3 Things to Watch for Against the Rays

Written by Bennett Brauer, Cole Nefsky, and Gideon Turk

Hot Corner Hitting

With the Rays and Blue Jays fighting for the 2nd AL Wild Card position, both teams will need their all-world Third Basemen – Evan Longoria and Josh Donaldson, respectively – to carry them to the next level. Aside from being their team’s best players, they both share tremendous starts to their careers and unusual contract situations.

Per FanGraphs, through the first nine seasons of his career, Longoria led all position players with a 45.1 cumulative WAR. His 2017 numbers are down somewhat, but his excellent glovework has still kept him in the top 25 of AL position player WARP this year. Donaldson has finished in the top eight in each of the last four MVP races, winning it in 2015. Due to injuries, Donaldson’s 2017 total numbers are down, even though he would be on pace for a 40 homer season if he was healthy.

Both players also might not monetize their great careers to the fullest for different reasons. Longoria was the 2006 3rd overall pick and famously signed a contract extension with three club options before his MLB career was a week old in 2008. Eight years later, he doubled down and signed another below market contract extension, one that guaranteed him only $100 million.

Donaldson became a full time MLB player at 26 years old and the earliest he can become a free agent is a month before he turns 33, which stunts his leverage for multiple extensions. Considering the lack of leverage he has due to MLB’s pre-arb and arbitration setups in a player’s first six years of service time, Donaldson has done VERY well with a 2 year/$28 million deal heading into his last year of arbitration. If he was five or six years younger experiencing success this early in his career, like phenoms Mike Trout, Jose Altuve, and Freddie Freeman, he would be more likely to have gotten a big contract extension, circumventing his arbitration years and making a higher salary at a younger age.

This month, however, their production differs. Just this August alone, Donaldson has nine homers and an OPS of 1.324, dwarfing Longoria’s production over the same time period, with one homer and an OPS of .665.

If the Jays want to make ground on the 2nd Wild Card Spot and permanently pass the Rays, they will need both players’ current August trajectories to continue.

Two Peas (or Teams) in a Pod

The Tampa Bay Rays are a team that shares a similar story to the Jays, but played out of order. They’ve had a disappointing rotation with a disappointing bullpen and a disappointing offense that has hung around playoff contention to give their respective fanbases (with the Rays’ being significantly smaller) enough hope to be disappointed once more when the playoffs get stripped away.

Steven Souza Jr., Logan Morrison, and Tommy Hunter (a player particularly close to my heart) have been the true bright spots in this otherwise upsetting season. Souza took big steps forward in his plate discipline, which has let his power play up. This has coincided with the realization that he is a mighty fine right fielder. He has been an incredible player this season and given his lack of high-flying BABIP, you could expect this has been a reflection of his true talent more than Chris Colabello-style miracles. He’s quite a large man, but he has had a bit of a boost from a ~27% HR/FB, which means his ISO might be blown up a bit.

Logan Morrison, a Statcast darling for the last couple of years, has finally caught onto the fly ball revolution and is letting his top notch exit velocity on air-balls finally play off. His BABIP, if anything, is a touch lower than you’d expect, so I’d trust what you’ve seen out of LoMo this year.

Tommy Hunter throws gas and is getting more Ks than ever because of some arsenal tuning. He mostly cut out four seam fastballs, instead opting for more cutters and curveballs. I think he’s a lot of fun to watch on the mound and I’m excited to see him in action.

The Rays and Jays have been linked by division and name for quite some time. Their seasons are playing out in concert with each other. And while St. Petersburg used to look a little brighter with their massive and groundbreaking analytics department, due to the development of the Jays’ FO and the much more substantial payroll, I like the Jays’ outlook in seasons to come a little bit more.

Rowley and the Walking Rays

A pitcher generally has an advantage when batters are uncomfortable in the box because they haven’t seen him yet. For Chris Rowley, that has meant that over his first two starts, he has been helped along by the surprise and has a shiny 2.61 ERA to show for it. However, when Rowley starts the opening game against the Rays on Tuesday, that’ll all change as it will be his second consecutive start against Tampa.

Last time out, Rowley’s line ended up fine thanks to only allowing two runs to score, but his process, giving up four hits and five walks, was less than inspiring. The Rays are the third most free swinging team in Major League Baseball in terms of swing% and K%, yet Rowley was only able to get three punch outs. This is obviously a symptom of being the more contact driven pitcher that he is and it is very possible to be successful using that type of approach. However, Rowley cannot walk so many batters if he wants to have continued success.

Despite their swing first mentality, the Rays also draw their share of walks, current ranking eighth in baseball in BB%. For Rowley, this presents a more difficult challenge in his second game facing Tampa Bay than it did in his first. While their batters may have been off balance a few times throughout the game because they hadn’t seen him yet, that won’t be the case in this game. The Rays will know what the movement on Rowley’s pitches will look like, so it can be expected that their normally very good plate discipline will be on an even bigger display. Rowley can counter that by attacking the zone more often, relying on the fielding behind him to try to get outs, rather than trying to make a perfect pitch every time and missing out of the zone. Free baserunners are bad. Rowley will have to limit them if he is going to help the Blue Jays make up ground in the wild card race.

Lead Photo: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

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