It Can’t Be Any Crazier: Rays Series Preview

Toronto Blue Jays vs. Tampa Bay Rays

May 16 – May 18

Written by Tammy Rainey and Michael Bradburn

In recent history, no team has a more well earned reputation for being a thorn in the Blue Jays’ side than the Tampa Bay Rays. It has been 10 years since the Toronto club dominated the season series and only once in the last nine (2014) have they edged above .500. The caveat to this, of course, is that this record of failure is driven largely by doing really poorly in Tampa. Fortunately for the Blue Jays, this one is at home. The last time Tampa came here, the series ended with a walk-off home run from Josh Donaldson in the final regular season home game of the 2015 season.

This series will be watched all the more closely to see how the Blue Jays react to the insanity of yesterday’s 8th inning in Texas. In the past such events have served as motivational sparks to ignite an under preforming team (or at least that’s the perception). While the Blue Jays have played somewhat better of late, they still stand in need of an extended run of well above-average play.

Pitching Matchups:

Monday, May 16th – 7:07pm ET

LHP Drew Smyly vs. LHP J.A. Happ

Happ had his best outing since rejoining the Blue Jays last time out, and arguably the best outing since his fortuitous trade to the Pittsburgh Pirates last year. The lefty was one out away from a complete game shutout against the San Francisco Giants. Happ has three shutouts on his resume already, but none since 2010 when he went one over the minimum against the St. Louis Cardinals as a member of the Houston Astros. Despite the 5-0 start, Happ ranks fourth among Blue Jays starters by WARP. Mustering a FIP of 3.83 and a DRA of 4.37, Happ’s ERA has out-performed both at 2.05. Whether that level of prowess can be sustained is debatable, however, Happ’s 8.9 percent whiff rate has been better than rotation-mates Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez.
On the opposing side of the mound, the Rays will counter with a tough lefty of their own in Smyly. While the Blue Jays feature a lineup predominantly made up of right-handers, Smyly will not be an easy opponent to crack. Smyly currently ranks fifth in the American League in WARP with a 2.67 mark in spite of a 1-4 start. As we know, wins are an awful way in general to evaluate a pitcher, and Smyly has shown an increased strikeout rate of 30.1 percent, combined with a decreased walk rate of 4.6 percent – the highest and lowest of his career respectively. The nearly-27 year old seems to have turned a corner and could further increase his value if he can do a better job keeping the ball in the yard.

Tuesday, May 17th – 7:07pm ET

RHP Chris Archer vs. RHP Marcus Stroman

A rematch of Opening Day, the Blue Jays will look for a near-exact repeat. By WARP, Stroman has been the Blue Jays’ second-best starter so far this season, managing a 4.25 DRA, 3.33 FIP, and 3.54 ERA. Against the Rays specifically this season, Stroman has shone his brightest. Over his two starts, Stroman has allowed four runs on nine hits, three walks and struck out 14 batters over 16 innings. He has faced 13 over the minimum in those two starts combined. Touting the best groundball rate in the entire major leagues at 62.3 percent, the Rays may face an uphill battle against the recent graduate.
Archer still hasn’t looked like himself yet this season. The Rays ace is one season removed from finishing sixth in WARP among all major league pitchers. This season, he currently ranks 29th, sandwiched between Jon Gray – who has only made five starts – and Taijuan Walker. It’s not as though Archer is getting fewer swinging strikes though – his whiff rate has dropped barely a percentage point and a half. Instead, it appears first-pitch strikes seem to be ailing the budding superstar. Archer is starting plate appearances at 0-1 only 52.6 percent of the time this season, which ranks fourth-worst among qualified starters and 12 percentage points worse than last year’s mark. To compound matters further, on 1-0 counts, opposing hitters are slashing .297/.435/.514 against the Tampa ace. To put that into context, that’s roughly the production lines of Travis Shaw, Yoenis Cespedes, and Mark Trumbo so far this season.

Wednesday, May 18th – 7:07pm ET

RHP Jake Odorizzi vs. RHP R.A. Dickey
The 41-year old knuckleballer has started eight games so far this season, and has four quality starts. It’s not great overall, but Dickey has now reached a streak of three straight quality starts. Over that same stretch, he is 1-1. Dickey’s percentage of pitches finishing in the strike zone seemed to be trending upward, however, in his last appearance – easily his best of the season – 48.7 percent of pitches made it into the zone. That’s down from 59.8 and 58.2 percent from the two games previous. Dickey seems to be at his best when walks are limited, so keeping the knuckleball in the zone seems advantageous. While I don’t typically believe in monthly splits. Dickey tests my belief in many things. His April numbers are quite a bit worse than his May numbers, and in June he has historically gotten even better. We’ll leave it there.
The Rays will counter with the 26-year old Odorizzi. Since coming over in the Wade Davis trade – heretofore known as the Will Myers trade – Odorizzi has been a bit of a curious case. Though he was definitely trending upward with a 3.16 DRA in 2014 and a 2.70 DRA in 2015, he has only managed a DRA of 3.99 so far this season. Furthermore, his strikeout rate has trended in the wrong direction that entire time as well. In 2016, opponents seem to be getting more hard contact off of him than his career norms suggest, and he’s giving up the most home runs of his career. While pitch selection seems to have changed slightly from last season, Odorizzi hasn’t lost any velocity or movement. But, for some reason, his fastball is leaving the yard more often now at a rate of one homer per 113 pitches. While that may not seem like a lot, last season, batters homered on one out of every 251 fastballs from Odorizzi. Perhaps the Blue Jays will get in on this as well.

Additions and Subtractions

Toronto continues to have a bullpen in flux when it comes to southpaw relievers. Brett Cecil hit the DL after Saturday’s appearance and while he hasn’t really been Brett Cecil, it’s a serious inconvenience to be reduced to just one LH reliever – a rookie with six major league innings. In his place the team selected the contract of Dustin Antolin, to which most of social media responded “Who?”

Antolin is, in fact, the second longest serving player in the Toronto organization behind only…Brett Cecil. They are the last two remaining players drafted by the JP Ricciardi regime. The 26 year old native of Hawaii, drafted in the 9th round in 2008,  had Tommy John surgery in 2010 and he took a little while to regain the strike zone consistently. He was beginning to get noticed again in the first half of 2013 but a mid-May promotion to AA went sideways when he lost his command of the strike zone (five three-walk relief outings). That proved to be an outlier, as he brought his BB/9 rate down to 3.16 in 2014 (to go with a 10.96 K/9). He almost quit baseball last winter when he hit the minor league free agent market this past offseason and lingered into the new year unsigned.  Maybe he was discouraged because after that fine 2014 season the Blue Jays made him repeat AA. Whatever the case, he’s in the majors now and maybe he’ll get a chance to test his stuff against Tampa Bay.

In the visitor lineup the name you won’t see is Logan Forsythe. The Rays best hitter was hit in the left shoulder blade by a Felix Hernandez pitch on Monday and suffered a hairline fracture. He’ll be out a few weeks. Most of the playing time in his absence has been going to former top prospect Tim Beckham. Another familiar name that will be missing is that of one time Blue Jays prospect (drafted one round before Antolin, in fact) Danny Farquhar who has been shuttled back and forth to AAA this season and is currently off the Tampa roster.

Keep an Eye On

The Inherited Runners

The Toronto bullpen seemed to be moving past their former issue with inherited runners until Jesse Chavez failed to hold a lead for Aaron Sanchez on Sunday. It might be time to increase the responsibility of Joe Biagini, as he seems to be the only reliable reliever outside of the current setup/closer duo of Gavin Floyd and Roberto Osuna. With the team hamstrung by the lack of LH options, the fans will surely be tugging their collars if any starter leaves the game with runners on.

The Surprising Hot Bats

Justin Smoak, owner of a six game hit streak and ten game on base streak, along with Michael Saunders who has showing no signs of slowing, have been carrying the Jays slowly recovering offense while Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson have been mired in deep slumps. Troy Tulowitzki also has begun showing signs of life with eight hits in his last five games, including three home runs. The mini hot streak has finally pushed his season batting average up to .200.

Brandon Guyer

With the recent injury to Logan Forsythe, Brandon Guyer has taken over the top spot in the lineup. In addition to being a consistent pest to the Blue Jays, Guyer has this year taken to hurting the rest of the league (and himself) as well. The league leader in hit by pitches at 12 hit two home runs yesterday and has risen his overall batting line to .338/.488/.577. He’s going to be a key out for this team, as the rest of the Tampa offense leaves much to be desired.

The Impending Edicts

MLB will likely waste no time handing down punishment for the Texas fiasco. It’s fairly likely that all Jays suspensions will initially be appealed in order to give the team maneuverability with when they are served (you cannot recall a minor leaguer to fill in during a suspension), so these announcements may not impact the Tampa series. Look for someone to serve if they are hit with a one game ban, but anything more than that will likely be drawn out.

Probable Lineup

Away Team

Home Team

1 Brandon Guyer – LF 1 Kevin Pillar – CF
2 Brad Miller – SS 2 Josh Donaldson – 3B
3 Evan Longoria – 3B 3 Jose Bautista – RF
4 Corey Dickerson – DH 4 Edwin Encarnacion – DH
5 Steven Souza – RF 5 Justin Smoak – 1B
6 Logan Morrison – 1B 6 Troy Tulowitzki -SS
7 Tim Beckham/Steve Pearce – 2B 7 Michael Saunders – LF
8 Kevin Kiermaier – CF 8 Russell Martin – C
9 Curt Casali / Hank Conger – C 9 Ryan Goins – 2B

via Roster Resource

Final Thoughts

Over the last 1/10th of the current season, since the horrible White Sox series, the Blue Jays are 9-7. This is possibly a sign things are beginning to turn, but the next 10 games represent an opportunity to regain some of their lost swagger and the team would be well served to seize the moment.

Lead Photo: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

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