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Here Come the Rays

After their 1-6 loss to the White Sox on April 10, the feeling in many quarters was probably that the Rays’ hopes for contention were on the rocks, as they dropped to 1-8. It was early, but if over the winter some were already skeptical of the Rays’ chances gives the offseason departures of Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Matt Garza, Rafael Soriano, and Grant Balfour, then after the Manny Ramirez Era in Tampa Bay ending, um, not well, fellow free agent acquisition Johnny Damon not hitting, and, worst of all, Evan Longoria out with injury, the Rays goose understandably may have seemed cooked.

Fast forward to today: the Rays are 17-14, one game behind the Yankees, and pre-season favorites Boston are still under .500 after their own rocky start. Are the Rays simply having a hot streak, or are they positioned to contend for the rest of the season?

A full investigation would require looking at each major player extensively. However, sometimes it is helpful to get a broader, summary view of where the team is at, and, more importantly for our purposes, where they might go for the rest of the season. So I readily admit that I won’t get to every player, and that those I can get to could be explored more thoroughly.

The Rays have been carried by their run-prevention so far this season, allowing only 3.58 runs per game so far (the American League average is 4.25) in 2011. Their pitching staff has a corporate 3.32 ERA. Their group FIP is a bit under that at 3.70, and their xFIP is 4.15. The FIP-ERA gaps are at least partly explicable by two things. First, there is the low .263 BABIP. While there is likely some luck there, one has to take into account that the Rays are one of the best fielding teams in baseball (the current metrics would support this, by I don’t feel it is wise to cite them this early in the season given the sampling issues — I will simply say that there aren’t any surprises there regarding the Rays). The 6.3% home per fly ball rate is more likely to see some regression as time goes on.

As for individual pitchers, after his disastrous 2010 campaign, James Shields and his 2.14 2011 ERA might stand out the most. His 2.83 FIP shows that it isn’t all “luck and defense” (to put it overly simplistically), and while his reversal of fortune on home run per fly ball rate is notable, a 3.12 xFIP is still excellent. All of this is subject to regression not only to the mean, but also to his past. Still, Shields was a good pitcher before, and while he isn’t this good, it’s hard not to see him finishing the season with an ERA under 4. David Price is pitching well, but not that much better than expected. Jeremy Hellickson isn’t pitching of-this-world, and might even be expected to improve as the season goes on (ZiPS thinks so). Jeff Niemann is out with an injury, but wasn’t exactly lighting it up to begin with — Andy Sonnanstine probably won’t be that much of a downgrade from what Niemann has done so far. The biggest candidate for ERA regression among the starters is Wade Davis. His 2.77 ERA and 3.57 FIP conceal an extremely luck 1.6% home run per fly ball rate so far this season. Davis’ strikeout rate should come up from his current 3.92 K/9, and it had better, because it isn’t like his especially stingy with the walks, and the fly balls are going to start leaving the stadium at a higher rate, soon. As for the bullpen, there are some regression candidates (Joel Peralta and Kyle Farnsworth), but also some who should improve (Jake McGee). J.P. Howell‘s eventual return should also help matters.

The Rays pitching and fielding has had to carry them, because their offense overall has been dreadful with a .309 wOBA. That can be expected to improve. The Rays do have a few guys hitting “over their heads.” Casey Kotchman‘s .365 wOBA (.315 careeer) springs to mind. Still, while Ben Zobrist probably won’t sustain a .391 wOBA, he was over .400 in 2009. Matt Joyce isn’t a true talent .399 wOBA hitter, either, but judicious platooning will keep him from regressing too dramatically, and he was expected to be at least a good hitter. John Jaso won’t keep hitting for as much power as he has, but he also is likely to revert to his higher walk rates of the past. Johnny Damon might be old, but he’s been coming around, and should hit better than his current .324 wOBA for the rest of the season. While Sam Fuld is returning to being Sam Fuld, the Rays have called up Brandon Guyer to take at least some of his plate appearances.

Moreover, the Rays’ pre-season “depth” approach to their outfield is still paying dividends. Sure, it would be better to have Manny raking at DH, but with him out of the picture, Damon can get out of the outfield, which improves the defense. More importantly, the Fuld/Guyer situation may only be temporary with Desmond Jennings hitting well at AAA. First base remains a likely offensive weak spot, but overall, they should be better than they have been. Oh, yes, the recent return of one of the best players in baseball should help them on both sides of the ball, too.

Will the likely improved offense and sustained excellent fielding be enough to offset likely regression in their pitching? I haven’t crunched enough numbers to say what is likely, and there are surely plenty of twists and turns left in the season. I’m not sure the team will be better off overall, but it will be close. At only one game back of the lead and with the pre-season favorite having to play catch up, though, after a rough start the Rays look like they are back to stay for another exciting divisional race.