Runners in Stranded Position
Stop us if you have heard this one before: the Rays are struggling to score runs. Despite the emphasis on improving the offense during the offseason with the acquisitions of Corey Dickerson, Steve Pearce, Brad Miller, Logan Morrison, and Hank Conger, the team is once having extreme difficulty putting up crooked numbers on the scoreboard most nights. Sometimes, when one spends so much time watching one team, they think no other team could possibly struggle as much as the Rays do. Only now, those feelings are mostly justified.
The issue for the Rays is two-fold: they are not getting runners on base and the ones they do get on end up being stranded there more often than not. To date, the Rays have had the fewest number of runners on base during plate appearances in the American League and only the Reds have a lower number on the season. (Data via Baseball-Reference; click column header to sort):
The team’s low number of baserunners cannot solely be blamed for the 15-17 start as teams such as Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Baltimore have low totals and are each over .500. The issue with Tampa Bay is that they’ve compounded the low number of baserunners with the league’s worst rate of driving in baserunners as they’ve driven in just 11% of their baserunners while the league average is 14%.
Hitting with men on, especially in scoring position, is a condition full of variance. It was not that long ago that Allen Craig was hitting everything in site with runners in scoring position and then suddenly lost the ability to do what had made him a household name in St. Louis. Kendrys Morales is a more recent example last year, he continued his Saberhagenmetrics behavior where he becomes an RBI machine in odd seasons only to become a stranding machine in even years. Guess what – he’s doing that again in 2016 so far.
Earlier this season, we profiled why it was a good idea to move Logan Forsythe to the leadoff spot and cited his numbers at the plate when setting the table versus when he was attempting to drive in runners. The move to the leadoff spot has been a perfect fit for Frosty because he is easily the toughest at bat that the team presents to the opposition each night. As a team, the Rays are different with the bases empty versus when men are on base.
The team as a whole doesn’t swing more often or expand their zones, but what they do swing at, they are missing more frequently and what they do put in play, they do so with less success.
One theory would be is that the better players are setting the table up in the lineup but the lesser players in the bottom third aren’t getting the job done. That is not the case here. Three players – Evan Longoria, Corey Dickerson, and Steven Souza Jr – each has at least 50 plate apperances with runners on base. They have driven in 13%, 12%, and 10% respectively of the runners on base when they’re at the plate. Each guy has been a different guy at the plate when runners are on base.
Longoria, in particular, has had issues making contact with runners on base but not from an expansion of his zone. It was particularly evident in the Seattle series when he was up 3-0 in several counts only to strikeout or walk or not put a pitch safely into play. Dickerson’s struggles, the grand slam aside, have been obvious as he continues to adjust to a new slate of American League pitchers on a full-time basis while Souza’s issues with contact have thus far been exacerbated when he is in a run production situation.
Yes, the offense has been painful to watch most nights in 2016, but if the guys hitting 3-4-5 in the lineup would simply improve to a league-average rate in run-producing situations, things will get better. Boston is not going to continue to score nine runs a game as they are this month nor will Tampa Bay continue to sputter at the plate all season. It is almost as if each guy is attempting to end the struggles with one swing and pressing the issue. This too shall pass, even if it feels that we say the same thing each season.