Nobody saw the Tampa Bay Rays coming in 2008. Up until then, they were a doormat. For all we knew, they liked being a doormat. It was their lot in life, and they got used to it.
Obviously, things changed in 2008. Given their recent history, success is now to be expected from the Rays.
So don't look at this year's team and act all surprised. We're talking about a club that has won at least 91 games three out of the last four years, and they're treading down that same path this year. Andrew Friedman, the club's underrated general manager, does an outstanding job of finding talented players, and Joe Maddon always does an outstanding job of managing the players he is given.
The Rays are going to make the postseason this year. They're playing the best baseball they've played all season, and they've established themselves as the top dog in the American League wild-card race since the break. The question as it pertains to the immediate future is whether they can do better than a mere wild-card berth.
The question as it pertains to the future beyond the regular season is whether the Rays have enough firepower to make a run to the World Series for the first time since their magical 2008 campaign, when they boasted an impressive amount of young talent and, perhaps, benefited from the element of surprise.
So then...Do they?
Check that. I meant to say absolutely. Or definitely. Undeniably. Something a little more concrete than yes, anyway. It's that obvious.
But what the heck. I'll explain anyway.
Starting Pitching for Days
When the Rays went to the World Series in 2008, they didn't have an elite starting pitching staff. It was surely very good, finishing the season with a solid 3.95 ERA, but the closest thing they had to an ace at the time was James Shields. He went 14-8 with a 3.56 ERA, and was the only Rays pitcher to log over 200 innings.
Beyond Shields, the Rays had Andy Sonnanstine, Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson and Scott Kazmir. The four all posted solid numbers, but not the kind of eye-popping numbers you think of when the word "elite" is tossed around.
It's no wonder the Rays only lasted five games. Their starting pitching was good enough to get them there, but not good enough to seal the deal.
This year, they'll have no such concerns.
Presently, Tampa Bay's starting rotation leads the American League with a 3.46 ERA. It ranks second behind Detroit with a collective K/9 of 7.92, and Rays starters are holding hitters to an AL-best .240 batting average.
Leading the way is David Price, who was just a pup when the Rays went to the Fall Classic in 2008. Since then, he's evolved into one of the most dominant starting pitchers in either league.
Price is a leading contender for the AL Cy Young award this season, as he has an AL-best 16 wins and an AL-best 2.28 ERA through 25 starts. He's in the middle of a run of success in which he's gone 8-0 with a 1.56 ERA over his last 12 starts.
Price isn't the only ace the Rays have to play with. Matt Moore is starting to fit that bill as well. After a poor first half, he's 5-1 with a 1.64 ERA since the All-Star break. Jeremy Hellickson has a 3.28 ERA on the season, and a 3.04 ERA in the second half. Shields has come around to go 4-2 with a 3.67 ERA in the second half.
One thing that's for sure is that the Moore-Hellickson-Shields trio is one that no other team in the Junior Circuit can match. Teams like the Tigers (Doug Fister), White Sox (Jake Peavy), Angels (Zack Greinke) and Yankees (Hiroki Kuroda) have the goods to match wits with the Rays' first two pitchers in a short postseason series, but not all four of their core aces (assuming Maddon chooses to use a four-man rotation, of course).
Excellent starting pitching is what's gotten the Rays back into the race after what was a decidedly disappointing first half of the season. Excellent starting pitching will be the reason they make the playoffs, and it will be the battery that powers their charge to the World Series.
The hell of it is that the excellence of the Rays pitching staff isn't confined to their starting rotation. Their bullpen is great too.
Better Bullpen Than '08
Back in 2008, Tampa Bay's bullpen was a lot like its starting rotation. It was solid, but short of elite.
Rays relievers posted a 3.55 ERA back in 2008. This was largely thanks to their core of setup men. J.P. Howell posted a 2.22 ERA and a K/9 of 9.3. Grant Balfour had a 1.54 ERA and a K/9 of 12.7. Dan Wheeler had a 3.12 ERA in a team-high 70 appearances.
Percival was out of the picture by the time the playoffs rolled around, and the bullpen in general was pretty gassed by the time the Rays got to the World Series. Howell lost two games and posted a 7.71 ERA. Wheeler had a 6.75 ERA. Grant Balfour didn't allow many runs, but he did allow a boatload of baserunners.
The Rays shouldn't be too worried about how their bullpen is going to fare in the long run this season. Like their starting rotation, it's an elite unit.
Rays relievers lead the American League with a 2.85 ERA, and they rank second behind the Mariners with a collective 8.98 K/9. Batters are hitting just .208 against Rays relievers, best in the AL.
According to FanGraphs, Rays closer Fernando Rodney leads all AL relievers in WAR at 1.8. That sounds about right given his razor-thin 0.77 ERA and 0.78 WHIP, not to mention his 39 saves.
And so on. From top to bottom, Tampa Bay's bullpen is as strong as any in the American League.
And it should be plenty fresh when October rolls around. Rays relievers have only logged 353.2 innings, which is only about 25 more innings than the Yankees' bullpen, which has worked an AL-low 328 innings.
The Rays win games with a simple formula: great starting pitching performance, just enough offense, shutdown bullpen work.
Ah yes, but is "just enough" offense really enough?
Actually, yeah. You'd be surprised.
'Just Enough' Offense in This Case is More Than Enough
The Rays have better starting pitching than the 2008 team and a better bullpen than the 2008 team, but they don't have a better offense.
The 2008 Rays were not the 1927 Yankees, but they had bona fide studs in their lineup in Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria, and at that point in time Carlos Pena wasn't a corpse at the plate. To boot, B.J. Upton stole over 40 bases and Dioner Navarro hit close to .300.
The Rays' offense had depth too. Eric Hinske and Willy Aybar combined to hit 30 home runs in limited action, and Ben Zobrist pitched in 10 homers and an .844 OPS off the bench.
The Rays only scored 774 runs in 2008, but they led the league in stolen bases and finished fourth in the league in wRC+, according to FanGraphs.
Of course, the Rays' offense got even better in the postseason once Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton caught fire and started hitting home runs left and right.
It's hard to see this same kind of potential in this year's Rays offense. They rank in the middle of the pack in the American League with 524 runs scored, and are third from the bottom with a collective batting average of .236 and a weighted on-base average of .306.
The stolen base is still a weapon, though, as the Rays lead the AL with 107 steals. It's just too bad they only hit .242 with runners in scoring position, second-lowest in the AL.
The Rays have already scored 101 runs in August. They should be able to top their previous monthly high of 110 runs, set all the way back in May.
That goes to show how much better Tampa's offense is when Longo is in the lineup. The Rays tend to win when he hits, too, as he's a .330/.423/.543 hitters in wins.
Still, there's no denying that this year's Tampa offense is not as loaded as the 2008 team's offense was. The Rays don't have Crawford, Pena is still hitting under the Mendoza line in August and Upton is one of baseball's great enigmas. The depth that they had in 2008 has gone missing as well.
Despite this, the Rays bear a run differential of +75 this season. That ranks third in the American League behind the Yankees and Rangers.
These would be the same Yankees and Rangers who have scored the most runs in the American League. For all their run-scoring prowess, the Rays are just behind them in the one stat that really matters: How many more runs you're scoring than the other team.
Don't bemoan the state of the Rays' offense. It's good enough.
Why The Rays' Formula for Winning Games Will Work in October
In 2011, we saw two very good offensive teams go to the World Series in the Rangers and the Cardinals. Both of them finished in the top five in MLB in runs scored, and both featured elite sluggers in Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols.
And as the Cardinals demonstrated in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, having a deep and powerful offense is a good thing. The more bats a team has, the more likely it is to overcome obstacles.
To that end, the Rays may seem ill-equipped to win the World Series this year. They have the arms, but not the bats.
To that, I say this: the 2010 San Francisco Giants.
Better pitching staff?
They were able to go far because of their pitching. The Giants finished the 2010 campaign ranked third in MLB in rotation ERA, and second in bullpen ERA. Their pitching staff was deep and balanced, just like the Rays' staff is this year.
And once the Giants got into the playoffs, it was obvious right away that nobody could match up against Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, and Madison Bumgarner emerged as a force to be reckoned with as well.
The Giants had pitching, and they got just enough offense along the way. Of their 11 postseason wins, six were one-run victories and four more were by four runs or less.
That's exactly the kind of run the Rays can go on once they get to October, and you better believe they have the goods to pull it off.
If they do, word will travel fast to all would-be champions.
Forget the bats. Find arms.
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