After our back-to-back sweeps of the Red Sox and A's, we host the Rays who are coming off a sweep of their very own, over the Red Sox and have a 4 game win streak going. The win streak has leaped them over the Red Sox for 4th in the East, at 23-28, 6 games in back of us.
You know the game by now...I sent off some questions to Ian Malinowski manager of DRaysBay, SB Nation's Tampa Bay Rays site and Ian was nice enough to answer them of us.
The Rays aren't off to a great start. What’s going wrong? What’s the feeling among Rays fans do you think they can come back and win this mediocre division?
Well, a lot has gone wrong. Our second (Alex Cobb), third (Matt Moore), and fourth (Jeremy Hellickson) starter going into the season have all missed significant time so far due to injury, and either our sixth or seventh starting option (Alex Colome) has also been unavailable due to a PED suspension in the minors. Aside from David Price, the healthy starters haven't been able to pitch deep into games consistently, placing a ton of pressure on the bullpen (which was undermanned with long-reliever Cesar Ramos moved to the rotation). Throw in a few under-performances/slow starts and an offense-wide power outage, and you've got a team playing sub-.500 baseball.
The good news is that Alex Cobb is back, and he pitched well in his first appearance off the disabled list. People have been down, but sweeping the hated Red Sox is as good a pick-me-up as we fans could hope for.
David Price doesn’t have a very David Price like ERA or win-loss record, what’s happening with him? And if you had to bet, would you bet that Price is a Ray come September?
By DIPS (Defense Independent Pitching Metrics), Price is having his best season yet. He's striking out a higher percentage of batters than he ever has in the bast (26.3%), and he's walking a lower percentage (2.5%). That's a ridiculous 2.66 xFIP. Now, I'm a part of the school of thought that says that if a pitcher with a history of major-league success has great peripherals but a high ERA over a small sample size, don't worry -- he's fine.
I do think, though, that there may be an adjustment Price should make. He's taken so much pressure onto his shoulders for pitching efficiently, lasting deep into games, and saving the bullpen. Maybe he needs to relax a bit. His bugaboo has been a high HR/FB rate (not normal for him), and a high BABIP (also not normal), and it's been particularly bad in two-strike counts. Maybe, once he's already jumped ahead of batters, he should be avoiding contact a little bit more. Jim Hickey, the Rays pitching coach, is no dummy, so if there's an adjustment that needs to be made, I'm sure they'll get it figured out.
As for him still being a Ray in September, I sort of doubt the Rays fall far enough out of contention for Andrew Friedman to pull the trigger. Friedman has said previously that he prefers to trade players during the offseason, so I'm certain he won't panic and take a deal for Price unless the Rays really are far gone, and a contending team knocks his socks off.
Who is your favourite Ray to watch?
He's new around here, but Ryan Hanigan has been really great to watch. In addition to having a fantastic grasp of the strike zone at the plate, he's the best defensive catcher I've ever known. He calls a great game, gesticulating to his pitchers about exactly where he wants the ball located, his framing is superb, and he's a pitch-blocking master (especially when compared to Jose Molina). He blocks every ball in the dirt with his chest protector and manages to angle his body so as to make the wild pitch bounce softly two feet in front of him. People have a tendency to call Hanigan "gritty," and "scrappy," but don't let that confuse you. He's tremendously talented.
How is our old friend Yunel Escobar doing? Do Rays fans like him? Is Hak Ju Lee close to taking his spot?
Rays fans have really taken to Escobar, and it seems like the feeling is mutual. According to Friedman, Escobar sought him out during spring training, and wouldn't stop pestering him until he was offered an extension. He's now signed through 2016 with a team option for 2017. With Ben Zobrist's contract up after next year, he's the middle infielder most apt to be replaced by an emergent Hak-Ju Lee.
Escobar's league-average offense, slick shortstop defense, and constant smile seem plenty appealing. Joe Maddon likes him a lot, and frankly, I really don't understand why he hasn't been able to find a home in a clubhouse before now.
I see Grant Balfour isn’t having the best start to the season, what’s up with him? Is he in any danger of losing his closer’s job? Who might take his job?
Balfour's struggles are all about command and not trusting his fastball. True, his velocity has been down a tick, but he's made it worse by nibbling around the zone. To turn his season around, he must get back to challenging hitters. He'll have every chance to do so, though. The Rays never move quickly in situations like this.
The Rays best reliever is Jake McGee, and it's not especially close, but if Balfour were to lose his "closer" title, the ninth inning would probably either go to Joel Peralta or Juan Carlos Oviedo (Leo Nunez). Peralta has been a mainstay in the eighth inning for years now, and Oviedo seems fully recovered from his arm and identity issues. Jake McGee will still pitch to the best batters in the tightest jams, but by denying saves to their arbitration-eligible pitchers, the Rays both keep costs down and are able to assign leverage more optimally than the "closer system" would dictate.
Canadian Eric Bedard is pitching better than he has in years, what’s caused the improvement? Can he keep this up all season?
His fastball may only average 90 mph now, but it's still a swing and miss pitch because of the deception in his delivery and the spin deflection he generates. He keeps hitters off that pitch with a big slow curve and an equally slow changeup. Earlier on in the season, he was wild as he still needed to build up arm strength, but he seems to have hit his stride now.
On the other hand, everything I said about David Price is true in the opposite sense for Bedard. No he's not going to continue to give up a home run on only 2% of his fly balls. No, he won't post a .241 BABIP forever. He's done a fantastic job and he's shown enough to convince Rays fans that he still belongs in the league, but it would be foolish to think he'll be able to maintain his ERA throughout the season. At some point, Jeremy Hellickson will return, and that will likely spell the end of Bedard's time in the rotation.
Can we have a quick scouting report on the starting pitchers we are likely to see this series?
As I said above, Bedard is still all about his fastball, and it's one of the better 89 mph fastballs you're likely to see. He keeps hitters off it with two 75 mph offerings, a big curve and a less impressive changeup. It's interesting to watch him. You can totally still see the dominating ace that Seattle sold the farm for. Add five miles per hour, and hitters wouldn't stand a chance. Right now, though, they do.
Alex Cobb may be the most underrated starting pitcher in baseball. He doesn't have an overpowering fastball, but the movement on his two-seamer and his great command make up for that. Moreover, he doesn't over-expose the heater, because the main event with Cobb is a split-fingered changeup that's one of the more dominating pitches in the majors. He'll throw the splitter to both righties and lefties and in any count. He rounds out the arsenal with a curve that he also commands very well, and is perfectly comfortable throwing in the zone for strikes. The result of all of these downward moving pitches is both a strong strikeout rate and an extreme groundball rate. Moreover, the grounders he produces are usually off soft contact. He's a pitcher I expect to maintain a low BABIP throughout his career.
Will Myers is also having a slow start. What’s wrong with his swing? Just a sophomore jinx?
I don't think it's so much the swing as it is the pitch recognition and plate discipline. He can hammer a fastball in the zone, but major league pitchers have been able to get him to chase far too often. It's not so much that he's a hacker who doesn't want to take a walk. Myers has simply been fooled too frequently to turn in a strong offensive showing.
Attendance isn’t great at Tropicana Field when the team is doing well, what will it be like if the stay at the bottom of the division? Is there any chance of getting a decent ballpark in the near future?
Right now the Rays are averaging 18,392 per home game, second lowest in baseball (behind Cleveland). I honestly don't know what will happen to that number if the Rays fall out of contention early (there's a good site that's studying attendance in a well-considered manner right now: Tampa Bay Baseball Market, but I do know that there are plenty of baseball fans in Tampa Bay. The team has consistently scored good TV ratings, so the issue is in actually getting those people through the turnstiles.
That's where the stadium comes in. Tropicana Field is really not as bad as the rap it gets, and the team has done a lot of work recently to make the experience there better (there's a walkable concourse with a bar in the outfield now). The problem isn't the stadium itself, it's the location within Tampa Bay. It's location in St. Petersburg puts it outside the easily commutable range for much of the area's population, and the lack of public transportation doesn't help, either. The city and county politics surrounding a new stadium are complicated, so let me put it this way -- it's considerably more likely that the Rays will build a new stadium in a new location in Tampa Bay than it is that they'll build a new stadium somewhere else in the country.