If the regular season were to end today, the Tampa Bay Rays would be looking to a playoff series versus the winner of an American League Wild Card game between the Boston Red Sox and either the Toronto Blue Jays or New York Yankees.
Who should Rays fans root for in the Wild Card battle?
All mentioned teams are from the AL East and have waged a season-long battle for dominance. Although sitting on top, the Rays are limping through September.
They are 5-5 in their last 10 games, while the Red Sox are 8-2, the Yankees 7-3 and the Blue Jays 5-5.
As of Friday morning, the Yankees led Toronto by a game for the second Wild Card spot.
A strength for the Rays this season has been pitching, even when they don’t know who will be available, they have nevertheless been able to get effective performances when needed from their starters and relievers.
Neither the Yankees nor Red Sox can boast of stellar pitching, presenting a problem when considering the adage, “Good pitching beats good hitting.” Having both makes a team considerably formidable. That is why, on paper, the Toronto Blue Jays look to be the team to beat in the AL East.
The Blue Jays have six players who have hit more than 20 home runs each. The team leads the AL in homers with 242 (the Rays are third with 210). The Blue Jays are surprisingly 14th of 15 teams in strikeouts (1,154), a stat in which the Rays lead the league with 1,456.
On the pitching side, the Blue Jays are comparable in most categories to the Rays. The biggest difference between the Rays and the Jays is in expected won-loss record. The Pythagorean Theory was used by sabermetrician Bill James to derive a team’s expected record based upon how many runs a team has scored versus how many it has given up.
The Rays have a run differential of +178, and their expected record is 94-59, which exactly matches what they had on Thursday morning. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, are at +166, putting their expected record at 94-59. Instead, in reality, Toronto is 85-68.
Boston and New York have both exceeded their Pythagorean expectations this year.
Theories are fine for heated discussion when games are not being played, but what happens on the field is the actual determinant of what is to follow. The Rays started the month with a four-game series split with the Red Sox, followed by winning two of three against them a week later.
The Rays then went 1-2 against Toronto in Toronto from September 13-15, and this past week finished a homestand by going 2-1 against Toronto in a contentious series at the Trop.
Both the Yankees and the Red Sox seem more afflicted with inconsistency than the Blue Jays are. They each possess players with great offensive strengths, but there are tendencies to run “hot and cold.”
The Yankees, for instance, are now on a three-game winning streak, yet earlier this month they lost seven games in a row. The Red Sox are now riding a seven-game winning streak but were 12-16 for the month of August.
Fortunately for the Rays, they have been playing their best baseball during the past two months. Now, however, they seem to be missing a beat more often than the others, and that is a reason for concern.
Based on the well-roundedness of the team, Toronto looks to be the least-desired opponent of the three now in Wild Card contention.
As for the Yankees and Red Sox, the Rays hold slight advantages over both of them this season. In September, however, Boston has been 13-6 while the Yankees are 10-11. In a short series, either team looks capable.
So let’s hope the Yankees get by the Red Sox in one game but cannot get by the Rays in five.