So, yeah, I haven't been around here for quite awhile. I've been a little busy with school (which is over for now, yay!) and my new venture at Twinkie Talk. Of course, since I took that gig I'm not supposed to do any Twins-related blogging over here or anywhere else anymore, so I've been trying to figure out what exactly it is I am going to do with this blog. I have decided to use it as a dumping ground for any random thing I want to write about. I'll probably be updating this thing more regularly at least during the summer, though I'd like to write something here at least once a week during the school year (ha!). Anyway, today I've decided I really want to write about Tampa Bay.
The Rays are currently 20 games over .500 and sitting atop the AL East by six games. They have the best run differential in all of baseball (+102), 37 runs better than the next best team, the Yankees. But how good are the Rays, could they really win the East? I mean, Tampa Bay has been among the league's elite teams for some time. The Rays quit being the doormat for the beasts of the East when they won the division in 2008, beating the
This Rays team is an interesting case. They've scored 240 runs, which is the third-most in the AL behind New York and Toronto (!), but they don't really have the third-best offense. Their .261/.339.417 line is pretty good, but it doesn't explain how they've scored 240 runs. Neither does their average power (.156 ISO), nor .337 weighted on-base average, which puts them in the middle of the pack in the AL. The answer appears to lie in both the overall weakness of their schedule thus far, and their incredible .341 batting average on balls in play with runners in scoring position. Other than the Yankees (5 games) and Blue Jays (3 games), the Rays have yet to face an opponent with a .500 record (though they did win 5 of those 8 games). The Rays have faced Baltimore 6 times, Kansas City 4 times, the Mariners 6 times, and the worst team in baseball, Houston, 3 times. While it's true that they've also faced the Red Sox and Angels 6 times, those teams are struggling right now, with Boston currently just 3 games over .500 and the Angels four games under.
As for their BABIP with runners in scoring position, that may or may not regress to the mean as the season progresses. It isn't as though Tampa Bay is a terrible offensive ballclub and is just benefitting from an extraordinary amount of good luck: these guys can hit. This ain't the 2008 Minnesota Twins, who were a mediocre offensive club that got by for an entire season with a .332 BABIP with runners in scoring position, finally turning into a pumpkin against the White Sox in game 163. That team managed to score 829 runs despite their league-average .279/.340/.408 line and lack of power (their 111 home runs were dead last in the league). This Rays' team is superior to that Twins' team in pretty much every way, though their offense is probably the third-best in the division. The Yankees, with their power (.165 ISO) and league-best .360 wOBA, are clearly the class of the AL East. Even though they've got off to a slow start, the Red Sox really aren't too far behind, with a .183 ISO and .350 wOBA. The Blue Jays, well, it looks like they've got more power than anyone else in the league (.224 ISO), but a closer look reveals that most of their power is coming from Vernon Wells and Jose Bautista, two guys with real talent but are also clearly playing above their heads. Wells' .404 wOBA and .291 ISO, combined with his 7.9% walk rate, is probably not sustainable, while Bautista's .327 ISO isn't sustainable on any level (his career average is .176). The Jays' paltry .312 OBP suggests they are due for some big-time regression, something Jays' fans are sadly all-too familiar with.
The Rays have also been really good at run prevention, mostly because they have an excellent pitching staff and the best defense in the American League. I mentioned this elsewhere, but the Rays' starters have the best xFIP in the American League. Their bullpen, with a 4.02 xFIP, isn't too shabby either. Of course, both the starters and the bullpen are posting an ERA quite a bit lower than their xFIP (2.87 and 3.25, respectively), and normally that would signal the team is overachieving. However, in this case, it is probably due to Tampa's excellent fielding rather than the pitching staff performing over their heads. The Rays' 11.9 UZR is the best in all of baseball, as is their 8.0 UZR/150. And while UZR numbers should be taken with a grain of salt over small sample sizes, the team doesn't appear to have any real defensive weaknesses. Evan Longoria has been their worst defender thus far, and his -0.7 UZR (-2.0 UZR/150) is actually pretty average (and since Longo has been a plus defender his entire career, I think it's safe to write this one off as a sample-size error). B. J. Upton is the second-worst (0.8 UZR, -1.3 UZR/150 in center field), but again, those numbers are pretty close to average. If Tampa Bay ends up capturing the division crown, it will likely be on the strength of their pitching and defense.
On a personal note, I want to like the Rays. I want to be happy that they're successful, I really do. They are, like the Twins were for so many years, a small-market franchise stuck in a craptastic ballpark that nobody wants to visit (except apparently fans of opposing teams). I think the fact that they've built a contender on a shoestring budget in the toughest division in baseball is good for the sport (what's your excuse, Dayton and Neil?). Their front office is staffed with some of the smartest people in baseball; I mean, how else do you get Evan Longoria to agree to work for peanuts for the next six years? That takes mad skills (or a really dumb agent, or both); the best the Twins could do was 4 years, $15.25 million to Scott Baker, and I think we can agree that Scotty, unlike Longoria, is no future hall-of-famer. Unfortunately, I cannot be happy for the Rays because I'm a vindictive bitch. The Delmon Young trade still stings, and even though Delmon is turning into something useful, and even though the Twins have been winning without them, I will never get over it as long as Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett are propelling their team to the postseason. And I have to watch Delmon ground out weakly on the first pitch. And misplay routine fly balls. I guess I now know how Giants fans feel.