Tampa Bay Rays

Posted by Baseball Bob at 18:59
Feb 022011

You would have to call 2010 a successful season for the Tampa Bay Rays. After winning the division and making it to the World Series in 2008, many (including myself) correctly predicted a correction toward the mean for 2009, and were not surprised when the Rays finished 3rd in the AL East, at 84-78 (actually, EXACTLY what I predicted, not that I am usually anything like that accurate). So the big question for 2010 was: which is the true level of the Rays? Most thought that they would compete with the Yankees and Red Sox, but lose out in the end. Not exactly what happened.

They Rays opened with two 1-run wins over the Orioles, and then a 1-run loss. David Price shut down the Yankees 9-3 but NY in turn lit up Davis 10-0 and took the finale to drop the Rays to 3-3 and 3rd place. A testing road trip north launched their assault on the East, as they swept 3 in Baltimore and then 4 in Boston to move to 10-3. They were back in first place, though only by ½ game. On to Chicago where an opening loss put them back in second (tough division!) but two more wins moved them to 12-4 and back up by ½. Back home they took 2 of 3 from Toronto, swept 2 from Oakland and won the first of 4 from KC to go to 17-5 and up by 2½. After losing the next two to the Royals they took the finale, and went west where they swept the Mariners and won in Oakland for 5 straight wins and a 22-7 record and a 1½ game lead (again, tough division: the Yankees were 20-8). Cool standings had the Rays as 85% likely to play postseason baseball at this point (and the Yankees 80%). It is hard to believe, but the Red Sox at 18-13 (.581 projecting to 94 wins) were only 14.5% likely to make the playoffs (and of course that was right – they didn’t, and wouldn’t have if they had won 94 games).

The Rays continued to roll, and by the time they went to New York for their first series against their main rival, they had raised their record to 28-11 and their lead to 3 games (May 18), and their playoff likelihood to 88%. Two straight wins over the Yankees made that 30-11 and 93+%, and a 5-game lead in the division. Their pace slowed a bit, and the Yankees continued to win, so June 9 saw them 39-20, 2 games ahead, and 84% likely for the playoffs. The Red Sox, meanwhile, were 35-26 and their chances had improved somewhat to 21.9%.

Here the Rays hit a bump in the road: interleague play. After dropping the finale at Toronto, they lost 2 of 3 to the Marlins, the Braves, the Marlins again, the Padres and the Diamondbacks. A loss at Boston made them 5-12 over their last 17 games, at 44-32 (still on pace for 94 wins) but not only had they lost first place to the Yankees, but the red-hot Red Sox had passed them and their playoff chances were down to 53%. Their final interleague record was 7-11 (they had won 2 of 3 from Houston earlier) and it really cost them, as both the Yankees and Red Sox did well against the NL.

They beat the Red Sox in the second game, however, won 3 of 4 from the Twins in Minnesota, and came home to face the Red Sox back in second place. Three close games, three wins and their lead over Boston was back to 2½, their playoff chances 73.6% and they trailed the Yankees by only 2 games. They took 3 of 4 from the Indians, and went into the all-star break at 54-34, 2 games out, 3 games ahead of Boston, 72.9% likely to reach the postseason and on pace to win 99 games. They had allowed the fewest runs of any AL team while scoring the fourth most. It was looking like a 3-team race all the way, but the Rays were in good shape in that race.

They lost 2 of 3 in New York but won 2 of 3 in both Baltimore and Cleveland, and then swept a 4-game set from the Tigers, coming home only 2 games back to host the Yankees at the end of July. The won 3-2, lost 5-4 and won 3-0 (Shields beating Sabathia) and the next day they beat the Twins to reclaim a share of first place. They won again to take a 1-game lead, but lost the last two to Minnesota to fall behind by ½. That 2-game losing streak became 5 as they were swept in Toronto, but it cost them only 1 game in the standings. Winning 2 of 3 in Detroit left them still 1½ back, 2 of 3 from Baltimore netted ½ game, and a win in Texas put them back into a tie for first on August 16th. Two more wins completed the sweep, but they remained tied, and when they lost in Oakland they fell a game behind, as the Yankees were winning every day. Two more wins in Oakland gained no ground, but a win in Anaheim put them tied once again.

Now, in a statistical oddity, the Yankees and Rays matched results every day for a while, as they remained tied atop the East from August 23 through August 30.  A loss in Toronto put them in second by a game, two wins actually cost them ½ game as the Yankees won 3, and three losses cost them a game (as the Yankees lost twice). Their playoff berth was essentially secure, as the Red Sox had fallen on hard times (but ask San Diego fans about 97% likely playoff spots!) – what they were playing for was the division crown. On September 8 they stood at 84-55, on pace for 98 wins but second by 2½ games, after losing 2 of 3 in Boston. But they won 2 of 3 in Toronto, then 2 of 3 at home from the Yankees, and they had retaken the lead by ½ game. Losing 2 of 3 to the Angels, they went to New York trailing by ½ with the division crown up for grabs on September 20th.  Garza lost to Gaudin and Shields lost to Hughes, and it looked like the Yankees had pulled it off, but Hellickson beat Burnett and the Rays lit up Sabathia (Price winning) and the 4-game set was a wash. The very next day the Rays won in Seattle while the Yankees were losing, and they did it again the next day to take a 1½ game lead with 8 to play. I wrote off the Yankees chances at that point, as they seemed to be playing out the string, but the Rays were even more so: they lost the finale in Seattle, then 2 of 3 to the Orioles, and the lead was ½. They then lost to Greinke and the Royals (no shame there) and the two teams were tied with 3 to play. Tampa Bay owned the tie-breaker, having won the season series against the Yankees, so it still favored them. A second loss to the Royals put them temporarily in second place but a win put them back tied with a game to play. They won and the Yankees lost, and they wound up 96-66, the best record in the AL (Philadelphia was 97-65) and AL East champs by a single game.

The ALDS against Texas was pretty exciting, as they lost at home by 5-1 and 6-0, then rallied to win in Texas by 6-3 and 5-2, only to succumb to Cliff Lee and the Rangers 3-2 at home in the finale. All 5 games won by the visitor, I’m not sure when that last happened, if ever. A very successful season, but one which will not, as we shall see, establish the Rays as a perennial contender, at least not by itself.

Overall 96-66 A

By any measure, the Rays played well. They won 96 games, which speaks for itself, and they won the AL East, which probably says even more. They scored 802 runs, which is 4.95 per game, and that is a lot, even before taking into consideration that run production was down across baseball in 2010. They allowed only 649, second-fewest in the American League, which is only 4.01 per game, an excellent total. A team that scores 802 while allowing 649 should expect to win 98 games so they were not in any way “lucky” in their way of combining their runs, as many teams are that win a large number of games.

They were a good home team (49-34, a 98 win pace) and a GREAT road team (47-34, a 94-win pace). They had a winning record every month except September-October when they were 15-15. They were, as good teams tend to be, better in blowouts (29-15) than in 1-run games (29-27) but very good in extra-inning games (10-5).

Probably the most remarkable thing about the Rays season is that they did not have a losing record against a single AL team: they were 4-4 against the Royals (!) and had a winning record against EVERY OTHER TEAM IN THE LEAGUE. But they DID have a losing record against four NL teams: 2-4 against Florida and 1-2 against San Diego, Arizona and Atlanta. Amazing.

They were shut out only 9 times all year, and accomplished only 12 shutouts themselves.

Hitters 83-79 C

Games Times
<3 37
3 19
4 24
5 20
6 15
>6 47

This is one of those times when I kind of disagree with my own metric. This does not FEEL like an average offense, at all, to me. Of course the metric is not context-sensitive, but to score 5 runs per game when the metric assumes 4.5 (and the reality was more like 4.35) should STILL suggest an above-average offense.

The problem, apparently, is piling on: the Rays scored 14, 13, 12, and 11 twice – the metric gives no real credit for that, as anything above 5 is a win. But of course they didn’t score BELOW zero even once! So the metric sees a gain of 10 games (47 to 37) comparing big scoring games of 7 or more with low-scoring games of 3 or fewer, a net loss of 4 of those because they scored only 3 19 times and 6 15 times, and two more because there are more 4-run games than 5-run games and you get 4 games over .500, which rates a C.

OPS+, which DOES take into consideration league and stadium context, is kinder to the Rays – their team OPS+ is 104, 4% above league. Come to think of it, that is not actually far from an average team (the Yankees were 109, for example). The Rays probably deserve a better grade because the run context has shifted, but in absolute teams their offense did what is described above: they “won” the game outright (scored 6 or more runs) 62 times, “lost” the game outright (scored fewer than 4 runs) 56 times, and “split” the game (scored 4 or 5 runs, giving you a chance to win) 44 times, which is an slightly above average performance in a “standard” (e.g. 4.5/G) run context.

And it is not as if every Rays hitter was blowing away the opposition. Four of their 9 regulars according to Baseball-Reference were below-average hitters according to OPS+, one was essentially dead average (102), and four were above-average. Kind of sounds fairly average, I suppose.

Evan Longoria was great. He is still just 24, and he had a terrific .294/.372/.507/879/142 line (the fifth number is OPS+) while playing stellar third base (he won, and deserved, a Gold Glove). His bWAR for three big-league seasons: 3.8, 6.6, 7.7. He was sixth in the MVP voting, and probably deserved better.

Not far behind him was Carl Crawford. I used to think him terribly overrated, but you can’t argue with his 2010 season: .307/.356/.495/851/134. He still doesn’t walk as much as you would like, but his power continues to improve and he also won a Gold Glove in 2010. He is 28, and was seventh in the MVP voting, just behind Longoria. Of course, as we all know, he took the money and ran: he is now a member of the Red Sox. He earned 4.8 bWAR.

These are actually the only two quality hitters on the Rays last year.

The next in OPS+ was 26-year-old catcher John Jaso, OPS+ 110 in 404 PA, who combined with Kelly Shoppach (30 years old, OPS+ 81 in 187 PA) and Dioner Navarro (26, 48 in 142) to give the Rays a bit below league average hitting at catcher). Jason gets on base (.378) but lacks power (ISO of 126).

BJ Upton in centerfield had a great season defensively (no GG though) and hit quite well for a centerfielder, OPS+ 105, way up from his 82 in 2009. He did it by flashing some of the power he showed as an almost-rookie in 2007, hitting 18 HRs and 60 EBHs for an ISO of 197. Unfortunately, his BA was only .237 which put his OBP way down to .322, as teams did not fear him as much and therefore he walked much less.

And Ben Zobrist, the sabermetric communities favorite from 2009, did not come even CLOSE to matching his 2009 numbers. He once again played all over the field (14 in center, 103 in right, 55 at second, 14 at first, 2 at third and 1 in left – the totals don’t match because he moved positions in many games) and had probably more defensive value than the metrics can handle as a result, but his .238/.346/.353/699/95 line is not going to make anyone forget Mickey Mantle. Last year B-R awarded him 7.1 WAR (FanGraphs 8.0) but this year it is 2.7, and that feels closer to his value – a solid but unspectacular ML regular.

Carlos Pena, the 32-year-old first baseman that the Rays picked up off the scrap heap, and who gave them several high-quality offensive seasons, struggled all year and had to come on strong at the end to earn an OPS+ 102, which is nearly useless for a first-baseman. bWAR credits him with 1.1 WAR, which is, if anything, generous. And after winning a surprise (and probably undeserved) Gold Glove in 2008 his defense has not been good: it is the second straight year that the modern metrics suggest he was below average.

The other Rays were all below league in OPS+ (as was Zobrist):

DH Willy Aybar, at 27, hit .230/.309/.344/654/82 and was valueless (bWAR -0.2) in 309 PAs.

2B Sean Rodriguez, at 25, hit .251/.308/.397/705/95 which is OK for a second baseman, in his first real ML season. He also put in at least 3 games at every position except catcher and pitcher, becoming Ben Zobrist light (actually not so light – their OPS+ was identical and his defense overall is league average despite all the moving around).

SS Jason Bartlett, hailed as a comer after back-to-back good seasons in 2006-7 and coming off a terrific 2009 season hit just .254/.324/.350/675/88 which is not good, even for a shortstop, and saw his WAR fall from 5.0 to 1.5 as a result. And he is not a particularly good shortstop – UZR has him below average three seasons running.

The Rays also gave significant PAs to the following batters, numbers given are 2010 age, PAs, OPS+): Reid Brignac (24, 326, 91), Matthew Joyce (25, 261, 131), Gabe Kapler (34, 140, 62), Dan Johnson (30, 140, 110), Pat Burrell (33, 96, 74) and Hank Blalock (29, 69, 86). Only Joyce did anything, and only he is likely to help at all in 2011.

The more I look at these numbers and this list, the more I realize that my metric is not far off in calling this offense average, despite the number of runs scored. They DID steal a lot of bases (174) while not being caught too often (47) and I am sure that helped a little, though I’m not a big fan of the running game. They were, for the most part, fast, and B-R has them at a weighted average of 27.5, which is one of the younger teams in the game, and almost surely the youngest lineup that actually competed.

Starters 98.25-63.25 A

Starter GS IP ERA W-L Deserves
James Shields 33 203.1 5.18 13-15 16-17
Matt Garza 32 204.2 3.91 15-10 19.75-12.25
David Price 31 208.2 2.72 19-6 23.5-7.5
Jeff Niemann 29 174.1 4.39 12-8 17.5-11.5
Wade Davis 29 168.0 4.07 12-10 16.25-12.75
Andy Sonnanstine 4 81.0 4.44 3-1 1.5-2.5
Jeremy Hellickson 4 36.1 3.47 4-0 3.75-0.25

OK, here’s the strength of the Rays team. They had 5 starters who could pitch, which is at least one if not two more than most teams. And the starters stayed healthy all year – only 8 games started by someone else, and 4 of those games (by Hellickson) were on purpose to see what the kid has. And he has a lot.

Oddly, the pitcher who got the most starts was the one who did the most poorly, by pretty much any measure. Take, for example, bWAR for the 5 Rays starters:

Starter bWAR
David Price 5.3
Matt Garza 2.4
Wade Davis 1.8
Jeff Niemann 1.1
James Shields -1.3

Sorting by ERA or deserved record gives the same results. On the other hand, FIP and therefore fWAR tells a different tale:

Starter FIP fWAR
James Shields 3.72 2.2
Matt Garza 4.51 1.8
David Price 3.42 4.3
Jeff Niemann 4.35 1.2
Wade Davis 4.81 0.8

So which is the better measure? Well, if you remember back, I posited that ERA tells how good the results were, while FIP tells how well the pitcher threw. And that pitchers who are BELOW their FIP regress to the FIP more slowly than pitchers who are ABOVE their FIP. This is good news for Tampa Bay in one way: Shields should be a lot better in 2011. But Price and Davis should be worse (Niemann should be the same). Garza, of course, is gone.

In any event, and by any measure, the Rays’ rotation was a good one. It was also a young one: Shields is the oldest at 28, Niemann was 27, Garza 26 and Price and Davis were only 24.

Price showed great promise at the end of the Rays’ breakout season 2008, but made 23 starts with a 4.42 in 2009, a great disappointment to many, earning a single bWAR in his official rookie year. Well, 2010 was HIS breakout year: he was dominant in every way, earning a 19-6 record, a 2.72 ERA, only 7.3 H/9 with 8.1 K/9 (how many starters have more K that H? Not many, that’s for sure. He was second in the Cy Young voting, and possibly deserved to win it. His FIP was higher (3.42) so we can expect the ERA to rise some, but if my earlier analysis is to be believed (I am not sure it is) then his expected ERA would be about 3.07 which is still awfully good.

Tropicana is a pitcher’s park, and it was the most extreme pitcher’s park in baseball in 2010, but it is not really that extreme: in the past 5 years it has suppressed run production about 5%, about where old Yankee was. In 2010, though, it was 20%! I have no good explanation for this: the Rays scored only 351 runs at home (451 on the road) and the pitchers allowed only 294 at home (355 on the road) so it was MORE the opposing pitcher shutting down the Rays’ hitters than the other way around. I don’t expect this split to hold up, but you SHOULD bear it in mind when you read the Rays’ stats.

Relievers 145/491 A-

Reliever Games IP ERA Value Grade
Randy Choate 85 44.2 4.23 17 B-
Rafael Soriano 64 62.1 1.73 31 A+
Dan Wheeler 64 48.1 3.35 15 B
Joaquin Benoit 63 60.1 1.34 46 A+
Lance Cormier 60 62.0 3.92 0 D-
Grant Balfour 57 55.1 2.28 24 A+
Andy Sonnanstine 37 81.0 4.44 7 B-
Chad Qualls† 27 21.0 5.57 0 D-
Mike Ekstrom 15 16.1 3.31 5 A
Jake McGee 8 5.0 1.80 5 A+
Jeremy Hellickson 6 36.1 3.47 -4 F
James Shields 1 203.1 5.18 1 A+
Matt Garza 1 204.2 3.91 -1 F
David Price 1 208.2 2.72 1 A+
Jeff Niemann 1 174.1 4.39 1 A+
Dale Thayer 1 2.0 27.00 -3 F

This list is in relief appearances order, and the top of the list would make a good “Where are they now?” trivia question. The answers are:

Choate, Marlins; Soriano, Yankees; Wheeler, Red Sox; Benoit, Tigers, Cormier, Rays; Balfour, A’s; Sonnanstine, Rays; Qualls, Padres.

Of the 8 pitchers who made more than 15 relief appearances for the Rays, exactly TWO will be with the Rays in 2011, and they are rated D- and B-. All 3 of those rated A+ are gone, along with the B- rated lefty specialist who appeared in 85 games.

The relievers were not nearly as young as the starters: Soriano was 30, Benoit and Wheeler 32, Choate 34. Cormier was 29, and he was the one retained, along with 31-year-old Sonnanstine who was 31. Qualls was also 31.

This was a solid and deep bullpen, and it fits the notion that the Rays success, which was in the past built on pitching, continues to be so. The park helped make the numbers seem better than they were, but the fact is that ERA+ which is park adjusted still has most of the Rays relievers very good at their jobs: Soriano is 228, Benoit 295, Wheeler 118.

Summary

The Rays success was to combine a good rotation, which stayed healthy all year, with a solid bullpen, put a great defense behind them, and score enough runs to win a LOT of games. It worked to perfection in 2010.

On to 2011

Do not expect to see the same team in 2011 that the Rays put on the field in 2010. Espn.com has their projected roster as:

John Jaso C Pre-arb
Kelly Shoppach C $3M
Dan Johnson 1B $1M
Sean Rodriguez 2B Pre-arb
Ray Brignac SS Pre-arb
Evan Longoria 3B $2M
Johnny Damon LF $5.25M
BJ Upton CF $4.825M
Ben Zobrist RF $4.5M
Matt Joyce OF Pre-arb
Manny Ramirez DH $2M
David Price SP $1.25M
James Shields SP $4.25M
Wade Davis SP Pre-arb
Jeremy Hellickson SP Pre-arb
Jeff Niemann SP $1.032M
Jake McGee CL Pre-arb
Kyle Farnsworth RP $3.25M
Joel Peralta RP $0.925M
Adam Russell RP Pre-arb
Andy Sonnanstine RP $0.9125M
JP Howell RP $1.1M

This roster lacks a utility infielder, and probably would carry an outfielder-first baseman, perhaps Leslie Anderson. It is possible that Brignac is actually the utility infielder, and the Rays still intend to sign a one-year contract with a shortstop. Let’s look at this roster by our traditional groupings.

Hitters

This would, at present, be the “normal” lineup for the Rays as currently projected:

John Jaso C 2.0 2.4
Dan Johnson 1B 2.5 1.1 Pena
Sean Rodriguez 2B 1.5 1.3
Evan Longoria 3B 7.7 7.7
Reid Brignac SS 1.0 1.5 Bartlett
Johnny Damon LF 2.5 4.8 Crawford
BJ Upton CF 3.0 4.3
Ben Zobrist RF 3.8 2.7
Manny Ramirez DH 2.5 -0.4 Aybar

I admit it comes as a surprise to me, but this lineup projects to be BETTER than the 2010 lineup: Yes, Damon is a downgrade from Crawford, especially in the field, but Manny is a huge upgrade on Burrelly, Aybar, Blalock and company, Longoria figures to hold onto his high level of performance, Zobrist figures to bounce back and offset a decline from Zobrist, and the new kids can’t be as bad as the previous tenants at first and shortstop. I see the hitters gaining a game or so.

Starters

This rotation, if it stays as healthy as the last one, should also be as good. Price does not figure to be able to sustain all of his gains, but he is clearly a high-quality pitcher, and still very young. Shields should bounce back, given his huge ERA/FIP disparity, and Hellickson looks like a good one. I think that, while there are NO negative health indicators, it is unlikely that the Rays will escape a starter injury, though they DO have youth going for them.

Relievers

Here is the big question mark. In actual results (bWAR) if not in underlyings, the Rays had quite a good bullpen in 2010, and they are essentially all gone.

Jake McGee projects as their closer, and he has exactly 5 ML innings (1 ER, ERA 1.80). His minor league numbers include only 17 1/3 AAA IP (0.52 ERA). He pitched at AA in 2007 and 2008 and was not at all dominant, then dropped back to high A in 2009 and was better. He pitched 88 1/3 at AA in 2010 as a STARTER, and in fact started a game at AAA as well, so projecting him as the closer is an interesting gamble, if in fact espn has it right. He is 24.

Kyle Farnsworth is 35, much-traveled, and earned 1.0 bWAR last year with the Royals and Braves. It was his best season in years (since 2005) and in fact he has such an erratic record that B-R has him at 2.7 bWAR FOR HIS CAREER.

Joel Peralta is also 35, and earned 1.2 bWAR last season with the Nationals. He hasn’t pitched as much as Farnsworth, but last was above replacement in 2007, and has a career total of 2.6 bWAR.

Adam Russell is 28, has a total of 54 ML innings (most of one season’s worth) and a career ERA of 4.50. His bWAR for his three seasons of part-time pitching are 0.1, 0.0, -0.1 for a total of 0.0.

Andy Sonnanstine was with the Rays last year (and before), lost his starting job, and was fine in a swing role. He is 28.

JP Howell is 27, pitched for the Rays in 2006-2009 (and the Royals in 2005) but did not pitch at all last year. Coming off major surgery and a year off, he is obviously a question mark, though he was worth 2.0 bWAR or more in both 2008 and 2009, so there is reason to hope that he will be a contributor.

THIS is what I see as the Rays’ downfall in 2011 – I don’t think their bullpen will hold together. I expect them to be 2-3 WAR down in the bullpen alone.

Summary

If Dan Johnson is as good as the Rays think he is, instead of as good as I think he is, if their patchwork bullpen can in fact be a quality bullpen, and if the starters hold up like they did in 2010, the Rays will again be formidable.

I see them as likely to gain a game from the hitters, lose a couple from the starters, a few more from the bullpen, and wind up about 91-71. I haven’t done the Yankees yet, but it would not surprise me to have them come out below this number, and be projecting the Rays to sneak into the postseason as the AL Wild Card.

The downside is that they are counting on a LOT of unproven parts. If Price comes back to earth, Longoria proves to be human, and Brignac, Johnson, Hellickson, Howell et. al. can’t actually play, they could be looking at a fourth-place finish.

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