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Catching the Rays?

by Cary Greene

August 25, 2021

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The Yankees are obviously on a tear and Yankee fans are now wondering if it is realistic to think that the Yankees can catch the Rays.

I decided to take a look…

Since July 6th, Yankee starters have a 2.45 ERA. From that perspective, it does appear that the Yankees have an honest chance to overtake Tampa Bay. If the pitching can be that good, the Yankees can catch anyone!

Over that same stretch, since July 7th (July 6th was an off day for Tampa), Tampa’s starters have pitched to an ERA of 6.18 but we need to frame that stat a touch. On the surface, it’s ugly and on the surface, huge advantage Yankees!

However, let’s understand Tampa’s formula and how its dramatically changed, yet also remained the same in one key way.

Tampa’s manager, Kevin Cash, is an expert at deploying relievers and managing his pitching staff. The organization’s strategy over the last several years has been built around run suppression and a balanced offense that can score early in games and give the team the opportunity to shorten games with its vaunted bullpen. In other words, Tampa’s starters merely need to hand a game over to a slew of weapons that Cash will deploy to stymie opposing offenses. Since July 7th, Tampa starters have averaged only 4.6 innings per game while lasting 5 innings or more 22 times during this 36 game stretch. That means 39% of the time, Kevin Cash doesn’t mind bringing the bullpen in well before the 5th inning. With Tampa’s bullpen, why should he mind?

Tampa’s main innings eaters are Ryan Yarbrough, Josh Fleming, Shane McClanahan, Michael Wacha and Luis Patino.

They also use Andrew Kittrege, Collin McHughe, Drew Rasmussen and Louis Head as occasional openers when and where needed – and in this 36 game stretch of the season where the Yankees have made up significant ground, they have deployed the opener strategy 8 times. The opener strategy provides Tampa a means of surviving long stretches of the season with a less-than-stellar starting staff. It’s a big reason the Rays have played .616 baseball.

On July 7th, in the second game of a double-header, Kevin Cash went with an opener in the nightcap. He then deliberately planned bullpen games seven more times because Tampa played so many games in such a short period of time. Kevin Cash likes to deploy openers ahead of long, grinding stretches in the schedule. It’s a technique that has worked well for him.

Also trending for some time now, Tampa is once again this season very good at home, winning at a .641 clip opposed to their .590 mark on the road (which is by no means a bad road winning percentage). Suffice it to say that Tampa is quite comfortable at home and also very capable on the road. Tampa has 37 games left. 17 of those games are at home and 20 are away.

August is winding down. In the time remaining, can the Yankees legitimately catch the Rays?

Tampa’s remaining opponents have a .498 winning percentage. Their toughest remaining series will be when they play at the Yankees (three games to end the season) and the games at the Astros right before arriving in New York. Tampa also has 3 game sets at Boston and at Toronto sandwiched around some easier series against Baltimore, Miami, Minnesota, and seven games with the Tigers. Those easy series will be the key for Tampa. If they can steamroll the hapless Tigers, the punching-bag Twins, and the down and out Marlins, they will make it very tough to catch them.

The Yankees meanwhile play opponents with a slightly worse .481 winning percentage. The Bombers are playing .609 baseball at home this year and they’re a much more pedestrian .557 on the road. Like Tampa, New York has 37 games remaining, 17 are at Yankee Stadium and 20 are away games. The toughest series for the Yankees, is the upcoming four game set at Oakland starting Thursday and then later in the season the Yanks will have series against Boston, Toronto, and lastly, the potentially crucial aforementioned three game series at the Yankee Stadium against the Rays.

It’s shaping up to be a really interesting September.

If Yankee starting pitching is going to continue carving up opposing lineups to the tune of a 2.45 ERA, I have to say, it is possible. It’s unlikely, but possible. I expect Tampa to easily maintain course. There are zero indications that they’re about to have a losing streak. In fact, one characteristic this Tampa team has shown this season is that they are great at bouncing back after tough losses. While they’re not that great in one run games (16-17 this season), they tend to pound other teams pretty consistently (30-12 in blowouts – meaning they blow other teams out a lot more than they get blown out).

If the Rays just play at their current rate, the Yankees would have to play four games better than that. It’s tough in the remaining games to play that much better. Four games doesn’t seem like a lot with over a month to go, but for the Yankees to catch the Rays, they’ll have to stay as hot as they have been and hope the Rays falter a bit.

It might come down to the Yankees needing to win the Wild Card Game to get a chance to battle the Rays for a trip to the World Series.

Still, things are looking good for the Yankees. I’m now wondering if its possible for the Yankees to come out of the American League and actually win a World Series this year. (Did I just type all of that? Someone pinch me – am I dreaming? Things change quickly around here.)

Whatever the scenario, I like the Yankees chances and let’s face it, catching Tampa would be quite the accomplishment but if NY can host a Wild Card game, that’s a pretty sweet deal from a team that was not so long ago playing .500-ish baseball.

Enjoy the ride folks, it should be a fun one!! Thoughts and comments are, as always, encouraged!

#TampaBayRays

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