Reviewing the First Two Months of Rays Baseball | The Process Report

Reviewing the First Two Months of Rays Baseball

While many folks that do not have much interest in the Tampa Bay Rays other than to point and laugh when dumbfounded by new thought have spent copious amounts of time doing just those things, the team’s performance on the field has oscillated between strong heights and low lows. To wit, here are the team’s winning and losing streaks on the year:

This represents the run of performance so they won one then lost eight then won two and so on. Long streaks have gone both ways, but it all adds up to a record of one game over .500. After two months of play the Rays sit with at 28-27 utterly buried in the division and needing some fortune to run down what will likely be only one attainable wild card spot. All in all, somewhat of a success considering unfortunate injuries to key players both before and during the season. Those openings have allowed the team to get creative with how they fill roles including the much ballyhooed pitching experiments, but also by being able to shuttle guys up from the minor leagues. The player gets a taste, the team fills a short-term need, and then it’s on to the next one. This should allow players to stay more fresh, while having ample time to work on the things that the highest level coaches and information spot as trouble areas.

With roughly a third of the season in the books it’s time to get away from the narratives that have been created, whether false or virtuous, and dig into the data to see how the players and team have performed. Let’s start at the team level by looking at both hitting and pitching performance over 250 plate appearance averages over the course of the season. You can find background for this work HERE and HERE that can help get you up to speed on how these things are calculated, but I’ll try to go over the basics here, as well.

The more readily apparent lines show you my calculated true park-adjusted weighted on base average (twOBA*) for both batters (blue) and pitchers (red). The more faint lines show you the the players actual park-adjusted weighted on base average (awOBA*). Higher is better for hitters, lower is better for pitchers and every three points of wOBA* are worth around one point of weighted runs created plus (wRC+). Lastly, I have sectioned these off so you can get a better idea of what I’m referring to below.

In the first stanza, you can see the team got off to a deplorable start. Incredibly bad hitting got sorted out in short order to become merely bad, while the pitching wasn’t any better. While actual results were fairly in line with the batting, pitchers actually saw far better results that were right around the average and getting a little better.

Right around the 800 PA mark the team went on a fantastic run of performance with very strong hitting even getting eclipsed by the actual results, which was a lot of fun, if not all that sustainable, before falling back in line with expectations. Meanwhile, the pitching continued to improve to be a real strength. There is an awful lot of surplus in that space between the hitting and the pitching, and the actuals seem to confirm that this was an strong run.

The bats were already falling off heading into the third section, but the arms also went through a rough period with some worse than average performance that saw the team performing pretty poorly out there. Both sides got a little better to close out this section and there was enough offset at the end to tighten things up a bit. Then the team went crazy in the most recent period. The team was hitting at some of it’s highest performance on the year, while the pitching stopped allowing anything on their watch with actuals vastly outstripping the still very strong expected performance.

Some of this volatility is due to young players being asked to do more than they might be able to handle. Some of it is due to the depletion in the stable with guys like Yonny Chirinos missing time after looking quite strong. Some of the positives are due to addition by subtraction. The team trialed guys like Brandon Snyder early on and were quick to cut bait, but what was done was done. The current pitching philosophy has certainly helped contribute to the very strong recent pitching performance, and the bats have shown they can beat bad pitching most nights and occasionally beat up on the good ones, too. Let’s see how they compare to the other teams in the league:

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My worry coming into the season was that the team would struggle to produce offense on a nightly basis. This hasn’t really proven true, though there have been some stretches where it was tough to get anything going. Overall, they’re closer to the middle of the pack than they are the bottom and I have them around 12 runs worse than the average. They walk and strikeout a little better than the league, but do show lower production on balls in play, too. However, due to the colder than normal temperatures seen earlier this year, much of the league is still catching up to expectations, while the Rays are right at theirs, and their actual production is on the higher end relative to the rest of the league. As it continues to warm up that might mean that other teams are able to harvest more of their expectations, but it could also mean that the Rays see a similar rise, and their put it in play, run all day approach might see a few more longballs mixed in. To this point it’s been better than most would have thought, but plenty of room to grow.

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The supposed strength of the team coming into the season has looked very strong at times and pretty shaky at others. Altogether you’re looking at a middle of the pack stable with league average scores in all three of strikeouts, walks and ball in play production. One thing you might notice is that their actual performance on those ball in play is quite a bit stronger with one of the larger gulfs between actual and expected seen in the league. This might be chalked up to fortune, but this may also be a reflection of the Rays very stout defense most nights. Add it all up and I’ve got them right at the league average allowing around one less run than their peers. The actuals would, therefore, like the pitching even more, and with the commitment to defense that might be something that sticks around.

Add up both sides and I have the Rays around 11 runs below the average, in aggregate. The pitching has been the clear strength so far, and getting back both Nathan Eovaldi, but also Yonny Chirinos very soon should help that remain a strength. Additionally, there are multiple internal arms that can function as traditional relievers to help offset the loss of Alex Colome. Replacing Denard Span will be a bit trickier as he was doing well against right-handed pitchers. The team won’t have a ready replacement until Kevin Kiermaier gets back off the disabled list, though Jake Bauers might be only a small step backward defensively with the offensive capability to make up that gap.

Taking this from the team to the individual player I want to spend some more time on a few of the guys that have clocked the most time this year, but before getting to that I think it makes sense to look at some tables for how everyone has performed. Let’s start with the batters versus left handed pitching:

It is often hard for me to believe that Daniel Robertson just turned 24 with how well he maintains composure in sticky spots. Be it a bad call a the plate or a miscue in the field, he seems to keep a calm nerve that belies his youth. That bodes well, especially considering how well he is performing on the field outside of the mental stuff. He’s raking lefties and is joined by Wilson Ramos and C.J. Cron atop the team leaderboard. They get there in different ways showing a bit of lineup diversity reaching the same objective. Robertson is weakest on balls in play, but makes up for it with his walks and strikeout avoidance. Ramos puts the ball in play a ton and does so with hard contact quite often. Cron hits the ball even harder, but has to sell out his strikeout rate a bit to get there, though he does walk well enough, too.

The lesser performers include Kevin Kiermaier, Carlos Gomez and Mallex Smith who have all gotten everyday, or damn near it, play throughout the season. The first and the last there have a bit of an excuse as they are left-handed, themselves, which leaves Carlos Gomez standing alone, a bit. He’s striking out far too often with only league average production to show for it. The glove has been nice most games, and helps him earn nearly everyday run, but the team would really benefit if he could mash some lefties once in a while. Despite his lack of performance the team has hit lefties a little above average, good for around plus-two runs.

Moving on to performance versus right-handed pitchers you can see C.J. Cron atop this leaderboard, as well, though he does trail the recently departed Denard Span. You can see why I mentioned above that the team needs to find a replacement for his bat as he was the best hitter on the team against the more common pitcher. Seeing Cron more than hold his own against same-handers, while hitting southpaws even better has been a blessing this year. Not bad for a guy that most completely overlooked at his time of acquisition. Brad Miller continues to draw ire from the fans, mostly for his glove, but there is some qualms with the bat, too. Despite very strong production on balls in play he hasn’t seen his actual results manifest quite to that level, and when you add in a high strikeout rate you can understand why fans have started to tire of a decent to good player.

Moving to the bottom we again see Mallex Smith, but now he’s joined by Johnny Field and Joey Wendle with the latter seeing nearly every right as an opposite-handed hitter. Joey has overperformed a bit at the plate leading to a fine looking slash of .295/.344/.416 overall. Perhaps, due to his ability to spray the ball around he can continue to over-perform, and maybe as we head into summer he’ll start seeing the ball leave the yard more, but it’s hard to say he looks like a good bat going forward. Luckily, his glove is so dang good that even if he settles in as a 90 xwRC+ guy he should still have some value. Altogether I have the team around 13.5 runs below average, and an area that could use some help going forward.

Putting both sides together you can get a leaderboard of who has been the best in total. Covering for Denard Span is going to be tough, but we’re already seeing fairly strong performance from Rob Refsnyder (even if it’s unconventional production from him) and Christian Arroyo who should start seeing more playing time. The team has not skipped a beat with Adeiny Hechavarria going down, something that will be the norm once he’s gone. Like Wendle or Arroyo it’s possible that Matt Duffy can continue to outstrip his expectations on balls in play, but he’s also not walking at all so I’m not sure how much more to expect. The team is likely thinking about selling him at any strong point, something I would think is wise.

Moving on to the pitching versus left-handed batters. Surprisingly, Alex Colome jumped off the page here most likely due to his very good cutter allowing him to get inside on lefties. If the Mariners are smart they should use him and Edwin Diaz in a dual-closer role where Colome gets the lefty thickness and Diaz gets the righties. Back to the Rays, you can see Jose Alvarado and Blake Snell killing same-handers, and Matt Andriese not all that far behind thanks to his cut-change. Jake Faria and Yonny Chirinos were really struggling with lefties before going down with their various ailments, and they’re joined at the bottom by Chris Archer. Arch has faced a ton of lefties with an ok walk rate, but the strikeout rate is a much bigger issue at a pedestrian 16.4%. The contact has been harder than average, but not egregious and actuals match expectations pretty closely. The team has gotten good performance from most, and hidden the rest pretty well so if Archer can close some of his split the team can improve upon their good, but not great plus-four runs versus left-handed batters.

Teams have been stacking lefties against Blake Snell all year to the point that it might make sense to use an opener in front of him if it means the team gets 3-5 easier outs right off the bat. On the other hand, he’s doing well against them so why mess with it? Alvarado pops again with weak contact to go with ok strikeout to walk, as well. Nice to see Ryan Yarbrough showing well here. He’s over-performing on balls in play a good deal, but even upon regression should still be above average.

Moving to the bottom Jake Faria again shows up, though his actual results were much better, and he was doing well to avoid walks. Matt Andriese shows a little weakness here showing a bit of a reverse platoon split mostly driven by hard contact as the strikeout to walk is strong. Alex Colome falls into that same category, though he didn’t strike anybody out with a little better contact. Costing around three runs basically zeroes out the good success versus left-handed batters so this is an area that could use some shoring up. Luckily there seems to be an endless parade of good relievers starting to rotate in and out.

Snell and Alvarado have really separated themselves from the rest of the team, and getting Eovaldi back is going to help the front-end of games as much as anybody they could realistically trade for, though he’s not going to match his debut every time out. I haven’t mentioned Jonny Venters, but he has pitched marvelously while being carefully managed. The team has several guys that have proven they can be above-average in limited roles, which might be their ceiling or maybe some of them can stretch out to give even more without losing too much to diminished quality. With a brutal June schedule it is likely the team will need all hands on deck to get through the month.

With that in mind the team could benefit greatly from Archer’s strong run of late, more on that below, and Yonny’s return to being a light’s out mid-game man once he works his way into the rotation. Several of these guys will have played their way out of an opportunity, if they haven’t already, with new names and faces looking to establish themselves. Jaime Schultz being one of them already showing what he can do by breaking the system with his 100% strikeout rate. More behind him. An endless army of power arms with multiple pitches and the ability to get four or more outs. It’s going to be like something out of The Terminator.

Now I want to show some charts for players of interest. These will mostly be those that have accrued a bunch of playing time starting with the pitchers. I’m not going to provide commentary here, because the shape of the curves is usually enough to tell the story. If you have any questions or want to discuss this hit me up at @sandykazmir on twitter. I’d be happy to give you my interpretation and possible reasons why things went this way or that.

Finally, I wanted to include a rank of all the players so far:





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