After starting out gangbusters in sweeping the Yankees, the Rays have subsequently managed to lose two of three to the Tigers, then get it handed to them by the Red Sox. They lost the first three games of a four game set by a combined margin of 31-11, though they did salvage yesterday's finale 1-0 behind a fine effort from James Shields and sit at .500. However Tampa has the worst run differential in baseball and have scored the fewest runs of any team in the division. Of more concern perhaps is that their fine staff has been pretty poor so far, Shields aside. They're tied for the most runs allowed in baseball, and Tampa's non-Shields pitchers have now walked 39 batters in 62.2 innings, against 42 strikeouts. It's early, but that is, as the kids say, not good.
At least for Tampa's sake they get to face a familiar punching bag in the Blue Jays. Over the last four seasons the Rays are 47-25 against the home nine, which works out to about a 106 win pace over the course of a full season. All of this is a long winded way of setting up unstoppable force vs. immovable object - the Rays slow start vs. their traditional dominance of the Jays. Which will prevail?
Well, really, the Rays continued success against the Jays and their slow start are probably and definitely not statistically significant, respectively. Sometimes statistics are no fun though, which is why we have THE ADVANCE SCOUT.
First of all, on a bit of a non-sequitur, I was in New York for six days (Yankee Stadium is super nice btw, albeit tiny) and the Jays were probably the third most popular ball cap I saw - easily beating out the Red Sox, probably close with the Phillies, and then obviously trailing the Yankees and the Mets. Even if one of those caps was Alex's, I still saw about one Jays cap per day, which I thought was kind of neat, and even saw one of the new hats in a athletic store window (albeit in Brooklyn). Anyway...
Tuesday: Jeff Niemann vs. Ricky Romero
Jeff Niemann has pretty much established his major league bona fides by this point. In his three full seasons his FIP- (FIP relative to league) has gone from 97 (3% better) to 116 (16% worse) to 107. Over his career he's now thrown 511 innings of slightly below average baseball. Given the division in which he works, that is pretty impressive for a guy who's essentially a fifth starter. The fourth overall pick out of Rice, Niemann never really put it together as a star; one of the the major area's in which he has struggled is in going deep into ballgames - Niemann almost always makes it through five, and usually through six, but goes into the seventh in only about a third of his starts - he usually tires after about 75 pitches. I don't know if this is related to his size - Niemann is a giant, standing 6'9" and weighing in at about 260 pounds - but it's something he hasn't improved on over time. Despite his stature Niemann is actually a pretty soft tosser, consistently topping out at about 92 MPH. In addition to the heater Niemann has developed a split fingered pitch over the last couple of years, to go with his righty curveball and his slider. The slider and the splitter both run in the mid to low-80s, while the curve tops out at about 78 MPH. Niemann started using the curve more and the splitter less in 2011, but threw both of them about 13% of the time in his 2012 debut. None of the pitches stand out as being really above average. Niemann is recovering from a blister that bothered him in spring training, but seemed fine in his first start, allowing three runs in five innings against the Tigers, with a 6/2 K/BB ratio. Lifetime against Niemann Jose Bautista is 4/18 but with 5 walks; Edwin is 1/9 and Yunel 0/8, while Adam Lind is 11/26 with 2 homers and 4 walks.
Wednesday: David Price vs. Brandon Morrow
If one Ray really personifies Tampa's dominance over Toronto it's Price. The big lefty was called up by the Rays (albeit briefly) in 2008, the first year in the Rays run of dominance against the Jays. Since then he's gone 9-2 in 12 starts against Toronto, holding Blue Jays hitters to a paltry .213/.265/.332 line against him. So basically he makes Jays hitters look like a light-hitting version of Juan Pierre. Yikes. Price has, of course, been quite good against all teams, thanks in no small measure to one of the best fastballs in baseball. Price throws both a two-seamer and four-seamer, which he runs up to 98 MPH. Amongst starters he averaged the third highest velocity in 2011, being narrowly beat out by Alexi Ogando and Justin Verlander; the year before he was fourth overall. Price mixes speeds effectively, throwing a late breaking slider around 90, a change up around 85 and a curveball around 80. The change up is probably the best of these pitches, which he throws about 10% of the time each. He is coming off one of the worst starts of his career, walking three and allowing three runs in three innings against the Red Sox, needing 83 pitches to do so. Like I said, he's been pretty good for that to be one of the worst starts. If you think that line against the Jays is bad, take out Jose Bautista, who is 9/27 lifetime against Price with 4 homers and 4 walks. JP Arencibia is 1 for 13, while Edwin Encarnacion and Yunel Escobar are 3 for 18 and 15 respectively, both with a home run. Adam Lind is 6/30, while KJ is 2/10.
Thursday: Jeremy Hellickson vs. Henderson Alvarez
2011's AL Rookie of the Year (Lawrie wuz robbed!), Jeremy Hellickson was one out away from shutting our the Yankees to start the season. Not too shabby, kid. After that start he got hit with a batted ball in BP but was fine, passing a concussion test and being allowed to start Friday's game against the Red Sox. He maybe should have taken a few more days, as he gave up 5 in 5, and now possesses a 6-4 BB/K ratio in 13.2 innings. Again, nothing really to get worried about at this early juncture, although I will note that in the minors Hellickson struck out about a quarter of the batters he faced, while walking about 6% of them. In his first big league season he was closer to 15%/9%, which isn't bad but isn't going to turn any heads. Hellickson doesn't throw especially hard, spotting his fastball between 89-93 MPH His real plus pitch though is an 80 MPH changeup he threw a remarkable 30% of the time last season. He augments these two offerings with an about average curveball. Career Jose Bautista is 4/5 against Hellickson, actually hitting for the cycle (not all in the same game).
The Rays basically never use the same lineup twice, but it should look approximately like this vs Morrow and Alvarez at least
Desmond Jennings CF
Carlos Pena 1B
Evan Longoria 3B
Matt Joyce LF
Ben Zobrist RF
Luke Scott DH
Jeff Keppinger 2B
Jose Molina C
Reid Brignac/Sean Rodriguez SS
Tonight against Romero Keppinger will probably bat cleanup, with Sean Rodriguez getting the start at short and batting 6th or so.
BJ Upton had two hits last night in his first rehab assignment and could be back with the Rays as soon as this weekend... Don't feel too bad for Evan Longoria being tied to an extremely team friendly contract: he's become one of baseball's most sought after spokespeople, having graced the cover of MLB 2K10 in addition to appearing in ads for Gillette and New Era; he has a drumhead cover signed by all the members of Rush, and he's dating Miss January 2010... Luke Scott is no stranger to controversy, having opined that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. He's sticking to baseball this time, calling Fenway Park "a dump." He was mainly referring to the cramped conditions the players face, but some things you just don't say... Desmond Jennings has put some right shoulder problems behind him, though he's still off to a slow start... Yesterday's W was the 500th of Joe Madden's career.
Infirmary: As mentioned, BJ Upton, CF (back) is due back basically as early as this weekend; the legend of Sam Fuld, OF (wrist) is out until July-August, while Kyle Farnsworth, RP (elbow) might be back in May.
Song to Advance Scout By: I'm Coming Home, the J. Cole version (the soft female vocal refrain "I'm Coming Home" is used in a bunch of the Sportsnet Jays commercials). It is infinity times better than the Diddy Dirty Money version, the video for which, combined with Puffy's rapping, actually makes me laugh out loud.
Chart: Last edition featuring 2011 numbers! All data from Fangraphs/Yahoo/BR.