Tampa Bay Rays
Unless you live under the world’s largest rock, you know what the Rays did last season. They turned the baseball world upside down by becoming the first team to consistently use “The Opener”. Blake Snell won the Cy Young as one of essentially 2.5 starting pitchers for the Rays. Reliever Ryne Stanek was second on the Rays in starts with 29. Chris Archer made 17 before he left for Pittsburgh. Jake Faria, Tyler Glasnow, and Nathan Eovaldi combined for 33 starts.
This season, the Rays will have three traditional starters with Snell, Glasnow, and newly-signed Charlie Morton. The other two starting spots will go to openers and then bulk relievers like Ryan Yarbrough and Yonny Chirinos.
Overshadowed by the trailblazing nature of the opener was the fact that the Rays also went against the grain offensively as well. While most teams are pushing hitters to elevate and celebrate with launch angles and dingers, the Rays were more than happy to hit the ball on the ground and go to the opposite field.
The end result was a team that blew away preseason projections by going 90-72, but also a team that was 82-73-7 to the under. Unfortunately, the Rays were just 34-39 against teams .500 or better and 28-31 in one-run games. They were also 51-30 at home and just 39-42 on the road…
Money Line Spots
Which brings me to this. Tropicana Field is not good for hitters. Whether it has to do with the batter’s eye or the indoor conditions or something else, hitters don’t perform well in The Trop. Even with teams loaded with sluggers in the AL East, Tropicana Field was 23rd in home run park factor last season. The Rays found a way to get an advantage at home by utilizing a ground and pound attack.
At home, this can work. On the road, where that home park advantage is gone, it makes it much tougher to keep up with the Joneses that are bashing doubles and dongs. The Rays should have pretty significant home/road splits once again this season. That’s not to say we’ll look to blindly bet them at home and fade them on the road, but simply to say that their offensive strategy inherently creates more of a home field advantage for the opposition that won’t be priced into the market.
The Rays were sixth in GB% and first in Oppo%, so they relied offensively on stringing hits together. In today’s strikeout-happy environment, I worry about the sustainability of that type of game plan. The Rays led the league in BABIP at .317. They had a batting average of .281 on ground balls, which was 23 points higher than the next closest team.
The general range for BABIP is somewhere between .290 and .310. Nineteen Rays hitters had at least 100 plate appearances and nine of them posted BABIPs of .310 or higher. Mallex Smith and Wilson Ramos are gone from that group.
The Rays will slant towards the under again this season. If the offensive metrics regress, they will slant even further towards the under.
Individual Players to Watch
Blake Snell – Well, this is an obvious one. Snell posted an 88 percent LOB% that led to a 1.89 ERA, a 2.95 FIP, and a 3.16 xFIP. He allowed a .241 BABIP. Among pitchers that had at least 200 batted balls against last season, Snell ranked 52nd in average exit velocity. He was good, but not elite. Not with a number that would support a .241 BABIP anyway. He was 64th in average ground ball exit velocity. Again, good, but not great. His Hard-Hit rate against (95+ mph) was 41st. Same thing.
This isn’t to bash Blake Snell, who had a phenomenal season, but his 3.16 xFIP looks more indicative of what we can expect. Remember, I talk a lot about degrees of regression. This is a big degree of regression, to go from a 1.89 to something over 3.00, but something just over 3.00, if that’s what Snell posts, is still outstanding.
Tommy Pham – The first hitter I’ve mentioned so far is Tommy Pham. The Rays did have some offensive losses, including CJ Cron, who hit 30 home runs, Wilson Ramos, who hit 14 home runs, and Jake Bauers, who hit 11 home runs. Power will be hard to find. A guy like Pham may have to provide it because he makes a lot of extremely hard contact. Pham also hits a ton of ground balls, with a 49.5 percent GB%.
This Rays offense, which was already in line for regression anyway, has completely abandoned power. That means stringing hits together. That means cashing in on a high rate of scoring chances. Pham was exception with the Rays in his 39 games and 174 plate appearances with a 191 wRC+. He also had a .442 BABIP and a .622 SLG. He’s a good hitter, but virtually nobody is on that level. This offense worries me a lot and Pham will have to shoulder a lot of the load.