During Tuesday night’s victory over the Yankees in the American League Wildcard Game, the Red Sox quieted a pretty stellar lineup (well, except for Giancarlo Stanton), and as they embark on the next leg of their postseason journey, they’ll have to deal with the bats of the Tampa Bay Rays.
On the offensive side of things, the Rays are, as you might expect from a 100-win squad, very good. They ranked fourth in combined fWAR for non-pitchers and produced a 109 wRC+ as a team in the regular season, tying with the American League Central champion Chicago White Sox for the third-best mark in MLB. Here’s a look at the individual contributors to that stellar overall body of work.
Brandon Lowe, 2B
Lowe actually played a role in helping the Red Sox on their way to earning hosting duties for the AL wildcard game, as he smashed three home runs during the Rays’ 12-2 win over the Yankees last Saturday. Hitting home runs has been a big part of Lowe’s game this season, as he sent 39 over the fence during the regular season, easily setting a career mark for the 27-year-old second baseman. Lowe actually led the Rays in fWAR in 2021 (5.2) and he’s no stranger to coming up big in October, even if he is fairly strikeout prone, ranking in the bottom 15th percentile in baseball in strikeout rate this year (27.2 percent). Lowe has hammered curves and changeups and been least effective against splitters and sliders in 2021, so the Red Sox need to make sure to use the right breaking stuff.
Randy Arozarena, RF
After his incredible run during the second half of last season and his numerous playoff heroics in leading the Rays to the World Series, Arozarena came back to Earth a bit in 2021, but that speaks more to how impressive his 2020 was than to anything negative about this season. The 26-year-old right fielder was still 28 percent better than league average at the plate and he produced a 20/20 season with 20 home runs and as many stolen bases. Like Lowe, Arozarena can strike out too often (28.1 percent strikeout rate) and his expected numbers in batting average, slugging and wOBA were all in the bottom 20th percentile in MLB this season, but he managed to put together a fine offensive year all the same. Arozarena is another batter who struggles with sliders, so expect the Red Sox to go after him with that offering as much as possible.
Wander Franco, SS
After years of hype, Franco finally made his MLB debut this season and the former No. 1 overall prospect has not disappointed in the slightest. Thanks to exceptional bat control, patience and otherworldly ability to get on base, Franco produced a .288/.347/.463 slash line in 308 plate appearances after getting the call to the majors near the end of June. As you may recall, he made his MLB debut against the same Red Sox he’ll face in the ALDS, going 2-for-5 with a home run and three RBI. Perhaps the most noteworthy portion of Franco’s rookie season was during the stretch run, as he reached base in 43-straight games before going 0-for-4 against the Houston Astros on Sept. 30. That’s on another (and record-matching) level for for someone who won’t turn 21 until next March. Sliders might not be as effective against Franco (+9 run value against them), but he has been slightly susceptible to changeups and fastballs.
Nelson Cruz, DH
Cruz turned 41 years old earlier this summer, but age has yet to find a way to slow him down. If it weren’t for the shortened 2020 season (when he hit 16 home runs and would have easily gotten to at least 30), Cruz would have reached eight-straight years with at least 30 bombs in 2021, as he ended the campaign with 32 dingers. Cruz didn’t hit all of those with Tampa Bay, of course, as he was a major addition to the roster before the trade deadline, making his way to the Rays by way of a trade with the Minnesota Twins. Cruz still brought his power from Minnesota (13 home runs in 238 plate appearances with the Rays), but his offense certainly dipped after the trade, as he produced a 148 OPS+ with Minnesota and a 103 OPS+ with Tampa Bay. The Red Sox will have to hope the slide continues in the postseason. Cruz had a 42.9 percent strikeout rate against splitters this season, but he only faced 24 of them. His real kryptonite were changeups (-2 run value) and curveballs (35 percent strikeout rate, .257 xwOBA).
Austin Meadows, LF
Meadows isn’t the luckiest hitter in the world, as his batting average on balls in play this year can attest (career-low .249), but despite that, he managed a 113 wRC+, largely due to a return to the level of plate discipline he displayed in his first two MLB seasons. His 20.6 percent strikeout rate this season was far more in line with his career rate than 2020’s 32.9 percent mark, and he also got free passes semi-regularly (10 percent walk rate). Keeping him down and running contrary to the unlucky angle, however, is the fact that he has been pretty middle of the road when it comes to making solid contact this season, ranking at nearly the 50th percentile among MLB hitters in average exit velocity (48th percentile) and barrel rate (53rd percentile). Meadows has a positive run value against just about every pitch, but he has been particularly good at handling sinkers (+13).
Ji-Man Choi, 1B
Although Yandy Díaz was getting more regular time at first base earlier in the season, Choi came on to take over the role during the second half. Choi really lives by two of the three true outcomes, as he has a career walk rate of 13.3 percent and a career strikeout rate of 24.4 percent. He set career-high marks in both categories this season, which is great for walks (14.8 percent) but not so much for strikeouts (28.5 percent). Choi still hasn’t mastered the third true outcome, although he did pop 11 home runs this season in only 305 plate appearances. Choi hit below .200 against changeups, sinkers and sliders this season, so Red Sox pitchers just need to find the one that works best for them.
Mike Zunino, C
Here’s a piece of trivia you can use to amaze your friends: Who ranked second in fWAR for the Rays in 2021? We already know Lowe was first, but who followed him? Could it be the heralded rookie Franco? The power-hitting trade acquisition Cruz? The star outfielders Meadows and Arozarena? Nope. It’s Zunino with 4.5. Although he is going to strike out a ton no matter what happens (35.2 percent strikeout rate), Zunino’s overwhelming power makes him dangerous any time he steps up to the plate. He smashed 33 home runs this season and had a 134 wRC+ despite a .216 batting average and a .301 on-base percentage. In addition, he’s an elite framer on the defensive side. A good heater can get past Zunino, but curveballs really flummox him, as he batted .100 against them this year with a 54.5 percent strikeout rate.
Joey Wendle, 3B
Wendle is a quintessential Ray. He can play all over the infield and is an above average ball player who seems to get the job done wherever he’s positioned. Wendle might not have the offensive profile of someone like Ben Zobrist, but he’s in that mold. In the regular season, Wendle slashed .265/.319/.422 and managed to be just a hair above average as a hitter (106 wRC+). However, he made up for the pedestrian offensive numbers by being a versatile and very effective fielder (94th percentile in outs above average). Wendle can pick out a hanging changeup with the best of them (+7 run value, .706 slugging percentage against them), but he is weak against sliders and curveballs.
Kevin Kiermaier, CF
Speaking of effective fielders, Kiermaier is still one of the best in the business at ranging in the outfield. He was in the 96th percentile in MLB in outs above average this season and he was in the 98th in outfield jump. That defense is most of what’s propping up his game, however, as he is just about a league average hitter (101 wRC+) with a whole lot of blue at the top of his Baseball Savant page. The Red Sox should pound the zone with fastballs at the start of at-bats against Kiermaier (-4 run value against them) and use curveballs as out pitches when possible (.194 batting average against).
Yandy Díaz, IF - Díaz can play both corners in the infield and is a pretty great guy to have on the bench due to his patient approach at the plate.
Manuel Margot, OF - Margot can play each outfield spot and has decent speed, making him a perfect pinch-running candidate in this series. He might also spell Kiermaier against lefties.
Francisco Mejía, C - Mejía will be Zunino’s backup and he can also stand in at first base if necessary. He slashed .260/.322/.416 with a 108 wRC+ in a career-high 277 plate appearances this season.
Brett Phillips, OF - Phillips just doesn’t hit well enough to be a regular (.202 career batting average), but he played in a career-high 119 games this season and has power (13 home runs in 2021) and speed (14 stolen bases).