The Rays have established themselves over the last few years as one of the most consistent and best teams in the American League (a truly painful sentence for me to write), and they’ve done so with a revolving door in a lot of spots. For this year’s team, perhaps in no place is it more true than the rotation, where none of the three starters for this series — maybe Michael Wacha or Josh Fleming make a start in Game Four, but we’re only going to talk about the top three guys here — were part of last year’s rotation. Gone are Tyler Glasnow (injury), Blake Snell (trade), and Charlie Morton (left in free agency). But that doesn’t mean this group isn’t absolutely terrifying.
Shane McClanahan, LHP
We should be seeing the left-handed McClanahan for the opener on Thursday, and the Red Sox will have their hands full. The former top prospect and first round pick made his debut in the postseason last year, making four relief appearances for the Rays. This season he’s been a starter, and quite a good one at that. Over 25 starts and 123 1⁄3 innings, he pitched to a 3.43 ERA with slightly better peripherals, striking out 27 percent of his opponents while walking seven percent. He did have some mild home run issues at times and gave up 14 all year, but that is far from bad in this era of baseball.
Although most of the lefties the Red Sox have face of late have been of the junk ball variety, barely hitting 90 mph with their fastball, McClanahan is not of that ilk. This southpaw leans most heavily on his fastball, which sits consistently in the upper 90s. That’s a pitch he’s going to fill up the zone with, however, so the Red Sox would be wise to sit on that early and look to make hard contact rather than falling behind.
I say that because if they get behind in a count and McClanahan can really go to work, they’ll start to see a whole lot of breaking balls. The 24-year-old throws both a slider and a curveball, and he gets about a 40 percent whiff rate on each, per Baseball Savant. What makes those pithes extra dangerous is that he’s shown an ability to throw those for strikes as well, so while it may be wise for Boston to sit fastball at times, they also need to be aware that his breaking ball command is good enough that he can throw those in any count. He also throws a changeup, though that comes in less than 10 percent of the time. It does get a lot of whiffs, but the command is not as consistent so he is liable to leave those in the zone at times to be punished.
McClanahan is going to try and live in the bottom half of the zone with his secondaries and induce ground balls, something he did 47 percent of the time (on batted balls, at least) this past season. While he does throw from the left side, he’s been about as good against both handedness hitters this season, with his curveball being his main weapon (along with the changeup) against righties. Don’t expect him to be left out for too long, though, as he’s hit 100 pithes just once this year, and 90 pitches only four times.
In three matchups against Boston this year McClanahan has a 2.81 ERA over 16 innings, striking out 18 and walking five.
Shane Baz, RHP
We’ve already seen what kind of impact players like Austin Meadows and Glasnow can and have had on this Rays team, and both of those players came over in the historically lopsided Chris Archer deal. Well, they got Baz in that trade as well, and he sure looks like a major producer as well. The righty only just got called up shortly before the season ended, but he’s earned their trust. In three starts he allowed three runs over 13 1⁄3 innings, striking out 18 and walking three. He did allow three home runs, though, which provides some hope against him.
Baz is very similar to McClanahan in repertoire, just throwing from the right side. He also has a fastball that gets up near triple digits consistently, and can hit triple digits if he needs it. But contrary to his left-handed counterpart, this pitch has not been quite as easy to hit and he’s had a bit more success getting up at the top of the zone. He’ll use this as a table setter, but this can also be a putaway pitch with its velocity.
He will feature a pair of breaking balls with that fastball, like McClanahan throwing a slider and a curveball. Both have been spectacular in his small sample stint in the bigs late this year, with the curveball coming in with a ridiculous 50 percent whiff rate. That pitch has been pretty pinpoint in command, as Baz has been able to pepper the bottom of the zone with that offering. The slider gets a ton of whiffs as well, though it’s also been left up in the zone a bit more often.
Also like McClanahan, Baz also features a changeup that is worked in less than 10 percent of the time. Baz uses it even less than McClanahan, throwing just 11. It’s a small sample, and scouts do really like the potential of the pitch, but based on what we’ve seen at this level it’s been more of a show-me offering. I’ll be interested to see if he uses it a bit more against lefties in this series, and how the Red Sox handle it if he does.
A theme in this series is going to be short hooks on both sides for their starters, and Baz may be the most extreme example. The talent is there, but the Rays have not pushed him this year. I wouldn’t expect many more than 80 pitches in this start unless he’s just totally dominant, which to me means Boston shouldn’t be afraid to swing early, because there’s less of an advantage to building up a pitch count that won’t get too high anyway.
Drew Rasmussen, RHP
Rasmussen bucks the trend a bit from these other two in terms of how he pitches, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be any easier to face. Though he’s been a reliever most of his career, he came over from Milwaukee early in the season and has been shifted to a starting role. Overall he made 25 relief appearances and 10 starts this year, totaling 76 innings with a 2.84 ERA and peripherals that were only slightly worse.
The righty, as I said, diverges a bit from the other two as he is mostly a two-pitch pitcher. He does have a big fastball, though, with the average velocity coming in around 97 mph. He does have a tendency to leave that pitch over the plate, though, so if the batter is ready and can catch up, the contact can be hard. And related to that, despite the strong overall numbers he has allowed hard contact on 50 percent of batted balls this year, putting him in the bottom percentile in baseball. Along with the fastball, Ramussen offers a slider, though neither have huge whiff rates as he’s not a huge strikeout pitcher.
Beyond the fastball velocity there isn’t much that stands out here about Rasmussen, but the Red Sox have had their troubles against the righties. Seeing him as both a reliever and a starter this year, they’ve faced him for 15 2⁄3 innings and have scored four runs with 14 strikeouts and five walks. Rasmussen hasn’t thrown more than 74 pitches in a game this year, keeping with that theme of short outings.