If you’re a fan of any of the teams leading their series, then you’ve probably loved the MLB playoffs so far. But if you’re just a baseball fan, you probably feel let down, as most of the games have been blowouts. In 10 divisional round games, the average margin of victory is 4.4 runs. Three games have been decided by one run, but the other seven have been decided by an average of almost six runs (5.9 to be exact). That’s not fun, evenly matched baseball; that’s one boot to the hindquarters after another.
No series has used a bigger boot and swung it more swiftly than the Rays and Red Sox. The average margin of victory in that series has been 6½ runs. The Rays have been outscored 19-6, out-hit 25-12, and have led for a total of three innings. It looks bad, for the Rays it is bad, and yet the Rays have a realistic chance to win the series.
“Realistic” does not mean “overwhelmingly good,” of course. It’s not a good chance — they are down two games to none — but it’s maybe a bigger chance than you’d think. First, because of the divisional series format, the Rays have to win only three games, which is easier than four. The Rays won three games in a row 33 different times this season (counting a four-game win streak as two and a five-game win streak as three, etc.), while the Red Sox lost three in a row five times. So what the Rays need to do has been done by them, and has been done to their opponent (though not by them). If you’re the Rays, that’s a good thing.
If you’re looking for straight numbers, the Rays have a 13 percent chance to win all three games based only on the average winning percentages of teams with two of three games at home. Thirteen percent isn’t good odds, but it’s also not “win the lottery” odds. It’s more like the odds that, hey, it’s Saturday! According to the The Associated Press, only four of the previous 22 American League teams (18 percent) that lost the first two games of the division series came back to win the series.
So home field gives the Rays a 13 percent chance and history gives them an 18 percent chance. The numbers don’t favor Tampa, but then you wouldn’t expect them to. Considering the Rays’ track record this season as a very good team (you don’t win 92 games in the American League East without being a very good team), you might even be generous and bump them up just slightly to about a 20 percent, or one-in-five shot. That’s still not great, but it’s far more than nothing.
According to the The Associated Press, only four of the previous 22 American League teams (18 percent) that lost the first two games of the division series came back to win the series. So the numbers don’t favor Tampa, but then you wouldn’t expect them to. Considering the Rays’ track record this season as a very good team (you don’t win 92 games in the American League East without being a very good team), you might even be generous and bump them up just slightly to about a 20 percent, or one-in-five shot. That’s still not great, but it’s far more than nothing.
There are a few other things that the Rays can rest their hopes on. Boston posted an .819 OPS at home this season, but on the road that number drops to .773. Moving the Red Sox out of Fenway Park doesn’t turn their offense off, but it does make them slightly less potent, and considering Tampa is about the same at home as on the road, that’s a relative advantage for the Rays.
On the pitching side, the Rays had a 3.49 ERA at home but a 4.01 ERA on the road. The Red Sox had a 3.57 ERA at home but a 4.03 ERA on the road. So the two teams essentially trade off pitching staffs. That’s more good news for the Rays who are playing their next two games in Tampa.
There’s always recent history as well. The Rays have played in two elimination games this season, winning both. The pitchers who pitched in those games, David Price and Alex Cobb, are scheduled to pitch in two of the remaining three games (Jeremy Hellickson is scheduled to pitch Game 4). They say once a player shows a skill, he has it. The 2013 Rays have shown that they can win elimination games because they played them and won them. Is winning elimination games really a skill? Not like hitting for power or running, but the ability to play well under pressure likely is, or at least, to not let the pressure negatively effect performance. The Rays have avoided that and many other pitfalls in those two games.
Past performance is no guarantee of future success (Carl Crawford’s contract can tell you that), so just because the Red Sox won the first two games doesn’t mean they’ll win any more games this series. The Rays won 92 games in the toughest division in baseball. If any team can maximize their chances in a predicament like this, it’s the Rays. They understand the numbers are against them, but they also understand the numbers and will do the little things (shifting, early pitching changes, or whatever is needed) to push the percentages further in their direction. Even so, the numbers aren’t promising, but the team is, so for that reason, you don’t have to squint hard to see Tampa pulling off a comeback in this series. I just wouldn’t bet on it.