On the Fourth of July, the Red Sox beat the A’s 1-0 to extend their division lead to 4.5 games up on the Rays. Fireworks filled the sky as playoff dreams danced in the heads of the Red Sox faithful. America’s Birthday also marked the highest playoff probability the Red Sox saw all year, a 70.9% chance according to Fangraphs. Fast forward to July 31st, the Rays beat the Red Sox 9-5 to take a half game division lead. They would go on to sweep the Sox the next day and hold the division lead the rest of the way, winning 100 games and finishing eight games ahead of the second place Red Sox.
Before the season started, this matchup seemed almost inconceivable. Despite the Rays making the World Series in 2020, Oddsmakers projected the Rays to win 85.5 games, under the projections for the Yankees (95.5), Blue Jays (87.5), Athletics (87.5), and Twins (88.5). With the departure of Charlie Morton and Blake Snell in the offseason, the Rays were left with Tyler Glasnow and a bunch of young guns to hold down the rotation, but even Glasnow didn’t last for more than half a season, requiring Tommy John surgery in late June. It’s an incredible feat that the Rays even won 90 games, much less 100.
The Red Sox on the other hand, went 24-36 and finished in last place behind the lowly Orioles. With Chris Sale rehabbing from Tommy John for much of the season, the Sox were supposed to be rebuilding around a new core in 2021, and without playoff expectations. Oddsmakers projected their final win total at 80.5 wins, sixth lowest in the American League. They shattered projections en route to 92 wins and now must prepare to beat the Rays, a team they’ve won just five games against in their last 16 meetings.
First it was using Ryan Yarbrough as the opener and then it was taking Blake Snell out after the second time through the order in the World Series and in 2021; the Tampa Bay Rays have continued to redefine pitching usage, racking up the third fewest innings from their starters and the most innings out of their bullpen in baseball. Their plan has worked to perfection, with the Rays starters ranking 14th in ERA while the bullpen has carried them with 700 innings at a 3.24 ERA-best in the league. Collectively, this has led the Rays to the third best team ERA in baseball.
In Game 1 and Game 2, the Rays will give the ball to Shane McClanahan and Shane Baz. Two rookies whose ages barely combine to be older than their 41-year-old teammate Nelson Cruz. McClanahan is a big lefty with wipeout stuff, attacking hitters with elevated fastballs that can reach 100 MPH and three secondary pitches with elite whiff rates. Baz is another young power pitcher, who will be making just his fourth MLB start. His pedigree speaks for itself though, as he was the second ranked pitching prospect in baseball and has 18 strikeouts in 13.2 innings in the majors.
The key for the Rays will obviously be getting to their bullpen with a lead. I could list all of the Rays relief pitchers that will see work during the ALDS, but five of the eight relief pitchers on the roster have below a 3.00 ERA. High leverage barely makes Kevin Cash sweat as he can deploy any one of JT Chargois, Andrew Kittredge, Collin Mchugh, J.P. Feyereisen or Matt Wisler when he pleases.
The Red Sox do not have the same luxury as the Rays in regards to bullpen depth. They will be relying on Eduardo Rodriguez, Nathan Eovaldi, and Chris Sale to go deep into ball games and keep the ball out of the hands of a Boston bullpen, which ranks 21st in ERA since the All-Star break.
Rodriguez on the surface looks lackluster at best, sporting a 4.74 ERA, but his 3.34 FIP ranks 15th in all of baseball and in his last six starts he has a 3.19 ERA. Chris Sale battled back from Tommy John surgery-making his season debut in August-and carrying a 3.16 ERA and 29% strikeout rate over nine starts. The current ace of the staff Nate Eovaldi owns the third best FIP in all of baseball and is coming off of a dominating start against the Yankees in the Wild Card Game.
As mentioned, the Sox bullpen is their kryptonite. Garrett Whitlock–acquired from the Yankees in the Rule 5 Draft–is the only relief arm with an ERA below 3.00. Whitlock will likely be leaned on in many high leverage situations. Behind him: Josh Taylor, Darwinzon Hernandez, Ryan Brasier, and Hansel Robles will see a lot of work as well.
Red Sox GM Chaim Bloom received flack for not getting more relief help at the deadline, but Robles has been very effective, riding a 13.2 scoreless inning streak into the ALDS. Meanwhile, mainstays Adam Ottavino and Matt Barnes have imploded. Ottavino holds an 8.10 ERA in his last 10 innings, and will need to regain Alex Cora‘s trust. Matt Barnes was officially left off the Red Sox ALDS roster today after posting a 6.48 ERA in the second half.
Despite elite pitching on both sides, this could turn into a high scoring series. In 19 games this season, the two teams have combined for 206 runs or almost 11 runs per game. Both boast offenses that rank in the top six in wRC+ and top 10 in home runs.
The Red Sox have a very top heavy lineup with Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts, Kyle Schwarber and JD Martinez providing top tier offensive output. The X factors for the Red Sox this season have been Kikè Hernandez and former Rays outfielder Hunter Renfroe. Renfroe was signed for $4 million in the offseason and has outproduced that contract, hitting 31 home runs en route to a 114 wRC+ while leading baseball in outfield assists. Kikè has also provided value above and beyond his contract, hitting 20 home runs out of the leadoff spot and playing great center field defense.
Beyond the top six of the Boston order, Bobby Dalbec, Travis Shaw and Christian Arroyo will provide depth at the bottom of the order and off the bench. Dalbec had an electric second half, hitting 15 homers and squashing his strikeout rate, which led to the 19th highest wRC+ in baseball in the second half. If Dalbec is hot, the Red Sox will fare much better in this series.
The Rays have a potent lineup of their own. Wander Franco, the number one prospect in baseball, has cemented himself as a potential superstar in his rookie year. Since August 1st, he has a 149 wRC+ and is only striking out 6% of his plate appearances. It’s an otherworldly approach and the Red Sox will be lucky to get Franco out. Staying the rookie course, Randy Arozarena, who has been one of the hottest hitters in baseball in the second half and will likely win the Rookie of the Year (despite playing in 2019 and 2020). If you couldn’t tell already, the Rays only deploy incredible young players.
Beyond the rookies, the Rays have team MVP Brandon Lowe, who hit 39 homers on the year and .315 over the final month of the season. Tampa also went out and acquired the ageless Nelson Cruz to provide more power and experience to their lineup. The depth doesn’t stop there: Yandy Diaz, Ji-man Choi, Joey Wendle, and Austin Meadows have all provided above average offensive output this season.
The Rays will look to control the base paths, with six players stealing more than eight bags, and as a team they rank seventh in baseball in stolen bases. The Red Sox on the other hand, rank second to last in stolen bases and will not be a threat to take the extra base. Look out for Adam Ottavino, who has been stolen on more than any pitcher in baseball this season, to be taken advantage of on the bases late in the game.
DISCLAIMER: I am a Red Sox fan and will be attending Game 3 of this series in person.
The Red Sox have struggled against the Rays this season, but also caught them right in the middle of a major collapse and COVID outbreak It has been a spectacular turn around for a Red Sox team that finished in last place in 2020’s abbreviated season; there is something special about these Sox. That being said, this Rays team is all the more special.
15 of the 26 players on the Rays ALDS roster are under the age of 30. Hungry, driven, young players, several of which were called up later in the season should keep the team fresh and energized. With the best decision makers in all of baseball running their organization, it’s hard to not give them a sizable advantage against a Red Sox team that has massively exceeded expectations.
This series will be decided by the Red Sox ability to score runs early and have their bullpen hold on, which has been a struggle in the second half. If the Rays escape the fifth inning with a lead, it will be nearly impossible for the Red Sox to score runs off of the best bullpen in baseball.
My final prediction is that the Rays win this series in five games. The Red Sox will jump on one of the Shane’s in Game 1 or Game 2 and steal one game at home, forcing a Game 5 back in Tampa Bay. This is primed to be an electric series and you won’t want to miss a minute of it!