Red Sox and Rays: The Keys

The Red Sox and Rays have already matched up 19 times this year; the Red Sox went 12-7 in those contests. These two teams know each other, and there won’t be any secrets when the division series between them kicks off on Friday. So, what factors are going to determine whether the Rays can the turn the tide on their AL East rival and advance to the ALCS? Let’s take a look.

Rays X-Factor: Jose Molina

The Red Sox offense is notoriously patient, and no team in baseball swung at fewer pitches in 2013 than Boston did. Guys like Daniel Nava, Stephen Drew, and Jonny Gomes go up there looking to take pitches early to get into fastball counts, and this approach bleeds through the entire line-up.

Molina is the guy who could help the Rays exploit those tendencies. He is perhaps the game’s most notorious pitch framer, using a complete lack of movement behind the plate to convince umpires that pitches off the plate were actually in the zone. He’s gotten so good at this that getting rung up on a pitch off the plate is now occasionally referred to as “getting Molina’d”.

If Molina can turn a few early balls into strikes, the patient Red Sox hitters might find themselves regularly down 0-1 or 1-2 instead of being in good hitters accounts, and that makes things a whole different ballgame.

Red Sox X-Factor: Mike Napoli

With Matt Moore and David Price set to pitch the first two games of the series, and Moore likely slotted in for a Game 5 start if it gets that far, Boston’s going to see a bunch of left-handed pitching in this series. With David Ortiz likely to be somewhat neutralized, Napoli is going to be the team’s primary power hitter, and they’ll need his lefty mashing ways to advance in this series.

Boston’s offense was the best in baseball against right-handers this year, posting a 122 wRC+, but the team isn’t likely to see many right-handed pitchers if their right-handed bats like Napoli can’t do some damage. It’s not just that he needs to create runs, but he needs to help force bullpen maneuvers that bring right-handers in to face the rest of the line-up. The longer Moore, Price, and Jake McGee are on the hill, the better Tampa’s chances of winning. Napoli needs to be the one to make sure they don’t stick around too long.

Rays Key Reliever: Alex Torres

As noted, the Red Sox line-up is notably weaker against left-handed relievers, and Torres is the kind of pitcher who Maddon can trust to pitch multiple innings to maintain that advantage on days when the team starts a right-handed pitcher. Torres gave the Rays a brilliant season, pitching well against both lefties and righties, so he doesn’t have to be used situationally. If Joe Maddon needs to get David Ortiz out in the 5th inning, he can turn to Torres and still trust him to get the ball through the 6th or even 7th inning, as he faced 10 or more batters in a game five times throughout the season.

Red Sox Key Reliever: Brandon Workman

Workman may be an inexperienced rookie who posted a 4.97 ERA in his time in the majors, but expect John Farrell to ask him to get some important outs in this series, and don’t be surprised if he turns in some dominant performances. His ERA masks how well he threw, but his 26% strikeout rate could be a taste of things to come. Without having to worry about pacing himself in starts, Workman can dial his fastball up to 96 and attack hitters with power stuff, and he may very well end up doing for Boston this year what Trevor Rosenthal did for the Cardinals last year.

Key Match-Up: Jon Lester vs Evan Longoria

With Lester slated to pitch Games 1 and 5 (if necessary) for the Red Sox, there’s going to be a lot riding on his left arm. Unfortunately for Lester, the Rays best hitter is right-handed, and Lester is significantly weaker against opposite handed hitters. Delmon Young, Wil Myers, and Desmond Jennings can be beaten even by lefties, but Lester’s going to have to figure out how to keep Longoria from driving the ball. In their career, they’ve met 63 times and Longoria has eight extra base hits.

Rays Key Bench Player: Matt Joyce

With the acquisition of David DeJesus, Joyce’s playing time has taken a bit of a hit, and he was out of the line-up in both of the team’s elimination game victories. Joyce, however, is an above average hitter who can really hit right-handed pitching, and should be an effective pinch-hitter for Joe Maddon. The key will be to pick spots where John Farrell isn’t going to counter with a lefty, because Joyce is about as good at hitting southpaws as I am.

Red Sox Key Bench Player: Xander Bogaerts

Farrell has made it clear that he’s willing to consider pinch-hitting Bogaerts for Stephen Drew against tough left-handers if the situation is deemed necessary. Bogaerts turned 21 on October 1st and has all of 50 big league plate appearances, but there’s a strong likelihood that he’s going to be sent up to the plate to try and get a big hit in a key situation. Pinch-hitting is hard for anyone, and Bogaerts has started nearly every game he’s played growing up, but the talent is there for him to grab the big stage and announce his presence as the Red Sox next great star.

Key Stat: Rays team wRC+ of 108

Everyone always thinks of Tampa Bay as a pitching-and-defense team that scratches and claws out enough runs to win, but this isn’t that kind of team. This team can hit, and their offensive production overall was 5th best in baseball, once you factor in their home park. Their attack is more to throw nine quality hitters at you than to scare with a few elite bats surrounded by glaring holes, but their approach is equally effective. Don’t underestimate this team’s ability to score runs.

Modest Proposal: The Red Sox should bunt a lot.

The Rays are baseball’s most notorious shifters, moving guys even within the same at-bat based on what the count is and where they expect a batted ball to go on that specific pitch. They routinely take Evan Longoria away from third base and put him on the right side of the infield against a left-handed hitter, and teams rarely make them pay for this alignment by bunting the ball toward the abandoned position. Without facing a penalty for their actions, the Rays just keep shifting.

The Red Sox should make them pay when they leave a huge patch of grass unprotected, and with several days to prepare for this possibility, let’s see if they worked on pushing the ball down the third base line so they can take the free base being offered.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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