Recapping 2018: Tampa Bay Rays Edition | The Process Report

Recapping 2018: Tampa Bay Rays Edition

With the end of the regular season comes a time for reflection for the majority of baseball fans. What went right? What went wrong? You probably have a few ideas where your teams fell short or exceeded expectations, but what about a completely emotionless point of view? Throughout this season I have shown what batter and pitcher production looks like when we regress balls in play to look more like what the players should have seen using exit velocity and launch angle. The offseason will be no different as I take a team by team look at how the season fared for the team, while going a little deeper on a handful of players from each. The order will mirror the final team rankings running in reverse order so you can expect to find some depression leading to elation here. It’s going to take some time, but I would like to get one to two of these out each week which should allow for every team being covered before our glorious game returns to continue threshing our hearts. Here’s a link to the report for this club from last offseason.

Past:

30 – 21: BAL CWS MIA TEX KCR SFG SDP DET MIN CIN

20 – 11: ARI LAA PIT CHC SEA ATL NYM TBR

It’s no secret that the Tampa Bay Rays have run a tight ship when it comes to payroll throughout their franchise history. That was especially true during the Vince Naimoli years even after adjusting for inflation by pegging to 2018 dollars. The Sternberg ownership group took things up a notch in tune with one of the best collections of young talent of the past twenty years becoming more expensive before either being traded or leaving as free agents. The past few years show the team ramping payroll up another notch, but nowhere near the $100 million level, at which, 25 teams spent this past season. That makes it even further from the league median of roughly $150 million. The ire from outsiders about team spending is quite well justified, but things have improved in Tampa Bay from the first decade, and that does not include the many dozens of millions of dollars the team has put into Tropicana Field to turn it from a warehouse into a nice place to watch a game.

Forgetting about money for a minute to focus on the only thing that actually matters, team wins, you can see how strong and long that turn of the decade run was, but the moving average also highlights how the team has slipped considerably from those previous heights. Improving twelve wins from 2016 to ’17 and then ten more further over this past year. The plexiglass principle tells us that 90 will be a tough row to hoe next year, but some of this may be mitigated with the 22-win improvement over the three years somewhat spreading out the massive turnaround. The fact remains the team will need to continue to improve at the Major League level if they seek to catch up with the divisional stalwarts who pair similar high-level intelligence with vastly greater resources. The seminal words, “If you can’t play with the big dogs get off the porch” would seem to be a good guide for a club that seems poised to combine a wealth of depth with enough short term financial wiggle room to make the kind of big splash that can carry the hrair of above average big leaguers to glory.

As we continue through the middle of the pack of teams we find that the Rays were more above average at both hitting and pitching as opposed to some of the teams we have seen that were very good one way, but giving everything back in the other facet. The stronger of the two, the pitching, showed better than average performance for much of the year with only the woeful start after losing two contributors in Spring Traning and a couple of other short blips into the netherworld standing out. Furthermore, the team consistently saw better than expected production, which was quite likely due to the club’s commitment to having a strong defensive club on the field as often as possible. The expectations assume average defenders so when a team exhibits nearly continuous overperformance it makes sense to have a little more confidence in the stronger actual performance something we also saw with the Chicago Cubs.

The team was obviously carried by their Cy Young winning phenom Blake Snell. Truly a joy to watch as he combines a deep arsenal of plus pitches with a mindset that sees him go to any of them in any count for strikes for for swings. Missing three weeks around the All Star Break due to shoulder fatigue, and a reduced workload upon return, led to lower volume than some of the other elites, but it also allowed a young pitcher to go from throwing roughly 1,700 pitches in 2016 to nearly 2,300 in 2017 and then just over 2,900 this past season. This sort of gradual increase is nice to see from a forward-thinking club that knows that having a great pitcher is even better when it is for many years.

In addition to the lower workload this analysis also found a good deal of overperformance, which shows up over the entirety of the season. This lends some credence to the strong defense theory, but there should be some regression from the historically good run prevention in 2018. Encouragingly, the majority of his expected production was still incredibly good outside of that hump up in the early part of the year, and then again around the middle with both stretches merely breaching the average. The first poor stretch seems to coincide with a downturn in strikeouts and the second looks geared by the walks getting away from him. The strikeout production was ethereal, and bodes well for maintaining future elite performance. Snell also does a great job of inducing weak contact with few hard hit balls, many of those on the ground, and a solid number of pop ups that always go for outs. The expectations saw average production here rather than the elite actuals, but even the pokes were usually in the lower velocity bands or shorter angles so while regression should still be expected, as always, it is quite likely Snell can continue to see some overperformance on contact owing to the stout defense and lack of out-and-out shots.

Blake Snell

 

After Snell the team only had one other pitcher, Ryan Yarbrough, face more than 420 batters, but none of that solid group was better than Jose Alvarado. A fairly heavy workload for the reliever allowed him to pile up runs saved on the back of strong performance. The expectations started coming in a little higher with more work, but despite early congruence between the perspective and the actual production a gap appeared and then continued from there. In addition to having good defenders, especially later in games, he also gave up almost no pokes to the nitro zone. When the only thing coming against him is soft liners and grounders his success shouldn’t be a surprises. The late season Grand Canyon-size gap between strikeouts and walks are, perhaps, the most exciting thing going forward as the above average strikeout rate early came with a good deal of walk mitigation before he found a couple of more gears.

Jose Alvarado

A trio of right-handed relievers were also able to contribute in a number of ways as Sergio Romo, Ryne Stanek and Diego Castillo all took turns opening, closing, mid-game and extras, but no matter the inning of entrance each got outs with aplomb. Romo played the role of grizzled vet with next to no velocity, relatively, but a never-ending bag of tricks including a turn at third-base and an endless parade of amorphous sliders that led to an above average strikeout rate paired with an excellent walk rate by the end of the season. The flyball approach led to plenty of off-balance popups, but there were also a good number of mashjobs, which did enough damage to keep Romo from being a truly elite reliever.

The two flamethrowers Diego Castillo and Ryne Stanek also saw extensive work while still trying to acclimate to the highest level. Stanek saw a weird butterfly shape with his production as strong early actual performance gradually got worse than average, while the expected showed nearly a mirror image showing a rougher start that settled in at better than average. Tons of strikeouts and a little worse than average walk rate meant fewer balls in play where his contact was also a little worse, though like everyone else his actual was better. This also shows up with Castillo showing a similar gap all year where his actual was pretty good and then ultimately outstanding. Finally harnessing his walks, while also pushing his strikeouts upward from more pedestrian levels lend credence to the idea that Castillo can be similarly electric in seasons to come.

Sergio Romo

Ryne Stanek

Diego Castillo

Two other righties that were used in different roles who were able to supply similar production in Chaz Roe and Hunter Wood. Roe abuses righties with his own multi-shape slider that leaves him open to getting hit by lefties. Wood, on the other hand, showed a reverse split owed to his strong curveball and played up fastball as the longtime starter was used more in a once-thru role. Roe works around lefties walking more than one-in-five, while Wood gives up a little bit harder velocity. Surprisingly, Wood’s strikeout rate sat around 30% in his tailored role, which should put him in a strong position to be a contributor going forward despite being incredibly unheralded.

Chaz Roe

Hunter Wood

When Tampa Bay traded Nathan Eovaldi for Jalen Beeks they made a hard choice to help a rival, but considering the return that choice was also a no-brainer. These two provided similar contributions to the club with Eovaldi facing around 30 more batters and showing the much stronger walk avoidance to go with a considerably better strikeout rate. However, Eovaldi also gave up far worse contact even if his actuals were only a little higher. Both showed considerable platoon issues, which works better for the righty Eovaldi. As such, the team will likely continue to use Beeks in favorable matchups early or in the middle of games to neutralize left-handed heavy lineups. This makes him an ideal bulk guy to follow a right-handed opener like the recently acquired Emilio Pagan who annihilates righties with his own severe platoon issues.

Nathan Eovaldi

Jalen Beeks

Another mid-season trade saw Matt Andriese go from the Rays longman role to something similar in Arizona for backup, left-handed hitting catcher Michael Perez and minor league righty Brian Shaffer. While Andriese was a useful piece, moving him allowed for more opportunity for Austin Pruitt who mostly ran with the role as something like an average pitcher who requires a good defense behind him considering the low strikeout and walk rates. He does a good job in his once-thru role of keeping batters off balance to make up for the below average strikeouts. Now with two seasons under his belt there’s no real reason to expect the strikeouts to jump up enough to make him more than cog, but he’s a useful one that is better deployed in lower leverage.

Matt Andriese

Austin Pruitt

Sticking with the trade motif let’s turn our eyes to Tyler Glasnow and longtime legend Chris Archer. It was hard to see Archer move on, but it wouldn’t have happened without an immense return, and Glasnow was, but one nice piece of that haul. In the review of the Pittsburgh Pirates it became apparent that Glasnow’s walk rate was spiraling out of, ahem, control, but moving to the Junior Circuit saw it sit more where he was earlier in the year not all that far from the average. His initial incredible strikeout rate moderated to merely average in short order, but at those levels he is still exceeding that 2:1 ratio that is imperative for a starting pitcher. When batters did put the ball in play it was rarely on the ground as he gave up a ton of low liners and pop ups, while the cluster in the nitro zone held him back from being even better. His inability to control the running game means even soft singles can often turn into dangerous doubles to boot. The hard contact will likely plague him as his command is more area than spot and he struggles to throw the good deuce in the zone so when batters start spitting on it they can sit on the high heat. Further refinements could unlock what is wonderful potential, but until then Glasnow looks primed to be a twice-thru pitcher that likely will not need an opener.

Tyler Glasnow

Chris Archer

Rounding out the pitchers we can look at a couple of more guys that profile better as twice-thru pitchers than more traditional starters. Ryan Yarbrough was the prime beneficiary of the Rays radical departure from the classic pitching plan last year as the team did well to put him in position to shine. Often with an opener, Yarbrough routinely pitched three to six-inning stints that kept the team in the game well enough to rack up 16 of those archaic measures of excellence called the Win. Righties tooled him up a bit, and it wasn’t due to the walk, but more the lack of strikeouts coupled with a little worse than average contact. He was dynamite against lefties where he struck out nearly 30% to go with well better than average production on balls in play. Yarbs rarely gives in to batters, which helps him avoid the nitro zone, and on the days when he can bore his cutter into righties without leakback issues he’s a sight to behold.

The serviceable Yonny Chirinos saw a good deal of opportunity in what was his, like Yarbrough, rookie season. There was a solid run in the early middle where both his expected and actual production agreed that he was an above average pitcher, but much of the rest of the season it was only his actual performance that thought that as his expected was a good deal higher. Having better control of the zone after the season went along, and after some rest for an ailing shoulder, but the thing holding him back was the hard contact yielded and often on a line or in the dreaded nitro zone. He does get a good number of ground balls that help eliminate some of the baserunners, something that is not incorporated into the expected calculation so there’s a good chance he can continue to outperform. For him to really plant his flag he needs to show more confidence in what rates as a very good slider that he could probably amp up if only he could get ahead in the count with his other stuff. The splitter is a fine chase pitch, but one batters can spit upon. This often left him with only his bowling ball sinker. On days when he has all three, though fleeting, he looks like the second coming. More consistency out of his secondaries could help Yonny Chirinos make a name for himself after an unheralded climb.

Ryan Yarbrough

Yonny Chirinos

While the pitchers were explainably better than their expectations we can see an averagey offensive group outperform good expectations over the second half likely aided by worse defenders fielded by alsorans, but also a lineup coalescing with several players closing the season well. It’s likely those same opponents were also running out lesser pitching, but after considerable in-season churn of the lineup the team finally ran out a fairly consistent group to close the season. The deadline addition of stud Tommy Pham played no small role, but several others like Brandon Lowe and Ji-Man Choi, among many, ran with the ample opportunity afforded to each. Offensive lulls like the start of the season that saw the team lose eight of their first nine and thirteen of seventeen before an extended winning streak once the offense started to sort itself out. Too much opportunity given to Rob Refsnyder and Johnny Field early on proved problematic, and the rest of the outfield spent much of the season looking like a shell of what they would become once the team acquired Pham and Austin Meadows, another piece of the Chris Archer trade. Kevin Kiermaier’s inability to produce at the plate is oft outweighed by his contributions in the field, but yet again he fell short there with two months of the middle gone to injury.

The infield is where the team showed plenty to like, however. Daniel Robertson impressed early before missing the second half of the season due to injury. Willy Adames cemented himself as the shortstop of the future, though he wouldn’t receive everyday play until the trade of Adeiny Hechavarria, which seemed to help him put together much better at bats. Joey Wendle shown brightly as an everyday very good defender at either second or third base, while also seeing time at short and in leftfield. Jake Bauers had a marvelous start to his MLB career before pitchers started to expose some bad habits. He has since been traded for newcomer Yandy Diaz whom you can more read about in this piece. There are also nice complementary players like Ji-Man Choi and Matt Duffy doing their classic rendition of the brothers Waner with Choi playing Big Poison as a positionless masher of righties and Duffy doing the Little Poison stuff like spraying the ball around and capable of providing averagish defense all around the infield.

The two best hitters last year are a couple of guys that the team will not have next year while receiving nothing by way of their departure. That’s a rare statement for a club that routinely ships guys out while they still have some value or at least have gotten some kind of draft pick compensation for the few that reached free agency under a different collective bargaining agreement. Wilson Ramos was traded while hurt around the deadline, but was a dreamboat offensive catcher while with the club. A big man running on multiple knee surgeries isn’t all that much faster than you or me, which helps explain some of the underperformance below very strong expectations. That lack of athleticism can turn doubles into singles, singles into outs, and can also lead to twin-killings, which are not factored into the expectations, but do hurt an offense for a guy that puts the ball in play on the ground a ton. That is sort of a problem for a guy who’s power shows up more as gap-splitting wouldbe doubles for faster gents rather than the kind of over-the-fence pop that can lead to a slower trot home. He will be the primary catcher for the New York Mets this upcoming season, and likely a top-half performer for the position considering the dearth of catching league-wide.

The second player, first basemen slash designated hitter, C.J. Cron was a more recent removal as the team failed to offer a tender to the player who was immediately swept up by the Minnesota Twins for nothing at all. The team did so due to the plethora of options that presented as better hitters going forward that looked likely to be obtainable during the long winter. So far, that hasn’t really borne out as most of the options have gone elsewhere, while the three best remaining, J. T. Realmuto, Jose Martinez and Nicholas Castellanos, are said to require unrealistic returns. Filling Cron’s shoes will be difficult as you can see he consistently offered well above average production last year from the expected side, but a couple of gaps in his actual do stand out sharply. Cron is not fleet of foot, and he hits the ball so hard that often when it’s played off a wall with any capability he is held to a single. Additionally, the spike in walk rate was mostly a by-product of getting hit a ton during that timeframe, something that may continue, but doesn’t bode well for injury avoidance. Few guys in the game hit the ball this hard, but to get there he has to make some tradeoffs in his zone control, which ends up leaving him looking a lot like Mark Trumbo, who coincidentally he used to play with in Los Angeles. There is a lot of potential for the Rays to look bad here, but only if they fail to make any sort of replacement whatsoever.

Wilson Ramos

C.J. Cron

Moving along to a player that should hopefully spend the next few seasons wearing a Rays uniform we get to Tommy Pham who was acquired for Justin Williams and one of my favorite Rays prospects for a long time, Genesis Cabrera. When Pham arrived he immediately started getting hit by other pitchers which resulted in a busted foot. A quick Disabled List stint saw him back and from there he looked like the Dark Phoenix risen. The actual performance was outsized compared to expectations, but perhaps regression will not bite as hard as it seems considering how freaking hard Pham hits the ball. The gradual incline increase on his launch angle bodes very well for those well-struck balls. The only thing holding him back a bit was an elevated strikeout rate that did some down a touch, while also adding some walks. Not easy to do, but Rays fans should be extremely happy to have Pham carrying this club next year at the dish, in the field, and kicking ass and taking names in interviews.

Tommy Pham

When the Rays finally tired of Brad Miller’s defensive ineptitude by June it was a bit surprising they were able to get anything at all for him in trade. Turns out the guy the Milwaukee Brewers sent over, Ji-Man Choi, could hit a bit. Tampa Bay became his fourth team in three seasons so others saw the ability, too, but couldn’t carry him as pretty much a pure designated hitter. Once he started getting most days play in Tampa Bay you can see how he took off. The expectations were consistently well above average with actuals butterflying from earlier underperformance to crossing over the tracks closing the season on a bout of overperformance to a similar degree. Choi controlled the zone incredibly well showing an elite walk rate to go with a slightly better than average strikeout rate. He typically smashes the ball when putting it in paly. The low liners will often go for hits, and his (lack of) athleticism means those are likely singles, but you can also see a solid group of balls in the nitro zone where we see other sluggers fail to pair the higher exit velocities with the angle to clear the fence. He struggled with lefties in an even smaller sample, and is unlikely to become useful there, but the team will always have a need for a masher of righties, and as such, appears to be ensuring Choi gets that opportunity next year.

Ji-Man Choi

Essentially the exact opposite type of player than Choi is Daniel Robertson. He’s right-handed, a plus defender at second or third base while displaying acceptable defense at short, and has even seen some time in the outfield where he has failed to embarrass himself. At the dish you see a guy who started off extremely well before falling back to the average or better profile for much of the season. Robertson’s selective approach leads to deep counts, and you can see how the strikeouts got out of control, a bit, over the second half of his contribution before busting a thumb. Pitchers clearly made an adjustment that I would infer as becoming more aggressive in the zone, which had the effect of turning Robertson’s patient approach into leaning too passive. He was just starting to show his own adjustment in the very latest data, but got hurt before he was able to build any sort of confidence in that short burst. You can see the launch angle coming down progressively, but the spray also shows the ability to hit some no doubters. The Perfect Weapon may feel some pressure to perform this year, which can lead to struggles, but being able to play all over and hit lefties, at a minimum, is should give a long leash.

Daniel Robertson

When Brad Miller kept doing Brad Miller things in the field while continuing to look like a pretty good hitter who fell well short of his good expectations for much of the early season. Off he went for Ji-Man Choi, and eventually, the newly opened playing time would be ceded to Brandon Lowe who made his MLB debut in a season where he started in AA. He stepped in to look an awful lot like Brad Miller at the plate with an acceptably below average strikeout rate that came with a strong walk rate and gobs of hard contact. Also, like Miller, he shows power from the left-center alley all the way across to the more traditional pull-side rightfield line. He seems better able to carry the marginally higher launch angle considering the tremendous carry he generates. The ball just hangs up for him, and especially to the oppo alley. While seeking to build on his resumé next season he may have to be patient as playing time could be scarce until some guys play there way off the club.

Brad Miller

Brandon Lowe

You can find a lot more of my thoughts on Jake Bauers, the player, at the Yandy Diaz link above, and hopefully he can carve out a long career with his new club. This past season saw wonderful performance over the first half of his season, and it even looked well justified by the expectations, but then the second half happened anyway. This may point as a cautionary tale for the small sample darlings already mentioned, and yeah, definitely, the league adjusts to success with lightning speed in today’s game. It is imperative to be able to show the ability to close holes without creating worse ones, something we’ll get to with Joey Wendle below. Jake was better than the boxscore would indicate with a pretty large underperformance gap, but he was still a below average hitter upon regression for a long stretch of the season, and it came with untenable strikeout rates that showed no sign of being figured out. Visual observation showed a hitter that was in between chasing balls, taking strikes, ahead of offspeed and late on the heater. This may have been a fatigue issue, though playing through injury for this long is unlikely on a club that is very proactive about player health.

Jake Bauers

Opposite-handed hitters Matt Duffy and Joey Wendle are extremely similar in nearly every other way. They both can play all over the diamond, and generally pretty well, though I would give the nod to Wendle defensively. He shows the bigger platoon split of the two, which might make him more of a platoon guy that you try to work into every game at some point. He showed a remarkable, and well justified prolonged stretch, but he had to cross the river Styx to get there as he went through an adjustment period that ultimately allowed him to control the zone a lot better better. In comparison to his production you can see an inverse improvement to the shape of his strikeout rate, while also managing to walk more over a fairly large sample as it relates to non-ball in play stuff. An accelerating dropoff in his exit velocity was the lone blemish on his second half and it manifested in his production looking more average that the stronger actual performance.

Comparing the spray charts shows how very similar these two hitters were as Duffy also displays the liners and down approach that seeks to clear an infielder and fall in front of an outfielder if you can’t split two of them. It works really well, but without the kind of speed that allows for many hustle doubles the ceiling becomes fairly muted for both of these guys. Duffy enjoyed an exceptional first half once he got his strikeouts under control, a reasonable allowance considering the completely lost 2017 season. An equally convenient cause for a prolonged second half slump that took some of the shine off a solid start. He can get beat down the thirdbase line on anything hit well, but that may be a conscious decision to better cover the 5-6 hole. Otherwise the arm and hands still look good most of the time. Upside exists with better conditioning.

Joey Wendle

Matt Duffy

Yet another position that started with one guy and ended with another we finally get to the shortstops Willy Adames and Adeiny Hechavarria who provided fairly similar production on the season, but further investigation shows one of those guys as a lot easier to like at the plate than the other. Once Hechavarria was moved the position became Willy Adames’s on an everyday basis. That adjustment is something he has consistently shown throughout the minor leagues despite being one of the youngest players in the league at every stop as you can see in the graph below this quad. You’ll also notice that he often sees a downturn in production that would indicate the need to readjust, which gives us something to talk about next year as Willy either continues to improve or fails to readjust. I’d bet on the player. Expectations did start to come back to the pack, though actual performance did not feel such a strong gravity allowing their untethered asses to float more majestically. Part of that was the strikeout rate reverting back to worse levels. Seeing the walk rate maintain above average is nice to see as is the plethora of pipe shots you can see in his spray. Willy might go through stretches where the strikeouts get away from him, but he profiles as a wonderful hitter going forward after a season with this type of performance.

Willy Adames

(Courtesy of Prospects Live)

Adeiny Hechavarria

Rounding out the Rays regulars with the outfield triumvirate of Carlos Gomez, Mallex Smith and Kevin Kiermaier. While only Kiermaier has a future in Tampa Bay with Gomez hitting free agency and Smith traded for Mike Zunino et. al., it was he who had the worst season of the three. The glove covers for all the sins in the world, but Kiermaier just never seemed to get that hot streak to boost his seasonal line that he, and to be fair many other premium defenders, go through to make the numbers look good in the end. The mid-season thumb tear didn’t help, and he didn’t really ever look right upon return, though he should be commended for at least being able to get his legs in the game and making a game effort at the plate. The offloaded, but loveable Mallex Smith showed continual improvement in his strikeout rate and an innate ability to slap liners to all fields that coupled with his speed should allow him to maintain that consistent overperformance gap. The massive walk spike that fueled incredibly strong run likely is more blip than longterm, but shows he can alter his game in order to shake things up. He looks like a fairly high floor player that can become a star with this kind of bat if the defensive improvement he showed in leftfield can translate to center.

Carlos Gomez

Mallex Smith

Kevin Kiermaier

 

Below you will find the rest of the prominent players from this past season and how they broke out in four different ways. I will save the commentary here as the charts speak for themselves once you’ve got an idea of what you’re looking at, and by cutting down on the verbiage it allows for looks at more players. Each chart looks at a rolling 100-plate appearance (or ball in play) average with the top left showing each player’s true and actual wOBA* over the course of the season. Top right shows the rolling strikeout and walk plus hit by pitch rates, and the bottom left shows the exit velocity and launch angle combinations for every ball in play. Lastly, the bottom right quadrant shows each player’s exit velocity and launch angle over the course of the season. Feel free to start a conversation on twitter if you have any questions or want to talk about any of these players. More than happy to have those chats.

Adam Kolarek

Andrew Kittredge

Jake Faria

Denard Span

Jesus Sucre

Johnny Field

 

 



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