2011 AL Playoff Rotations: Tampa Bay Rays

As Bradley Woodrum detailed earlier today, much went into putting the Rays into the postseason this year, and if they had just a little less of any one ingredient, they’d probably be packing their bags right now — or at least would be locked and loaded for the proverbial Game 163. But they made it, so let’s examine how they will move forward.

Last night, after the dust settled, there was some sentiment (or perhaps the faint whiff of a sentiment) that rookie Matt Moore would make just his second big-league start in Game 1 of the American League Division Series in Texas. Alas, it will not be the case — Jeff Niemann will handle that chore. The Rays ended up in this position because they didn’t have the luxury of resting key guys like their competitors did — they needed to punch their ticket, and no Rays’ fan would have done anything different. They actually come out of everything looking pretty good — James Shields and David Price should get the ball in Games 2 and 3. If their series with the Rangers goes to a Game 5, Shields can pitch it on normal rest and Price would be lined up to start Game 1 of the League Championship Series on normal rest. This is not a greek tragedy by any means.

Jeff Niemann: 4.06 ERA, 3.73 xFIP, 92 xFIP-, 2.84 K/BB, 1.20 HR/9, 1.5 WAR
Leave it to Joe Maddon to pull a guy in the first inning of one start and then entrust him with the Game 1 duties in the playoffs in his next. The outing sort of typifies Niemann’s tenure in Tampa. When you look at Niemann’s peripherals, it looks like those of a guy you would want towards the middle or back of your rotation. But the Niemann you get on one day may have no resemblance to the Niemann you see on the next — this season, Niemann had five outings where he allowed no runs, but he also had six outings where he allowed at least five. Having said that, Niemann has been better in the second half, improving his K/BB dramatically from one half to the other. There are two concerns with Niemann as he heads into Texas — that he doesn’t miss enough bats and that he is the most homer-prone on the Rays’ staff. If you had your druthers, you would want him pitching in Tampa, but again, Tampa needed to get there first and worry about how things lined up second. Niemann has recovered from ineffectiveness and injury early in the year to post a solid campaign. The Rays will just have to hope that good Jeff is on the hill Friday.

James Shields: 2.82 ERA, 3.25 xFIP, 80 xFIP-, 3.46 K/BB, 0.94 HR/9, 4.9 WAR
Only five pitchers in baseball threw their fastball less than Shields this year, and one of them was R.A. Dickey. You can do that when you possess the most lethal curveball-changeup combo in the game, which Shields did this season:

Pitcher wCB  wCH 2011 Total
James Shields 12.2 22.1 34.3
Felix Hernandez 7.3 24.5 31.8
Cole Hamels -1.3 32.3 31
J. Verlander 14.2 12.3 26.5
Ricky Romero 2.5 17.4 19.9
Jered Weaver 2.2 16.5 18.7
J. Hellickson -3.5 21.3 17.8
Wan. Rodriguez 18 -1.6 16.4
Roy Halladay 16.1 16.1
Matt Cain 1.5 13 14.5

Shields doesn’t rank number one in either category per 100 pitches, but the fact that he throws them so much — and does so effectively — sets him apart from most pitchers. Actually, Shields already threw his changeup plenty, the real change in the reduced fastball usage was to feature his curveball more frequently, and the new mix of pitches has paid dividends — Shields achieved career highs in a myriad of categories this season. It’s not enough to say that he is getting more ground balls, as his GB/FB this year wasn’t all that different than it was in 2008, and Shields was much better this year than he was in 2008. Either way, expect Big Game James (that nickname, to be fair, was originally James Worthy’s) to live up to his moniker in October.

David Price: 3.49 ERA, 3.32 xFIP, 82 xFIP-, 3.46 K/BB, 0.88 HR/9, 4.7 WAR
Price was much better this year than last. Sure, his ERA was higher, but his K/BB and GB/FB both improved, and his changeup turned into a lethal weapon this season — per 100 pitches, it was even more effective than Shields’ was. Price’s fastball was also as dominant as ever, though if there is a concern, it’s that his velocity has been down in his last few starts. There have been three-start groupings where his velocity is down and then rebounds directly after, so it’s not a red flag necessarily, but it is something worth watching in the first round. Another, more troublesome development, is that while his K/BB for the year has been better overall, it has dropped off sharply in the second half, and it has all to do with his walks. In the first half, he only walked 1.81 batters per nine innings, but in the second half that rose to 3.49. Price catches a break in that the Rangers are a much less patient team than are the Tigers, but he will get no such reprieve in the LCS, especially if he has to face the Yankees.

Jeremy Hellickson: 2.95 ERA, 4.72 xFIP, 116 xFIP-, 1.63 K/BB, 1.00 HR/9, 1.4 WAR
This season, Hellickson had the fifth-highest fly-ball percentage among qualified pitchers in the Majors, but his HR/FB ranked 27th out of the 94 in the group. xFIP, as it was with Jered Weaver, was skeptical of this combination. Hellickson has also battled his control all season. He only had one start where he didn’t walk a batter, and that was against a Matt Wieters-less Baltimore lineup. Hellickson walked at least two batters in 19 of his 29 starts, and at least three in 13 of them. Hellickson does manage to keep hitters off balance though, and part of the reason for that is his changeup, which he will throw in nearly any situation — the only counts where he threw it less than 23% of the time were 3-0 and 3-1. I’m also open to the argument that Hellickson’s numbers may have been skewed by his competition — 13 of his 29 starts came against playoff teams, and a 14th was against the Angels. Those are of course the teams he has to face now, but perhaps the cold, hard dint of his season totals don’t paint the full picture.

If you’re looking for an easy name with which to bill this series (and if you are, then you may want to see someone about that) you could call it the “Changeup Series.” Price, Hellickson and Shields were three of the top eight pitchers in wCH/C this year, but as a team, the Rangers ranked second in the Majors in both wCH and wCH/C. Who wins the day in this matchup inside a matchup could be key in theory. But of course, it won’t be that simple — for one thing, it leaves out at least one entire matchup, and besides, who knows what Price will throw from one start to the next? But the bottom line is that the Rays have a dominant one-two punch, and if the other two don’t get off to good starts, they will see quick hooks and we will get to see Matt Moore. And since Maddon has shown that his hook can be quicker than most, the Rays should — be it by pitching dominance or managerial savvy — stay in every single ballgame.

Update – Late word broke that Matt Moore, and not Jeff Niemann, will start Game 1. Here’s the intro and paragraph I had written about Moore earlier today before switching to Niemann (mental note: in future, don’t try to predict what Joe Maddon will do):

Tampa Bay starters were the 11th most valuable lot this season, and had the 14th best xFIP, but the one pitcher who contributed the least to those totals — Matt Moore — is who a nation of Rays’ fans now turn their not-so-lonely eyes to. The rookie, who has a grand total of 9 1/3 Major League innings under his belt, will be thrust into a position that not even David Price was put in during his baptism by fire in 2008 — starting a Game 1 in the postseason on the road. Since the Rays needed every game down the stretch, they didn’t have the opportunity to set any sort of postseason rotation, and while they can get James Shields and Price on the docket for Games 2 and 3, they were stuck without an obvious solution for Game 1. Leave it to Rays’ manager Joe Maddon to pick the rookie.

Matt Moore: (Minors) 1.37 ERA, 2.02 FIP, 4.39 K/BB, 0.51 HR/9
I would be remiss to list the stats from Moore’s brief Major League time, they obviously mean very little. But looking at his Pitch F/X numbers, we can get a sense of his arsenal, and folks are understandably pumped about Moore. But what can we expect? Well, historically, rookie pitchers have fared well in the postseason (That article is a little dated — since then, we have had John Lackey in 2002 (hey, remember when Lackey was good?) and Ubaldo Jimenez in 2007, among others). Along with history on his side, he should also have unfamiliarity working for him, as not only has not yet faced the Rangers at the Major League level, but he hasn’t pitched in a game against a team in the Texas farm system since 2009. Either way, expect it to be exciting, and since it’s just his second big-league start, expect Moore to be on a short leash.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

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