Reliving the 2017 Season: Tampa Bay Rays Edition | The Process Report

Reliving the 2017 Season: 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 team. The order will mirror next June’s draft slotting 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 two to three of these out each week which should allow for every team being covered before our glorious game returns to continue threshing our hearts.

Past: DET SFG PHI CWS CIN NYM SDP ATL OAK PIT BAL TOR MIA SEA TEX

Much like the Rangers and Mariners that have been covered previously the Tampa Bay Rays played into September with a modicum of hope for reaching the postseason. Like those teams they weren’t able to push the throttle far enough reach that promised land. While the last month saw little closure on a wild card spot you can see that the offensive collapse that came prior was the bigger reason the team didn’t advance. The offense dramatically overperformed during the first half of the season, but even upon regression the team was scoring more than they were allowing. The third quarter swoon saw the bottom fall out of what had been an average or better offense and it appears to be fully earned.

On the other hand, the pitching came as labeled. Outside of a short, slow start to the season they were average or quite a bit better the rest of the way. Part of this was getting the bullpen sorted out, but the starters also began performing up to their ability and then some. The close to the season was especially dominant and coincides with the bullpen roles being sorted out and given to higher level performers. A team like the Rays cannot afford the sort of dry spells that every team goes through. This looks like another season where a lot of good work was undone by an unfortunately poor stretch from the bats.

The strength of the team since its rise from the abyss has been the pitching, and this year was no different. Running better than average strikeout and walk rates laid the foundation, but their ability to suppress hard contact is what really put them over the top. There was a slight overperformance, but even upon regressing balls in play you can see the unit worth a collective 56 runs above average and the second best xwRC+ thus reviewed.

The strong start to the season was never really sustainable even though it did carry for the entire first half. This shows up in the fairly large difference between awOBA* and xwOBA*. While the team did walk at an above average rate you can see how dramatic the impact was of all those strikeouts as the team ran the third highest rate in the league. Expected results show a contact profile that approximates league average, though actual production was considerably higher. As good as the arms were it was completely negated by the bats.

Once again Chris Archer was the best pitcher on the staff. He rode extreme strikeout rates paired with sub-average walk rates, but was undone a bit by his balls in play. Observed results came in even higher showing a bit of misfortune, but even upon regression you’re looking at a significant limiting factor on his performance. He was backed by a stout relief group in other-worldly Tommy Hunter, steady Alex Colome, imports Sergio Romo and Steve Cishek, and newcomer Jose Alvarado. Brad Boxberger even showed up eventually to put up a fine performance, but has since been traded.

The problem with all those strong relief performances is that it took a considerable amount of spaghetti thrown at the wall to find what would stick. There are poor performances mixed in, mostly over short runs as the team wisely moved on to the next one, but the discouraging thing was the lack of good starter performance. Blake Snell, more below, proved up to the task, but there were bumps. Jacob Faria showed a much smoother transition, but once teams built a book on him he seemed less effective. Alex Cobb looked like a league average pitcher in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery, but the team was really let down by the performance of Matt Andriese, Jake Odorizzi and Erasmo Ramirez. Still, the pitching was a real strength and no team is going to be stocked with solely above average performers.

Most starters with this type of workload are going to experience some ups and downs. It’s the nature of the business. Archer showed prolonged, excellent stretches throughout the season with a couple of blips, one early, one in the middle, where he went through a rough stretch. His close to the season looked pretty well in the range, but his observed performance was drastically higher possibly due to some forearm tightness that he pitched through with little complaint. The loud contact was hard to watch at times, but he more than makes up for it by what he does when the batter cannot put the ball in play. This is one of the better pitchers in the game, and his deal makes him perhaps the most valuable player in the game.

While many fans decried the early performance from Blake Snell we can see that some of that ire was earned. He was a worse than average pitcher at the start of the season. Add in an enormous gap between observed and expected results that mostly hid his steps forward and you can see why fans were upset. Upon demotion he seemed to take advisement to heart as Jeff Sullivan detailed very well. A move on the rubber, an adjustment to his pitch mix, perhaps some harder work on the sidelines, it all coalesced into a fantastic finish to the season. The culmination of his hard work showed some actualization of all that fantastic promise that has led me to be one of his most ardent supporters. This is the kind of pitcher the team can build around, and one that should stay in baby blues for the next few years.

While Blake Snell showed how hard it is to pitch once teams have seen you, Jacob Faria got to start with a clean slate in his debut. Early strong performance was fully earned, but as teams saw more of his film and what he liked to do he steadily got worse. Make no mistake, getting worse meant approximating a league average pitcher with observed results tracking expected fairly well. The interesting thing with Faria will be how he adjusts to a league that now thinks they know who he is. Getting chases out of the zone is the ultimate thrillride for a pitcher, but batters showed reluctance to leave the friendly confines as the season wore on. Throwing more early strikes will help, especially as it allows Faria to set up his best pitch, a wicked split change that he can bury in the bottom of the zone. Limiting him to two times through will help next year in what should be his first full season both to limit his workload over the long season, but also to allow the team to chase those mid-games matchups that can decide who will win and who will lose.

The bats were subpar, but it wasn’t all bad. Logan Morrison rewarded the team dearly for their continued faith, though he has likely priced himself out of the Rays stratosphere after this fully justified excellent season. The second pillar of the offensive attack was Steven Souza Jr. who similarly deserves praise for rewarding the team’s continued faith in him becoming an everyday player. The problem is that these guys were mostly on an island with only quitter Colby Rasmus, the rehabbing Wilson Ramos and the deadline acquisition Lucas Duda showing positive performance to the team.

Plenty of other guys were close enough to the average, and those that know how to use their gloves were still solid performers in the aggregate, but the team was also limited by too many plate appearances to guys that were not able to carry the weight. Mallex Smith, Kevin Kiermaier, Peter Bourjos and Daniel Robertson were the headliners with each seeing better actual results than expected. The team also sorted through a plethora of options that were never going to be useful. Rickie Weeks Jr., Trevor Plouffe, Cesar Puello, Michael Martinez, Danny Espinosa the list goes on and one. So many were brought in to fill a role they should not have been expected to carry with many getting that time during the team’s limp playoff push. It didn’t help, either, that Evan Longoria had his worst full season to date looking something like a league average bat with every bit of it earned.

As one of the few true everyday players for the Rays the team leans heavily upon Souza to carry the offense. Something he did for a large part of the season. Of some concern, however, is the dip he had over much of the second half that does not look to be a product of misfortune. A slow start looked like much of the same, but was over a much shorter period and did come with the benefit of much better observed performance. Focusing on the bad misses all the good, though. He was an exceptional hitter for much of the season so you have to wonder if he was hiding something over the second half that took away from his considerable abilities. Getting a full season of that extended peak would put Souza squarely in the public eye for Most Valuable Player consideration, and something the team will need as they seek to replace Logan Morrison.

For the first half it was a wonderful sight to see Corey Dickerson atop most of the important leaderboards for batter performance. You can see that it was always going to be unsustainable with an enormous, prolonged gap between actual and expected results. Throughout the season he oscillated around the average from the expected point of view with as much good as bad. Considering his glove in leftfield he will need to do better than league average, but that is a tall order considering his issues with health and utter inability to swing at everything thrown his way.

The Face of the Franchise (TM), whatever the hell that means to actually winning games, turned in a productive first half that saw more good than bad, but the second half saw those things flip. A new approach that eschewed working counts in order to put the ball in play early and often looks to have been a poor decision in retrospect. While the rest of the league embraced the whiff and the bomb, Longoria was content to just put the ball in play and let the chips fall where they may. Getting back to smashing the ball, even if it means more swing and miss, will help Longoria get back on the horse and ride. Additionally, it is difficult to see this and not wonder if he was dealing with an injury issue over the second half. Once again he played a ton, and once again I will question if that is in the best interest for both him and the team. When you’re the only guy pulling down real money there is an urge to play at all costs, but he might be better off if he plays 140 games rather than 160.

Leaderboards

In order to gain context into the above numbers I like to provide the top-20 pitchers and hitters to make comparisons easier. You can find that below in addition to team lines and the combined xwRAA totals for each team thus reviewed. The Rays show up strongly here relative to the rest of the league, and should give hope for the future if the team can replace some of what they will surely lose this offseason.



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