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Braves face off against the Rays in battle of baseball’s best

Two of baseball’s elite team square off in Tampa Bay this weekend

Philadelphia Phillies v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

The Tampa Bay Rays have been the best team in the American League all season, ever since starting the season 13-0. The Braves have now surpassed them for the best record in baseball, but the Rays still have the best record in the AL. They have been nearly fully competitive for 15 years now, despite consistently being in the bottom five in baseball for payroll, leveraging best-in-class analytics and player development to make up for their lack of resources and then some.

While the Rays are generally noted for pitching development and pushing the mold on how they deploy their arms, it is their offense that has served as a driving force this season. They have five players with an fWAR above 2.0, with Wander Franco and Randy Arozarena leading the way. Yandy Diaz and Luke Raley have also been ultra productive, with both having a wRC+ over 150. They already have seven players with ten or more home runs, with two more sitting at nine. There is no arguing that the Rays have been one of the three best lineups in baseball, and they’re second in position player fWAR only because the Rangers have been so good defensively that they’ve taken the top spot.

The pitching, meanwhile, just been just mediocre: 14th in pitching fWAR, with a top-five rotation dragged way down by one of the worst bullpens in baseball. Rule 5 pick Kevin Kelly has been your typical Tampa Bay success story as an out-of-nowhere dominant reliever (though the xFIP isn’t encouraging), but nearly everyone else has been either injured, bad, or both. Josh Fleming was horrid and is now down with an elbow injury. Yonny Chirinos hasn’t really found it since returning from Tommy John Surgery. Jason Adam went back to not much after a breakout last year, Pete Fairbanks has been injured twice, Garrett Cleavinger tore his ACL, J.P. Feyereisen had shoulder surgery and isn’t in the organization anymore, Brooks Raley was traded, you get the idea.

The Rays faded a bit in May, going 17-12, compared to 23-6 through April, largely due to pitching woes. A 17-10 June was driven by the bats’ torrid pace abating a bit, though the pitching rebounded. However, the Rays are just 6-10 in their last 16 games, and are winless so far in July as part of their longest losing streak of the season (so far?). The team isn’t really being dragged down by any part of the roster over these last few weeks, but just isn’t raking or getting elite starting pitching the way it was previously.

The Braves, of course, are currently well-equipped to deal with the Rays, as they’ve been on an insane run since the beginning of June. They are 25-5 since June 1, led by a supercharged offense that has overwhelmed most pitching it faces. That’s helped to cover for pitching problems, as the Braves can just outslug their opponents on most nights. The Rays have been using that strategy for much of the year, and now it could be their turn to have the tables turned on them.

Friday, July 7, 6:40 p.m. ET (Apple TV+)

Charlie Morton (16 GS, 90.2 IP, 26.1 K%, 10 BB%, 45.2 GB%, 3.57 ERA, 3.75 FIP)

Charlie Morton has been a more than solid middle of the rotation arm for the Braves this year. His ERA and peripherals are quite good (80 ERA-, 88 FIP-, 90 xFIP-) and he still gets a lot of strikeouts thanks to his hammer of a curveball that remains one of baseball’s best pitches, but he’s also struggled with walks and has not been able to go deep into games consistently because of serious struggles with keeping batters from destroying his fastbal. He has not completed six innings in any of his past five starts and has only had two starts all season where he did not walk multiple batters. On the bright side, one of those was last time out against the Marlins, where he went 5 23 scoreless innings, in which he gave up four hits and only walked one while striking out five. Despite not allowing that many baserunners, he still threw 106 pitches, pointing to his lack of efficiency.

Morton, of course, spent a season and a pandemic with the Rays, during which he had his career-best 6.0 fWAR season. He has a career 2.96 FIP and 3.29 xFIP in six starts against the Rays, including a mediocre effort against them in 2021 as a Brave.

Tyler Glasnow (7 GS, 36 IP, 36.4 K%, 9.7 BB%, 42.7 GB%, 4.50 ERA, 3.68 FIP)

When healthy, Tyler Glasnow can be one of the most overpowering pitchers in baseball. Going back to 2019, his first full year with the Rays, he has never had an xFIP above 3.00. However, he is almost never healthy, as he hasn’t thrown more than 88 innings in a season since 2018.

He has a big fastball that is complimented by two elite breaking balls, that both have a whiff rate of at least 44 percent. The curveball is his put-away pitch, with a 51.7 whiff rate and 26 strikeouts so far. However, when he is getting hit, he is getting hit hard. He has a barrel rate of 18.3 percent, which is one of the worst in baseball. This has led to him giving up a lot of homers. He has been racking up the strikeouts, hitting double digits in each of his last two starts, despite the fact he does not go deep into games, only completing six innings once this season. He’s also walked a fair bit of batters, so games he starts are kind of three-true-outcomes-fests, which could play into the Braves’ hands.

In two starts against the Braves he has a 4.37 FIP and 3.42 xFIP in 10 innings, though he hasn’t faced them since 2020.

Saturday, June 8, 7:15 p.m. ET (FOX)

Spencer Strider (17 GS, 98.1 IP, 38.6 K%, 8.2 BB%, 33 GB%, 3.66 ERA, 2.99 FIP)

Since losing his way a bit in June, Spencer Strider has gotten back on track in his last three starts, completing at least six innings while allowing two or fewer runs and more or less dominating in all of them. This is the bounce back you want to see from a young starter facing adversity for the first time in his big league career. He continues to rack up strikeouts at an historic pace with 14.19 K/9, an unprecedented mark for a starting pitcher. He does that mainly with a devastating fastball-slider duo, but has recently been incorporating his changeup much more, especially against left-handed hitters. However, he has been incorporating it occasionally to righties, as well, with one beautiful right on right changeup to Jean Segura standing out. His fastball has also been ticking up, sitting in the 97 to 98 mph range rather than the 96 range when he was struggling. That has helped him get more swing and miss on the pitch. Strider has never faced the Rays, and this should be a good test for a top-10 pitcher in baseball against a great offense.

Taj Bradley (12 GS, 56.1 IP, 30.8 K%, 6.9 BB%, 34.9 GB%, 5.27 ERA, 3.86 FIP)

Taj Bradley is a promising young pitcher who has been better than his ERA would suggest in his first call up: a 131 ERA- but a 94 FIP- and a great 75 xFIP-. He has a solid four pitch mix, with his 96 MPH fastball and a cutter being his two primary offerings. He also has a curveball that has been a highly effective putaway pitch. After getting off to a great start, he has struggled mightily his last two starts, going 3 13 and 4 innings while giving up five and seven runs respectively, including a four-homer outing in Arizona. The Braves are not the team you want to be facing if you are a struggling pitcher, but he does have the talent to turn things around, and his season as a whole has seen stretches of dominance and stretches of relatively poor pitching. He strikes a lot of guys out and is good at avoiding walks. If he can avoid barrels, he will be effective, but the Braves are a team that punishes mistakes. It’ll be an interesting matchup between a guy whose stuff is good enough to generally get by with misses in the zone, and a team that punishes a ton of things they can connect with.

Sunday, July 9, 1:40 p.m. ET (Bally Sports Southeast)

Bryce Elder (17 GS, 102.2 IP, 19.3 K%, 7.2 BB%, 54.5 GB%, 2.45 ERA, 3.80 FIP)

Bryce Elder is a different kind of pitcher to the rest of the guys pitching in this series. He is not a big power arm that relies on strikeouts, but a sinker-slider guy who relies on finesse, weird spin, and ground balls to work his way through starts. Despite having an unfashionable approach, he has still been extremely effective, pitching to a 55 ERA-, 89 FIP-, and 92 xFIP- while averaging just over six innings per start, something that is rare in the modern game. He does this with a sinker that averages under 90 MPH and a slider that confuddles batters. It is likely he regresses in terms of ERA, but it is difficult to see a scenario where Elder falls off a cliff, because his peripherals are more than fine. He gets a lot of groundballs and usually avoids, which is a recipe for success. Elder has never faced the Rays.

Zach Eflin (16 GS, 97.1 IP, 26.1 K%, 3.9 BB%, 53.1 GB%, 3.24 ERA, 3.10 FIP)

When the Rays signed long time Phillies arm Zach Eflin to a major investment (for them), a three-year, $40 million deal, you knew they saw something in him that the rest of the league did not. It turned out they did, with Eflin having a career year after ramping up the usage of his cutter and curveball. This has resulted in more strikeouts, with his curveball serving as an elite out pitch. He has put together four straight quality starts and has gone seven frames in each of his last two starts. He has done this by avoiding walks, upping his strikeout total and being very good at generating ground balls.

As good as his surface level stats have been, his xERA, FIP, and xFIP suggest he has been even better than his already very good 3.24 ERA . He is a few good starts away from being a legit candidate in the AL Cy Young race. But the Braves lineup has the potential to rock him out of that conversation.

Eflin has actually had a lot of success against the Braves in his career, with a 3.11 ERA in 81 innings, though his peripherals have been much worse: a 4.24 FIP and 4.09 xFIP.

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