The oddsmakers in Las Vegas have it right: the Tampa Bay Rays are the easy favorite to win the World Series.
The Philadelphia Phillies have several outstanding stars, including ace left-hander Cole Hamels, former MVPs Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins and perhaps the premier infielder in the game, Chase Utley.
The Rays have a more complete roster, however, without any glaring weaknesses 1-through-25, and a better starting rotation with more depth.
Anything can happen in a short series, as the St. Louis Cardinals reminded us a few years back, but Tampa Bay is the superior team when looking at each club objectively.
The Rays’ success was dismissed as a fluke by several “experts” throughout the year. Time and time again, though, the talented group continued to silence its critics, outlasting the game’s financial superpowers to win the majors’ most competitive division. Winning the American League East, of course, is no small feat. The Rays, relying on excellent run prevention to punch a ticket to the eight-team October tournament, proved that they were for real over the full 162-game season.
After winning the East, the lack-of-experience columns began resurfacing before the start of the Division Series. Yet again, though, B.J. Upton, James Shields and company put that talk to rest, defeating a veteran-heavy Chicago White Sox team in four games. In an epic American League Championship Series, Tampa Bay then flashed its offensive muscle in a tremendous seven-game set with the defending World Series Champion Boston Red Sox.
The path to the Fall Classic, therefore, has been considerably more difficult for Tampa Bay than Philadelphia, which cruised through a Milwaukee Brewers team mostly led by one stud pitcher and the 84-win Los Angeles Dodgers.
Not to mention, the American League, which has truly emerged as the superior league in the past five years, is a considerably more competitive environment to play in.
All of these factors could play a role in the outcome of the upcoming tilt between two organizations known for their losing ways.
The Rays’ home field advantage will also come into play, especially in the year of the home team. They finished the regular season with the majors’ premier record at home, playing like All-Stars in the friendly confines of Tropicana Field.
Hamels can help negate this, to a degree, by tossing a gem in the opener. But the Cowbell effect will is a legitimate factor, as Tampa Bay is practically perfect when playing in front of a crowd of 30,000-plus.
Here is a breakdown how each team measures up in every facet of the game.
Hamels is the best starting pitcher on either team. He gives the Phillies the advantage in the pitching matchup for Game 1. The 24-year-old left-hander has been absolutely brilliant in the postseason, emerging as a legitimate big-game pitcher and postseason ace. In three starts, including two during his MVP performance in the NLCS, he has limited opposing hitters to a .173 batting average while posting a 1.23 ERA in 22.0 innings pitched. The October success is nothing out of left field for him, however, as he finished the regular season ranked first in the National League in WHIP (1.08), second in innings pitched (227.1) and sixth in complete games (2), ERA (3.09) and strikeouts (196). In 33 starts overall, he limited opponents to an anemic line of .227/.271/.384 while walking only 53. To put it bluntly, he is a stud.
Hamels, without question, is the X factor for Philadelphia. He needs to shut down the Rays’ offense on multiple occasions if the Phillies wish to have any real shot of winning the series. Tampa Bay has a lineup featuring several key offensive players who have struggled against southpaws—from Carl Crawford to Akinori Iwamura—and this will work to Hamels’ advantage. While the Rays are coming off a solid ALCS in which they put up several runs off of star lefty Jon Lester on two different occasions, he has to find a way to exploit this weakness.
The Rays will also turn to a lefty in the opener, sending out Scott Kazmir. Kazmir has not been efficient with his pitches over much of the past three months, but pitched surprisingly well in Game 5 of the ALCS at Fenway Park last week. When he has command over his fastball and can work ahead of hitters, he is as dominant as they come and is tough to beat. Also, keep in mind that, although this has been labeled as a down year by his standards, he still finished as the Rays’ leader in ERA and is the most successful pitcher in the history of the franchise, at 24 years old.
Kazmir has had a difficult time getting out of the first inning recently, however, and is unlikely to work deep into the game. He, too, will benefit from facing a Phillies’ lineup that features several left-handed sluggers—including Howard, who batted only .224/.294/.451 against southpaws.
After Hamels, there is a considerable drop off for Philadelphia. Brett Myers, who reemerged as a weapon after a demotion to the minors this summer, will pitch Game 2. Returning to the rotation after serving as the Phils’ closer in 2007, Myers had a rollercoaster season that saw him return to his old form after a few weeks at Lehigh Valley. He has allowed seven earned runs in 12.0 innings this October, but has won each of his decisions. The veteran right-hander, however, is a big question mark heading into the week.
"Big Game" James Shields may have not lived up to his nickname in Game Six of the ALCS, but he has been the Rays’ most effective pitcher to this point. Shields, who has plus fastball command and an excellent change-up, posted a 3.56 ERA (122 park-adjusted ERA+) and stellar 160-to-40 K/W ratio in a team-best 215.0 innings pitched during the year. Unlike Kazmir, Joe Maddon can count on him to work deep into the game. Shields is 1-2 with a 3.72 ERA in three postseason appearances, striking out 13 in 19.1 innings pitched. He gives the Rays the edge in the second game at Tropicana Field.
Joe Blanton and Jamie Moyer are not exactly studs at the back of the Phillies’ rotation, which clearly gives Tampa Bay the edge when looking at each staff as a whole.
Blanton has been decent but unspectacular since coming over in a mid-season trade with the Oakland Athletics. Having to pitch in hitter-friendly Citizen’s Bank Park has certainly not done him any favors.
Moyer, on the other hand, had a fine regular season, establishing himself as the Julio Franco of pitching as he inches near his 50th birthday. He has been lit up in the postseason, however, which is a legitimate concern.
It might be in the Phillies’ best interest to start Hamels in Games 1, 4 and 7, if necessary, because the gap in ability between him and the aforementioned pair is stark.
It is a different story for Tampa Bay.
Matt Garza, coming off a dominant, big-game performance in the ALCS finale, has a mid-90s fastball and can shut down any offense on any given night—just ask Lester and the Red Sox. While he has become a household name in Boston after his fine showing to this point in October, Garza had a fine year overall. In fact, Rays Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman now looks like a genius for dealing former number one overall pick Delmon Young to the Minnesota Twins in exchange for Garza and all-field, no-hit shortstop Jason Bartlett last December.
Andy Sonnanstine, the likely Game 4 starter, is more than just a freakishly amazing ping pong player: the kid can pitch, too. Sonnanstine does not have an overpowering fastball, but has tremendous command and knows how to pitch. Some scouts even refer to him as Greg Maddux Lite. His ability to limit walks and keep runners off base is perhaps the biggest reason for his surprising success. As a mid-round pick out of Kent State back in 2004, Sonnanstine repeatedly had to prove himself by putting up tremendous numbers in the minors—which he did at every level along the way. He is prone to surrendering home runs, but he is a tough competitor who is very effective when he hits his spots.
In regards to rotation, the Rays have the clear-cut advantage—though the Phillies have the better, truer ace. If Hamels should falter, however, this series could end rather quickly.
The Phillies are 86-0 in games in which they hold the lead entering the ninth inning. When Howard and the gang provide the Philadelphia relief corps with a lead entering the late innings, in fact, the fans can start heading for the exits. This is why it will be crucial for the Rays to score early and often, gaining and keeping the lead before the seventh inning.
The bullpen success starts with Brad Lidge, who has been perfect in 46 save chances, including the postseason. Lidge, the NL Comeback Player of the Year, has undoubtedly regained his status as an elite closer. Pat Gillick, in fact, deserves a lot of credit for dealing Michael Bourn and his nightmare on-base skills (or lack thereof) in exchange for the stud closer, whose value was fairly low at the time of the player swap, this past winter.
Lidge truly has been dominant, posting a 1.95 ERA and 92-to-35 K/W ratio while surrendering only two long balls in 69.1 innings pitched over 72 regular season appearances. He has continued to get it done in the playoffs, too, as he has picked up five saves in as many chances while allowing only one run in 7.1 innings. The hangover from the Albert Pujols bomb is officially over, it seems.
Chad Durbin (2.90 ERA), Ryan Madson (.3.43 ERA) and J.C. Romero (3.02 ERA) have done a solid job bridging the gap to Lidge. The group, however, is prone to allowing hitters to reach base via the walk—not a good combination considering the Rays’ patient approach at the plate.
Overall, though, Philadelphia has a slight edge when it comes to relief pitching.
The Tampa Bay bullpen is not exactly a weakness, though. In fact, even without injured and ineffective closer Troy Percival taking the ball down the stretch, the Rays’ relief corps had one of the lowest ERAs in the majors.
Poor ALCS performance aside, Grant Balfour, the mad Australian with the mid-90s heater, has been tremendous. After nearly making the roster out of spring training, Balfour dominated at Triple-A Durham before getting called up to the show. He then flourished upon his promotion, posting a 1.54 ERA, unbelievable 82-to-24 K/W ratio and 0.89 WHIP. Although he only finished with four saves, he was the Rays’ most valuable reliever in high-leverage situations down the stretch—the relief ace who Bill James dreamed of back in the day. His 7.94 postseason ERA may leave some skeptical, but his performance is primarily the result of a small sample size. Assuming the Lidge-Pujols effect does not apply to him, Maddon can certainly count on him to continue to retire hitters in the World Series.
J.P. Howell, equally effective against lefties and righties, was great, too, helping to improve a Tampa Bay bullpen which allowed the most runs of any bullpen in the past fifty years just a season earlier. Dan Wheeler, despite a lack of tremendous stuff, has pitched a lot of key innings for this club as well.
Maddon unleashed his secret weapon in Game 7, calling on ace-in-training David Price to face J.D. Drew and the Boston Red Sox in the eighth inning. Price delivered, showing tremendous poise and stuff in the final 1.1 innings to earn his first major league save. The number one overall pick in the 2007 draft out of Vanderbilt, he had a tremendous debut professional campaign. The flame throwing, lanky southpaw finished 12-1 with a 2.30 ERA and 109-to-32 K/W ratio in 19 starts across three levels in the minors on his way to earning USA Today Minor League Player of the Year honors.
Price has a plus fastball—as the nation saw on Sunday night—a slider that sits in the high-80s and a developing change-up, in addition to solid command and excellent make-up. Essentially, he is a scout’s dream. Do not be surprised to see him play a major role in the Fall Classic, especially since the Phillies’ lineup features so many left-handed hitters.
If Price, the top prospect in the game entering the year, has anything to do with it, the Rays actually might have the edge in bullpen as well. It is unlikely that there will be a carryover effect from the epic collapse in Game Five at Fenway Park for the group as a whole.
The Phillies’ lineup is very top-heavy. Utley, Howard and Rollins are three of the majors’ most dynamic offensive players, and have yet to fully break out in the postseason. An unlikely cast of characters and the supporting cast—from Matt Stairs, whose game-winning home run in the NLCS was the biggest hit of the Phillies’ season, to Shane Victorino—has helped carry the offense so far.
The aforementioned trio—in addition to slugger Pat Burrell—have to pick it up if the Phillies are to win the series.
Howard had a great second half and finished as the NL leader in homers and RBIs, but this has overshadowed his poor start and low on-base percentage. Although his name is being thrown around in the MVP conversation, it is hard to overlook that he does not rank in the Top 10 in his league in either OPS or VORP. The high RBI total, it seems, is more of a result of having Rollins and several high-OBP hitters setting the table in front of him. He has not been a factor in the playoffs, either, and has been shut down by left-handed pitching all year. A streaky hitter, he needs to pick it up this week—which might be a challenge against the talented Rays’ pitching staff.
Utley, then, is the more likely candidate to change the outcome of the series with his bat. He is practically as underrated as his counterpart on the right side of the infield is overrated, and was actually the more valuable offensive player for his team over the full 162 games. He hit .292/.380/.535 to finish as the team leader with a 62.3 VORP while playing tremendous defense at the keystone.
Burrell (.260/.367/.507), Rollins (.277/.349/.437), Victorino (.293/.352/.447) and even Jayson Werth (.273/.363/.498) are all solid offensive contributors as well. The bottom half of the lineup, however, is not exactly intimidating.
Stairs, who makes no bones about his swing-for-the-fences approach, will likely serve as a capable DH, a rarity for NL teams in the recent past. Greg Dobbs, an excellent bat off the bench, may make his mark on history as well.
The Phillies steal bases with tremendous efficiency, but are an offense that primarily relies on the long ball. There is no question that they have more star power, but the Rays’ lineup is better overall.
Tampa Bay, which has always been a patient bunch of hitters, has been otherworldly offensively at times this postseason, bringing back memories of Murderer’s Row during the ALCS. This is surprising to some, given their struggles at times to put up runs during the summer. They have posted a line of .268/.335/.508, for an .843 team OPS, with 22 home runs in 11 playoff games. The power is unlikely to hold up, although the Philadelphia staff is prone to giving up homers—especially at Citizen’s Bank Park.
Upton has been a big reason for the recent surge. The star center fielder hit only nine home runs in 500-plus at-bats during the year, as a shoulder injury prevented him from turning on the ball with authority. He seems to be at full strength now, however, and has already left the yard seven times in only 48 at-bats in October. He is now hitting .304/.365/.826, with a 1.191 OPS for the month. If he can continue to produce, the Rays might have found their own version of Mr. October.
Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena are also solid weapons in the middle of the lineup. Longoria is the shoe-in for AL Rookie of the Year, despite missing nearly a month. The sweet-swinging third baseman finished his debut season with a line of .272/.343/.531, and has also hit six bombs during the playoffs.
Pena was a monster in 2007, forcing the Rays to sign him to a three-year, $24-million contract. Injuries prevented him from replicating his similar 46-homer, 1.000-plus OPS production, as he got off to a poor start in the first half. The Rays’ vocal leader helped carry an injury-plagued offense to the finish line with a solid run down the stretch, though, again finishing with more the 30 homers and 100 RBIs. Look for him to take his walks and add value in the series.
The supporting cast—from guys like Willy Aybar to even double-digit home run bench man Ben Zobrist—has provided several key hits as well. Tampa Bay is truly a sum of its parts.
It is unlikely that the power surge will continue. The Rays got to this point through excellent run prevention, and, if they can continue to mash (16 home runs in the ALCS), they could run away with the series.
Each team has an excellent defense.
The Rays converted a higher percentage of balls put into play into outs than any other team in baseball, ranking first in the majors in defensive efficiency.
The poor defense seemed to leave with the name Devil for the franchise, as Tampa Bay finished last season ranked 30th in the same metric. The days of Brendan Harris
and Josh Wilson
taking up innings at such a key position are over, though, and this is arguably one of the ultimate reasons for the Rays’ turnaround.
The excellent defense goes hand-in-hand with the Rays’ improved pitching staff as well. Every pitcher mentioned above reaped the benefits of pitching in front of such a capable defensive unit. Friedman realized this when he decided to part ways with the former top prospect Young, as he received a capable defender at shortstop in Bartlett and a legitimate number three starter in Garza.
Bartlett, with his tremendous range, has been a key to the defensive turnaround in St. Petersburg. He is not exactly a stud offensively (.690 OPS), but is the one player who Maddon has labeled irreplaceable and was even voted as the Team MVP by the Tampa Bay chapter of the BBWAA for his contributions with the glove.
Akinori Iwamura has made a flawless transition to second base. Iwamura, in fact, is as smooth around the bag, when it comes to turning the double play, as nearly every second sacker in the AL.
Pena and Longoria, who may end up winning a Gold Glove, are each solid defenders on the corners.
Carl Crawford certainly had a down year offensively, but his defense in left field was tremendous. Crawford and Upton together turned several potential gap hits into outs, using their excellent speed to rob hitters of base hits.
When Fernando Perez is in right field, the Rays have perhaps the fastest outfield in big-league history. Even when Gabe Gross is in right, though, the outfield corps is the strongest defensively in the game today.
The excellent defense was a major reason for the Rays’ remarkable improvement in run prevention. In ’07, a year in which the then-Devil Rays finished 65-96 and in the cellar of the AL East, the club had a -165 run differential, allowing 939 runs. This year, the Rays only allowed only 671 runs, as the young pitchers established themselves and the defense shined behind them.
Philadelphia, which finished 10th in defensive efficiency, has a strong team defense as well.
Utley is an exceptional defender at second base, one of the premier fielders at the position in the league. The other half of the double-play combination, Rollins, is an excellent defensive shortstop.
Victorino is an even better defender in center field than Upton, which is saying a lot.
The two major weaknesses defensively for the Phils are Burrell in left field and Howard at first base.
Still, the Rays have the edge in team defense.
Summary: The Rays are a better team. Winning the AL East over a full season may be more impressive than getting hot over a few weeks and winning a title. That is how strong that division is.
Philadelphia has a chance to win the series if they can get big performances from their stars. The roster is top heavy in each facet listed above. They have three stud offensive players, a solid ace in Hamels and a lights-out closer in Lidge. If this group produces, they could easily win this thing.
If the Rays can get to Hamels, however, another World Series sweep may be inevitable.
Rays in six.
To reach Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.