The odds have been long stacked against a Tampa Bay Rays franchise that has close to a non-existent attendance base and hasn’t ranked higher than 25th in Opening Day payroll since 2011.
That hasn’t stopped the innovative, analytics-driven Rays from posting back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since a six-year run from 2008-13. And the stunt the ’19 club pulled on the way to the second-most wins in franchise history was one of the organization’s most eye-opening tricks yet.
Tampa Bay’s 2019 total payroll easily ranked at the bottom of the majors at just over $63 million and isn’t even in the same stratosphere as the top-spending Boston Red Sox ($229M) and No. 2 Chicago Cubs ($218M), according to spotrac.com. Making matters worse, the club lost American League Cy Young winner Blake Snell for nearly two months due to elbow surgery and Tyler Glasnow, another top starter, for almost four months with a forearm strain.
Yet the Rays managed to finish 12 games better than both the Red Sox and Cubs – neither of which made the playoffs – and reached the postseason for the first time since 2013 despite once again playing in front of an American League-worst 14,734 per game at uninviting and seemingly inescapable Tropicana Field.
Ironically, Tampa will play in the AL wild-card game Wednesday night at the Oakland A’s, another cash-strapped club crafted by executive vice president of baseball operations and the man behind the Moneyball movement – Billy Beane. Given the similar circumstances to the team that was featured in the hit book and movie, Beane has to appreciate the way the Rays have gotten to this point.
Much like Beane’s clubs, the Rays aren’t necessarily getting it done with home-grown prospects alone. Instead, the front office’s willingness to gamble on other teams’ castoffs, take on reclamation projects and execute bold trades have invited Moneyball comparisons and transformed Tampa into a 90-game winner for the second straight season.
“I think we have to recognize that in the situation we’re in, we have to take some chances that come with real short-term discomfort that you hope longer-term gets paid back and you get rewarded for it,’’ Rays senior vice president of baseball operations and general manager Erik Neander told the Tampa Bay Times. “We’ve made a lot of decisions that turned the direction of the franchise and some were very difficult.
“They don’t all work. We’ve had our fair share of misses, and that’s okay. We have to continue to take our shots to ultimately reach this point.’’
They took some educated, data-driven risks prior to the 2018 trade deadline by shipping popular right-hander Chris Archer to the Pittsburgh Pirates for former top prospects Glasnow and Austin Meadows, acquiring outfielder Tommy Pham from the St. Louis Cardinals in a four-player trade and picking up journeyman first baseman Ji-Man Choi from the Milwaukee Brewers.
They also dealt outfield prospect Jake Bauers to the Cleveland Indians for infielder Yandy Diaz in December, signed Chicago White Sox castoff Avisail Garcia to a one-year deal in January and added catcher Travis d’Arnaud from the Los Angeles Dodgers for cash.
Meadows has certainly proven to be worth the gamble, hitting .291 with 33 home runs and 89 RBIs to become an All-Star for the first time. Pham (.273, 21 HRs), Choi (.261, 19), Diaz (.267, 14), Garcia (.282, 20) and d’Arnaud (.263, 16) helped Tampa put up 4.75 runs per game – its best offensive showing since averaging 4.95 in 2010.
It’s been on the mound, however, where the Rays have separated themselves from their high-spending counterparts. Tampa was considered at the forefront of the movement that believed that throwing high fastballs at high velocity could suppress home runs and counteract the new hitting approach called ‘launch angle.’
Now it seems no one is executing that strategy better. For the Rays, the high heater doesn’t appear to be merely a set-up or put-away pitch. Instead, they use it early and often.
The Rays have intended to throw 45.7% of all their fastballs either up in the strike zone or up and out of the zone – easily the highest percentage in the majors. Tampa tries to climb the ladder with a fastball on no-strike counts a league-high 34.8% of the time, well ahead of the Astros’ 23.8%. On one-strike counts, the Rays intend to throw their fastballs up an MLB-high 45% and with two strikes, they look to elevate their heaters 63.6% of the time – again, easily the highest percentage in the majors.
It’s proven to be effective as Tampa finished with the third-most strikeouts (1621), fourth-fewest walks (453) and allowed just 181 home runs – the fewest in the majors. The Rays also topped the bigs in whiff+ and ranked third in raw value+ (cumulative), fourth in BIP- and fifth in discipline-. Overall, Tampa’s pitching staff finished with the fifth-best pitching WAR (6.3).
Whiff+ metric measures how well a pitch generates swings and misses, raw value+ assigns a value to every outcome of every pitch, BIP- measures how well a pitcher is at limiting quality contact and discipline- tracks how well a pitch forces a bad choice by the hitter (for example, swinging at a ball or taking a strike).
But all this hasn’t happened by accident. The Rays have loaded their pitching staff with flame-throwers and their 93.97 average mph on fastballs is the sixth-highest in baseball. Their fastball velocity goes up to 94.68 mph when they’re firing them up in the zone, and they led majors in opponents’ raw value+ and ranked third in whiff+ and fourth in BIP+ on fastballs in which they intend to throw up in the strike zone or up and out of the zone.
It certainly helps when you have catchers Mike Zunino and d’Arnaud, who both rank in the top 10 in framing runs.
Tampa, which is also credited for introducing the ‘opener’ to modern baseball, continued that strategy this season behind a bullpen that led the majors in holds (118) and ERA (3.66) and allowed the fifth-lowest OPS (.694) while working an MLB-high 772 innings. Emilio Pagan, on his third team in as many seasons, has been an outstanding find for the Rays’ front office with a 2.31 ERA and a team-high 20 saves over 70 innings.
Charlie Morton, who signed a two-year, $30 million deal (one of the largest free-agent contracts in franchise history) in December, will get the ball in the wild-card game after going 16-6 with 240 strikeouts and a 3.05 ERA in 33 starts. The hard-throwing right-hander ranked fourth in the majors in fielding-independent pitching (2.85), which helps show how well a pitcher actually performed, regardless of how well his fielders did.
Homegrown hurlers Ryan Yarbrough (11-6, 4.13 ERA) and Yonny Chirinos (9-5, 3.85) also stepped up with Snell on the mend and despite his lengthy absence, Glasnow went 6-1 with a 1.78 ERA in 12 starts. As a whole, Tampa starters led the majors with a 3.37 FIP.
“We challenge everyone to constantly ask questions, to pursue solutions or innovations that we don’t have right now,’’ senior vice president of baseball operations Chaim Bloom said. “The great thing about feeling that you don’t have this all figured out is that you’ll always have a chance to be better tomorrow than you are today.
“That’s an inspiring thing for us and hopefully a scary thing for our opponents.’’
According to Bovada Las Vegas, Oakland is favored to get past Tampa Bay and advance to the American League Division Series. That’s likely fine with the Rays, who have been the underdogs for much of their existence.
Data analysis provided by Lucas Haupt