Wake Up Tampa!
The Rays stand at 24-17 and have the most wins and highest winning percentage of any AL team at .585. They’re 16-8 at home. Slightly more than a quarter of the way through the season, they are above .500 and in first place for the first time ever this late into a season. Their highest season winning percentage is .435 and they have finished out of last place only once, when they were second to last. So, exactly how are the Rays winning?
Must Be the Hitting
Last year, the Rays had some standout performers. Carlos Pena hit 46 home runs, scored 99 times and drove in 121 while winning the silver slugger award with a .282/.411/.627 line. Carl Crawford was an All-Star while stroking 37 doubles, scoring 93 runs, driving in 80 with a .315/.355/.466 line. And B.J. Upton broke out with a .300/.386/.508 line, amassing 24 homers, 82 knocked in and 86 scored in a shortened season of 129 games.
On the pitching side, Scott Kazmir had a remarkable season leading the team with a 3.48 ERA and 13 wins, while leading the league with 239 strikeouts. However the only other starter with an ERA under 4.00 was James Shields at 3.85 and he won 12 games. The rest of the starters, Edwin Jackson, Jason Hammel, Andy Sonnanstine, Casey Fossum, J.P. Howell and Jae Wong Seo combined for 20 wins while compiling a 6.47 ERA in 97 games. Overall, the starters put together 45 wins and a 5.20 ERA. However, the bullpen was even worse. They picked up 21 wins and 28 saves while managing a putrid 6.16 ERA. So, this year, the Rays offense has exploded, right? Not quite.
Carlos Pena leads the team with 8 homers, but has been in a season long slump and has driven in only 19 runs with his .212 average and .390 slugging. Crawford is having a solid season having scored 30 runs and driven in 24, but overall his offensive numbers are down as he’s batting .276/.309/.379 with three each in doubles, triples and homers. Upton? He leads the Rays with 26 RBI but he’s managed just 3 homers, a .273 average and a .392 slugging percentage. Then, other Rays have stepped up? Not Exactly.
The highest batting average, besides Crawford and Upton, is part-time catcher Dioner Navarro’s .387. Yet, that only comes with 10 runs scored and 13 knocked in in 23 games. Starting second basemen Akinori Iwamura is batting .265/.330/.361…the DH, Jonny Gomes, .225/.325/.423. The starting left side of the infield, despite the hype of Evan Longoria, is batting .220 with 4 homeruns in 240 at bats. One player who has performed better than expected is Eric Hinske. Now starting mostly in right field, he’s chipped in 7 homeruns, a .541 slugging and 18 RBI, but he’s the only exception. Overall, the Rays are 8th in the league with a .257 team batting average, tied for 5 th in home runs, last in doubles by 15, and tied for 6th with 186 runs scored. If fact, they are one point below the league average in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging. Therefore, none of this answers how they are the best team in the American League.
Must be the pitching?
Correct, but not exactly. The Rays pitching is vastly improved. They rank fourth in the league with a 3.64 ERA. Their starters have amassed a 3.88 ERA and their bullpen has been even better at 3.18 ERA. Yet, this comes as somewhat of a surprise, because they’ve been doing this without their best pitcher from last year. Scott Kazmir owns a stellar 1.69 ERA, but that comes in only three starts. James Shields and Edwin Jackson have both picked up their games with 3.05 and 3.47 ERA’s respectively, however, neither of them leads the staff in wins. That distinction belongs to Andy Sonnanstine with five, against one loss, yet he has accomplished this with a 5.07 ERA. Matt Garza, a newcomer to the staff, has also pitched well in six games, posting a 3.86 ERA. But, it has been the bullpen that has really stepped up with a 6-5 record and 11 saves, although that only ranks them tied for 9th in the AL.
Now you’re getting somewhere. Last year, the Rays tied for last in the league with a .980 fielding percentage. They committed the second most errors with 117 and allowed 65 unearned runs to score. This year, they rank third in the league with a .987 fielding percentage, have committed just 20 errors and allowed 12 unearned runs to cross the plate. They are giving away a lot less games.
So, what do all these screwy numbers tell us about how the Rays are winning? By following a familiar formula—pitching, defense and timely hitting. Yet, their average home attendance is second worst in the league. So, wake up Tampa and get out to the ballpark, whether they make the playoffs or not, the Rays are having a special season.
Is this season a fluke?
Not bloody likely. The Rays, like many teams in the past after a breakout season, may take a step backward next year, but their 3 to 5 year projection looks fantastic. Their average age on offense last year was 25.9 compared to 27.1 this year. For the pitching those numbers are 26.9 last year and 27.9 this year. How does getting older make their future projection better? Because most of that age has come through veteran bench and bullpen additions that will teach the younger guys how to win, or save, games. All their starters are 26 years old or younger and their up and coming prospect depth in the minors will give them pieces to trade for improving the big club. The Rays improvement can be seen in their remarkable improvement in pitching and defense. Those will only continue to improve with further seasoning and familiarity of new positions in players such as B.J. Upton, Akinori Iwamura and Evan Longoria, and that of the starting staff. Adding established bullpen veterans, like they did over the last year with Percival, Wheeler, Glover and Miller, at affordable contracts should be the easiest additions to the formula that will have the Rays being a competitive team this year and beyond.