Rays v Yanks I: Opening Series Preview

It’s finally here! After many long, seemingly interminable months (and no fewer than three separate Opening Day occasions), the time for meaningful Yankee baseball has come. At 3:00 PM today, the Yankees will open their season against division foe Tampa Bay in the (dreadful) Trop. When we last left the Yankees and rays, they were playing in Game 162, part of the greatest night in baseball I can ever remember, one that ended with a walk off homer for the Rays that simultaneously sent them to the playoffs while eliminating the Boston Red Sox. But both teams are coming into 2012 after being handed disappointing and premature playoff defeats by the Tigers and Rangers respectively. Both teams also come in to 2012 with high expectations.

The Yankees made a concerted effort to revamp their starting rotation and return the same stellar lineup and bullpen that they featured last year. The Rays, meanwhile, bring back a top notch rotation of their own, only this time they’ll get Matt Moore for a full year. The return of Carlos Pena will be a nice addition to a club that may struggle to score runs at times. Both New York and Tampa have championship designs and championship potential. Today, they’ll get started on that trek.

As with any series, it all starts with the pitching. The Yanks will trot out CC Sabathia for the first game today; he’ll be followed by Yankee newbie Hiroki Kuroda for game two and the hopefully resurgent Phil Hughes for game three. They’ll be opposed by James Shields, David Price, and Jeremy Hellickson. You know all about the pitchers we’ll be rooting for, so let’s dive a little deeper into the Tampa pitchers.

James Shields:

Shields comes off of an exceptional 2011, in which he finished third in the American League Cy Young Award voting. Much to the delight of fans of a certain age, Shields spun 11 complete games, four of which ended up as shutouts. Both figures, predictably, led the league. For the second straight season, Shields featured a strikeout rate above 8 K/9 and he continued his ways of not issuing walks (last year’s 2.35 BB/9 was the WORST mark Shields has had in a season). The difference is that Shields cut his home run rate a bit. He tallied a 0.94 HR/9 last year as well as a HR/FB% of 11.1%, down from 1.17 and 11.6% in his career. Shields was also able to generate some more grounders in 2011, getting that result 46.2% of the time, the second highest in his career (46.3% in 2008). So aside from strikeouts and good control, what can we expect from Shields? Let’s take a look at the three pitches he featured most, courtesy of his Brooks Baseball pitcher card.

Pitch Usage MPH Whiff/Swing GB/Balls in Play
Fastball 30% 91.82 9.62 36.24
Curveball 21% 78.39 34.24 59.57
Changeup 27% 84.55 37.46 52.60

While Shields will use his fastball to get strikes, he’ll use his curve and his changeup as his big weapons. He’ll deploy those pitches to get hitters to swing and miss and beat the ball into the ground. The fastball isn’t blowing anyone away, though, so his location is key. The Yankees might want to (slightly) alter their approach to avoid getting into pitcher’s counts and facing Shields’s effective offspeed pitches; they can do this, obviously, by jumping on fastballs.

Next, we come to David Price. Though Shields got much more press and attention, Price had a season full of career highs. He had his best K/9, his best BB/9, his best GB% (though still below 45%), and his best FIP. Anyway, let’s take a quick look at his top three pitches:

Pitch Usage MPH Whiff/Swing GB/Balls in Play
Fastball 57% 95.57 22.37 40.63
Sinker 14% 95.5 14.29 49.51
Changeup 11% 83.76 21.99 42.05

Heat. That’s Price’s trademark and that’s what he’ll do to strike you out and uses his ridiculously powerful sinker to generate grounders. Hitting Price’s fastball must be hard enough, but I can’t even imagine trying to hit it with downward movement. The Yankees hit lefties pretty well, but Price is pretty clearly top of the line. The current Yankees actually hit him pretty well, so let’s hope that continues later today.

Last but not least, we have the defending AL Rookie of the Year, Jeremy Hellickson. Hellickson, a strikeout pitcher in the minors, had trouble missing bats last year (5.57 K/9) and didn’t exactly display dominant control (3.43). Despite that, he pitched to a 2.95 ERA (4.44 FIP). He did have a crazy low .223 BABIP, which seems like it won’t be repeatable, but that’s why they play the games. Let’s see what Hellickson did last year to get hitters out.

Pitch Usage MPH Whiff/Swing GB/Balls in play
Fastball 56% 91.68 12.29 32.09
Curveball 12% 75.94 34.32 42.62
Changeup 32% 80.78 33.91 41.15

Hellickson didn’t blow people away with the fastball last year, but it’s clear that he kept hitters off balance with such a disparity between his fastball and changeup. The Yankees are somewhat susceptible to changeups (lookin’ at you, Tex), so look for Hellickson to go to that pitch a lot.

The pitchers the Yankees are facing in this series are definitely top-notch, but the Yankees’ trio isn’t too shabby either. Navigating the top of the Rays’ lineup will be tough, with Ben Zobrist, Evan Longoria, and the aforementioned Pena. For whatever reason, I’m thinking this series will come down to the bullpens. The Yankees have an edge on offense, though the Rays may have a slight edge in starting pitching which helps counterbalance the offense. The Bombers, though, feature one of the best bullpens in the game and if the series come to that, the Yankees will have the advantage.

Lastly….finally…PLAY BALL!!!!!

A native and resident of the Mean Streets of Southwestern Connecticut, Matt is a narcissistic, misanthropic 20something English teacher who lives by a simple creed: Yankees Only.