The Tampa Bay Rays would qualify as surprising this year. Certainly not surprising in the class of Colorado, but they are more competitive by far than it seemed reasonable to imagine heading into the season. They are three games over .500 and sit just 2.5 games out of an AL East that no team seems to be in any hurry to lay claim to. The season win total sat at 78.5 before the season, so they aren't massively overachieving, but they are certainly ahead of what seemed like a reasonable pace for them. So, for bettors the questions are obvious - how have they done it, and can they keep doing it? Here are four factors to ponder when considering those questions:
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They can mash: Only the Astros, Yankees and Mariners are scoring more runs than the Rays, and Seattle leads by just five runs over 75 games so the gap is minimal. This is a team that is surprisingly strong at the plate. Many of the guys at the core of this offense are having as good a season as you could have hoped for them heading into the season. That could, of course, be a problem - if some or all of them fall closer to expectations in the second half then the team will struggle. For now, though, it is the driving force of this surprising first half.
That run differential issue: When you look at the Rays and the other top offensive teams in the league right now, the problem is glaring. The Yankees, Astros, Nationals, Dodgers and Diamondbacks all have similar offensive production, and all are likely playoff bound. The Nationals have the smallest run differential of that squad - the difference between runs scored and runs allowed - and it sits at +76. When you score more than a run per game more than your opponent you can't help but win a lot of games. The Mariners have near identical offensive performance to the Rays, but their run differential is -2, and they are 12.5 games out of first place in the AL West and currently fourth in the battle for the two wild-card spots.
It can be easy to overvalue run differential, and it isn't really predictive going forward, but the clear fact is that teams that have a positive run differential are most likely to be more successful than those that don't. The Rays aren't awful at +19 - only 10 teams are better - but 341 is just too many runs to allow if you want to take advantage of this offense. The top four starters haven't been bad by any means, but they just aren't sharp enough for the talent they have. Chris Archer is pitching like a solid second or third starter when they need him to be an ace. Jake Odorizzi doesn't eat nearly enough innings, and the wait for Alex Cobb to take the next step forward seems like it could be an eternal one. As it stands now they don't have the pitching to be any better than they are, which is a sad thing to say about a franchise that has developed so much pitching talent for other teams over the years.
Evan Longoria: While I said that much of the core was having the best season that could he hoped for, the same sadly isn't true of Longoria. His batting average has fallen 24 points from last year to .249. He's never been a huge average guy, but that is still 21 points below his career average. His OPS is down 104 points from last year, and he's on track to have half as many home runs and significantly fewer RBIs as last year, too. Longoria is only 31, but he has had 10 hard years on his body and has played an average of 161 games per season the last four years. I'm not going to send him out to pasture just yet, but you can't help but wonder as you watch him if the 2008 Rookie of the Year, who hasn't been an all-star since 2010, is entering the twilight of his days as a force for this team.
Betting performance: The Rays haven't outperformed their record when it comes to moneyline performance this year. They have turned a small profit thanks to their three games over .500, but not enough of one to get excited about - or to lead you to aggressively back them. Where they have been very useful for bettors, though, is on the totals. As frustrating as their pitching has been to me and to many, it obviously is as good or better as people expect because coupled with the solid offense the "over" has gone 45-29 this year. Forty-five is the best number for any team in the league - over or "under" - and obviously enough to make a very solid profit. The over is 11-2 in the last 13 games, too, so this trend has only heated up lately. They are 9-5 straight up over that stretch (one of the games was a push on the total), so they are playing as well right now as they have all year.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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