A few weeks ago, with his team streaking back into contention, Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon tweeted about a key to his team’s success:
Indeed, the Rays’ defense has been fantastic this season. Tampa Bay leads the majors in ultimate zone rating, defensive runs saved, and defensive batting average on balls in play.
Tampa Bay’s defense this year is even more impressive considering it lost Carl Crawford, who led the team in UZR in 2010. The tandem of Matt Joyce and Sam Fuld have done well holding down Crawford’s spot in left field this season, tallying 1.6 and 2.6 UZR, respectively.
The biggest contributor to Tampa Bay’s defense this season is Evan Longoria, who has a 6.8 UZR despite missing the first month of the season. Longoria is off to a modest start offensively — .323 wOBA so far — but he is on fire defensively. His current UZR/150 is 54.5, which is based on a small 200-inning sample and certainly unsustainable for a full year, but impressive nonetheless.
The opposite case is B.J. Upton, who is having a resurgent offensive season, his .352 wOBA is his best mark since 2008, but is struggling in the field. Upton has never logged a negative UZR season in his career, but has a -2.7 mark so far this year, and a UZR/150 of -9.8. Upton’s defense has been on a downward trend in the last few years. His UZRs since 2008 are 7.8, 6.7 and 1.4. Based on that, it would not be surprising to see Upton have an average or below average defensive season in 2011, but his current pace seems extreme.
Exceptional defense is nothing new for the Rays. Tampa has finished first or second in the AL in UZR and in the top three of defensive BABIP in each of the last three years. Given, Tropicana Field is one of better pitchers parks in the majors, but the Rays’ defense is not simply a product of its home stadium:
In the first two years of the Joe Maddon era, the Rays’ defensive BABIP was about 10-percent worse than league average, both at home and on the road. In 2007, Maddon’s team played in the same ballpark as they do today, but it was second-worst in UZR and dead last in defensive BABIP. Starting in 2008, Tampa Bay’s BABIP has been better than league average every season. Tropicana Field’s large foul ground contributes to the split between home and road, although all teams generally have better BABIPs at home anyway.
The Rays are always looking for the extra edge needed to compete against the deep-pocketed Yankees and Red Sox. Since they turned the corner in 2008, defense has been a big strength for Tampa Bay, and the first two months of 2011 are no exception.
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