One month ago today, on April 13th, the Rays were 3-8, having just won their first series of the year. Following that two-game sweep of the Red Sox, many were still skeptical of the Rays' ability to rebound from a poor start and contend in a stacked AL East.
Baltimore was playing at a high level, as were the Yankees. The Blue Jays were hanging around, and the Red Sox were struggling, but still the Red Sox. And there sat the Rays, a team that had lost much, including, most recently, an aging estrogen-ingesting slugger. They were a team of mild expectations.
Now here we are, one month later, and the Tampa Bay Rays are in sole possession of first place. As the jaws of fans in Boston and New York continue to drop when glancing at this morning's standings, Andrew Friedman, Matt Silverman and everyone else in the Rays' organization has a smile.
On the surface, you can easily name the Rays' reasons for success—strong pitching, stellar defense, timely hitting. But to really see what the Rays are doing right, you need to dig a little deeper into the statistics.
In the (Ultimate) Zone
For those of you behind the times in terms of baseball statistics, UZR stands for Ultimate Zone Rating. It is the best metric to date of a team's ability to field. Simply put, it measures how many runs above or below average a player (or team) is. This year, the Rays have baseball's highest UZR, at 15.3. That means that, compared to the average defense, Tampa Bay's has saved them approximately 15 runs.
Beyond Super Sam, the next two leaders are Evan Longoria, who has been stellar despite his shortened season, and surprisingly, Ben Zobrist, the utility man who has been a revelation on defense. Rays fans will be surprised to learn that the lowest UZR of any active player is B.J. Upton at -1.1. But just because the UZR is low doesn't mean the player is not a good fielder. It is simply a metric to compare the player to the average at his position.
In short, the Rays have been aided by a league-best defense.
The One-Two Punch
Is there a better top of the rotation in baseball right now than David Price and James Shields? Well, statistically, yes. But those two are the Angels' duo of Jered Weaver and Dan Haren and the Phillies' Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. So needless to say, Shields and Price are in elite company. From a WAR (wins above replacement perspective), they have combined to give the Rays almost three extra wins. That may not seem significant, but again, look at where they would be in the standings without the three wins.
Shields has been magnificent, especially when you consider his body of work (or lack thereof) in 2010. Last year, Shields was allergic to good pitching. He gave up longball after longball and, in terms of value, had baseball's worst fastball. But this year, with simplified mechanics and an increased emphasis on command, Shields has been out of this world. Consider his last five starts: 4-0, 1.12 ERA, 40 strikeouts, eight walks. What?! Thanks to a nearly 30-run jump in fastball value (from -24.4 last year to 4.4 this year), Shields has reinvented himself and become a truly excellent pitcher
Price is just going about business as usual. At this point, to leave him out of the discussion for baseball's best left-handed pitcher is just plain dumb. The scary part is that Price hasn't even started pitching his best yet. Once he gets a better handle on his curveball (currently at 2.7 runs below average), he will mow down hitters like a yard.
Now, we can talk for days about how deep the Rays' pitching rotation is, but the truth is that without Price and Shields pitching this well, the Rays aren't even close to first place. It goes without saying that Wade Davis, Jeremy Hellickson and (sort of) Jeff Niemann have done their jobs very well. But it all starts at the top of the rotation.
The Middle of the Pack
I read a great point the other day on a Rays blog about how it could have been expected for guys like Evan Longoria and Johnny Damon to hit well, and Kelly Shoppach and Dan Johnson to hit poorly. But the big question mark this year was about how the guys in between—Matt Joyce, Ben Zobrist, B.J. Upton—would hit. Well, so far this year, the question has been answered.
Of these three, Joyce has been absolutely sensational. He leads the American League with a .358 average, this coming after an awful start to the season. Since Evan Longoria's return on May 4th, he is hitting .392 with two home runs and five RBI. The most encouraging statistic about Joyce is that his line drive rate has shot up from 18.3% in 2010 to 29.9% this year.
He is hitting the ball harder and we are seeing the results. Of course, his fly ball rate has decreased partially due to his increase in line drives, but his home run to fly ball ratio has also risen. In short, when Joyce hits it, he hits it hard. And when it gets some lift, there's a good chance it's a home run.
Zobrist, though, has actually been the more valuable player. He is hitting .292 with eight home runs and 27 RBI, an excellent sign for a guy who was very disappointing last year. A big reason for his rebound seems to be the rediscovery of his power stroke. Last year, injuries hindered Zobrist's ability to create a lot of power and lift in his swing.
This year, though, he has exhibited excellent power. His 19.5% home run to fly ball ratio and 177 point jump in isolated power (the most accurate statistic measuring power hitting) are great indicators of this improvement.
The Rays' offense is one that would be made or broken by the middle of the lineup. But with the way Joyce and Zobrist have been swinging their bats, and the continued improvements of B.J. Upton, the middle of the order is, at least for now, a force to be reckoned with.
Finishing it Off
Give me a team who lost their three best relievers last year, added a few mediocre journeymen and mid-tier prospects to their bullpen, and still have the fourth-best bullpen in baseball. That's right, ladies and gentlemen. That is the Tampa Bay Rays.
It is a complete wonder how the likes of Juan Cruz, Joel Peralta, Cesar Ramos and Kyle Farnsworth have been able to anchor one of baseball's top bullpens. The Rays' two best relievers last year, Joaquin Benoit and Rafael Soriano, are both struggling mightily with their respective teams. But Tampa Bay's relievers have been great to put it mildly
Rays fans would have been okay with a decent, middle-of-the-pack bullpen. And there's still a chance that this year's bullpen could become that. But right now, Kyle Farnsworth is pitching the best baseball of his career. He has gone from strikeout fiend to ground ball inducer, with the lowest K/9 of his career and the highest ground ball rate.
Juan Cruz has been equally effective, using a variety of plus pitches, including a cutter, slider and changeup to baffle hitters. It's not like the Rays paid big bucks for any of these guys. Farnsworth is costing the Rays $2.6 million, almost a third of what they paid last year's closer, Soriano.
Once stud lefty J.P. Howell returns from injury, the Rays have a chance to maintain one of baseball's best bullpens despite a complete gutting of the personnel. That would be a major accomplishment in and of itself.
The Rays are now 22-15, a game ahead of the Yankees. There's a good chance that Boston will stop playing like the Pawtucket Red Sox and join the playoff hunt soon. For the Rays, overachieving is something they're used to. Do you think they really were more talented than Boston last year? In 2008, did they really have the team to get to the World Series? All that is inconsequential.
What matters is that the Rays are playing as well as anyone in baseball right now, and there is no indication that they will stop. Pitching, defense, and timely hitting is a simple and effective formula for success. For the Tampa Bay Rays, it is a way of life.