Who has edge? Rays-Astros position by position

October 4th, 2019

The “David vs. Goliath” theme is perhaps the most overused and hackiest of sportswriting tropes. But when a 107-win team with a recent World Series championship in its back pocket -- a team FanGraphs is giving essentially a 1-in-3 chance of winning this year’s Fall Classic -- faces a Wild Card winner that has baseball’s lowest payroll and has been to the playoffs three times this decade without getting to the League Championship Series round, bring on the trope!

No rational or objective analyst would look at this best-of-five American League Division Series matchup of the Astros and the Rays and conclude that Tampa Bay has the upper hand going into Friday’s Game 1 at Minute Maid Park. But if the slingshot exists, it exists here in the form of creative mixing and matching in the lineup and the bullpen.

With the ALDS set to begin Friday, let’s break down October’s answer to David and Goliath, position by position.


(.238/.347/.443, 2.3 FanGraphs WAR) has been a nice pickup for the Astros, and their reacquisition of at the Trade Deadline gave a go-to catcher who helps control the running game and has provided solid production (.781 OPS) since returning to Houston. The Rays have gotten some huge hits out of to help overcome the disappointment of ’s offensive year (.544 OPS). d’Arnaud’s overall output (.263/.323/.459) is, like that of Chirinos, just a little bit better than league average.

Slight advantage: Astros

First Base

had a .298/.343/.541 slash, 132 weighted runs created plus (or 32 percent better than league average) and 3.3 fWAR for the season. He accrued much of his value in a sensational second half in which his 163 wRC+ was the best of any qualified first baseman in baseball. The Rays had start at first for the AL Wild Card Game and, uh, that went pretty well for them (two dingers). But with the Astros starting all righties for at least the first three games, (.822 OPS) is likely to get the bulk of the time at first.

Advantage: Astros

Second Base

Like Gurriel, really kicked it into gear in the second half (161 wRC+) to complete a season in which he had a .298/.353/.550 slash with 61 extra-base hits. Last October, he was compromised by a knee issue that required surgery. This time, he’s the real Altuve. The Rays have been battered at this position with the injuries that sidetracked ’s standout rookie year and a right foot injury for trade acquisition . got the start against a lefty in the Wild Card Game.

Big advantage: Astros


has battled back issues each of the last two seasons and missed the final six games of the regular season. He’s a transcendent player when healthy (.926 OPS, 21 homers in only 75 games this year), but it remains to be seen at what level he can contribute here. With 20 homers, 25 doubles and good defense, has been solid for the Rays in his first full season. But even a compromised Correa has higher upside here.

Advantage: Astros

Third Base

For the purposes of this discussion, we’re assuming it’s Correa at short and at third for the ‘Stros. With a 1.015 OPS, 168 wRC+, 41 homers, 37 doubles and dynamic defense, Bregman might beat out Mike Trout in the AL MVP voting. With all due respect to or whoever happens to start for the Rays in what has been a rotating hot-corner assignment, this is an especially easy call.

Big advantage: Astros

Left Field

took a low-strikeout Astros team to another level with another typically consistent season at the plate (.311/.372/.503, 133 wRC+). His 90.8 contact percentage over the last two seasons is the best in the Majors. But this is one of the strongest spots of the Rays’ lineup, whether the start on a given day goes to (.291/.364/.558, 142 wRC+) or (.273/.369/.450, 121 wRC+). Hard to pick against either side here.

Advantage: Push

Center Field

Injury limitations (122 games played) didn’t prevent from reaching a career-high homer total (39), and his rate stats (.292/.383/.591) were the best of his great career to date. For the Rays, remains one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball, but the bat (78 wRC+) is nowhere near the caliber of the glove.

Big advantage: Astros

Right Field

has been an exciting under-the-radar pickup for the Rays, with a 112 wRC+, a high rate of barrels (11.7%) and surprising speed with a strong arm in the outfield. For the Astros, had one of the worst offensive seasons of his career, and his production bottomed out in July/August (.542 OPS). But he had a .954 OPS in September to finish strong. Rookie is an option for Houston in the corners.

Big advantage: Rays

Designated Hitter

Presumptive AL Rookie of the Year Award winner 's 178 wRC+ was the highest by a rookie with at least 250 plate appearances since “Shoeless” Joe Jackson’s 184 mark in 1911. What does that mean in plain English? It means when the 6-foot-5 Cuban import steps into the box, baseballs are often obliterated. The Rays have good options here on a daily basis (Pham, Díaz, Meadows, , Choi ...). But nothing like that.

Big advantage: Astros

Starting Pitchers

(21-6, 2.58 ERA, 0.80 WHIP). Cole (20-5, 2.50, 0.90). (18-5, 2.93, 0.98). Any questions? Oh, right, the fourth spot. If the Astros use a fourth starter, it could be rookie , given ’s late-season fade. But because of that top three, Houston would get the edge in this area over any other ballclub going into a short series. That includes the Rays, who have one truly healthy starter (, who was used in the Wild Card Game) and question marks in (1.78 ERA, 250 ERA+ but only 12 1/3 innings since May 10) and (4.29 ERA, 104 ERA+ and only six innings since July 21), who might not be able to give Tampa Bay much length.

Big advantage: Astros

Relief Pitchers

Though the Astros’ bullpen is the only even remotely iffy area of the ballclub, getting back from knee surgery was a vital development, and closed the season with 10 1/3 scoreless innings. Houston's relievers finished third in the Majors in ERA (3.75) and opponent average (.226) and second in WHIP (1.20).

But while the Rays don’t have starpower in their ‘pen, they’ve got a bunch of interesting options. Their 3.39 ERA since the Trade Deadline is the best in the AL and their 28.8% strikeout rate is best in the Majors. They’ve done it with the likes of , , , , and . Of that group, Drake was probably the highest-profile acquisition, and then only because he had set a Major League record by pitching for five teams last season. Roe was literally acquired from the Braves for $1. Plentiful ‘pen options could be the way Tampa Bay makes a series out of this. In fact, it might have to be.

Advantage: Rays

Prediction: Crazy things happen in baseball, and the Rays have a disruptive formula, with a matchup-savvy lineup and a forward-thinking approach to accruing outs. The upset of upsets is possible here. But this exercise shows how well-built this Houston ballclub is. The Astros are prohibitive World Series favorites for a reason. They’ll take this series and move on to the ALCS for the third straight year.