When the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays renew their hostilities over the weekend, they’ll play the opening games of what will end up being 19 total contests between the two rivals this season. And if the past two years are any indication, those 19 games could determine the fate of the American League East race.
Last regular season, the Rays went 8-2 against the Yankees head-to-head, a six-game edge that made up most of Tampa Bay’s seven-game margin over New York in the final standings. (Later, they also beat the Yankees in a postseason battle that came down to the final innings of a do-or-die Game 5.) Two years ago, the Yankees went 12-7 against the Rays during the regular season, which provided most of their own seven-game edge over Tampa Bay in the standings. All told, over the past two-plus seasons, the Yankees (125-74) and Rays (123-76) have almost exactly the same record against all other opponents, with the division largely hanging on who has performed better in their head-to-head matchups.
That will probably be the case again this season. According to our MLB forecast model, there’s a 79 percent chance that either the Yankees or Rays win the AL East in 2021 (granted, with New York making up the bulk of that probability right now). While the teams have combined for a sub-.500 record in the first week, the talented Yankees rank second in our Elo ratings — trailing only the powerhouse Los Angeles Dodgers — and the defending AL champion Rays rank eighth.
It’s far too soon to judge a team’s quality from its record or early stats anyway, though we can start to see how the teams are planning to answer their big questions from before the season.
On top of the usual health problems, the Yankees ranked in the middle of the road in pitching and defense a year ago, while catcher Gary Sánchez had a lot to prove after an awful season (-0.3 wins above replacement1 per 162 team games) that was the worst of his career. So far in 2021, New York’s fielding has been just fine, ranking fifth in defensive efficiency2 — though it’s important to take small-sample defensive numbers with a particularly massive grain of salt. Its pitching has mostly been extremely good, with Gerrit Cole and Jordan Montgomery allowing just two runs in 18⅓ combined innings, and the bullpen allowing six runs (just three of them earned) in 27 innings. As for Sánchez, he belted home runs in each of New York’s first two games and has a 1.017 OPS with a career-low 20 percent strikeout rate. Stay tuned.
Meanwhile, our preseason forecast thought the Rays’ pitching might take a slight step back without Blake Snell and Charlie Morton in the rotation, but Tampa’s starters — led by the electric Tyler Glasnow — have remained in the top half of baseball. Its bullpen has been less impressive, however, and the offense has yet to find its consistency. (In half its games, Tampa Bay has scored five runs or more; in the other half, two or fewer.) A lot depends on Randy Arozarena carrying his postseason momentum — he had a 1.273 OPS last October — over into 2021. The right fielder has a .714 OPS with no home runs so far, but he’s clearly going to be the centerpiece of this lineup, hitting either second or third in the order in all of his games.
The Yankees and Rays are far from the only threats to win the AL East, of course. The upgraded Toronto Blue Jays may be missing George Springer, but they won two of three from the Yankees in the opening series, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (1.135 OPS) finally seems ready for a huge breakout season. The Boston Red Sox just got done sweeping the Rays this week, and DH J.D. Martinez (1.335 OPS) is mashing again. Even the Baltimore Orioles have started the season above .500, finding themselves tied atop the standings after a week-plus.
Be that as it may, Yankees-versus-Rays remains the division clash to watch. In fact, last year Tampa Bay-New York officially passed Boston-New York as the division’s best rivalry, if we measure by the average harmonic mean of Elo ratings when the two rivals meet:
|Year||Team||Avg. Elo||Team||Avg. Elo||Avg. Harmonic Mean|
|2008||Red Sox||1569||Blue Jays||1538||1554|
|2016||Blue Jays||1541||Red Sox||1537||1539|
It had happened before, from 2010 to 2013 — with Tampa Bay helping end a stretch in which Red Sox-Yankees ranked first 11 times in 12 seasons. This time, it ended a three-year run of Boston-versus-New York dominance, aided by the Red Sox’s most recent abrupt post-World Series collapse.
This weekend’s series will be an early chance to see how the two teams stack up this season, plus a test for the back end of each team’s rotation — with Corey Kluber, Domingo Germán and Montgomery of the Yankees slated to face Rich Hill, Chris Archer and Michael Wacha, respectively. And whatever happens, there will be 16 more chances for New York and Tampa Bay to swing the division odds back and forth as the rest of the season plays out.
Check out our latest MLB predictions.