I live in the Tampa Bay area, follow the Rays very closely, and still can’t really tell you how they’ve managed to win more than they lose in recent years.  The team has been a little down so far this season, 9½ games behind the Bronx Bombers at this particular point in time in the always tough AL East, suffered through a lot of key injuries, but somehow stay above .500…….how?  What makes this even more inconceivable is that they continue to do it with one of the lowest team payrolls in all of baseball……this season $64.6M (6th lowest in MLB).  They also have to play in Tropicana Field, no doubt the worst MLB ballpark with its outdated non-retractable dome and drab warehouse atmosphere.  Because “The Trop” is located away from the area’s major population center in Tampa, fan support is poor (29th out of 30 teams in average attendance).  However, through July 17th games, the Tampa Bay Rays are the 7th best team in baseball at 47-44 and in a 3-way tie with Detroit and Oakland for the second AL Wild Card spot.  To make some attempt to explain the Rays’ mid-season success, let’s look at it “saber-metrically” across the entire MLB!

 

For the last several years anyway, the Tampa Bay Rays have had a dominant pitching staff.  With no established offensive stars except for the 26-year old, 2008 Rookie-of-the Year, 3-time All-Star, and 2-time Golden Glover Evan “Longo” Longoria; their young pitching has usually led the way to the team’s success.  Not so much this season though.  As a team, the Rays do have the 9th best ERA (3.71), but they’ve been ranked higher before.  Even though their staff has surprisingly yielded the 8th most walks, their pitchers have coaxed the 3rd most double-plays.  What has especially hurt the team pitching this season has been the lack of consistent defense….typically one of the team’s strong suits.  The team’s fielding percentage of .979 is the 4th worst in baseball, and with about 60 games still remaining they’ve already equaled the total number of errors committed all of last season (73)!    Individually, with the exception of 2012 All-Star Game participants left-handed starter David Price (12-4, 2.80 ERA, 1.20 WHIP) and closer Fernando Rodney (27 saves, 0.86 ERA), everyone else is having subpar years.  “Big Game” James Shields, 8-6 with over a 4.00 ERA for most of this season, has been erratic (but still eating-up innings and getting his strikeouts), while the other two primary starters (Jeremy Hellickson, 25 and Matt Moore, 23) have struggled for the most part.  Middle relief has been so-so, with nobody establishing themselves.

 

The Tampa Bay Rays’ offense tends to be fairly anemic, but can also be very streaky at times too.  The team as a whole is batting .232 (28th), slugging .374 (25th), have scored 378 runs (17th), and hit 88 homers (15th).  However, the good news is that they have been much more patient at the plate with 326 walks (2nd most), and have the 3rd most stolen bases (72).  So, it appears that a lot of base runners are getting into scoring position, but just not crossing the plate much.  As previously highlighted the Rays’ one and only BIG bat (Longoria) has been on the DL since May 1st with a torn left hamstring, and might not return in 2012.  (By the way, Longo is only under contract through next season…….can you say HOT FREE AGENT in 2014?).

 

Returning first baseman Carlos Pena is expected to strike out a lot and not maintain much of a batting average, but in exchange for some homers and RBIs.  Hitting below the “Mendoza Line” (.198), his strikeouts are way up (119, 2nd most in MLB behind only Adam Dunn’s 140), but his power is way down (only 14 homers and 39 RBIs, OPS of .698-59th in AL).  That’s unacceptable!  Right fielder Matt Joyce leads the team in OBP (.380) and is hitting a respectable .273, but due to some nagging injuries has hit only 11 HRs with 34 RBIs.  Journeyman infielder from Cleveland, Jeff Keppinger, has been one of the few surprises (.309 in 49 games).  Usually solid utilityman Ben Zobrist has been having his worst overall season to date, hitting just .248……..and that’s much higher than earlier in the year.  Last year’s rookie sensation, leftfielder Desmond Jennings, has also been battling some minor injuries and having a big-time sophomore slump (.232, 6 HR, 26 RBI, and .304 OBP).  As usual, over-priced centerfielder B. J. Upton is under-achieving (.247, 8 HR, 30 RBI, and .303 OBP).  Luke Scott acquired from the Orioles during the off-season to basically take the place of DH Johnny Damon and save some cash, has fallen way below expectations (.206, 11 HR, 43 RBI, and .276 OBP) after getting off to a fast start.  Total offensive production from the Rays’ catchers has been pathetic (.203, 12 HR, 41 RBI).  Additionally, the acquisition of 38-year old Hideki Matsui in late May (.165, 2 HR, 7 RBI in 85 AB) has unfortunately been a total bust so far.

 

The Rays modest success at this stage of the season is definitely a mystery that cannot be fully explained.  If Longoria doesn’t come back, Shields continues to be up-and-down, and some bolstered offense doesn’t come soon from Joyce, Zobrist, Upton, Scott, and Jennings, the Tampa Bay Rays may finally fall below .500 and fade out of the AL Wild Card race.  But, if you’re a betting person, do NOT bet against the Rays and their enigmatic skipper, Joe Maddon.  If there’s a way, Maddon will find it!

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