World Series of the Week: Rays vs. Orioles

EASTERN PROMISES

by Steven GoldmanIt is very, very early in the American League East, and anyone who advances too definitive an analysis of each team’s possibilities risks becoming the Norman Angell of baseball, declaring peace is at hand less than a year before the Archduke Ferdinand got his ticket punched.

Having said that, let’s throw caution to the wind and go sailing on the good ship Confirmation Bias: Prior to the season, SB Nation columnist Cliff Corcoran said that it was possible to look at every team in the division and make a case that it would win 85 games -- every team was about that good, but also that flawed. For the Rays, the presumed good included strong pitching and the presumed flaws a weak offense. For the Orioles, the positives were all-around depth and the negatives were anticipated regression from key players and the bullpen, as well as in one-run games.

So far, the offseason coming attractions have proved to be a decent representation of the movie. The Rays, hitting .205/.281/.288 as a team, are dead last in the American League in runs scored. They have hit five home runs as a team. Seven individual players have as many or more -- Chris Davis, the Orioles’ first baseman, among them. Normally, we might look at Tropicana Field and point out that it’s a pitcher’s park that will deflate the Rays’ stats at the best of times, but they’re hitting 251/.322/.364 at home versus .160/.239/.213 on the road -- it's not the park, it’s that the Rays are suffering from the equivalent of forgetting to charge their cellphones before leaving home.

They aren’t really this bad, of course; no team is. Having said that, we risk damning with Rays with faint praise – "not bad" is not the same as saying "actually good." Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist are proven commodities. Matt Joyce has hit .270/.364/.493 against right-handed pitching over the last three seasons. Yunel Escobar has hit well for a shortstop at times in the past, and Kelly Johnson’s low batting average conceal good power and patience for a middle infielder. Desmond Jennings seems like a good breakthrough candidate after putting up numbers in the second half more in line with his minor league performances.

That’s the full list of likely positives, and we had to dismiss Escobar’s two bad seasons in three (.253/.300/.344 last season) and project improvement to Jennings to get there. The rest is a lot of wishful thinking involving unlovable orphans like James Loney, who is still trying to find the stroke he left back in 2007 (a hopeful sighting in 2011’s second half proved to be a red herring).

The tragedy of the Rays is that they are the right team in the wrong place: whether the reason is a poorly located, unattractive ballpark, a disinterested city, or both, this is a team staffed by some of the best minds in baseball, but they’re forced to pursue their goals with one hand tied behind their backs. Rather than building a team they know will succeed, they sign longshots like Loney and embrace the Four Ps: Pitch, Patch, Platoon, and Pray (and wait for Wil Myers’ chance of being a super-two arbitration player to pass).

As for the Orioles, having gone 29-9 in one-run games last year, they are currently 1-3 in such contests. In Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the title characters begin to suspect their own unreality when a tossed coin comes up heads 92 times in a row. "One, probability is a factor which operates within natural forces," they reason. "Two, probability is not operating as a factor. Three, we are now within un-, sub- or supernatural forces." Going 29-9 in one-run games is being within un-, sub-, or supernatural forces. It’s not a permanent condition -- probability reasserts itself, and the losing begins.

That said, the Orioles have other things going for them besides luck. They are very much a team of equals both in the lineup and the pitching staff. There is no MVP-level star (unless Chris Davis keeps up his torrid pace, in which case they have something really special) but also no truly soft spots outside of second base. The same is true of the pitching staff -- there isn’t a 200-strikeout ace in sight, just (they hope) solid if unspectacular performers. Like the Rays, the Orioles are waiting on a major prospect to arrive, starter Dylan Bundy. If he lives up to expectations, we can throw out everything we know about them. Unfortunately, Bundy has been slow in recovering from some elbow tightness, so his timetable is now in doubt.

In the short term, this series represents a chance for the Rays to get off the mat after a .333 start. In the longer view, these intra-division series are going to be key all season long as five closely-matched teams battle. A Myers or a Bundy really could be decisive, so in a sense, these games are a dress rehearsal for the real versions of these teams. Unfortunately for both, they count -- even if the Rays are willing to throw plate appearances away on Sam Fuld and pals.

Players to watch

by Steven Goldman

Matt Moore

Left-handed pitcher

One of those baseball clichés that happens to be true is that it takes awhile for young, hard-throwing lefties to find their control. Moore appeared to do that in the second half last year, dropping his walks per nine from 4.5 to 3.6. Gio Gonzalez didn’t get his walk rate under four per nine until his fifth major league season, and he had to move over to the NL to do it; Clayton Kershaw got there in season three. It doesn’t always happen; some lefties never take that step forward. It seems odd to call a pitcher who struck out nearly a batter per inning with a 3.01 ERA after the All-Star break as a breakout candidate, but now we’re waiting for him to do it over a full season.

Ben Zobrist

Everybaseman

The Gil McDougald of the 21st century, and like his predecessor, it took the connivance of his manager to make him great. Once Casey Stengel realized McDougald was a great defender at second, short, or third and had an above-average bat at any of the three, he had an unbeatable weapon, a player who could help you stay above replacement level wherever you were weakest. Joe Maddon uses Zobrist the same way. In an age of constricted budgets and rosters choked by out-of-control kudzu relief specialists, asymmetrical platooning is an under-exploited way to do more with less -- but so far only Maddon seems to realize it.

Jose Molina

Catcher

A career .239/.286/.345 hitter, and not even the lightest-hitting backstop of his era -- Paul Bako and Mike Matheny had him beat. Molina’s pitch-framing skills are undoubtedly valuable to a team that lives on pitching, but you know the Rays would ditch their Molinas and Lobatons in a second for a more rounded starter. Consider: if the numbers are accurate and Molina has saved his pitchers 80 runs over the last five seasons, that translates to perhaps 1.5 extra wins a season. However, since Molina contributes almost nothing on offense, the net gain may be closer to zero. Being underfinanced means clothing yourself in burlap and pretending it’s silk.

Chris Tillman

Right-handed pitcher

The Orioles’ long years in the wilderness were marked by an almost total inability to develop pitching. From busted first-round draft picks like Adam Loewen and Matthew Hobgood to well-regarded prospects who just haven’t established themselves like Brian Matusz (now finding success as a reliever), Jake Arrieta, and Zach Britton, young pitchers took their lumps but with the exception of Erik Bedard, didn’t evolve. Tillman, who came to the Orioles in trade for Bedard, appeared to finally get there last season, but from a high home run rate to a super-low .222 BABIP, to a barely-average strikeout rate, it’s very possible that this season he gives it all back.

Chris Davis

First baseman

In his last 50 games, going back to August 16 last season, Davis has hit a cool .328/.403/.733 with 21 home runs in 180 at-bats, or one every 8.6 at-bats. This Ruthian pace is not totally unanticipated in his career -- Davis hit .318 and slugged nearly .600 in the minor leagues, then got off track in the majors, pitchers using his poor selectivity against him. Still Davis is like Mark Teixeira (in the latter’s prime) in that he has so much power that even when he’s doing things fundamentally wrong the right things happen. He’s going to cool off at some point, but the Orioles might have an MVP candidate nonetheless.

Adam Jones

Center field

Baseball’s Mr. Streaky is off to a crazy-hot start, a dropped fly that led to a loss to the Yankees notwithstanding. As much as any player in the game, he illustrates the mental aspect of the game, the gap between talent and execution when the head gets in the way. There is no other explanation for the way he mixes in months where he hits as well as anyone in the game with arctic cold snaps in which he struggles to get on base at a .300 clip. You get top-quality defense (even if the defensive metrics don’t like him), rising power production, and the peaks are so high you have a down-ballot MVP candidate even with the lulls. Still, if he ever finds consistency, look out.

About the park

by Steven Goldman

Oriole Park at Camden Yards: Twenty-one years in, Oriole Park at Camden Yards remains a jewel of a ballpark. As with all originals, it has spawned a series of imitators, faux-neighborhood ballparks that lack neighborhoods – it’s one thing to have quirky features that respond to an urban setting (like Fenway Park’s Green Monster) or incorporate existing structures (Camden Yards’ warehouse), another to pretend you’re doing that when the park has been dropped in the middle of a parking lot. The 1970s answer to that was to build featureless concrete donuts, a practice Camden Yards put to an end (glory hallelujah).

The answer since then has been slavish imitation which has formalized what was once an improvisation. Griffith Stadium in Washington had an uneven roof line because the stands were built in sections over time. Today, an architect might replicate that out of choice instead of necessity. When choice replaces expediency, we have crossed the line from authenticity to artificiality, a Disneyland-style pass at history reproduced at five-eighths scale. We are still awaiting a ballpark for the 21st century.

Camden Yards has a reputation as a bandbox, one that’s not altogether undeserved. Over the last three seasons, it has had one of the highest park factors for home runs by left-handed hitters (129), and has also been generous to right-handed power hitters (116). During his aforementioned 50 games, Chris Davis has hit .351 here and slugged .838. Matt Wieters is a career .271/.341/.439 hitter there, versus .247/.316/.399 on the road, and Nick Markakis’s isolated power is 24 points higher here than in other parks. The Rays’ Matt Joyce has hit .284/.396/.481 at Camden Yards, Ben Zobrist .306/.400/.502, and Kelly Johnson .300/.383/.525. The Rays aren’t particularly left-handed, a curious disadvantage given the presence of this ballpark and Yankee Stadium in the division.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2012 and to this day it remains one of the most beautiful ballparks in baseball. Nestled into the cityscape in Baltimore, Camden Yards has undergone a number of minor renovations to keep it fresh and updated. It’s a regular summertime destination for fans of opposing teams, and as long as you’re not a fan of the Yankees or Red Sox, we don't mind too much.

Most seats at Camden Yards are good seats, and both the flag court and the center field bar provide great views of the game. If you find yourself at Camden Yards, I suggest taking a stroll down Eutaw Street to check out the bronze plaques that mark the home runs that have landed there. Then get yourself a crab mac-and-cheese hot dog or a Boog’s BBQ sandwich before settling in for the game.
- Stacey Long, Camden Chat

JUST Ask the locals!

from Camden Chat & DRays Bay

What rivalry?

The Orioles and Rays are rivals only in that they play in the same division. Both are former jokes of the A.L. East and while Orioles fans don't particularly like the Rays, most will always root for them over both the Yankees and the Red Sox.

Never was this more evident than in game 162 in 2011 when "Let’s Go Rays" chants broke out at Camden Yards and the Orioles reacted to beating the Red Sox as though they were the ones going to the playoffs.

Maybe one day in the future, if both teams continue their success and Camden Yards and Tropicana Field find become overrun with fans of the other team, a rivalry will be born. But until then, the prevailing thought will be that if it can’t be us winning, it might as well be them. " - Stacey Long, Camden Chat

Maybe!

"I wouldn't call the Rays-Orioles rivalry as big as the Yankees vs. Red Sox rivalry, but it's definitely getting larger and larger each year. I always used to view them as a smaller AL East "rivalry" back when both the Rays were still called the Devil Rays, as both teams were horrible and they were fighting it out for fourth place on a yearly basis. When the Rays started winning, though, that rivalry took a backseat to the Red Sox (who I believe all Rays fans hate with a fiery passion), and I even found myself rooting for the Orioles on occasion.

But now that the Orioles are good as well...well, that changes things. I'd rather see the Orioles make the postseason rather than the Red Sox or Yankees, but not at the expense of the Rays. And considering how egalitarian the AL East is this year (in terms of talent, at least), it's on. I don't want the Rays to miss the postseason yet again, and the O's are standing smack in the way. Bring it, Birdtown!" - Steve Slowinski, DRays Bay

One Key Stat: .208/.278/.302

by Steven Goldman

The above is sidearmer Darren O’Day’s career rates against right-handed hitters. It is an article of faith that reliever production can vary widely from season to season. The Orioles, with a relief staff that was top-three in the AL last year, would seem to be a prime candidate for the bullpen boomerang effect. One reason why this might not be the case is pitchers like O’Day, who aren’t flash-in-the-pan types but have a record of sustained success. O’Day has a long history of being taken too lightly: The Mets Rule 5’d him away from the Angels and didn’t know what they had; the Rangers ran from him after hip labrum surgery. Four teams in, O’Day has never been traded, only underestimated. The same might be true of the Orioles’ pen as a whole.

Bottom Line: Rays take series, 2-1

by Steven Goldman Pitching rights the Rays as the Orioles win behind Jake Arrieta in the series opener, but Matt Moore bests a disappointing Chris Tillman in Game 2 and David Price closes the door against Miguel Gonzalez in Game 3.
Please post your predictions below.

Game 1: Orioles 5, rays 4

D Rays Bay Recap: They Rays made it close enough to make it interesting, but not close enough to make it fun.

Camden Chat Recap: Despite another underwhelming performance by Jake Arrieta, the Orioles win!

Game 2: Rays 6, orioles 2

D Rays Bay Recap: The Tampa Bay Rays offense finally broke out as Matt Moore stymied the Orioles.

Camden Chat Recap
: A thoroughly poor game by the Orioles tonight dropped them back to .500 at 7-7.

Game 3: Orioles 10, rays 6

Wieters_medium

Tampa Bay was leadind 5-4 through the top of the sixth, and it looked like our pre-series prediction of two wins for Tampa might come true. That's when things came apart for the Rays. David Price gave up a leadoff double to J.J. Hardy.

Joe Maddon than made an odd call, going to the pen for a lefty to face Orioles DH Steve Pearce -- of all the pitchers in creation, lefties are the only ones Pearce can hit. One home run later, the Orioles were up 6-5.

The Rays came back in the top of the eighth with a James Loney solo shot off of Darren O' Day. The tie persisted to the bottom of the tenth. Nick Markakis led off with a single. Manny Machado bunted for a hit. Adam Jones singled to load the bases. This brought Matt Wieters to the plate. You can see what happened next on the right.

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