It’s been a while since it was cool to be a Tampa Bay Rays fan. OK – check that. We’re not sure that it was ever cool to be a Tampa Bay Rays fan. Sorry, Tampa (and St. Pete), but from the bizarre nature of the ‘Devil Rays’ moniker, to the supermarket-lighting of the cavernous Tropicana Field, to the bridesmaid position they’ve perpetually taken ever since their expansion cousin, the Diamondbacks, became World Series champions just three years after inception, it seems like the Rays have – with a few obvious exceptions – been annual chum for the churning waters of the AL East. Hell, the club’s ‘history’ page on Wikipedia hasn’t been updated since 2014. Even baseball nerds can’t be bothered.
No, ‘Fun’ isn’t often a word associated with a team consistently located in the bottom-five of MLB payroll, and which pays their collective 28-man roster less base (full-season) salary than the Yankees pay a handful of their starting pitchers.
And yet, here we are in this bizarre 2020 season, and the Tampa Bay Rays are the best team in the AL, and the second best team in baseball. This is, of course, coming off a season in which they took the eventual AL Champion Houston Astros to five games in the ALDS, and is a season which – when prorated to a full 162-game slate – would have them on track for a third-consecutive 90-win season, and their 7th such mark in the last decade. What’s more, they’re doing it with a distinctly enjoyable brand of baseball that is captivating observers and players alike, if only because it’s so damned hard to understand and predict. But what could be more fun than unpredictability?
21-4 in our last 25
We are good pic.twitter.com/SPt3TXbR2a
— Tampa Bay Rays (@RaysBaseball) September 5, 2020
It wasn’t so long ago that the Rays were considering splitting games with the city of Montreal – and really, why wouldn’t they have at least considered it? Prior to the COVID season, Tampa has ranked either last or second-last in terms of ballpark attendance on an annual basis. Their stadium is, of course, a bygone relic of the late-80’s, built in the interest of attracting the Chicago White Sox when it seemed as though they might move in those halcyon days. It has been much-bemoaned both in the city of St. Petersburg and around baseball, and is a constant eyesore and sore-sport for a baseball administration that seems desperate to make the team succeed on Florida’s west coast.
All of these things have inevitably contributed to Tampa Bay’s (ankle-depth) bottom line – and, with the exception of Evan Longoria, the club has seen countless homegrown stars head to greener pastures. But that hasn’t been without some modicum of success. The club has made the playoffs 5 times in the last 12 seasons, including their famed World Series appearance against Philadelphia in 2008. Much of this success has been built on the back of stellar drafting and amateur/international scouting, shrewd trades, and bold lineup decisions.
But none of this tends to incite a great deal of buzz, interest, or buy-in from the MLB community. In the lead-up to the 2019 season, the Rays did something they very seldom do, when they wrote a hefty check to free agent hurler Charlie Morton, then coming off of a strong year with the Astros. At two years and $30 million, Morton represented a significant investment for the club, and gave them a formidable starting punch alongside then-reigning Cy Young winner Blake Snell. And it worked, as the 2019 incarnation of the club again defied expectations, and snatched a Wild Card berth from 96 wins in 2019. This year, expectations were that the club would again be competitive – but, when taking into account season-length, who wouldn’t be competitive? There certainly (once again) wasn’t a tremendous amount of buzz being generated around the team, particularly with the Yankees being the Yankees, the Red Sox re-tooling, and the Jays as an up-and-coming group. But there were also some who saw promise in the Rays, and even a few who saw them as a potential World Series favourite.
Which brings us to the ‘fun’ element. Being the underdog is always fun. In modern baseball, the delineating line between the favourites and glamour franchises, and the scrappy underdogs, is as distinct as it is in any sport this side of European football. Over the past two decades, teams like the Marlins and the Royals have turned bottom-half payrolls into World Series titles, and a handful of others (including the Rays) have made it to the fall classic. Famously, Hollywood glamourized the ‘underdog story’ with the release of Moneyball in 2011, which documented the fall and rise of the small-market Oakland A’s and their upstart 2002 season. ‘Moneyball’ has, of course, become a buzz term in modern baseball parlance, and a team like Tampa Bay undoubtedly nods in the direction of Billy Beane and his philosophy of penny-pinching and pennies-for-pitching, but it also succeeds with its own innovations.
And do you know what else is fun? The chaotic fun that comes when a team succeeds despite all of the metrics bearing out that they shouldn’t be. That’s the 2020 Tampa Bay Rays.
Ever since Kevin Cash rolled out the ‘opener’ philosophy – to tremendous scorn and chagrin across the baseball community – in 2018, the club has shown itself to be at the forefront of innovation in lineup structure, deployment, and roster movement. In 2020, that has had mixed results. The Rays are third in baseball in fielder shifts against right-handed pitching, which suggests that they are on top of strategic decision-making on defense, and have walked the most of any team in the bigs at press time, indicating an organizational philosophy on patience. As a result, their OPS+ is second in the AL to Chicago, and they are scoring near the top of the league in Runs/Game at 5.15.
On the flip-side, many of the key counting stats that would seem to be indicators of success bear out distinct mediocrity. The club has two regulars (Mike Zunino and Hunter Renfroe) hitting beneath the Mendoza Line, and 5 regulars who are hitting below .240. Their starting pitching – which would seem to be their strong spot, anchored by a stellar starting trio of Morton, Snell, and Tyler Glasnow – has been mediocre. The team has 26 No Decisions in Games Started, second only to Toronto in that category, and has a cratered 10% Quality Start percentage. At 4.3 Innings/Game Started, they rank in the bottom-third of the league. At 70 pitches per start, they are at the very bottom.
Where the Rays really shine is in their bullpen, and in high-leverage, situational pitching. Nick Anderson has been a revelation in his move towards a firm closer role. He has 4 saves from 4 opportunities, and has yet to blow a situation in which he has inherited a potential hold or save. This is despite having an Average Leverage Index (measuring the ‘pressure’ a pitcher sees in a given situation) in the top-10 of all AL pitchers. He has still yet to allow a run against, in 10.1 innings pitched. The same compliments can be made of Chaz Roe, who has yet to blow a save situation spot, and ranks in the top-20 in Average Leverage Index – his season-ending injury could have a higher toll than realized in these situations. Diego Castillo and the unheralded Pete Fairbanks and John Curtiss have also provided them with consistent and reliable innings out the pen. And there is hope that, when Oliver Drake returns from injury, he can give them another high-leverage option behind Anderson. As a staff, though, the results are undeniable: the Rays bullpen is the second-best in the AL in terms of limited Inherited Runs from scoring, at just 19%, despite being second-highest in terms of High-Leverage pitching situations.
All this is to say that the Rays bullpen is being thrust into the crucible, and are coming out forged. In their recent run of 21 wins in 25 games, the team has won by a margin or two or fewer runs in 13 of those contests. Their positive hitting profile is also a combination of long-balls, regression-adjusted situational hitting, and luck. Willy Adames has been an absolute revelation for the club this year, hitting .311 with a .566 SLG and a .952 OPS (all of which are top-12 numbers in the AL). But he is also benefiting from a league-high .458 BABIP, suggesting that he is getting help from the baseball Gods and some good bounces. That being said, in such a shortened season, regression isn’t likely to hit nearly as hard as it would when spread across 162 games. The emergence of Adames, Brandon Lowe, and Yandy Diaz as everyday producers has helped plug a few holes, while expected contributors like Ji-Man Choi, Austin Meadows, and Joey Wendle should see a semblance of positive regression down the stretch.
— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) September 3, 2020
And it shouldn’t go unmentioned that MLB.com once-again ranked the Rays as the best farm system in all of baseball, with top-ranked prospect Wander Franco not-far from his Big League debut, and two other prospects in the MLB top-50. So this isn’t an instance of a team that has mortgaged the farm to compete now: this is a team whose farm system is a whole agricultural enterprise in-and-of itself, and the fruit that will bear could elevate them into an annual title contender.
Top record in the AL
Top farm system in MLB
— Tampa Bay Rays (@RaysBaseball) September 2, 2020
Baseball has fallen in love with the San Diego Padres because of the unique nature of their enthusiasm, swagger, power-profile, and youth. In sports, this is the prototypical profile of a team that is considered ‘exciting’ and ‘sexy’. The Tampa Bay Rays are virtually none of those adjectives. If we were to glance at a thesaurus for words to describe what we’ve seen from them, the following might be more apt: ‘shrewd’, ‘clutch’, ‘efficient’, ‘disciplined’. But you’d also be justified to fit ‘lucky’ in there, and what is more fun than a consistent fit of luck?
When Hollywood eventually casts for the movie about the 2020 Tampa Bay Rays, it’s unlikely that there’ll be a spot in the front office or dugout for Brad Pitt. But if there’s an actor who can best exemplify the chaotic neutrality and consistency of Kevin Cash and his ragtag bunch of division-leading misfits, I’d love to hear it. Maybe Tom Hanks is available?
(Photo by Mary Holt/Icon Sportswire)