The 2019 MLB season is young. It's too early to draw any sweeping conclusions. But so far, a quirky contender is leaving two high-powered franchises in the rearview with an arsenal of unconventional tactics.
The Tampa Bay Rays entered play on Monday with a 12-4 record, 5.5 games ahead of the New York Yankees and six games ahead of the Boston Red Sox in the American League East. Their plus-38 run differential paces both leagues.
The Red Sox's 2019 payroll sits at $222.7 million, per Spotrac, tops in the game. The Yankees check in third at $208.1 million.
The Rays, meanwhile, rank dead last at $60.4 million.
How are they outpacing two of the most storied, deep-pocketed squads in baseball?
It's a pretty fun story.
On the "no duh" side of the ledger, they have the best defense in the Junior Circuit, via FanGraphs. Also, their pitching staff leads baseball with a 2.44 ERA. Their starters have been especially outstanding, with a 1.47 ERA.
That includes reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell (2.16 ERA), veteran Charlie Morton (2.18 ERA) and emerging 25-year-old stud Tyler Glasnow (0.53 ERA).
Austin Meadows, who was acquired along with Glasnow in the July 2018 trade that sent erstwhile ace Chris Archer to the Pittsburgh Pirates, leads the club in home runs (six) and RBI (17) and sports a 1.170 OPS.
It was a classic Tampa Bay move: jettisoning a decorated pitcher under club control and getting cheaper, arguably more valuable pieces back.
The Rays' staff also includes less conventional pitchers such as "opener" Ryne Stanek, who has struck out 10 in 8.1 innings, and Yonny Chironos, who has started and come out of the bullpen in a "bulk-innings" role and fanned 14 in 14.1 frames.
Opener. Bulk innings. These phrases are unfamiliar in a sport that's dominated by tradition. The Rays, however, are reinventing the rules.
It goes deeper than newfangled pitching machinations. They've employed a four-outfielder shift, which was first implemented under former Tampa Bay skipper Joe Maddon.
On April 7, in a game against the San Francisco Giants, current Rays manager Kevin Cash went way outside the box.
After southpaw reliever Adam Kolarek pitched a scoreless sixth inning to uphold a 2-0 lead, he surrendered a leadoff single in the seventh. Cash slid him to first base, a position Kolarek had never played in the majors, and then reinserted him at pitcher one batter later.
Against the rules? Nope.
Kolarek recorded a strikeout, gave up another single and exited the game. The Rays went on to win, 3-0.
"When Cash extended his hand for the ball, I handed it to him and started walking toward the dugout. He said, 'Hold up, go play first,'" Kolarek told reporters. "You have to be ready for anything around here. It's probably the coolest thing that's happened to me on a major league field."
"Kolarek might have been stunned, but I'm glad it worked out," Cash added.
We should all be stunned, or at least impressed. By conventional wisdom, the Rays ought to be looking up at the Yankees and Sox. They're David fighting a pair of Goliaths.
There's ample time for Boston, the defending World Series champions, or the powerful Yanks to catch up. But Tampa Bay is more than an early-season novelty.
Oakland Athletics executive Billy Beane shifted the landscape with his Moneyball philosophy nearly two decades ago. Now, the Rays are repeating the formula with their own twist.
In an era when massive salaries dominate the conversation, it's refreshing to see a scrappy bottom-feeder outwit the big-spending bullies.
The Rays won 90 games in 2018. They can improve on that total in 2019.
If the Yankees and Red Sox aren't hearing footsteps, they should be.