Handicapping the Rays-Yankees AL East Race
by Trevor Whenham - 5/21/2010
We're used to the American League East being a two-horse race, but it's a pleasant surprise that that race features the Tampa Bay Rays running away with the lead, and the Yankees chasing them from behind (Toronto is fighting hard and sticking close to the Yankees, but we'll ignore them for now).
The Yankees spend so much more money on players, and have so much more experience winning that it is tempting to assume they are going to win the division. The Rays certainly aren't going to give up with a fight, though, and they have a five-game lead to work with, so this is a battle that is going to rage for months yet. So, which team is going to win it all? Let's look at how the two teams measure up in six ways:
Rotations - The Yankees have spent a lot more on their rotation, so they should have a better one, right? Maybe so, but they don't. The homegrown, lower cost approach that the Rays have employed is working very well. Tampa Bay's five starters are 23-6 on the year, and none have an ERA more than 3.35. Each of the pitchers has a winning record, and only Wade Davis - at 4-3 - has lost more than one game this year. Davis has the worst WHIP on the team as well, but at 1.38 it's still more than solid. They have a very strong young pitcher in Jeremy Hellickson in Triple-A waiting for a chance. He'd have had it by now for most teams, but with Tampa Bay there isn't an opportunity right now. Beyond the quality of this rotation the most impressive thing about them is their age - James Shields is the old man of the rotation, and he's just 28.
The Yankees are still solid on the mound, but they aren't as strong. Their top five starters are 20-9. Youngster Phil Hughes and geezer Andy Pettitte have both been very good. CC Sabathia has decent numbers and a 4-2 record, but he's not pitching like the high-priced mega-ace that he is. A.J. Burnett has also been solid, but not nearly as strong as he should be for the money he makes. What really stands out, though, is the fifth starter. They just don't have one. Javier Vazquez is the leader, but he's absolutely lousy. Sergio Mitre hasn't been particularly effective when he's had the chance, either.
The Rays can match the Yankees comfortably with the first four starters, and significantly outclass them wit the fifth, so they have the edge here.
Schedules so far - The teams have played each other five times so far this year, with the results basically split - three wins for the Rays, and each team has won two in the other's stadium. The Rays have had more success this year, but they have also played an easier schedule so far. Tampa Bay has played what I would subjectively call bad teams five times this year, while the Yankees have had just two series against duds. The path has to get a little tougher for the Rays down the road, so the Yankees have a small edge in this area.
Hitters - There is not much to separate these two teams offensively. They are first and second in baseball in runs scored and RBI. They have gone about it in slightly different ways, though - the Yankees lead the league in batting average and OPS while the Rays are 17th and 15th, respectively. The Yankees are a power squad, while the Rays just find ways to score. The Yankees have the edge here, but not by a whole lot.
Defense - The Yankees have a significantly better fielding percentage, and have committed almost half as many errors, so they have a solid edge defensively. It's important to note, though, that the Rays aren't hurting as a result of their shortfall here. In fact, they have allowed just 128 runs, while the Yankees have allowed 169 in just as many games. When you factor in pitching, then, the Rays earn the defensive edge.
Depth - Depth is a very tough thing to measure because there are so many ways to look at it. The Rays have 13 guys who have had at least 50 at-bats, while the Yankees have 12, so they both have similar bench depth. Seven of those Yankees are hitting .280 or better, while just four of the Rays are, so the Yankees are deeper by that measure. The Rays are deeper on the mound both with their starters and out of the bullpen. The Rays also have more depth in terms of majors-ready minor league prospects. I guess you could give the Rays an edge here, but it's not significant, and it's definitely open to argument.
Road play - The simplest measure of the toughness and quality of a team, though not a flawless one, is their ability to play well away from home. By that measure, the Rays are much the stronger team and stand a good chance of holding on for the lead. The Rays are a superhuman 17-4 away from home. Incredibly, three of those losses came in consecutive games, so outside of three rough days in early May they have been a stunning 17-1.
The Yankees aren't nearly as good away from New York. They are just 12-10 on the road, and they haven't swept a single road series yet. The Rays have swept four. Tampa Bay isn't playing at a sustainable level, but they have clearly shown more comfort, and are the better road team now. They haven't always been, though - when they won the division in 2008 they were just 40-41 away from home.
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