The Tampa Bay Rays may be great at pitching and defense, but they do not score many runs… Right? MLB Trade Rumors thinks so:
The Rays could address multiple needs by dealing a top-of-the-rotation starter. Their offense ranked 18th in MLB in runs scored, so there’s clearly room for improvement.
-Ben Nicholson-Smith, 10/31/12
ESPN suggested just as much:
…[Justin] Upton would give Rays a badly needed presence in the middle of their lineup.
-Buster Olney, 11/11/12
And even in the sabermetric sphere, we tend to hold that axiom:
Alas, the Rays’ hitting was an entirely different story, as they finished just 11th in the league in scoring. Yes, they certainly were undone by crummy luck in close games. But the crummy luck might have gone largely unnoticed if the Rays had scored 30 or 40 more runs.
-Rob Neyer, 10/27/12
But the consensus does not gel with the very leaderboards that ranked them the No. 8 MLB offense in 2012, according to wRC+. The disconnect between popular perception and the reality of their past and future production comes from two key sources: (1) Three especially cold months of run production in 2012 and (2) the under-appreciated pitcher’s haven, Tropicana Field.
The Chicago White Sox scored 748 runs in 2012. The Arizona Diamondbacks and Boston Red Sox scored 734. But the Rays scored only 697. Only three AL teams scored fewer runs. So why does wRC+ name Tampa Bay as the 5th best offense in the AL?
Tropicana Field, among AL stadiums not named Safeco, has the lowest rate of homeruns per game and the second largest foul territory in the majors. And unlike stadiums such as O.co Coliseum, where the ample foul territory rests behind home plate and the corner bases, the Trop’s foul territory extends deep into the outfield.
This affects runs in two key ways: (1) Outfielders can make outs that would be foul in any other stadium; (2) outfielders can remain in a sprint longer and turn in play balls into outs because there is no wall to smash into (in fact, the wall is not only far away, it is low enough to hurdle or roll over, if a player so chooses). Since a hitter is more likely to hit a fly ball than a popup, extra outfield space has, at least in theory, a greater negative effect on run scoring than does more behind-the-bases foul territory.
Whenever the national media comes to Tropicana Field, the broadcast crew invariably discusses the catwalks and the unusual ground rules for them. One might suspect, given the fanfare around this architectural oddity, the Rays play in a pinball version of the Homer Dome. But the four home runs the catwalks caused in 2012 are a fingernail scratch on the armored personnel carrier that is Tropicana’s home-run-suppressing, foul-out-inducing dimensions.
If I am making it sound like the Rays play in one of the most pitcher-friendly, hitter-mean parks in the league, then good. They do. Since 2008, the Trop has consistently ranked among the top five ballparks in suppressing run scoring, so when they plate less than 700 runs in a season, it is not necessarily a red flag.
But more than just the misperception — or lack of perspective — regarding the Trop, the Rays’ cold stretch in 2012 helped create a aura of bad offensive ability.
At the end of April, the Rays had the second-best record in the AL and led their division by a game. Then, with the league watching the AL East closely — with Boston struggling, Baltimore excelling, and the Yankees somewhere in between — the Rays offense went cold. Carlos Pena, Desmond Jennings, Luke Scott, and even Ben Zobrist — all of them had their coldest months in May through July. Scott struggled with injuries in June, putting up a negative wRC+, but then managed to mash in July. Zobrist had his only below-average month in May and had his second-worst month of 2012 in July.
All of this might have been mitigated, however, if Evan Longoria had not been rehabbing a severe hamstring injury. But on April 30th, while sliding into second base, Longoria crumpled into a painful forecast of the team’s next three months.
That is not to suggest Longoria’s absence alone cause these three cold months. It took many more regulars playing beneath expectation for the Rays to create their underwhelming mid-season offense. And it was not until Longoria returned that the Rays accomplished their most amazing feat. Four of their five 1-0 losses came after Longoria’s rehab (although five of their seven 2-0, 2-1 losses came with Sean Rodriguez, Drew Sutton, et al. manning third base).
But these three rough months had impressive bookends. Carlos Pena killed the ball in both his first and final months; Evan Longoria, when healthy, smashed a 146 wRC+; and even Desmond Jennings plopped a 142 wRC+ into the August games. The Rays offense is not bad; it is more boom-and-bust.
As Dave Studeman recently noted, the Rays had one of the best run differentials in the league and under-performed to the tune of 5 wins — the gap, we should note, between them and the first-place Yankees. But since their hitters have such a high strikeout rate (21.7%) and low BABIP (.284) — both consistent trends since 2008 — pitchers with solid control and home run suppressing talent can often avoid the team’s biggest snares: drawing walks, stealing bases, and hitting homers (10th best HR-rate in 2012, 9th best since 2008).
It is an incorrect assumption to look Rays and think they need offense based on their 2012 performance. Given their ballpark and looking at the season as a whole, we find a team who scored a decent amount of runs relative to their stadium. Yes, they were shut out five times, including a perfect game, but they also scored double-digit runs ten times, including eight shutouts where they scored five or more runs.
It is equally incorrect to realize the Rays had a decent offense in 2012 and then assume it will be decent in 2013. However, there is reason to think it can be better. Both Luke Scott and Carlos Pena had unimpressive seasons, posting sub-100 wRC+ from the 1B and DH positions; Desmond Jennings is one year older and closer to his prime; Evan Longoria, though still a health concern, finished 2012 strong; Sean Rodriguez and Ryan Roberts both played below their established norms.
Indeed, B.J. Upton and his career 107 wRC+ are gone, but by July they will be essentially replaced by Wil Myers, who has the potential to be a better hitter than Upton has ever been (thought probably not right away). Moreover, Yunel Escobar‘s career 103 wRC+ has a good shot at improving the Rays’ uninspired shortstop production from Elliot Johnson and Sean Rodriguez. And yes, James Loney is coming off a terrible year, but so was Casey Kotchman in 2011 — and in 2012, Jeff Keppinger was coming off a terrible career. That is not to suggest Loney will have some BABIP luck or do any better than his career 103 wRC+ numbers, but it at least leaves the door open to Loney improving upon Pena’s 98 wRC+ in 2012.
The Rays still have an impressive gap in the designated hitter slot, though. The James Shields trade freed some $10 million, but some of that cash might go to snaring a January reliever — the discounted types the Rays have hit so well on in the past. But they should have the capacity to add a veteran slugger from the relatively plump 1B/OF/DH market. Or they could just as easily platoon Sam Fuld and a RHH outfielder (likely Brandon Guyer) in left field or give Ryan Roberts every day PA while cycling the DH using R/L and GB/FB platoon splits to select the DH — a technique Joe Maddon has mastered over the preceding years.
All told, the Rays offense has not been as bad as it seems, and it could be just one man away from being one of the better ones in the league.
For those interested, I collated the monthly wRC+ numbers onto one sheet. Here is that sheet, for poos and whatnot:
P.S. Look at the Red Sox and Padres and think about the trade deadline.