This week, the Yankees face their staunchest competitor for the AL East crown, the Tampa Bay Rays. As their first series turned chippy, the Yankees crumbled, losing three out of four. With the Rays trailing the Yanks by just two games in the standings, Tampa Bay could leapfrog the Bombers into first with a three-game sweep. Winners of eight of their last ten, the Rays are as hot as any team in baseball.
As per their alchemically-efficient team building formula, they’ve drastically outperformed their third-lowest payroll in the MLB (the Yankees spend almost four times as much on player personnel). Through Sunday, they’ve produced the fifth best wOBA and SIERA in all of baseball.
Tampa’s standout so far has been Brandon Lowe’s superb sophomore followup to a solid rookie season, triple-slashing .338/.404/.738 with the fourth best wOBA in baseball. Odds are that he won’t finish the season with the Bondsian 1.142 OPS he’s currently rocking, but he looks like he could give Gleyber Torres a run for his money as the best young middle infielder in the AL East.
The Yankees just concluded dominant, consecutive sweeps of the Braves and Red Sox, winning six straight by a combined 24 runs. For the second year in a row, injuries have forced them to rely on positional flexibility that’s proven as deep as Mary Poppins’s carpet bag. With injuries to their marquee mashers, Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge, Clint Frazier’s made up for both of them with a 1.696 OPS and five extra base hits through his first 16 at bats.
Tuesday (Game 1): Masahiro Tanaka vs. Blake Snell
The Rays will have to deal with the Yankees’ number two in the series opener, Masahiro Tanaka. In his first start against the Rays, Tanaka was uber-efficient, striking out five through five innings on just 59 pitches. He left the game in a 0-0 tie, but Adam Ottavino gave up a run in the eighth leading to the Bomber loss. After another start in which he threw 66 pitches, but went only four innings, the Yankees will likely progressively stretch Tanaka out following his recovery from that scary line drive to the dome.
Blake Snell’s in a similar position to Tanaka, as he had yet to throw more than three innings until his most recent start. Against the Sox on August 12th, Snell threw 70 pitches over five run-free innings. His disappointing 2019 ended with elbow surgery, so the Rays will continue to be careful with him as he returns to full strength. If, when the Rays let him loose, he goes on pitching as well as he has so far — with a 2.08 ERA and 20 strikeouts over 13.0 innings — he could be in the running for a second Cy Young.
Wednesday (Game 2): Gerrit Cole vs. Tyler Glasnow
In his most recent start, Gerrit Cole dominated the Red Sox over seven innings of one run ball, striking out eight and walking none for the first time this season. His improved fastball command allowed him to attack hitters more efficiently and pitch deeper into the game. Further, FiveThirtyEight’s rolling game score has Cole ranked as the best pitcher in baseball this season. In Cole, so far, the Yankees have gotten what they paid for, and that’s a bonafide ace.
Tyler Glasnow’s pitch arsenal is one of the few that could compare favorably to Cole. Glasnow owns baseball’s sixth fastest fastball among starters, on average, at 97 miles per hour, and a curveball with an above average vertical break. However, his control problems of years prior are back in full force, walking nearly six batters per nine. Combined with some bad luck on an elevated home run per fly ball rate, he’s been battered to the tune of a 7.04 ERA. With an xFIP of just 3.22, some positive regression is in order, but if the Yankee hitters can wait for Glasnow to pitch himself behind in counts, they should be able to work walks and tee off on a mistake or two.
Thursday (Game 3): James Paxton vs. TBD
James Paxton would likely rather forget his first two starts of the season, as he allowed six runs through four total innings of work. The sudden decline in his fastball velocity is alarming, as his 97.5 average miles per hour on the pitch in 2016, dropped to 95.4 during 2017-2019, and this season has fallen all the way to 92.3. Without fully regaining his fastball velocity, Paxton has seemingly turned his season around over his last two starts.
He’s coming off his first win of the season, which followed what was easily his best start of the year, coming against the Rays. He struck out 11 batters over 6.1 innings before Brandon Lowe put a hanging cutter in the right field bleachers of the Trop. With reduced velocity, and therefore break, on all of his pitches, Major League hitters will make Paxton pay for his mistakes. However, if he can replicate the precision he showed in the first six innings of his start against the Rays’ lefty heavy lineup, he should be able to out-duel any back-end Rays starter.
After starting Trevor Richards, Ryan Yarbrough, and Yonny Chirinos over their past three games, Chirinos is likely unavailable for Thursday’s matchup, but Yarbrough or Richards should be ready to pitch on four or five days rest. Yarbrough is the superior option for this turn in the rotation, and thus more likely to throw against the division rival Yanks. He’s replicated last season’s 4.13 ERA and has proven himself a legitimately average to above average big league starter with an ERA+ between 103 and 108 in each of his three seasons.