Last Updated: 2019-03-04
John Henry is estimated to be worth $2.6 billion. The Steinbrenner family is sitting on billions of dollars of net worth, including the YES Network, which is a cash cow. The Blue Jays are owned by a communications corporation. Peter Angelos is worth over $2 billion.
The Tampa Bay Rays can’t really compete in that financial environment. They are owned by a group of investors, all of whom are successful and have money, but the Rays are perennially matched up against teams owned by billionaires. They have to be creative with spending. They have to be on the cutting edge. They have to be smarter than everybody else.
The game of baseball is played by the players, at least in the public eye. Everything that happens behind the scenes within the front office is an afterthought for most fans. Big losses like Giancarlo Stanton being traded from the Marlins or Bryce Harper leaving the Nationals in free agency draw all the headlines when, in actuality, losses of people like Andrew Friedman and Josh Kalk could very well be even more damaging.
The Rays haven’t had it easy. Friedman jumped to the payroll paradise of Los Angeles and has had a blank checkbook during his tenure with the Dodgers. Nobody can blame him, as it pales in comparison to rolling change on his lunch break with the Rays, but losing smart, savvy, innovative front office members is hard to swallow.
Kalk, a PITCHf/x guru, was plucked by the Twins, who have embraced analytics at a rapid rate over the last few seasons. Fortunately, the Rays have been able to hold on to Chaim Bloom, who annually gets GM interviews from other teams, and Erik Neander, who is currently the Senior VP of Baseball Ops and the General Manager.
Why all the talk on these front office people? Because the Rays turned the baseball world upside down in 2018 and had significant results. The Rays brought “The Opener” to the forefront. It’s something that had been talked about in baseball circles for a long time, but too many organizations are tasked with being creative and edgy, while also not upsetting the players and baseball’s conventional norms.
To be fair, the Rays were in the perfect spot to try. Their rotation was Chris Archer, Blake Snell, and a bunch of marginal starting pitchers. Archer was traded to the Pirates in the middle of the season after 17 starts. Snell took his regular turn through the rotation and made 31 starts en route to winning the Cy Young Award. Reliever Ryne Stanek was second on the team in starts with 29. No other “starting” pitcher had more than 12 starts.
As we head into 2019, we’re left to wonder how this newfound philosophy holds up. We’re left to wonder how this Rays offense performs. We’re left to wonder how the Rays continue to stack up in the AL East. We’re also left to wonder what else the Rays have up their sleeves to push the game forward.
Season Win Total Odds
2018 Standings Data
Actual Record: 90-72
Run Differential: +70
Pythagorean W/L: 89-73
BaseRuns Record: 96-66
BaseRuns Run Differential: +137 (4.63/3.79)
3rd Order Win% Record: 97.5-64.5
Record in One-Run Games: 28-31
Additions: Avisail Garcia, Mike Zunino, Guillermo Heredia, Charlie Morton, Emilio Pagan, Anthony Benboom, Gionti Turner, Yandy Diaz, Jake Smolinski, Ryan Merritt, Luis Santos, Rollie Lacy, Michael Plassmeyer, Sandy Gaston, Oliver Drake, Casey Sadler, Cole Sulser, Ryan Thompson, Ian Gardeck, Ryan Sherriff, Caleb Sampen, Emilio Bonifacio, Tyler Cloyd
Losses: Carlos Gomez, Sergio Romo, Jake Bauers, Mallex Smith, Jake Fraley, Chih-Wei Hu, Kyle Bird, Brock Burke, Yoel Espinal, Jaime Schultz
Transactions with teams like the Rays are some of my favorite mental exercises. When they give up promising players like Jake Bauers and Chih-Wei Hu, I wonder, “What’s wrong with them? What am I missing?” You can really psych yourself out with that mindset because it may just be a thing where the Rays are giving up good players to find something they like in somebody else.
The list of acquisitions for the Rays is not littered with stars. Charlie Morton probably has the most upside of anybody and gives the Rays another bona fide starting pitcher alongside Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow.
Mike Zunino goes from one bad hitting environment to another one, but he’s a good upside play, as well as Yandy Diaz, who has ridiculous biceps and a lot of exit velocity, but the launch angle of a paralyzed grasshopper. The losses of Carlos Gomez, Sergio Romo, and Mallex Smith are easy to overcome, especially with last year’s acquisition of Tommy Pham and this offseason’s trade for Emilio Pagan.
BA: .258 (3rd)
OBP: .333 (3rd)
SLG: .406 (17th)
wOBA: .322 (9th)
wRC+: 105 (6th)
BABIP: .317 (1st)
K%: 22.4% (16th)
BB%: 8.7% (14th)
Sometimes you look at things for a while and they just don’t add up. The Rays were third in batting average and third in on-base percentage. They were 14th in walk rate and 16th and strikeout rate, so they were middle of the pack in those two categories. How did they have so much success on balls in play? How did they post a .317 BABIP and lead baseball by four points over the Cubs and eight points over any AL team?
Was it exit velocity? Nah. The Rays ranked 26th in average exit velocity. Was it good fortune? The Rays were 23(!!) points better than anybody in ground ball batting average at .281. The next closest team was Houston at .258. It wasn’t even like they hit ground balls harder than anybody else. They were 16th in ground ball exit velo.
I’m trying to see a way in which this is sustainable. I’m not really having much success. The Rays also lost some pretty good offensive pieces from last season. Wilson Ramos posted a .358 wOBA in 315 PA. CJ Cron hit 30 HR and was the only guy on the team with more than 14. Mallex Smith had 40 of Tampa Bay’s league-leading 128 steals.
They are the Rays, after all, and there has to be some method to the madness. Tommy Pham slashed .343/.448/.622 with a .447 wOBA in his 174 PA after the Cardinals sent him to the Gulf Coast. Ji-Man Choi got a crack at some regular playing time and slashed .269/.370/.506 with a .375 wOBA. The Rays also got some really good offensive contributions from guys like Daniel Robertson, Joey Wendle, and Matt Duffy. Willy Adames slashed .286/.354/.432 in the second half over 200 plate appearances.
There are a lot of pieces here and a lot of guys that make a lot of contact. I just can’t get over the BABIPs. Wendle had a .353 in 545 PA. Pham had a .442 in 174 PA. Duffy had a .353 in 560 PA. Robertson had a .328 in 340 PA. Adames had a .378 in 323 PA.
It can’t be an accident when this many players post well above average batting averages on balls in play. The sabermetrician in me keeps telling me that this is unsustainable, but there has to be something to it. It would have to be a reason why the Rays gambled on Avisail Garcia, whose only great season was a because of a .392 BABIP. It would also speak to why the Rays were willing to give up what looks like a hitter with a safer projection in Jake Bauers for the pathetic launch angle of hard-hitting Yandy Diaz.
More ground balls go for hits than fly balls, so it’s entirely possible that the Rays are spitting in the face of the fly ball revolution in hopes of taking advantage of the fact that defense around the league does appear to be at its worst in quite some time. The Rays also had the highest percentage of opposite field contact at 28 percent. Oppo ground balls would, in theory, beat a shift, and teams usually protect to the pull side because they’re more willing to give up opposite field singles to prevent pull-side extra-base hits.
I still have to think that this regresses to some degree, but credit to the Rays, as always, for being innovative.
ERA: 3.75 (6th)
FIP: 3.82 (5th)
xFIP: 3.98 (9th)
K%: 23.7% (7th)
BB%: 8.4% (15th)
LOB%: 73.3% (14th)
Admittedly, what the Rays did offensively snuck past me, like it did most people, because of what they did turning conventional baseball upside down by using the “Opener”. It was hell on bettors because many of us had to scramble to figure out who was following the opener, but it was the right situation and the right team to deploy such a strategy.
Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell led the team in starts. Reliever Ryne Stanek was second. Chris Archer was traded at the Trade Deadline and was third in starts by five over Jake Faria. In all, 17 different pitchers started games for the Rays. With the Opener concept in full swing, the Rays led MLB in first inning ERA and were the leaders in overall ERA for a long time before finishing behind the Astros and Dodgers from May 20 through the end of the season.
Other teams followed the Rays’ lead, but not all of them found similar success. We’ll have to see how the opener concept does in 2019. A big piece of the puzzle is that Ryan Yarbrough was one of the primary “Bulk Relievers” and he went 16-6 overall and held opposing batters to a .313 wOBA in his relief capacity. Yonny Chirinos embraced the bulk reliever concept and posted a .276 wOBA against in 57.1 relief innings. Austin Pruitt wasn’t quite as successful, but still posted a 3.99 FIP in his 69.2 innings over 23 relief outings. The Opener concept only works if these guys excel and they did, for the most part.
Heading into 2019, the Rays added another starter in Charlie Morton, so that will be one more starter to go with Snell and Tyler Glasnow. Snell posted a 1.89 ERA, but a 2.95 FIP and a 3.16 xFIP. He had an outstanding season, but a repeat performance of his 88 percent LOB% seems virtually impossible. Glasnow did show lots of flashes now that he has a 6-foot-7 pitching coach in Kyle Snyder that can literally and figuratively see things from his perspective, so he could be a breakout candidate in 2019. Morton has elite spin rates on both his fastball and curveball and should be solid.
The pitching staff is actually quite good here, especially with relievers like Stanek, who regularly touches triple-digits, Chaz Roe, who has one of the game’s best sliders, and some really good traditional relievers like Jose Alvarado and Emilio Pagan that miss bats. Alvarado was a two-win reliever last season with a 2.39/2.27/3.15 slash line in 64 innings.
One minor concern is depth, with Brent Honeywell, Anthony Banda, and Jose De Leon all recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Positives & Negatives
The Rays are always finding something new. Last season, it was the Opener and the ground ball revolution. We’ll have to see if teams adjust, if they can. We’ll have to see if these trends continue to have success for the Rays. The Opener seems like it should keep working well. The BABIP thing is a lot for me to wrap my head around, especially with the loss of Mallex Smith, whose speed was a perfect asset for that type of batted ball profile and offense.
Ignoring power helped the Rays at home, where they were 51-30. In terms of three-year park factors, Tropicana Field is tied for 23rd in offense and once again ranked in the bottom 10 in home run park factor last year. On the road, the Rays were only 39-42. They also beat up on the bums, going 56-33 against teams with losing records and 34-39 against teams with .500 or better records. The Yankees and Red Sox made up 38 of those games, so it’s perfectly understandable, but you have to wonder if the offensive strategy will continue to be a hindrance on the road and against winning teams that do have power advantages.
The Rays were also a strong defensive team last season. They were fifth in defensive runs saved with 52. They didn’t grade as well in UZR, but were a team that showed a lot of range last season. It helped, as the Rays held the opposition to a .278 BABIP. The +39 points in BABIP between offense and defense was far and away the best in baseball.
Pick: Over 84.5
I don’t like this pick at all, as the Rays project to be a team in that 84 to 86 win range this season. Keep in mind that this is a team that really put it all together late in the year and went 36-19 in August and September. The schedule was a little bit backloaded. Even with playing the Yankees, Red Sox, and Indians, the Rays played Toronto 13 times, Baltimore six times at home, and had four with Kansas City at home.
The Rays entered August at 54-53 and stormed to 90-72 by the end of the year. Maybe all of the changes officially took hold, but keep in mind that this was a team that led baseball in ERA for most of June and July and still couldn’t separate from the pack because of that offense. The Rays posted a .329 BABIP in September and had their highest-scoring month by 22 runs.
I think there’s something of an inflated perception about them now. With that being said, I’d rather have my razor-thin lean on the over rather than the under because this is a team that has a really good pitching staff and will put a ton of balls in play. The BABIP gods may dictate the over/under, but this isn’t a team that I would expect to bottom out and finish with a losing record.
I feel like 84 to 86 wins are fair. Fortunately, we have 30 teams to consider, so not every win total needs to be a bet, but getting information on all 30 teams will be helpful as the season goes along.
<< Previous PostNext Post >>