By Jason Wojciechowski on August 5, 2011 at 2:00 PM
As I'm staring at this blank text document, there are two hours before the Rays series kicks off. Let's hope I can get this done in time!
Oakland is in St. Petersburg for three games: tonight at 4pm, tomorrow also at 4pm, and Sunday at 1:40 (all times Pacific), heading into yet another off-day Monday as they travel to Toronto.
The Rays lately
Overall, Tampa Bay is 58-52, the sixth-best record in the AL, but ten games out of both the wild card and the division (the Red Sox and Yankees are both 68-42). Baseball Prospectus pegs their playoff odds at under 1%. (That's four times higher than Oakland's chances, though!). To give you a sense of how much the competition and the divisional structure of baseball matters: the Twins, with an expected final record of 77-85, are given a 2.4% shot at the playoffs.
Oakland just saw the Rays from July 25th to July 27th (and bonked them around a bit, winning three of four by a run tally of 34-18), but Tampa on their next two series, at Seattle and home against Toronto, taking two of three in each (and outscoring Seattle by 18-4 in the process).
The Rays' roster has been pretty stable -- since calling up Desmond Jennings on July 25th, they've made a couple of bullpen moves involving Cesar Ramos, Jay Buente, Mike Ekstrom, and Juan Cruz, but nothing to get worked up about.
The Rays' starters
Tonight, Oakland will see righty Jeff Niemann, making his fourteenth start of the season (he lost a month and a half to back soreness at the start of the year). Niemann's pitched well this year, with a 3.59 FIP that comes from basically being league average in whiffs, walks, and homers. (The old "average at everything = above-average overall" thing, which is maybe easier to see in position players than pitchers.) Niemann is 6'9" and 280 pounds, but nothing else about his stat line really stands out.
Arsenal-wise, he has an 87-94 fastball or fastballs -- there doesn't, to my naked eye looking at the PITCHf/x graph, appear to be any correlation between speed and movement, but his fastball goes from up to four inches of cut (i.e. in on lefties) to nine inches of run (i.e. in on righties). Your typical four-seam fastball has between two and eight inches of run, so, if you look back at that graph, the pitches labeled "FT" (two-seam fastballs) look like they might actually be four-seamers, while the pitches labeled "FF" (four-seam fastballs) might actually be cutters, which range from two inches of run to two inches of cut on average. Not that it actually matters on the field what we call the pitches or how Niemann grips them -- both righties and lefties should expect a substantial number of fastballs of both "types."
His other pitches are a curve and a slider that have about the same horizontal movement, but differ significantly in vertical movement (over ten additional inches of drop on the curve) and speed (the slider is six mph faster). Lefties won't see the slider -- he's apparently tossed it just 16 times this year against them. Righties will see it from time to time (14% overall) but everybody should be aware of the curve in strikeout counts.
Tomorrow, the A's will send Brandon McCarthy against rookie Alex Cobb. Cobb is making just his ninth start of the season, as he spent twelve starts in AAA before being called up. Cobb sports a nice 3.28 FIP despite average walks and slightly below average whiffs -- his home-run rate is less than half the league average. It's tempting to break out the old "he's been lucky on his fly-balls," especially since his pitches don't seem, per PITCHf/x, to have any special sink on them, but his homer rates do look pretty low throughout the minors (if never quite this low), so who knows.
Anyway, Cobb's fastball goes 89-94 and comes in varieties that look like a pretty standard two-seamer and four-seamer, movement-wise. The righty leans on the straighter fastball against same-handed batters, but mixes the two- and four-seam pitches fairly close to equally against lefties. The off-speed stuff is classified here as a change and a curve, but the change has a lot more drop than your typical change, so I wonder if it's actually a splitter or something of that nature. The "change" isn't eliminated against righties, either, like most changeups are, as he's thrown in 25% of the time against those hitters -- it's his dominant strikeout pitch no matter what hand the batter hits with. (Both.) The curve only comes in 17% of the time overall -- he uses it a lot to start at-bats, with that usage declining as the battle proceeds.
Finally, the A's will see power lefty David Price on Sunday. Price is fearsome and formidable and brings a 3.37 FIP to the game, with a well-above-average strikeout rate and the best walk rate of his career by far, at just around 5%. Even his BABIP is just .284.
Against lefties, Price is basically a two-pitch pitcher, both of them fastballs at 92-97. He'll throw the occasional slider (86-91, terrifyingly) and curve on two-strike counts, but he'll mostly just try to blow you away.
Righties get more of a variety, with about 65% fastballs (close to evenly split), 10% curves, and 15% changeups. There's about 5% sliders as well, usually on two-strike counts. (The remaining 5% is rounding error.) The change and curve will come in any count except the strikeout counts, basically, as, just like with lefties, Price prefers to amp up the usage of his four-seamer with two strikes. Predictability only matters if batters can actually hit the pitch. Since this is David Price and the Oakland A's we're talking about, I wouldn't get my hopes up.
The bullpen is currently six deep, which is amazing. Such a throwback. (It's still a twelve-man pitching staff, though, since there are six starters up.) Top prospect Jake McGee and J.P. Howell are the lefties, Joel Peralta and former Athletic Juan Cruz are the righties, and Kyle Farnsworth is the closer. Brandon Gomes, who I've never heard of, is also a member of the squad.
Peralta, Cruz, and Farnsworth are all above-average whiff guys, though Cruz is also walking an inordinate number of hitters. J.P. Howell's walk rate is ugly (15%), his strikeout rate is just average, and he's given up a lot of homers. His FIP, you will be unsurprised to learn, is 5.80. He's got the innings-to-games ratio that makes you think he's a lefty specialist, but if you look at his game log, I think it's more that he keeps getting smacked around and not recording enough outs to actually get his innings count up. He has been making some one-batter appearances lately, though, so maybe we will see him as the Matsui-killer in this series.
Overall, this 'pen isn't one the A's can count on teeing off against. (Not that the A's could count on teeing off against any bullpen above Richmond High School's JV squad.) The A's beat up on Tampa last series, but this is a run-prevention squad: I wouldn't count on it happening again.
Eight of the nine spots in the Rays' lineup are pretty steady, and the batting order has been pretty consistent for the last two weeks as well. We should see, just like we just saw, something like:
- Desmond Jennings, LF
MattJohnny Damon, DH1
- Evan Longoria, 3B
- Ben Zobrist, 2B
- Casey Kotchman, 1B
- B.J. Upton, CF
- Matt Joyce, RF
- Sean Rodriguez, SS
- Robinson Chirinos / Kelly Shoppach, C
There's some variability at the bottom of the order -- before the last two games, Kelly Shoppach and Robinson Chirinos had been hitting 7th and 8th, respectively, with Sean Rodriguez hitting ninth and Matt Joyce batting in whichever spot a catcher wasn't.
Sam Fuld and Justin Ruggiano get mixed in to the outfield sometimes (we saw Fuld start in left once last series, but didn't see Ruggiano), and Elliot Johnson is supposedly an infielder on the team, but he's been on the bench for the last two weeks as Ben Zobrist has come into the infield much more permanently, leaving right for Matt Joyce entirely.
The current squad are either good hitters (Matt Joyce, Ben Zobrist, Evan Longoria), guys who have had good seasons (Casey Kotchman), or well-regarded youngsters off to a good start (Robinson Chirinos, Desmond Jennings). B.J. Upton, for all his struggles, has a .260 TAv (aka league average), and Sean Rodriguez is certainly adequate for a shortstop who bats low in the order. The Rays have a low runs-scored total for the season, but their park is fierce (8% run suppression, per Baseball-Reference's multi-year factors) and a lot of poor hitters aren't getting the time they used to (Sam Fuld, Elliot Johnson, Felipe Lopez, Reid Brignac, Dan Johnson). The current lineup isn't a Yankee-style madhouse, but it's good enough to win, especially against the likes of Guillermo Moscoso.