Two principles of a Bill Belichick team are having players that “just do their job” and forming a game plan tailored to exploit the weaknesses of other teams. The Rays are Team Belichick. They have formed an egoless roster in which anybody can be used at any time in multiple roles to capitalize on the job they do well to exploit shortcomings in opponents.
So this type of playoff series — with no off days in the best-of-five and, thus, the need perhaps to use an entire 28-man roster — fits Tampa Bay’s style. Just consider:
* The Rays had 12 pitchers secure a save in the regular season, then had Pete Fairbanks become No. 13 in the first wild-card game against the Blue Jays.
* The Rays used 60 lineups in 60 games, one of which was the first in MLB history to have nine pure lefties in it. They then deployed two more lineups they had not used previously, in sweeping Toronto.
Before that first-round series, Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash told reporters: “We are going to stay consistent to how we tried to win games all year long, which is to use our entire roster. … Our depth is a huge strength of our club. We are not going to change away from that. We talk about it. Some teams are built to run eight, nine men out every day and four out of every five days. We’re built to run different lineups, different personnel and make different decisions on a nightly basis.”
The Rays play a version of position-less baseball with four-man outfields on occasion, openers when necessary and no set pattern for when they will use their relievers. You might see closer Nick Anderson in the seventh inning one game and the ninth the next — both happened against Toronto. You might see righty Yoshi Tsutugo lead off one day and righty Mike Brosseau the next and both pinch-hit for in the fifth inning by lefty Ji-Man Choi — that happened in the two games against Toronto as well.
“There is no predictability,” one scout said. “They are hard to game-plan for. You better run all the matchup data and have an idea of what they are going to do to you or else you play into their hands getting the matchups they want over and over.”
An executive said the Rays are “the perfect chess-playing team.”
With the help of two scouts, a coach and an executive, here is a dive into what the Yankees face this week:
They can open with elite starters
The Rays are renowned for being the pioneers of using the opener, doing so frequently in 2018. But they did that, largely, because they lacked enough quality starting pitchers and saw beginning with a reliever as giving them the best chance to win.
But don’t expect to see an opener in the AL Division Series before Game 4 — perhaps in front of length pitcher Ryan Yarbrough. In Games 1, 2 and 3, the Yankees will face three starters with high-end stuff: lefty Blake Snell and righties Tyler Glasnow and Charlie Morton.
Snell can miss bats with his fastball, curve and slider (Aaron Judge is 1-for-16 with 10 strikeouts against him). Glasnow has two pitches of power — an elite fastball up in the zone and a power curve at the bottom. Morton is savvier than the other two, but still relies on a high-end repertoire.
A huge question in this series is: What does the Yankees’ previous series mean? The Yankees’ slash line versus the Indians was .307/.409/.653. The other 15 playoff teams combined to go .216/.294/.347 in the first round.
Cleveland does not have as overpowering a staff as Tampa Bay, but it had quality starters and depth, and the Indians led the AL in ERA. But the Yankees were terrific at not chasing pitches, which allowed them to accumulate walks and then do damage when pitchers had to venture into the zone. That was particularly impressive against Cleveland’s two pitchers with the best stuff — ace Shane Bieber and reliever James Karinchak.
The Yankees will need that approach in this series. Snell and Glasnow, in particular, will make mistakes over the plate, especially if hitters are disciplined in laying off when Snell goes off the corners and Glasnow goes above and below it.
“If the Yankees can control the zone, they will beat them up,” the coach said. “Are they willing to take pitches and make Tampa’s pitchers work or are they uptight with a new series? Because if they lose their discipline, they will lose the series.”
“They have a matchup for everything,” the executive said. “Aaron Slegers to Peter Fairbanks to Aaron Loup.”
Teams like the Yankees and Mets invest big dollars in their bullpens. The Rays just find pieces that work — often after failure elsewhere. Slegers, for example, has been designated for assignment four times by three teams (including twice by Tampa Bay). John Curtiss has been designated for assignment three times by two teams and released off the Phillies’ Triple-A roster last year — you know, the Phillies, who couldn’t get a big out from their pen this year.
But one scout thought Slegers, for example, could be valuable in this series “because he has some multi-inning versatility and he has some Seth Lugo in him in that he is a reliever who knows how to add and subtract.”
Tampa Bay basically looks for relievers with a dominant pitch and has them ride it — Oliver Drake throwing his splitter more than half the time is an example. So righties with big sliders — Curtiss, Fairbanks and Diego Castillo are going to get lanes of the Yankees’ predominantly righty lineup.
And Anderson is the fireman for any situation — this season righties were 1-for-29 (.034) against him with 14 strikeouts, lefties 4-for-26 (.154) with 12 strikeouts. Active Yankees are 0-for-10 with six strikeouts in their career versus the righty.
A scout: “He is Glasnow out of the bullpen. Elite ride at the top of the zone with premium velocity and a hammer curveball. There is no secret what he is doing. If you can shrink the zone north and south, that maybe gives you the best chance.”
Where are the stars?
The Rays don’t have them in the lineup. They are a good defensive team because of superb positioning, but center fielder Kevin Kiermaier is the lone above-average defender. The lineup strikes out (26.9 percent of plate appearances was the second highest in the majors).
But they will flip-flop mid-game from a righty look to a lefty look, run when they have a chance, bunt and hit-and-run. Disciplined lefty-swinging Brandon Lowe is their best power source. But they will get power from a bunch of places. Choi, for example, has reached safely in 11 of 15 plate appearances against Gerrit Cole, including three doubles and three homers.
“Two things make their talent level play better — they put players into position to optimize their ability and they are very creative how they use the roster,” a scout said. “They don’t have stars, but they get the most out of what they have. That lineup not only changes day to day, but mid-game you can get a completely different lineup than the one that started.”
In some ways, Joey Wendle defines the team. He has no high-end skill. But he can hit, has some pop, can steal a base, can play multiple positions and does it all with a high-running engine while being fundamentally sound. One of the scouts said you had better keep an eye on Wendle, in particular, because he will steal third base and that Tampa Bay will move the trail runner in first-and-third situations to see if they can steal a run via unsure or sloppy defense.
Within the lineup, the lefty bats, in particular, are good low-ball hitters, so expect to see Cole throw a lot of fastballs up in Game 1. But the Yankees are really going to miss Tommy Kahnle’s righty changeup to use as a weapon versus those lefties. Can Jonathan Loaisiga grow up quickly to use his breaking stuff to have success and give the Yankees a pen weapon aside from Chad Green, Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman to get out runs of lefty hitters, in specific?
“Their lineup can go lefty or righty at almost every position,” the executive said. “Their mid-game switch ability can make them immune to openers.”
The wildest card
Randy Arozarena was not even promoted until Aug. 30. The key return from the Cardinals in an offseason trade that sent pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore to St. Louis, Arozarena can take bad routes in the field. He has holes to attack, an aggressive swinging style.
But he has such a quick bat, such fast legs and such a full-energy style that makes he is as scary as anyone in this series. He hit seven homers in just 64 regular season at-bats and went 4-for-4 in steal attempts, then in two playoff games versus the Blue Jays, Arozarena was 4-for-8 with three extra-base hits.
“This kid can really hit a fastball and plays like his hair is on fire,” the coach said. “There are holes in his game, but he also can wreck a game if you don’t pay attention to him.”
I got you under my skin
It is well established that the Rays and Yankees don’t like each other. Part of that is just how Tampa Bay plays. There is an edge to the Rays’ games. They embrace being the small-market underdog. They don’t score a lot or give up a lot of runs. They are used to playing close, tense games and pushing for every edge they can find — exploiting weaknesses.
So, for example, expect any Ray who can run — Arozarena, Willy Adames, Kiermaier, Manny Margot, Wendle — to do so. From the Yankees’ rotation, only Masahiro Tanaka is above average in slowing a running game, though Cole will change his delivery times to thwart an attack. But the Yankees’ bullpen, in particular, is bad at holding runners on. Kyle Higashioka is a below average thrower, and Gary Sanchez, in his new lower stance, is not quite as explosive in getting up to use his strong arm.
Expect the Rays to try to get into Sanchez’s head not only with steals, but also with trying to get 90 feet on every dirt ball. Sanchez can lose his confidence.
“If you are on defense you better not bobble the ball or take your time,” the coach said. “They are running 90 feet. They will do all they can to gain an edge and an extra 90 feet to them is an edge. They are not beating their chest. It is just the way they play. It is hard to slow them down. It really gets under your skin at times, and I mean that in a good way. They have a bunch of baseball players who play hard. You better come to play them because they are coming to play you.”
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