No team benefited more from the shortened season than the New York Yankees. The Yankees had an MLB record 30 players on the I.L. last season, and heading into this year, several of their key stars were injured. Players such as Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks, Aaron Judge, and James Paxton would have started the season missing in action. Although the Yankees won a whopping 103 games last season with these players injured, they almost found themselves catching the injury bug again in 2020.
However, because of the delayed start, most of their stars are completely healthy. Since these players recovered from their injuries, along with the addition of ace Gerrit Cole, one would assume the Yankees can coast to their second straight AL East title. The Tampa Bay Rays would say otherwise.
The Rays won 96 games last season, while Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow missed significant time with injury. Those injuries may have not helped the Rays surpass the Yankees last season, but they were significant injuries nonetheless. Respectively, Snell was the 2018 AL Cy Young award winner, and at the start of the 2019 season, Glasnow looked like a legitimate AL Cy Young candidate. Now with the duo healthy this season, they join Charlie Morton as a trio of aces.
The Rays round out their rotation nicely with Yonny Chirinos and Ryan Yarbrough. These backend starters burst out into the scene last year. Originally, Chirinos and Yarbrough were mostly seen as long relievers, and came out of relief after the Rays opener. However, the two pitched so well, they found themselves slotted in the rotation towards the end of 2019 and at the start of 2020.
Comparing the Rays rotation to the Yankees, the Rays come out on top. Gerrit Cole is better than any of the Rays’ aces, but after their number one starter (which is Charlie Morton for the Rays), the Rays are simply better; the up-and-coming Tyler Glasnow ranks ahead of the streaky James Paxton, Blake Snell is two years removed from a career year, whereas Masahiro Tanaka may be past his peak during the regular season, Yonny Chirinos pitches a lot better than J.A. Happ who had one of his worst years in 2019, and lastly, Ryan Yarbrough has seen more recent Major League action than Jordan Montgomery. Plain and simple, the Rays rotation is superior to the Yankees.
The bullpens between the two division rivals are a lot closer. The Yankees bullpen consists of Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, Adam Ottavino, Tommy Kahnle, Chad Green, Jonathan Holder, Jonathan Loaisiga, Ben Heller, David Hale, Michael King, Luis Avilán, Brooks Kriske, and Nick Nelson. These relievers combined for a 3.36 ERA, 3.14 K/BB, and 8.0 fWAR in 2019.
The Rays, on the other hand, are composed of Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo, Chaz Roe, Oliver Drake, Pete Fairbanks, Andrew Kittredge, Aaron Loup, Jalen Beeks, Trevor Richards, and Ryan Thompson. These pitchers combined for a 3.78 ERA, 2.97 K/BB, and 7.1 fWAR in 2019.
Statistically speaking, the Yankees have a better relief corps. Most of the Yankees and Rays relievers are projected to replicate their 2019 performance. The only difference is that Loaisiga and Richards will mostly be in the bullpen this year. Also, as King and Heller will have more prominent roles in the Yankees bullpen, Fairbanks will have a more prominent role in the Rays bullpen. That being said, the two teams’ bullpens are close, but the Yankees have the edge.
Offensively, the Yankees also have the advantage. The Yankees have the same team that slugged 306 homers last year, except for the fact that all their players are healthy. Therefore, their offense could be even better in 2020.
Tampa should also have a better hitting team in 2020. They added power threat Hunter Renfroe, speedster Manuel Margot, former Cardinal Jose Martinez, and Japanese phenom Yoshi Tsutugo. These additions should help the Rays improve after ranking 15th with 4.71 R/G last season (Yankees ranked 1st last year at 5.77 R/G).
Defensively, the Rays outpace the Yankees. The Yankees have their fair share of defensive studs in Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks, Brett Gardner, and DJ LeMahieu. As previously mentioned the Judge, Stanton, and Hicks all missed significant time last year, so at least their defense should be better in 2020.
Nevertheless, Rays’ defenders were playing at a different level. Their position players registered 65 Rdrs compared to the Yankees’ 5 Rdrs in 2019. They boast highly touted defenders such as Kevin Kiermaier, Willy Adamas, and Joey Wendle, who shall contribute greatly to their 2020 defense.
Currently, the Yankees are in first place in the AL East with an MLB best 7-1 record, while the Rays are in fourth place with a 4-6 record, trailing the Yankees by four games. The Bombers have the best record in baseball in large part because of their bullpen and their offense. The Yankees already are tied for first in home runs with 17 bombs, and their bullpen remains strong despite having Aroldis Chapman, Zach Britton, and Tommy Kahnle missing action.
Chapman, Britton, and Kahnle have missed time for various reasons. Despite testing positive for COVID-19, Chapman will return shortly because he is asymptomatic. Meanwhile, Kahnle is likely out for the year with a right UCL tear and will likely undergo Tommy John surgery. Additionally, Yankees manager Aaron Boone was being extra cautious to not work Zach Britton every day. Without their big three, the Yankees have had to turn to their rather inexperienced relief options.
As a result, the Yankees have looked upon rookies Nick Nelson, Mike King, and Brooks Kriske to pick up the slack. To put their inexperience into perspective, Kriske and Nelson made their MLB debuts this year, while King has more innings pitched in 2020 than his first taste in the Majors last season. As a whole, the Yankees bullpen has a crisp 3.00 ERA, and their rookie pitchers have kept them in every ballgame.
Another reason why the Yankees have asked the trio to toss so many innings is because their starters have been a mixed bag so far. Only Cole and Montgomery have gotten into the fifth inning. Therefore, Yankees’ starters need to improve if they want to continue being one of the best teams in baseball.
Tampa, on the other hand, has lived up to their scouting report; good pitching and an average offense. Overall, the Rays rank ninth with a 3.76 ERA, but their starters have only thrown 5+ innings in three out of their ten games played. Thus, the bullpen has been utilized more than planned.
As mentioned, Rays pitching has not been bad, but their bullpen has been worse than the starting pitching. Rays’ relievers have accounted for four of their six losses this season, and blown three saves. Additionally, their relief corps has been giving up runs late in the ball game.
The Rays offense has been unlucky as well. They average 4.76 R/G, and have more runs scored (46) then runs allowed (44), which is usually a recipe for success. However, partly because of the late-inning runs given up, the Rays have lost the last five games. Meanwhile, the Yankees have won their last six games.
Suffice it to say, the Yankees and Rays are having streaks in the opposite directions. In time, the Yankees will start to cool down, and the Rays will start to heat up. Nonetheless, with a big division lead early in a 60-game season, the Yankees have a great chance at winning the division. Fangraphs, which runs thousands of season simulations, currently predicts that the Yankees have a 79.0% chance of winning the division, compared to the Rays 15.6% chance.
Still, these two teams have a lot of baseball left to play, and anything can happen. Tampa and New York will face off 10 times this season and have a four-game series against each other starting on August 7th. As of now, the Yankees do not need to be worried about the Rays, but if the Rays can win the series matchup, baseball fans could be in for a closer division race between the two rivals.
Opener: A starter that pitches 1-2 innings before handing the ball over to the bullpen.
ERA: Earned Run Average. MLB average in 2019: 4.49 ERA.
fWAR: Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement. If a player has 0.1 fWAR they are worth 0.1 wins more than a replacement level player (0.0 fWAR). An average starting player that plays most of the season usually has an fWAR of 2.0.
K/BB: Strikeout to walk ratio. MLB average ~2.66 K/BB.
R/G: Runs per game. MLB average in 2019: 4.83 R/G.
Rdrs: Baseball Reference’s team defensive runs saved. Any Rdrs above zero is above average, and any Rdrs below 0 is below average.
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