The Tampa Bay Rays are already the least likely playoff team in history. Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight looked at all of the various things that had to happen for the Rays to catch the Red Sox and to do it by coming back from a seven-run deficit and from being down to their last strike while the Red Sox were just a strike away from winning and the odds against their comeback and the Red Sox collapse are just staggering.
If you’ve already done something impossible, the only logical way to top it off is by winning the World Series.
Now, let’s take a step back. The reality is that there’s not much proof that teams that finish strong are any more likely to win the World Series than teams that limp into the playoffs. That’s just reality. Besides their breathtaking comeback win on Wednesday night, a lot of the heavy pulling in the Rays historic comeback was done by the Red Sox. The Rays played the way they had all year, while the Red Sox fell apart around them. It’s a great story, but it’s not a guarantee of playoff success.
The problem is that treating the Rays like some undeserving, lucky team that just fell into the playoffs isn’t fair, either . They won 91 games playing in baseball’s best division. If you count Desmond Jennings, they have five regulars with an OPS+ of 125 or better. (Jennings, Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, Casey Kotchman, and Matt Joyce). Add in Johnny Damon and BJ Upton and they have seven above-average hitters in their everyday lineup. There might not be any standout stars in their lineup, but they’re strong top to bottom.
They also had the American League’s best pitching staff in 2011. They held their opponents to 614 runs. Only five teams in the National League did better than that, and the Rays had to deal with DHs almost all season. James Shields had a career year. David Price took a step forward (his K/BB jumped from 2.38 to 3.46) even though is record dipped and his ERA jumped. His FIP and xFIP were both better in 2011 than 2010. Their bullpen, lead by Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta and Juan Cruz, is unheralded but has been effective all year. And then there’s Matt Moore.
Moore is starting Game 1 of the ALDS for the Rays. He’s 22 years old, he’s got 9 1/3 big league innings under his belt, and he’s only made one Major League start in his entire career. When 2011 started, he hadn’t pitched above High-A. He opened this year in Double-A, where he made 18 dominating starts. He got promoted to Triple-A, where he made nine starts that were arguably even better. He had a K/9 rate of 12.2 in the minors this year to go with his 1.92 ERA. His one Major League start came against the Yankees last week with the Rays’ season on the line after their double-header loss the night before. He struck out 11 Yankees in five innings and notched his first big league win. Baseball Prospectus prospect guru Kevin Goldstein says that when you see him pitch he ramps up his velocity so effortlessly that it’s almost unbelievable. In short, he’s the Rays’ secret weapon. He’s their X-factor.
The other thing the Rays have going for them is Joe Maddon. How many managers in baseball would have the guts to open up the Division Series with a kid that’s only got one big league start, no matter how talented he is? You can’t win in the playoffs with just two starters and with Jeremy Hellickson fading a bit down the stretch this year and Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis being generally uneven, there didn’t seem to be an obvious choice. Maddon’s decided he’s going to go with the unproven kid with the limitless ceiling. One of my biggest complaints about most big league managers is that they’re not willing to challenge the way things are done because they simply refuse to think outside the box. Things are done the way they’ve always been done because it’s the way they’ve always been done. It’s circular logic that doesn’t get anyone anywhere. Maddon isn’t afraid to be different if he thinks it’ll make his team better. Putting Moore into his playoff rotation could be a huge disaster, and if it is he’ll take a ton of flack for it. But it could be a stroke of genius because Moore is the type of pitcher that can take over a series with two great starts. The only way to find out is to take a chance, and Joe Maddon is the only manager willing to take these kinds of chances.
The Rays shouldn’t be in the playoffs. They’re playing with house money, facing the defending AL Champions. The team that knocked them out of the playoffs last year. It’s possible that they’ll be exhausted by their improbable playoff run and simply run out of gas in the first round and that will be the end of it. If we’ve learned anything in the last few weeks, though, it’s that if you leave a door open for the Rays, they’ll have no problem barging in.