I sent off some questions to Steve Slowinski from DRaysBay SB Nations great Rays site. The Rays are off to a great start this year, 12-4 coming into the series against the Jays so life is good over there. Steve was nice enough to send me back very well thought out answers. So without further ado:
The Rays are off to a great start this season, who have been the early season MVPs?
Where to begin? You don't open the season with a 12-4 record without the whole team producing; I almost feel bad singling one or two players out. The starting pitching staff has been tremendous, with Matt Garza and David Price leading the charge, but our offense has also been spectacular. BJ Upton is hitting for power again this season, Evan Longoria is off to another hot start, Zobrist and Pena are producing at a nice rate, and even Pat Burrell is starting to hit a little. Looking at FanGraphs WAR (Wins Above Replacement) values, though, the Rays do have one clear MVP so far: Carl Crawford. We haven't touched upon it much at DRaysBay - probably because it will only remind us how unlikely it is that he resigns with the Rays - but Crawford is blistering hot right now. He's batting .339/.397/.559 with a .426 wOBA (Weighted On-Base Average), and he's also stolen seven bases and flashed his gold-glove-caliber defense in left. He's fourth in the majors in WAR, trailing only Nelson Cruz, Roy Halladay, and Chase Utley. Not bad company.
More after the Jump.
Could you give us a quick scouting report on the starting pitchers the Jays will face in this series? I don't suppose Matt Garza could have the series off? We've never been able to hit him.
I'm so sorry, but our three starters this series - Garza, Niemann, and Price - have been our three best starters so far this year. Garza has been dominating this season, going eight innings in all three of his starts so far. His overall line is impressive (0.75 ERA, 2.99 FIP, 3.87 xFIP) and he could break out this year, but he's gotten lucky with stranding runners (92.2% LOB%), balls in play (.211 BABIP), and with home runs (4% HR/FB). He's good, but it's unlikely that he's this good.
Niemann is an interesting case. His strike out and swinging strike numbers are both down this year, which would be troubling if we were dealing with a larger sample. Niemann had to leave his first start early after getting hit in his pitching shoulder with a line drive, so he's pitched even less than the other starters so far. He's also walked less batters and he's gotten lucky with balls in play, so his ERA is sparkling (2.99) while his FIP and xFIP are scary (4.99/5.43). He's got five solid pitches working for his this year (two and four seam fastballs, curve, slider, sinker), and I think he'll be fine as the season progresses.
As for David Price, well, he's turning into the stud we all were hoping for last season. After developing and refining more pitches last year, Price has morphed from a two-pitch power arm into a five-pitch thoroughbred; he now throws a four seam fastball, two seam fastball, slider, spike curve, and change-up (DRB writer RZ just posted a nice look at Price's stuff this morning, if you're interested). With all these pitches working for him this year, Price has increased his strike outs, decreased his walks, and posted a 3.20 ERA/3.85 FIP/4.54 xFIP line. I'm expecting big things from him this season.
What changes have the Rays made since last year?
Not as many as you'd expect. Akinori Iwamura got replaced at second base with rookies Sean Rodriguez (thanks Kazmir!) and Reid Brignac; Rafael Soriano joined the pen as our closer; and the Rays turned Mitch Talbot into Kelly Shoppach, providing us with an alternative at catcher to Dioner "FAIL" Navarro. Rodriguez, Brignac, and Soriano have all been effective so far this season, but Shoppach busted up his knee already and will be out for 4-6 weeks. Another prospect, John Jaso, will be filling in for him and has impressed us fans so far with his plate discipline and defense. Then again, after watching Navarro put up a .258 wOBA last season, it doesn't take much to impress us.
The biggest change for the Rays was possibly a coaching decision: adding Derek Shelton as the Rays' new hitting coach (AKA Misson Fix BJ Upton). Upton has had issues with his swing ever since his shoulder injuries in 2008, and Shelton worked with Upton three days a week from Thanksgiving until Spring Training to help get his swing corrected. So far, the results seem to be paying off: Upton's power and plate discipline have reappeared and he's hitting a robust .246/.348/.536 with a .382 wOBA. Oh, and that's with a .256 BABIP. Be afraid - be very afraid.
Joe Maddon has had a nice career there, what would you say are his strengths and weaknesses? Could we trade you Cito for him? We'd likely throw in a veteran first baseman to sweeten the deal.
I came into this season prepared to critically analyze Maddon's performance on both big and little decisions, and I've been very impressed to this point. He seems to know the proper situations for pinch-hitting and sacrifice bunting, he's great at defensive positioning, and he's willing to think outside the box. Some of these decisions pan out and others don't, but at least he's willing to use strategies that don't fall in line with traditional thought. Every now and then Maddon makes a baffling bullpen decision (like right now he believes that LOOGY Randy Choate can face righties), but his positives far outweigh his negatives. He also seems to be great with the players and in the clubhouse, which isn't something we can quantify or analyze, per se, but is nonetheless important.
One thing to keep an eye on: Maddon has been pushing our starting pitchers hard so far. They've all thrown over 100 pitches on multiple occasions, which makes me think two things: a) Maddon misses J.P. Howell, and b) Maddon believes our pitchers can handle the stress and won't falter down the stretch. The Rays are normally really good with analyzing risk, so I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt. You are what you do often, so maybe Maddon is attempting to train our starters to go late into games.
Also, intriguing offer, but our franchise has already been involved in one too many manager trades. Maybe throw in Travis Snider and we'll consider it...
Anything else us Jay fans should know? By the way congratulations on going into Boston and sweeping that 4 game series. Couldn't have picked a better place for a sweep, though Yankee Stadium would be good too.
That sweep was a thing of beauty; I was walking on air this entire week. Them Yanks are going to be tough this season - why'd they have to be smart and get Granderson? - but I do like our playoff odds at this point.
Also, the Rays have struggled a bit against lefties so far this season, so it will be interesting to see how Cecil and Romero do against us. If the Jays do lose to us, try and take solace in the fact that you're helping eliminate the Yankees or Red Sox from the playoffs. Take it from me, a bit of schadenfreude helps get through those rebuilding years.
Thanks Steve. If it can't be us knocking the Yankees or Red Sox out of the playoffs, I'd be very happy if it were you.