Playoff Preview: Rays and Rangers

The AL Playoff Preview

I know one thing for sure. There is a zero percent probability that Boston wins a single game this postseason. After that, I can only shoot poorly-aimed darts at a board of four contenders. Before going into my predictions, I’m going to preemptively defend myself for what will likely be an incorrect guess at this year’s champion. After a team wins the World Series, it’s easy to say that it was always obvious they were going win. In reality, the number of smart people that picked that team to win was probably between 10% and 25%, depending on the year. Why? The outcomes of sports are always unpredictable, and an 8-team playoff system only serves to screw that up even more. In a study I did over a year ago, I analyzed the likelihood of teams winning their respective league championship series based on a number of factors including season wins, runs scored, runs allowed, and overall run differential. While this project could be improved upon, the basic conclusion is that teams in the playoffs are all good teams, and even the best team in each league only has about a 30% chance to win the League Championship Series.

So let’s have some fun with this:

Texas and Tampa Bay square off in a rematch of last year’s division series, one in which Texas won 3-2. You might think the Rays have a clear edge in pitching with frontline starters, David Price and James Shields. However, team FIPs actually give the Rangers a slight edge, and team xFIPs give them an even larger edge. Is this a true indication of ability? In this case, I think not.

According to Bleacher Report, The Rangers will march out C.J. Wilson, Derek Holland, and then likely Colby Lewis, C.J. Wilson again and Matt Harrison. The Rays start rookie Matt Moore in game one—story on him in a second—supposedly followed by Shields, Price, Hellickson and then Shields again. If these rotations are true, both teams have made seemingly poor rotation decisions. In this scenario, each team’s aces, Price and Wilson, will be asked to pitch on 3-days rest. History has shown that most pitchers are worse on three days, and these two are no exception.

Price:

3-days rest: 5.3 innings, 12.5% Ks, 12.5% BBs

4-days rest: 279.1 innings, 22.4% Ks, 8.1% BBs

Wilson:

3-days rest: NEVER STARTED ON THREE DAYS REST

4-days rest: 278.1 innings, 20.0% Ks, 8.4% BBs

They both lack experience pitching on a three-day rest, and Price didn’t pitch inspiringly well the one time he did (granted, small sample size). Despite being a former reliever, Wilson never had to pitch so many innings on short days rest, only one or two innings at a time. Let’s jump into the hypothetical (my favorite place) for a second and suppose the Rays find themselves down 2-0 and facing elimination. They have to win three in a row to win the series, regardless of the order of their starters. If they lose Hellickson’s start in game three, then they lose the series. If they lose Hellickson’s start in game 4, then they lose the series. Momentum is largely a myth (don’t want to get into that argument now), so the ONLY reason to start Price is to potentially increase the chances of a game four, another home game and more revenue for a poor team. The reason this wouldn’t increase the chances of winning the series can be found in the conservation of win probability. What marginal win probability is gained by starting Price in game 3 is then lost again by starting Hellickson in game 4. But Price will be pitching in an uncomfortable situation, therefore reducing the Rays chances at the ALCS. Again, what is economically gained by earning another home game this series is easily lost by reducing the chances of 2 or 3 home games in the ALCS, theoretically. So whether the goal is to win the series or to increase revenue, I see no edge anywhere in starting Price in game 3.

Texas’ case is similar. Why pitch Wilson in game 4 when he’s never pitched on three days rest?

Getting into the pitching advantages, I think comparing FIPs, ERAs and xFIPs straight across is misleading in this case. Matt Moore has pitched nine innings at the major league level. Nine. However, he’s an electric pitcher with a 96-mph heater and tons of strikeouts in the minors. Hellickson’s xFIP is sky high, but like Cain his run prevention has managed to fly well below that. His true ability probably lies somewhere between his 2.95 ERA and 4.72 xFIP.

In the end, here are the pitcher matchups best-to-worst, though they won’t actually be starting against each other in this order. Aces Wilson and Shields wash each other out. Price beats Harrison. Hellickson’s ERA takes down Holland’s, but his FIP and xFIP are, as noted, suspiciously high. This discrepancy probably has to do with the Rays defense and Tropicana Field. Guess where his start is? Tropicana Field in front of the Rays defense, with Sam Fuld back in the outfield. The home ballpark may help to neutralize this matchup, but Holland gets the same ballpark. Maybe a slight advantage to Texas here. Then we have Moore and Lewis. Lewis has the experience, but his numbers are pedestrian in every way. Moore has talent, and in the end, talent usually wins. Success at the minor league level has been shown to translate well, and Texas has never see Moore before. I give the nod to Moore in this one. Overall pitching advantage: Rays, but slight.

After a long-winded look at pitching, the offense should be easy. wRC+ looks at a team’s offensive production relative to other teams in the league, and relative to ballpark effects. Texas 113, Rays 103. Additionally, Texas faced two of the league best pitching teams, the Rays and Mariners, far more often than the Rays did. Advantage Rangers.

I trust team defensive metrics like UZR and DRS pretty highly, even in just one sesaon, and they give a distinct advantage to the Rays. The Rays are built to defend against the fly ball—with Fuld and Upton covering much of the outfield—and their pitchers give up a lot of flyballs. (“Moneyball” anyone?) This gives the Rays the edge defensively.

In a short series, bats get cold and hot, arms go wild, and great players make dumb defensive plays. Texas won more games this year than Tampa Bay, but played the Red Sox and Yankees a combined 27 less times than Tampa Bay did. One final note, I don’t think managers play as big a role as the common fan believes. However, there’s obviously some control there, and Joe Maddon is basically Einstein compared to Ron Washington.

Overall, I like the Rays in this series…maybe 51.76 to 48.24 odds…approximately.

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