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2012 Preview: Tampa Bay Rays


Tampa Bay Rays

What They Did:      91-71, 2nd Place AL East.  Lost in ALDS

     Actual Runs:      Scored 707 runs, Allowed 614.

                                Expected wins based on RS and RA:  91.4 (0.4 above actual)

           Restated:     Scored 701 runs, Allowed 614.

                                Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA:  91.0 (0.1 above actual)

The Tampa Bay Rays franchise has been so successful the last four seasons that they caused the industry of Major League Baseball to change its business model.  You call it a Second Wild Card; I call it the Rays’ Effect. 

There are two things, on the margin, that are of paramount importance to Major League Baseball in terms of revenue generation.  Whatever is the third most important factor on the margin, I believe, is a distant third.  The first key element driving revenues at the macro (not individual team) level is the presence of the New York Yankees in the postseason.  The second is the presence of the Boston Red Sox in the postseason*.

(* Third?  I dunno.  Turn Joe Buck into something that resembles a baseball fan in between his Packers' and Cowboys' assignments each October?)

Guess who has been the third fourth wheel in that cozy ménage-a-trois relationship three of the last four seasons?  None other than the Tampa Bay Rays.  Each time the Rays have made the playoffs in 2008, 2010, and 2011, the team that finished one spot out of the wild card has been either the Yankees or the Red Sox.  Under the new rules implemented this year, either the Red Sox or the Yankees would have played in the Wild Card game each of those years, giving Major League Baseball one more chance to get both ratings-driving-franchises into the playoffs.  I believe MLB figures that given the massive financial resources each franchise possesses it’s nearly impossible that Boston or New York could finish out of the top five in the AL each year.  If it hadn’t been for Tampa’s party-crashing success the last four years, I don’t think this expanded post-season is implemented.

I’m very fond of the Rays and you could go as far to say I’m indebted to the team.  Here’s why: One year ago, I conducted an in-depth review of the Rays’ 2010 season and wrote a preview for the 2011 season similar to one you’re reading now and sent it to about six of my fellow baseball fans/degenerate friends.  Like this year, a year ago the Rays were coming off a playoff appearance but the 2010 squad had very different characteristics.  That team scored 802 runs, 3rd in all of baseball right behind their division mates, the Red Sox and Yankees.  Tampa won the 2010 division by matching their rivals’ slugging and run-scoring abilities.

As I went through Tampa’s results I became absolutely certain the Rays couldn’t possibly replicate their 2010 run scoring ability, which led to the coining of the term “cluster luck,” which became a centerpiece of my book proposal, and ultimately resulted in a chapter in the final manuscript entitled The Historically Lucky Tampa Bay Rays.

I concluded last year that the Rays not only weren’t going to score 800 runs again, but in 2011, I thought they’d struggle to even score 700 runs.  That is an enormous drop-off in production that is rarely seen from year to year without a complete roster overhaul and the Rays were only replacing one starter, LF Carl Crawford.  No one player, replaced by even a below-average player is worth 100 runs to a team.  While other 2011 previews had the Rays scoring less runs, forecasters all clustered around the 750-run region.  Despite being so far away from consensus thinking, I had a high-degree of conviction the Rays would score 100 less runs in 2011.

With six outs to go in the 2011 season, the Rays had scored 699 runs, 103 less than the prior year.  As you know, Tampa scored eight runs over those final innings to finish the year with 95 fewer runs than in 2010.

Tampa still won 91 games and made the playoffs because, while they weren’t historically lucky, they managed to pull off another feat of historical measure:  In 2011, the Rays turned batted balls into outs at an unprecedented rate.  The Rays' opponents hit a ball into the field of play (excludes home-runs) 4,156 times and only 1,145 of those batters, or 27.6%, reached base.  That means the Rays had a defensive efficiently reading of .724 or that their opponents batted .276 on balls-in-play.  How extraordinary is that?  Well the league average was .305 and, as is the case every year, it’s a tightly bunched distribution.  Not only did Tampa stage the best display of defense, by far, since 2000 (as far back as I went) but the distance between Tampa’s balls-in-play batting average and the second-best fielding team’s – Cincinnati’s – of .293 was, at 17 points (.293 - .276), as wide a gap as existed between the Reds and the 21st ranked defense!  That’s truly an astounding defensive performance, one which, by my calculation saved the Rays nearly 60 runs compared to an average American League defensive team, or about 6 wins. 

Defensive performance is skill-based, not random, and therefore isn't strictly mean regressing.  However, like a batter who hits 73 home runs in a season – also, obviously a skill-based achievement – and then hits 46 the next year*, Tampa could still be an elite fielding team this year and post nowhere near the same efficiency as in 2011 

(* Did you know that Barry Bonds only hit 50 or more home runs in a season one time – the year he hit 73?  I didn’t and frankly couldn’t believe it.  McGuire and Sosa did it four times each, Griffey twice, A-Rod three times, and so on.  I’m stunned.)

That decrease in turning batted balls into outs is going to obviously have an effect on the pitching staff because last year it masked a weakness.  While David Price and James Shields were outstanding in 2011, the defense made their other three rotation mates, particularly Jeremy Hellickson, look better than they really were.  Make no mistake, I’m in the minority on Hellickson, and to a lesser degree Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, and Alex Cobb.  I detailed this in a preview before his start in Game 4 of the ALDS last fall, a game in which he gave up three home runs in just four innings of work:  In 2011, his first full year in the majors, Hellickson struck out batters at a bottom-tier rate of 15.1% of batters faced.  He walked them at an alarming 9.3% rate.  (MLB averages are 18.6% and 8.1% respectively.)  He only induced ground balls 35% of the time.  The league average is 44.4%.  That makes Hellickson a low-strikeout, high-walk, extreme fly ball pitcher, essentially the ingredients necessary to create a 5.00+ ERA entrée – or as Red Sox fans call it, the John Lackey Special.

On offense, the Rays are going to score more runs this year, thanks to getting a full year’s service our of last year’s team MVP (if I had a vote) Desmond Jennings.  Luke Scott and the return of Carlos Pena should give a nice boost in year-over-year power production out of two key offensive positions DH and 1B.  Evan Longoria missed 30 games last year; if he stays healthy he’s my somewhat-of-a-dark horse pick for AL MVP this year.  I even think James Shields is an-indigo-shade-of-dark horse for AL Cy Young honors.  So why the sub .500 prediction?  When Price, Shields, and deservedly-heralded rookie Matt Moore take the mound, I see a 90-win team.  In the other half of the games projected to be started by Hellickson, Davis, Cobb, and Niemann, they project to a sub 70-win team.  Taken together, I see a team hovering around .500 this year.

I had 100% conviction Tampa would suffer a massive drop in runs scored in 2011 compared to 2010.  This year’s below-consensus projection doesn’t have that sort of conviction.  I know the defense can’t be that good again, but if Hellickson, Cobb and Davis, all between 24 and 26 years of age, simply needed a year of seasoning before displaying better skill sets, the defensive drop-off can be overcome.  There are some very well researched pieces on the web that show new catcher Jose Molina is the best catcher in baseball at getting his pitchers’ borderline balls called strikes, or as it’s known in baseball parlance, he’s the best at “framing pitches.”  That could improve the production and efficiency of the entire staff.  Finally, Joe Madden is, for my money, the very best strategic-thinking manager in baseball.  However, those disclaimers aside, I think MLB, in its desire to ensure the Yankees and the Red Sox both make the post-season, didn’t need the extra wild card this year to make it happen as the Rays are going to take a step back in 2012.

One final note:  Tampa has the toughest schedule of all AL East teams, when looking at the 90 games all those teams play outside of the division.  Thanks to a very improved Miami Marlins team, Tampa’s six games vs. Miami are much more difficult than say, the six the Yankees play vs. the Mets.  Additionally, the Rays play Anaheim and Texas a combined 19 times while the Red Sox play them 14 times and the Yankees 16.

Oddsmakers’ expectations:  I’m decidedly in the minority on this Rays’ outlook.  Their over/under for total wins is priced at 87 ½.  I like this under to nearly the same degree I liked Detroit’s.  By the time we’re through with 30 Teams in 30 (Week) Days, I only foresee two other unders falling into this category of value.  As far as division odds go, the Rays are a solid three pick, from an implied odds standpoint, in the AL East, generally listed at about 5-1 to win the division.  I believe the proper odds should at least be doubled to 10-1 or more.

2012 Outlook:

80-82 – Fourth in AL East

740 Runs Scored       760 Runs Allowed


Mop Up Duty:

Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball*  (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) February, 2013 release.

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