard to predict. The final part of the preview, by the way, attempts to include that lack of confidence.

EXPECTATIONS

What good is all this stuff if you don't try and use it to predict the winner, right?

This preview does not try and predict the winner, but using a fantastic program developed by Steve Sommer, we can help set expectations in the series. The program takes individual components, as in the actual pitchers, the actual lineups, and the actual players likely to appear in the series, not simply a plug in of the broad team stats. I'm also attempting to include platoon situations, and homefield advantage is accounted for. The components included are essentially what was posted in each comparison, but with regression to avoid too much weight given to luck, outliers, and small samples.

The result is nothing to be called perfect, but merely an attempt at giving the best estimate possible of how often each team wins the series.

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The result is pretty exciting for a Rangers fan. That's just barely over a 75% chance, three-in-four, of winning the ALDS. A sizable advantage, which should be no surprise given the regular season disparities between the teams -- especially considering the Rangers' health during the season -- and the information written here so far.

That said, several words of caution and note go with this.

The first should be obvious, but in case it's not: 75% is not 100%. The idea here is that the Rangers win at least three games against the Rays if given five chances way more often than not, but a 25% chance of the Rays winning is not nearly small enough we should be planning for an ALCS trip. If you flip a coin twice and get heads both times, it is not a particularly shocking situation, and that is exactly what the Rays' shot is suggested to be here: one-in-four results ends up with the Rays playing in the second round. If you think these teams are evenly matched 25% may sound tiny, but it's not.

Further, things may not be captured in this estimate that could greatly sway the odds. For one, there are the bullpens. The Rangers current bullpen looks fantastic, but it comes out significantly ahead of Tampa Bay, and skews things heavily. Giving equal bullpens is enough to take the Rangers' chances down to below two-in-three. While the bullpens are almost certainly not equal, they are also a fickle mistress and the Rangers' pretty new acquisitions could easily have a few bad games to turn everything on its head.

There is also the case of Matt Moore. On such a tiny sample, his ZiPS projections are used for his true talent ERA. However, if his talent is significantly closer to the unreal performance he put up against the Yankees in his first start, then the series looks significantly more even. The same could be said of fielding estimations, managerial abilities, real shifts in talent disregarded as overperformance, and any other number of things. To say nothing of being unable to predict who will get hot at the right time.

Or injuries. The Rangers have several injury, prone players, and that is completely ignored here. While the post-season format makes it a bit less likely they'll miss games, it's more of a possibility than zero. Lose a Hamilton or a Kinsler, and the ALDS starts to get a lot closer on paper. In short, most of the things that are difficult to include favor the Rays, and so while you cannot necessarily guess how much lower than 75% the Rangers' chances of winning this series are, taking the under would probably be a safe bet.

Also, note that the graph as shown represents the Rangers' chances of winning X amount of games in five tries. The tiny bar doesn't represent their chances of getting swept, it represents their chances of losing five in a row. The Rays chances of winning in a sweep actually come out closer to 10%, give or take a few percentage points just based on how good Matt Moore really is.

None of this is to insist you can't be excited about a series your team should likely win, Rangers fans. By all means, be thrilled about it. Just don't assume victory until it actually happens because someone guesses it will happen most of the time they try. Most importantly, on the off chance the Rays do win and the season ends here, take Adam Morris's suggestion and make sure you enjoy every sandwich.

If you're interested, the system spits out the Rangers' chances of winning each game in this order of likelihood:

  1. Game 1, 70%
  2. Game 5, 68%
  3. Game 2, 60%
  4. Game 4, 55%
  5. Game 3, 52%

There are a million moving parts to doing something like this. It is entirely in the realm of possibility that so much is missed the Rays are really the favorable team. But the Rangers played better for 162 games, even without their best talent on the field. When the best talent is assembled, they should be the better team by a large margin

That doesn't mean they'll win, but at least it means you don't have to hope for miracles for it to happen.

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.