HOUSTON -- The Astros have the two best pitchers in this American League Division Series. The Rays may have the next seven or eight. In the end, that’s how this ALDS may be decided as the teams prepare to play Game 5 on Thursday at Minute Maid Park.
The Astros rolled into this series after winning 107 games and looking like a team with virtually no weakness. Tampa Bay’s advantage was simple: bullpen depth. Lots of it, with waves of relievers bringing elite velocity, spin rate and movement.
Velocity and movement are a wicked combination. It buckles knees and shatters bats. It tests nerves.
“When you're seeing 99 mile-an-hour turbo sinkers that almost hit the back knee ... ” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “I've seen that a little bit this series.”
Specifically, he saw that in the first inning of Game 4 on Tuesday at Tropicana Field, when Diego Castillo struck out José Altuve on a 99-mph sinker. This is what the Rays do. This is their advantage.
“I think I faced four different guys [in Game 4],” Altuve said. “They’re all different. And they have something really special.”
Colin Poche, Nick Anderson and Emilio Pagán are first, third and sixth among 432 Major League pitchers in four-seam fastball movement, according to Statcast. Charlie Morton and Chaz Roe have two of the best sinkers on the planet. Game 5 starter Tyler Glasnow’s curveball spin rate is in the top 5 percent of all Major Leaguers.
To simplify, the Rays' pitching staff is built in large part on throwing fastballs high in the zone and elite curveballs. Fifty-seven percent of their four-seam fastballs were thrown in the upper third of the strike zone, the second-highest percentage among 30 teams. The Rays got 347 strikeouts on elevated four-seamers, the fourth most in MLB.
In ranking 523 pitchers by xwOBA, Tampa had eight of the top 62:
Here’s where the Rays ranked elsewhere on the Statcast team leaderboard:
• Third-lowest hard-hit rate (33.7 percent)
• Tied with the Astros for the fourth-lowest barrel rate (6.6 percent)
• Second-highest swing-and-miss rate (29 percent)
• Fourth-highest chase rate (30.8 percent)
• Second-lowest contact rate allowed on pitches in the zone (79.5 percent)
• First with 323 strikeouts on curveballs, 44 more than the next-closest team (Phillies)
• First with 552 swinging strikes
During the regular season, the Astros led the Majors with an .848 OPS and were third with 920 runs. In the ALDS, the Astros have a .685 OPS and have scored 13 runs in four games.
Before the first pitch of the series was thrown, Hinch offered this evaluation of the Rays' pitching staff:
“We’re about to face one of the best pitching staffs in baseball.”
Nothing he has seen has persuaded him otherwise. Tampa Bay’s bullpen had a 3.39 ERA after a Trade Deadline that included the acquisition of Anderson from the Marlins.
The Rays got another boost when two of their three best starters -- Snell and Glasnow -- returned from the injured list for the stretch run. They, too, throw hard with spin.
And Rays manager Kevin Cash manages aggressively, unafraid to go through his entire bullpen.
“Going into a game, I think at this point if you're surprised by anything that the Rays do, then you haven't really done your homework,” Hinch said. “You see what Anderson's throwing, you see Castillo, you see Roe's slider, you see Snell come out of the bullpen throwing 96 again. You see all sorts of different variations.
“They made it perfectly clear they weren't going to let guys see a guy multiple times. And statistically and from a competitive standpoint, that's the way to go. If you really want to be the most effective, that's the approach to go with. It's hard to do that over 162, but in a five-game set, you're seeing them play out their script about as well as they possibly could.”
In the first four ALDS games, the Rays have used their relievers for 19 2/3 innings, their starters for 14 1/3. The Rays took a traditional approach with Glasnow, Snell and Morton in Games 1-3. Even in those games, Tampa Bay’s relievers pitched 12 1/3 innings to 12 2/3 for the starters.
In Game 4, it was six Tampa Bay pitchers combining on a six-hitter in a 4-1 victory. Snell, pitching in relief for the first time in his career, got the final two outs in the ninth inning.
“They just keep doing it,” Snell said. “I think that's the most impressive part. It's easy to be good for a game or two, but they're good every single day. And they never know when their name is going to get called. We're pitching really good against this lineup that's really good, as well. So for us to be able to do that consistently is pretty amazing.”