Breaking down the Blue Jays' season-defining matchup against the Rays

With six of their final nine games against the Rays, the Blue Jays will need to fare well against their AL East rival to make the postseason.

With the Toronto Blue Jays in the midst of a close race for a playoff spot with three AL West teams, there are countless possible scenarios that could cause their campaign to continue into October — or end in disappointment.

Based on the number of games their primary rivals have against each other, going 6-3 would be enough to earn a wild-card spot no matter what, but that's a tough bar to clear, particularly because six of Toronto's last nine games come against the Tampa Bay Rays.

If the Blue Jays can't hold their own against Tampa Bay their playoff hopes could fade. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
If the Blue Jays can't hold their own against Tampa Bay their playoff hopes could fade. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

While the team's fate is likely to be decided in part by how the trio of teams they're battling fare in the days to come, the Rays will have more to say about whether the Blue Jays make the playoffs. If Toronto can't at least hold its own against Tampa Bay, the team's shot at the postseason is likely to fall by the wayside.

The Blue Jays need to go at least 3-3 against the Rays to give themselves a shot at making it with no help — and even that would require sweeping the New York Yankees, which isn't easy to do when Gerrit Cole is lined up for one of those games.

If Toronto goes 2-4 or 1-5 against Tampa Bay, it won't be easy to reach the postseason. Even though FanGraphs lists their playoff odds at 76.7% on Friday morning, making good on those will require a competent performance against the Rays, which is no sure thing.

This season the Rays are 4-3 against the Blue Jays with a minus-9 run differential, but the teams haven't met since late May. A lot has changed since then, so here's a look at how the clubs match up now.

Blue Jays hitters vs. Rays pitchers

The Rays pitching staff skews heavily right-handed with no southpaw starters and two lefties in the pen. Those left-handers — Colin Pache and Jake Diekman — are both in the midst of strong seasons, but both are running reverse splits in 2023.

In theory that could make Tampa Bay vulnerable to left-handed hitters, but Toronto is unlikely to exploit that vulnerability. Cavan Biggio will have a chance to keep rolling, but Kevin Kiermaier and Daulton Varsho don't strike fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers right now. Toronto could really use Brandon Belt in this matchup, but it's unclear when he'll be available again as he deals with back spasms.

When it comes to specific matchups with pitchers, the Blue Jays don't have much experience against the Rays' current starters.

Players on the team's active roster have hit .292 and slugged .417 in 56 plate appearances against Tyler Glasnow, but they're 9-for-44 against Zack Eflin with a single extra-base hit. There isn't much data against the other three, but it is interesting that the Blue Jays are 10-for-17 against Zack Littell while slugging 1.059 — even if that sample is tiny.

Tampa Bay's bullpen has strong season-long numbers but it has been especially unbelievable lately, as Mike Petriello recently pointed out at The Rays have a 1.83 bullpen ERA this month with a 34.1% strikeout rate and they just got an elite high-leverage arm back from injury in Jason Adam.

If the Blue Jays are going to score against this team, it will probably come early in games.

Rays hitters vs. Blue Jays pitchers

Toronto's pitching staff has more lefty/righty balance than Tampa Bay's does, but the Rays have more interchangeable lineup pieces to navigate that challenge than Toronto does.

The Rays normally deploy five left-handed hitters against right-handed starters, but Brandon Lowe is the only lefty bat that is a constant against southpaws. Tampa Bay has been particularly successful against lefty starters this year, posting a .710 winning percentage when they face them — a significant bump over their .585 mark against righties.

Although the sample size against lefties is relatively small (31 games), it's enough to indicate that Toronto's ability to roll out southpaws Hyun-jin Ryu and Yusei Kikuchi doesn't look like an advantage. The way the Blue Jays staff is currently ordered, Ryu and Kikuchi are slated to start four of the team's six games against the Rays.

If Toronto sees that as an issue, it will have the option to re-jig the staff after the upcoming series in Tampa Bay thanks to its Monday off day.

When it comes to the success of Toronto's starters against the Rays' current hitters, it's been a mixed bag with Tampa Bay faring relatively well across the board.

Via Baseball Savant
Via Baseball Savant

Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, while the Rays bullpen has soared this month, theirs has faltered with a 4.92 ERA and 0.1 fWAR to show for its efforts. It's possible some of the team's top arms are a bit worn down, and Toronto may be pushing its starters a little further in these crucial games.

One wild card the Blue Jays will have to contend with is top prospect Junior Caminero, who got his first call to the big leagues on Friday. While the 20-year-old may not be a difference maker upon arrival, he certainly has the tools to do some damage.

The running game

In most cases the running game is a relatively minor consideration, but the Rays rank second in the majors in stolen bases (157) and made the Blue Jays miserable with their base stealing the last time the teams met.

Toronto has allowed 124 stolen bases this season while catching 24 runners for a caught-stealing rate of 16% — well below league-average (21%). Alejandro Kirk has been slightly better at controlling the running game than Danny Jansen, but he still grades out as a below-average thrower and Toronto's pitching staff doesn't do him any favours.

Tampa Bay stole 13 bases in its first seven matchups against the Blue Jays this season, and the Rays could look to gain an edge on the bases again in the games to come.