When the Guardians and Rays matchup for the first postseason game in Cleveland on Friday just after noon ET (too early for a playoff game), those of us tuning in will see two teams with a lot in common.
Of the 12 teams in the playoff bracket, they are the two with the fewest home games. They own the lowest ERAs among the eight teams in the wild-card round. Cleveland manager Terry Francona is the longest-tenured MLB manager by his current team, and Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash is right behind him in second place — and before Cash was hired by the Rays, he served as Francona in Cleveland.
The Guardians (92–70) secured the No. 3 seed in the American League by winning the AL Central, while the Rays (86–76), on a five-game losing streak to end the season, finished three games out of the Orioles to clinch the sixth and final playoff spot.
Despite the six-game difference in their final records, the two clubs also appear to be evenly matched – they met at Progressive Field just last week and the Guardians won two of three games, all of which were decided by a run, including an Amed Withdrawal from the rosary.
In some ways, though, they are quite different. Cleveland’s 23 wins since the start of September are the most of any team. Tampa Bay’s 14 wins (vs. 18 losses) over that same span are tied for the fewest among playoff teams. And while Cleveland has embraced an old small-ball style of play, the Rays have long had a reputation for being one of the more analytical teams, with three true hits, even if they haven’t played exactly that. road to the stadium this year.
Let’s try to find some of the other key differences that will emerge during this three-game series. Here are three factors that will help determine which team qualifies to face Yankees in next week’s ALDS.
Which Shane McClanahan will appear?
The Tampa Bay ace was the AL Cy Young frontrunner at the end of the first half when he posted a 1.71 ERA with 147 strikeouts in 110⅔ innings and was rewarded with the starting All-Star Game nod. But since the 25-year-old allowed a few runs in his lone stint at Dodger Stadium—counting the AL’s only runs in a 3–2 win over the NL—he hasn’t been the same guy.
In fact, McClanahan was worse than league average, posting a 4.20 ERA in 55⅔ innings since the break. The left-hander drew the same number of walks (19) in the second half as almost exactly twice as many in the first half, while his strikeout percentage dropped from 35.7% to 20.5%. McClanahan had allowed zero or one run in 11 of 12 starts heading into the All-Star break. He has done so in just two of 10 second-half starts. He also has yet to pitch into the sixth inning in four starts after a stint on the injured list for a shoulder impingement, and has struck out just 12 batters in those four outings after doubling that total in his previous four starts.
Coincidentally, Cleveland was the team that seemingly sent McClanahan down this difficult path. The Guardians faced him once this season, on July 31, less than two weeks after the All-Star Game. On his first start in the second half, the southpaw limited it Orioles in two runs over seven innings. But then the Guardians came in and lit him up for five runs, tied for the most he’s given up this season, on seven hits and three walks against just four strikeouts in 4⅓ innings. The result was McClanahan’s worst score (30) of the season. If something similar happens in Game 1, Tampa Bay will be dealing with it all over again.
Then again, maybe McClanahan’s bad day against the Guards was just bad luck, because…
Can the Rays capitalize on Cleveland’s issues against lefties?
… Cleveland usually can’t hit lefties worth a lick. When facing them, the Guardians have posted an 85 wRC+, which means they are 15% worse than the average team. That mark ranks 27th in MLB and makes them the only playoff team below average against lefties. No club has hit fewer home runs against left-handers this season than Cleveland (26).
Three of the Guardians’ top five hitters by wRC+ (Andrés Giménez, Steven Kwan, Josh Naylor) are left-handed, and another is José Ramírez, whose OPS against lefties this season has been nearly 200 points lower vs. righties (.918 to .729); The one left over is rookie right-hander Óscar González, who has slightly lopsidedly split 91 games in his MLB career. So, yes, Cleveland seems prone to talented left-handers, of which the Rays have plenty. In addition to McClanahan, Tampa’s pitching staff also includes Jeffrey Springs (whose 2.46 ERA leads Rays first basemen) and relievers Brooks Raley, Jalen Beeks and Garrett Cleavinger (who average at least 10 strikeouts per nine innings). It’s worth noting that Beeks missed the last two and a half weeks of the regular season with right lower leg tightness, but is expected to be active for the Wild Card Series.
Tampa Bay is known for preying on their opponents’ statistical weaknesses, and this is quite evident. So expect to see a lot of these five guys this weekend. It wouldn’t shock me to see Springs start Game 2 over former Cleveland ace Corey Kluber or Drew Rasmussen—or Cash start one of those two as the opener, only to put Springs in as a bulk when the Guardians deploy a left-heavy faction.
Whose power bats will heat up?
In Tom Verducci’s spectacular examination of the Guardians’ extreme small-ball leanings, he pointed out how critical it has been in recent years for teams to hit home runs in the playoffs. That will be especially true in this series, as neither team is very good at it. If a power hitter hits hot in Cleveland, it will likely turn the tide because there aren’t too many of those who populate these teams.
There are 23 MLB players who have hit at least 30 homers this year and none of them are playing in this streak. Every other playoff team boasts at least one. Guardians star José Ramírez leads all players in this series with 29 home runs. Cleveland’s Naylor is next with 20. Tampa Bay co-captains Randy Arozarena and Isaac Paredes also have 20.
The Rays and Guardians are two of the only three teams in the postseason (the Padres is the other) who averaged less than one home run per game. Cleveland ranked 29th, above only the underdogs Tigerswith 127 home runs, while Tampa Bay ranked 25th with 137. The Rays rank last among playoff teams in slugging percentage (.377, 25th in MLB), while the Guardians are second last (.382, 22nd).
Is there something in the water in these two cities? Left-handed outfielder David Peralta, acquired by the Diamondbacks at the trade deadline, he saw his power completely disappear in Tampa Bay. The 35-year-old has yet to hit 47 games as a Ray after hitting 12 home runs in 87 games with Arizona before switching jerseys. Austin Hedges who catches the guards is a career player. He had cleared double-digit homer totals in each of his last four full seasons, but only had seven this year.
On the pitching side, the two teams have given up home runs at nearly the same rate (Rays: 1.07 HR/9, Guardians: 1.06 HR/9), which puts them right in the middle of the pack. It feels like a situation ripe for a player to catch fire and carry his team to the ALDS. But neither team has a player with multiple players in the final week, so your guess is as good as mine as to who that could be.
More MLB coverage:
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• The MLB Culture Wars that led to Joe Maddon’s firing
• Inside Aaron Judge’s Pursuit of Home Run History
• The Guardians are MLB’s most intriguing Playoff team
• Let’s F—ing Party’: The Mariners Finally End 21-Year Playoff Drought