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Orioles-Rays series preview: Heading in different directions

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Since the start of the last Orioles-Rays series, the Orioles are 5-16 and the Rays are 16-5.

Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles
The last time these two teams met, the Orioles started a 14-game losing streak. Let’s not do that again.
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The last time the Orioles headed into a series with the Rays, the O’s brought a 2-7 record into that series along with hopes of getting things turned back around a little bit. Instead of getting things turned around, they got swept by the Rays for the first three losses in what turned into a 14-game losing streak. In all, the O’s have gone 5-16 since the last Rays series began.

The Rays are a team that is headed in the exact opposite direction. They are 16-5 since the start of the previous series between these two teams. The Rays sweep of the Orioles was part of an 11-game winning streak that propelled Tampa into first place in the American League East, a division lead that they’ve now had all to themselves for more than two weeks.

On the most basic level of looking at their runs scored and their runs allowed, it’s no surprise that the Rays have the best record in the AL. They’ve scored the second-most runs and have allowed the second-fewest runs. Great hitting and great pitching is a heck of a combination to have.

What is a bit more surprising is that they’ve managed to score so many runs despite not actually having great hitting. For the crowd whose baseball opinions calcified in the 1980s and have not been updated since, the Rays success despite only having a .229 team batting average, which is a bad number even in this year of depressed offense, must be particularly mystifying. What’s more, they have struck out 667 times in 63 games, more than any other AL team.

The Rays are doing this thing by getting a bunch of clutch hitting. With the bases empty, the team bats just .216/.300/.358. That .658 OPS is 60 points below what the Orioles bat with the bases empty. However, when you change that to look at hitting with runners in scoring position, the Rays improve to .235/.337/.414 - a .751 OPS, or 81 points better than the O’s have hit with RISP. The Rays have hit 21 home runs with RISP. The Orioles have eight.

Drilling down even further to situations where the team has a runner on third with less than two out, the difference is even more pronounced. The Orioles are hitting .295/.348/.420 in those situations, with about half of an RBI per plate appearance. That’s one of the O’s better hitting splits, yet it’s 9% below league average in the man on third, less than two out split. The Rays batting line in the same situations: .340/.385/.557. They have .64 RBI per plate appearance in those situations.

These are all very specific ways of pointing out that the Rays have more good players than the Orioles. It is not hard to find examples for the pitching staffs as well. The worst ERA of a Rays starting pitcher is 4.54. The only Orioles starter below that level is John Means, and he’s currently on the injured list. This also extends to relievers. The Rays bullpen ERA is 3.25. That’s the second-best mark in the AL. The Orioles bullpen ERA is 4.49.

Game 1: Friday, 7:10pm

Starters: Ryan Yarbrough (3-3, 3.95 ERA, 4.28 FIP in 66 IP), Keegan Akin (0-0, 3.60 ERA, 3.24 FIP in 20 IP)

This is the only game of the series for which either team has announced a starting pitcher as of Friday morning.

There are at least a couple of things that sort of nod in the Orioles favor here. So far in 2021, the Rays are a significantly worse-hitting team at home, with a home OPS 65 points lower than their road OPS. They’re also worse against left-handed pitchers, which Akin is. Tampa Bay’s OPS vs. lefty pitchers is 61 points below its OPS vs. righties. As to whether Akin and the Orioles can capitalize on either of these things... well. That’s not so cut and dry.

Yarbrough’s big league career to date has seen the Rays use him a lot in the role of “the guy who comes in after the opener and pitches a bunch of innings.” In 2019, for instance, only half of his 28 appearances were starts and he still averaged over five innings pitched per game. His last start before this game saw him pitch a complete game for the first time in his career. He’s still followed the opener four times in 2021, but it seems like the Rays are maybe pushing him more towards just being a starting pitcher.

You might see that 3.95 ERA for Yarbrough with envy. The ERA+ stat, which adjusts for park and league, actually deems that 5% worse than average for 2021. For a rough comparison, Orioles pitcher Adam Plutko has the same 95 ERA+ and his ERA is 4.60. This may be because Tropicana Field has the most pitcher-friendly park factors, as measured by Statcast, of any MLB team in 2021. Oriole Park at Camden Yards is the fourth-most hitter-friendly park.

Game 2: Saturday, 4:10pm

Starters: unannounced vs. unannounced

The Rays pitcher who started the next game after Yarbrough’s last start was Josh Fleming, a 25-year-old rookie lefty who’s also been getting the “sometimes he starts, sometimes he goes after the opener” action in 2021. That game was June 4. If he’s not the starter here, I’ll guess he’s the guy after the opener. Fleming is 84.2 innings into his career - he also pitched in seven games last year - and it’s going well for him so far, with a 3.19 ERA and 1.087 WHIP.

Notable about Fleming in 2021 is that he’s succeeding with a very low strikeout rate, a K/9 of just 5.2. That’s almost unheard of in today’s game. He’s in just the 3rd percentile for strikeout percentage. He does, at least, make up for this by also having a low walk rate, issuing walks to only about 6% of batters he’s faced this season.

Fleming’s particular magic to date is that batters just aren’t lifting the ball very much against him. His average launch angle is only 1.2 degrees. In his five 2020 games, the launch angle was zero degrees. Compare that to a pitcher who I think we’d all agree has gotten great results in 2021, Means. The average launch angle allowed by John Means is 21.5 degrees.

Game 3: Sunday, 1:05pm

Starters: unannounced vs. unannounced

MASN’s Roch Kubatko noted that a Saturday start by Jorge López would have him pitch with an extra day of rest, and a Bruce Zimmermann Sunday start would be on regular rest. Presumably, if this was Plan A for the Orioles, they would have just announced that. López has a 3.68 ERA over his last four starts, which is enough to give me a Corleone-esque “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in” reaction.

Zimmermann hasn’t finished the sixth inning since April 10, though he’s gone at least five innings and given up only a total of five runs over his last three starts. It’s something he can hang his hat on. Neither López nor Zimmermann pitched in that May series.

**

The Orioles are not as bad as their 5-23 May, nor are they as good as their 5-2 June so far. They’ve had some real problems on offense so far this season, and problems with pitching, and now they’re headed for a series in the worst run environment in baseball this year. The main thing to root for may be for no Orioles player to hurt himself while playing on that stupid carpet.

In the poll prior to the last Rays series, 7% of voters correctly guessed that the Rays would sweep the Orioles.

Poll

How many games will the Orioles win in this series against the Rays?

This poll is closed

  • 3%
    3 (The Orioles sweep)
    (3 votes)
  • 13%
    2
    (13 votes)
  • 56%
    1
    (54 votes)
  • 27%
    0 (The Orioles are swept)
    (26 votes)
96 votes total Vote Now