The Tampa Rays will take the field tonight at Yankee Stadium tied for the best record in baseball, but they aren’t winning the way most people expected.
Because of the perceived depth in its rotation, the Rays’ main strength in 2012 was supposed to be its starters. However, the team’s early success has not been fueled by the starting five, at least not collectively. Although the top three of James Shields, David Price, and Jeremy Hellickson have pitched very well, Jeff Niemann and, particularly, Matt Moore have struggled. As a result, the team’s quality start rate of 45% is below the league average. Even the rotation’s second ranked ERA of 3.51 is a little bit deceptive. When adding back the 10 unearned runs allowed by the starters, the rotation’s average runs per game jumps up to 4.17, which is solid, but not much better than the A.L. mean.
Like the starting rotation, the Rays’ bullpen has also been top heavy. Despite strong seasons from closer Fernando Rodney and setup men like J.P. Howell and Jake McGee, Rays’ relievers collectively rank next to last in ERA and near the bottom in terms of LOB%. It hasn’t been the liability many suspected, but by no means has the Rays’ bullpen been a strength.
Defense is another reason why most people assume the Rays have been successful. In a recent New York Times’ article, Baseball Information Solutions chief John Dewan, one of the founders of the Fielding Bible, trumpeted the Rays’ innovative use of infield defensive alignments, but other fielding metrics don’t seem to agree. According to Baseball Prospectus’ Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency rating, the Rays score of -0.11 is pretty much average. Baseball-reference.com’s efficiency rating also pegs the Rays’ defense just below average, while fangraphs.com’s calculation of UZR/150 does about the same (of note, the Rays rank well below average in terms of UZR/150 on the infield alone). Joe Maddon may be the “King of Shifts”, but, so far at least, it doesn’t seem as if they have helped the Rays get off to such a strong start.
If the Rays’ had a weakness entering the season, it was an offense featuring more than its fair share of retreads. However, that is the unit most responsible for the team’s 19-10 start. With the exception of Jose Molina and Sean Rodriguez, every hitter in lineup has posted an OPS+ well above 100, including surprising contributions from Jeff Keppinger and Matthew Joyce as well as a resurgence from Carlos Pena. As a result, the team has scored a quarter run more than the league average and posted an OPS+ that ranks first in the American League.
Based on the team’s modest +12 run differential, the Rays have exceeded their expected win-loss total by three games, which could mean Tampa has been very lucky during the first month of the season. On the other hand, it might suggest the Rays are greater than the sum of its parts. Because of Maddon’s reputation for innovation, the knee jerk response is to attribute the Rays’ overachievement to his skill as a manager, but once again, the numbers don’t seem support that conclusion. Since taking over the team in 2006, Maddon’s Rays have cumulatively exceeded their Pythagorean expectation by one victory. Of course, that doesn’t mean Maddon’s managerial prowess isn’t capable of extracting maximum value from certain players. It does, however, indicate that the Rays record is generally beholden to its players’ performance on the field.
The Rays undoubtedly have a good ballclub. Although the offense probably will regress (especially with Evan Longoria out of the lineup), an improvement in the pitching staff could more than make up the difference. In other words, Tampa is in the pennant race to stay. However, the rest of the American League shouldn’t be discouraged by their fast start. Unless Maddon really is a wizard, the Rays are unlikely to run away from the pack, which, incidentally, probably holds true for every other team in the division. With the A.L. East pennant shaping up to be a dog fight, who knows, luck just might be the deciding factor. If so, the Yankees had better hope the Rays’ good fortune starts to run out because every victory in the division could prove to be vital.