Value Has Peaked For Tampa Bay Rays
by Robert Ferringo - 06/04/2008
Throw the ball. Hit the ball. Catch the ball.
Baseball can be a pretty simple game sometimes. Unless, of course, you were the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, circa 1998-2007. In that that decade the Devil Rays made baseball look about as easy as a threesome with a Shetland pony, Pamela Anderson, and that robot from Short Circuit. Despite the availability of steroids, corked bats, and Wade Boggs, they were an absolute disaster through the Early Years, posting an overall record of 644-972 for a winning percentage of .399.
Essentially the Rays were the armless, legless, deaf-mute of the American League East and their only role was as an object to make the Baltimore Orioles feel better about their own incompetence. Tampa Bay finished in fifth place in nine of those 10 years, with the only relief found in that one glorious summer of 2004 in which they went 70-91 and finished in fourth place.
But that's all changed now. At the open of business on Wednesday, June 4 the Tampa Bay Rays - they ditched the Devil this offseason - were in first place in the A.L. East by an SPF 5 margin of a half-game over Boston. They entered Wednesday with a mark of 35-23 and have been the most profitable team in the Majors, earning dime bettors over $12,000.
And how have they managed this glorious turnabout? Well, they started throwing, hitting and catching the ball a hell of a lot better. Well, that and the league has apparently gotten a hell of a lot worse.
Last year the Rays finished the season ranked No. 15 in batting with a .268 average. They are actually hitting at a lower clip right now - .262 - but that's currently good enough for No. 10 in the league. They are also scoring less and have a lower on-base percentage. However, they have managed to hit at a much more efficient rate in "Close and Late" situations - in the seventh inning or later in a game decided by two runs or less. They are scoring at a greater rate and batting nearly 20 points higher in those situations, which, to me, show that they are maturing as a lineup. They do still strike out more than I would like, but they are actually whiffing at a lower rate as well.
Next, the Rays have developed one of the best starting pitching staffs in the Majors. Which, after watching last year's crew get whipped like piñatas on Cinco de Mayo, is a minor miracle. Tampa had the worst team ERA (5.53), the worst bullpen ERA (6.16), and the No. 28 starter ERA (5.20) in the league. They are currently No. 6 in team ERA (3.65), No. 7 in starter ERA, and No. 10 in bullpen ERA (3.42).
Those numbers represent monumental improvements. Guys like James Shields and Scott Kazmir have become aces while hurlers like Ed Jackson, Matt Garza and Andy Sonnastine have made major leaps in their careers while far exceeding expectations. This gives them a young core of hard-throwing control pitchers that can keep them in the A.L. East race for months.
Also, an underrated part of Tampa's game that has contributed to their ascent is the fact that they have been one of the best fielding teams in the Majors through the first two months. The Rays have committed the fewest errors in the league and have the second-best fielding percentage. This was just one year after finishing 27th in both categories. Less errors means less extra outs for opponents. That's clearly helping their pitching and having a ripple effect through the team.
Further, the Rays are one of several teams that are following another league-wide trend: home field domination. Tampa Bay - to the delight of all 28 fans that show up to cheer them on - is 24-10 at Tropicana Field this year and have won 20 of their last 23 games on their own turf.
The Rays are also benefiting from a league-wide trend that supports closer, lower scoring games. Because Tampa is getting better production from its staff, is hitting better in the clutch, and is doing a better job defensively they are managing to grind out wins in this parity-driven game. Nearly half of their games - 28 of 58 - have been determined by two runs or less.
Clearly, this is a completely different Rays team from the one we saw (or should I say, the one that no one really saw) last year. Can they continue to cash for their backers? No. I don't think that they can. I believe that the Rays have peaked and that their value will never be higher than it is right now. We've seen this type of novelty act before in the Majors, most recently with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2007. However, these feel-good stories usually end in the same manner as our pony-Pamela-Johnny-5 orgy: messy.