Nate Silver, over at Baseball Prospectus, discusses the success of the Rays in a much more eloquent manner than I was capable of doing a few days beforehand. And the best part, no subscription required!
What stands out to Silver is the improvements the Rays made with their defensive play, bullpen, and bench. Changes in these three areas, and recognizing exactly what the club had, allowed the club to make the right moves and fill in players at the perfect moment.
The Rays took advantage of a market that undervalued defensive play. In doing so, the Rays shuffled their roster to maximize their defensive efforts. Cementing B.J. Upton in center field, ridding the roster of Delmon Young, moving Iwamura to a more natural position, and lastly, the acquisition of Jason Bartlett all added up to last year's worst defensive team (and arguably the worst in baseball history) to jump all the way up to this year's second best defensive team.
The next step was to solidify the bullpen. Adding Troy Percival, a veteran closer, and clubhouse prankster has allowed for the rest of the bullpen to take a step back from daunting roles. Last year's top closer, Al Reyes, has been shelved for much of the 2008 season, which would have caused turmoil within the Rays bullpen.
However, the addition of Percival, and last season's deadline deal of Wheeler, has taken the burden off some of the club's young flamethrowers.
Lastly, Silver points out how the Rays rid themselves of a lot of underachievers. While much has been internal, knowing that a young hitter such as Dioner Navarro was beginning to trend upwards was a skillful understanding of talent. Andy Sonnanstine and Edwin Jackson can also be added to the list of two underachieving youngsters.
Recognizing that these players were likely to regress towards the mean meant a strong improvement for the franchise.
Silver mentions that while the Rays have been fortunate with some breakouts, for the most part, this team has underachieved. Contrasting the White Sox, with Quentin and Danks, whom one has to wonder if their strong first halves were a fluke. Silver concludes by stating,
The handful of transactions the Rays made this winter were not by any means overly complicated; in retrospect, they almost seem obvious. But they were moves made by a team that had the self-confidence to look in the mirror and like what it saw. The Rays put aside the fact that they had never won more than 70 games in a season and recognized that, on a talent-for-talent basis, they had a 40-man roster that was the envy of many clubs in baseball. They recognized that guys like Evan Longoria would be ready to start contributing immediately, and that it was not too soon to start competing.
These things are tougher than you might think, as honest self-assessment is elusive to many teams in baseball. The more commonly-seen problem is for a team to overrate the amount of talent that it has, and either compromise its future for a team that needs a lot of help rather than a little (take this year’s Mariners), or fail to improve on a roster that is due to regress to the mean (this year’s Rockies). There are also teams that take too long to flip the switch and make a run at competing, but the Rays turned things on at just the right time.
Interestingly, the other night, when my dish decided not to work during what was going to be arguably the most exciting ballgame to this point in the season (excluding the painfully long Padres-Rockies game on April 17), I decided to flip over to DRays Bay and Over the Monster.
As you might imagine, DRays Bay is a blogging, fan community for the Rays, and Over the Monster takes care of Red Sox fans in the same vein. Certainly, if one were to do a search for similar websites, the Sox would definitely outnumber the Rays. However, both seem to be amped with content and an equal amount of people who want to pretend as if they are at the ballgame, no matter where they are.
I am not a member of either website, so it was interesting to read fan reactions as the game unfolded. At Over the Monster, the fans were relishing in an outstanding start by Matsuzaka, and suggesting that Kazmir was throwing a wild pitch because he feared a player referred to as 'Tek'. Sox fans appeared to have expected the Rays to fade, doing so by focusing on regular Yankee updates.
I would wager during the last Yanks-Sox series, these same people were not updating one another on the Rays. While reading through the posts up until the six-run explosion by the Rays, the tone turned to anger; players names of whom Epstein should go out and trade for began to be thrown around. The sense of entitlement returned.
Checking in at DRays Bay had an entirely different vibe to it. Those who were discussing the game seemed content to have taken two of three from the Sox and to have increased the division lead.
Only when the Rays made a sudden, and unpredictable comeback did the tone change. It wasn't until a member had pointed out FanGraphs win-probability chart when the tone completely changed and the posters decided a sweep was likely.
Discovering the perspective of two entirely different fanbases during such a monumental series was definitely enjoyable.
I am certain that by the time last night's game began, Sox fans had grown sick of hearing about the Rays. Equally as certain, the Rays have probably never sold so much merchandise as they have in the last few days, given all the national face time they are receiving.
But it was not simply the game thread that interested me to the respective websites. I was not only interested in understanding how the fans thought, but also how those who ran and controlled the website thought.
Over the Monster had an attitude that was reflective of the fans, a sense of entitlement. "Our team won last year, has multiple MVP candidates, and despite not winning, will win." This is greatly reflected by a posting titled "Cause for Hope". The article, like so many written by Sox fans recently, rationalizes why it is that the Sox are superior to the Rays, and why fellow fans should not fret.
Some of the spectacular, and well thought-out reasons include:
- The Red Sox are still pitching well,
- The offense is under-performing, but it is still top-flight,
- The Yankees are playing badly,
- The Rays have been lucky, and
- The Rays have flaws.
Great logic, right? There are brief explanations for each point, but to save the pain, I will only reflect on the errors, or the double standards involved.
First, the Red Sox are still pitching well. So too are the Rays. With a younger, and presumably less brittle rotation, it would be the Sox who I would assume to falter, not the Rays.
Second point, the offense is not under-performing. Could there be a few players, specifically Manny, Varitek, and Lugo who perform better in the second half than the first? Definitely. But how about the exceptional performances from Pedroia, Drew, Youkilis, Ellsbury, and Lowell? Odds are, that the offense will at best even out.
Third, the Yankees are pitching badly and the Sox are tearing the cover off the ball, and just in time for the Sox to play them for a series in the Bronx. Even a poorly performing Yanks roster will put up a fight against the Sox.
Luck then comes into the equation with the forth point. Really? So having a lineup, top to bottom, of underachievers is "lucky"? Apparently when you write blog entries at Over the Monster, you only have to do parts of your homework.
The Pythagorean formula has, by most accounts, outliers. A three-game deviation would not even stand as an outlier to the formula. Furthermore, while the author is correct in asserting that Pythag. is a strong predictor of success, that predictor is more intended for vastly overachieving or underachieving teams.
Take for example, the Arizona Diamondbacks of 2007.
Something to keep in mind for later, Peter Bendix writes, "Even more impressive, though, is the fact that they have played an incredibly difficult schedule."
Lastly, the author mentions that the Rays have flaws. In doing so, the author cites the Rays away win-loss record. Interestingly, the author does not mention the fact that the Red Sox have a SUBSTANTIALLY inferior road record than the Rays.
In fact, the Sox have one of the four-worst road win-loss records in all of baseball. Lucky for them, they have fewer road games than home games.
In other words, if I had to wager, I would put my money on the author who wrote this having called for the Sox to win the World Series every year of his existence.
Checking back in with DRays Bay, where they utilize logic instead of their hearts to determine what ought to happen during the second half. A DRays Bay author decides to cite two articles. One being the aforementioned Nate Silver article, the other coming from Beyond the Boxscore, another Sports Nation blogsite.
Over at Beyond the Boxscore, Peter Bendix looks at the remaining schedules of the Rays, Sox, and Yanks. There are a lot of things to take note from this article, specifically how each team fared against opponents with a .500+ record. The winning percentages against teams with a .500+ record are as follows:
- The Rays are at 61.8%
- The Sox are at 55.4%
- The Yanks are at 43.9%
Clearly these numbers must be taken for what they are: the past. But the author's point is that the Rays have fared extremely well against the better teams in the league.
Even more obvious is that the Rays have faced far and away the most good teams and have five series against the Indians, Mariners, and Royals combined. In other words, the Rays are set up nicely for 18 of the remaining 79 games this season.
I am spending extra time with the Rays, as this is an outstanding story, and makes me sound increasingly as if I know what I am talking about. I have read a few articles that spoke of how nobody expected the Rays to be leading the division...Well I did!