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Photo Credit: @BlueJays

Blueprint for Beating the Tampa Bay Rays

Its official the Blue Jays will play Tampa Bay in the Wild Card round. Tampa Bay was the class of the American League in this shortened season. They went 40-20 to lead the AL finishing just three games behind the Dodgers for the MLB lead. The Blue Jays went 32-28 taking the second wild card.

The Blue Jays enter this series as heavy underdogs, but there is a way they can win this series.

The official rotation for the Blue Jays hasn’t been announced yet but it seems likely that Taijuan Walker will start Game 1 instead of Hyun-Jin Ryu. It’s been speculated that he perhaps asked the Blue Jays to give him an extra day of rest.

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This actually can work in the Blue Jays favour. They get their ace fully rested and in a situation he is comfortable with and having Walker pitch Game 1 isn’t the worst thing.

For one Walker’s primary pitch is a four-seam fastball. It averages 93.2 mph, with 2143 rpm of spin, per Baseball Savant. Batters hit just .156 off the pitch the 14th lowest in the league among pitchers who faced at least 50 batters. He gets whiffs on it 23.1% of the time. It’s a really good fastball; in fact, Eno Sarris of the Athletic suggests it might be the best four-seamer in the league. 

Why is this important? Well the Rays are one of the worst fastball hitting teams in the league. Per Fangraphs run value, the Rays were worth -11.3 runs against fastballs, 26th in the league. Per Baseball Savant, they have the highest strikeout rate against the four-seamer at 29.5%, the second lowest batting average at .217 and third lowest wOBA at .323.

The stats are even worse when facing hard fastballs. Against fastballs thrown 95 mph or harder their strikeout rate jumps up to 40.2% and average drops to .179.

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This extends to not just four-seamers but all pitches thrown 95 mph and above.  And it’s not like this is a couple players dragging the team down or a few black holes in the line-up, many of the Rays key bats have had issues with top notch velocity this season.

Here are the all the Rays hitters who saw at least 50 pitches at or above 95 mph this season, per Baseball Savant. Many of the Rays key hitters, Tsutsugo, Kiermaier, Adames, Wendle, Meadows, Renfroe, and Zunino, have really struggled against high velocity. That is a large portion of the line-up. Yandy Díaz is the one Rays hitter who succeeds against velocity, he’s currently hurt and it’s not yet known if he will be on the playoff roster. If he is, he needs to be fed a healthy diet of breaking balls and off-speed pitches.

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The Blue Jays in order to win need to take advantage of this. They can do that by making sure a guy like Nate Pearson has a big role, Rafael Dolis and Anthony Bass should be featured often. They need to limit and potentially even avoid the usage of low velocity relievers, like a Shun Yamaguchi or Ross Stripling.

The Rays feature a ton of lefty bats and you can be sure they will load up the lefties against Walker. The Blue Jays and Charlie Montoyo have done well with this during the season, but there needs to be a quick hook on the starters, especially if there is any sort of velocity dip. The Blue Jays have some hard throwing lefties in Ryan Borucki, Anthony Kay and Robbie Ray; they should be used when necessary to neutralize those big lefty bats.

Overall against lefties the Rays were very good. Ryu is going to have his work cut out for him. Tampa hit .237/.340/.455 with a 121 wRC+ against left-handed pitching this season. Their patient hitters, their 11.7% walk rate ranked second in the league, but they also swing and miss, their 28.5% strikeout rate led the league. The trio that did the most damage against lefties was Willy Adames, Mike Brosseau and Brandon Lowe.  Lowe as a lefty hitter has shown no platoon spilt and has been just as good against righties as lefties. For his career he has a 127 wRC+ vs. southpaws and a 132 wRC+ vs. righties.

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Adames is a hitter Ryu is going to have to be very mindful of. Not only does he hit lefties well, a 172 wRC+ this season, he’s hit change-ups from lefties very well. For his career Adames has hit .327 with a .538 slugging against change-ups thrown by lefties. He will be a hitter Ryu may try to finish off with a something other than his change-up.

The Blue Jays in order to win this series may need to do a bullpen game in Game 3. Matt Shoemaker the projected Game 3 starter doesn’t throw very hard. If his splitter isn’t keeping the hitters off balance early, he should get a quick hook.

Much like the Rays, the Blue Jays hitters also have difficulties with high velocity. On pitches 95 mph or higher their 33.5% strikeout rate was second behind the Rays. They hit .216 with a .276 wOBA, both in the bottom quarter of the league.

Tampa Bay throws hard. They threw 18.1% of their pitches at 95+, the seventh highest percentage in the league and well above the league average of 13.1%. Their projected starters for the series, Blake Snell (average fastball velocity 95mph), Tyler Glasnow (96.9mph) and Charlie Morton (93.4mph) throw hard. Not to the mention the barrage of relievers who all seem to throw at least 98.

Here is the same chart we saw above but for the Blue Jays hitters instead of the Rays.

The Blue Jays have their fare of key hitters who have struggled with high velocity, Biggio, Gurriel Jr., Shaw, Jansen, but it’s not as many and the Blue Jays big bats don’t appear to have any issues. Grichuk and Teoscar both hit well against high velocity. Vlady didn’t see the results but he doesn’t strikeout much either.

How about Bo Bichette? Bo hit .800 on pitches 95+ with zero strikeouts. He only swung and missed TWICE all season.

That’s it. Both times were blowout games and Bo comes out of his shoes and takes a huge swing. I don’t think we’re going to see swings like that in the postseason.

Alejandro Kirk is the secret weapon of this line-up. There is no reason for him not to be playing the entirety of this series either at DH or catcher. The more Kirk the better. He’s seen 21 pitches at or above 95 mph; he’s had eight hits, including his homer, and has just one swinging strike which came on 100.5 mph from Aroldis Chapman. If Snell and Glasnow try and challenge him with fastballs he has to take advantage.

The Rays are more than just a high velocity throwing team. Glasnow and Morton have two of the better curveballs in the game, and Snell keeps hitters off balance with his change, slider and curve.

The Blue Jays have hitters who can handle breaking balls and off-speed pitches.

Gurriel Jr. smashes non-fastballs. Over the last two seasons he has a .390 wOBA against breaking balls and off-speed pitches, third in the league behind Mike Trout and Yordan Alvarez. Gurriel Jr. is not going to see many of these pitches so he has to be ready and jump on one when does.

Vladdy hit breaking balls quite well this season. He posted a .621 slugging percentage with three homes. Jansen has hit sinkers and sliders well, a .390 wOBA with 12 walks.

Hits are going to be tough to come by for the Blue Jays in this series. The Rays have a very strong defensive team and have a substantial edge over the Blue Jays in that department. The Rays led by Kiermaier in centre, finished fourth in baseball with 24 defensive runs saved. The Blue Jays on the other hand finished 29th at -39. The Rays outfield defense is their strength. 19 of those 24 defensive runs saved came from the outfield, their 8.9 ultimate zone rating ranked third as did their 6 outs above average. The Blue Jays were -18 DRS, -4.2 UZR and were -8 OAA, all of which ranked in the bottom third of the league.

The Blue Jays have the pieces to beat Tampa Bay, especially in a short series like this, anything can happen. With this series being so short, mistakes can cost you dearly. The Blue Jays have to limit mistakes on defence and the base paths, you cannot be giving a team like the Rays extra outs. They need to take advantage when they have a mismatch. Kevin Cash has been here before and knows how to manage to get those mismatches and put his players in the best position to succeed. Montoyo is going to have his work cut out for him.