Ray of Hope (?), 5.31.24: How, Exactly, Is Tampa Pulling This Off?

There were high expectations for the Tampa Bay Rays entering this season. The expectations were understandable; the Rays were arguably the hottest team in the final two months of 2023, led by pitching acquisitions Dane Grier and Jeffery LeBlanc. Dan Hughes was dominant down the stretch, giving the team hope he was ready to step into the rotation. Shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. won Rookie of the Year. 

There were a lot of encouraging signs…and that was before the Rays acquired the reigning NL MVP, 3B Alonzo Martinez. The Rays were the hipster pick to at least make the playoffs in 2024, if not make waves when they got there.

Then…2024 started. And the Rays were…not great. Well, Grier was. But he started 0-7, despite a 1.08 WHIP and a .228 BABIP. Hughes and fellow starter Bryse Wilson (who we’ll discuss later). Martinez was downright terrible…but so was the rest of the offense.

In short…everything about the team was off in April. Yet, somehow, they escaped the month at 14-17, a record far better than they deserved.

Entering today, the Rays find themselves at 32-25, riding a six-game winning streak into this weekend’s series in struggling Baltimore. They remain four games back of mildly surprising Boston, due to the Red Sox riding a five-game winning streak of their own. They are 18-8 this month. They’ve done this despite not having Witt for the last week, and losing 2B Taylor Davis

The question is…how? How is this collection of seemingly ill-fitting pieces doing this? Only twp regulars–2023 batting champion Elliott Jenkins and 2B Taylor Davis–are hitting above .280. Jenkins is hitting exactly .280, and Davis, the team’s most consistent hitter (.333/.371/.427) was just lost for a month to injury. Despite the pop they have on their roster (one acquisition not mentioned as of yet: OF Jeremy Sullivan), they are 12th in the AL in homers. They are also 12th in SLG, 11th in OPS, 11th in hits, and last in extra-base hits.

The pitching staff has been just as mediocre, if you go by ERA (starters: 9th; bullpen: 5th) or WAR (6.9, 8th). However, once you get past those numbers, you’ll see The Rays Way…at least, under this administration…at work.

Here are four reasons the Rays are found their path to success, and managed to meet base expectations for this season.

1) The team has gotten smarter on the basepaths. The Rays stole 203 bases in 2023, the second-best mark for any MLBPro team in history. The record belongs to the 2014 Kansas City Royals, at 208. These Rays are on pace to obliterate that record, as they have 99 steals coming into today. (The Milwaukee Brewers, at 91 steals, are on pace to shatter the NL record of 177, set by the 2020 Diamondbacks.)

Yes, the Rays have been caught a league-high 26 times; their 79.2% success rate ranks at about league-average, as does their 1.7 UBR (a stat that shows baserunning value).

So why are the Rays being league average at running a positive? Well, a month ago, they ranked at the bottom of MLBPro in UBR. They were too aggressive on the basepaths, basically. This was especially the case when trying to stretch out singles into doubles, or go from first to third on a 50/50 play. That’s likely due to the inconsistent contact the Rays were making throughout April, when they had just three hitters with an OPS+ over 105. (We’ll get to that in a second.)

This isn’t necessarily the case with the steals; they were 53-of-64 on steal attempts in April, and 4-of-6 in March. That means their 41-of-54 in May is worse, though the coaching staff has chalked that up to some growing pains with adjusting to a different gameplan.

2) The bats became consistent.

April: .234/.295/.368 (.663)

May: .264/.343/.400 (.744)

Again, only three regulars, and five players total, had at least a 105 OPS+ in April. (Taylor Davis had a 222 OPS+, but he only played in six games.) In May, seven regulars put up at least a 108 OPS+. Only Daniel McCormick, at 28, has not been up to the task.

That’s how you go from scoring just 104 runs in April, to 127 in May, with a game in hand. 

So now you have more consistent hitting, and smarter baserunning. But what about the pitching?

3) The pitching has been consistently good, despite the mediocre ERA. The Rays are sixth in the AL in ERA, yes. But they’re second in hits allowed (432), oAVG (.228), and BABIP (.278). Only the Angels have been better.

The Rays are also second in RA/9 and WHIP. They also, and this is key for our fourth reason…they lead the AL in groundout percentage, at 53%.

Where the Rays have been burned, and this was something people could have seen coming…they have control issues. They are mid-table on BB/9 (3.1), as well as K/BB (2.9). If they were able to get the BB/9 down to where the Angels are, at 2.8…the Rays would likely have the best staff in the AL, going by the numbers.

This is in light of them not having a dependable fifth starter until recently, as reliever Jeremy Benson has stepped in when Bryse Wilson, who spent the season throwing up all over the field, got himself ejected and suspended for six games. Benson has been stellar in two starts, basically filling the role Jon Roberts did last year. It remains to be seen if Benson will stay there, if they’ll go back to Wilson, or if they’ll go hunting for another starter (Chris Scalise on a rental?) So far, Benson has been what they’ve needed.

4) The fielding has finally stellar. When this administration took over, they stressed winning through speed, pitching, and fielding. The latter two go hand-in-hand, and last year, the fielding was mediocre, especially for the defensive talent the Rays possess. Granted, there was a lot of turnover last year. But this year’s squad has shown the vision this administration had, back in 2022.

The Rays have the fewest errors in all of baseball (18). They are tied for third-most assists (532), despite being mid-table in putouts. They are second in overall defensive rating, one-hundredth of a point behind the Dodgers. They lead the league in fielding percentage, are second in the AL in fielding efficiency, and lead the AL in Zone Rating by a wide margin. Only the Giants, who are doing a victory lap in the category (23.9 vs TB’s 16.4 vs KC’s 12.3), are better.

It helps that the Rays’ Drew Romo has continued on the tradition Devin Mesoraco built, and is one of the toughest catchers in baseball to run on. Romo, at just 22 and having skipped AAA, has thrown out 25.6% of baserunners (10-of-39). Only two catchers have thrown out as many runners with fewer attempts.

Interestingly enough, backup William Contreras has been better defensively (28.6% RTO%, 3.25 CERA vs Romo’s 4.14). Yes, small sample size, but it’s encouraging to see that there has not been much dropoff, if any, when Contreras is back there. The one area where Romo truly outshines Contreras, and most of the rest of the league, is in framing. He is second in framing runs, at 3.5. Only Oakland’s Jeff Monken Jr. is higher, at 4.2.

Nobody else has more than 2.3.

So, where does this lead from here? The team did well…well, probably well enough…to find cover for Witt and Davis, in grabbing Donald Robinson off waivers from Toronto, a move that was reportedly very well received in the clubhouse. The team also traded former-hope-turned-disappointment, 3B Oneil Cruz, to Pittsburgh for similarly disappointing IF Andres Gimenez. The rationale there is simple; Gimenez can be a utility guy and play up the middle. Cruz couldn’t. It’s likely Gimenez is sent to AAA once the team is at full strength; William Gray has made another appearance in Tampa, and will spell the last bench spot until Witt returns.

Aside from injuries…ff they can find another starter who can keep the ball down and play to the team’s defensive strengths, that would be a bonus. However, the key to this team is its hitting. The fielding looks like it is for real, and the pitching, while the control issues won’t go away, looks like it’ll be better overall. But if this team cannot hit consistently, and while many of the regulars were better in May, they are still underachieving overall…they won’t win.

It’s that simple…even in Tampa, where anything rarely is, in fact, simple.

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