The Rays Improved Defense | The Process Report

The Rays Improved Defense

I meant to pass the link along when it came out, but Ben Jedlovec of Baseball Info Solutions wrote an article on the Rays affinity for the shift in early June. The quantity of shifts is the shocking part, with the Rays moving their defense around nearly 100 more times than any other team in baseball since the start of the 2008 season. Shifts that fail often tend to be lasting images, while those that succeed are discarded from the memory bank upon arrival. It appears the Rays shifts work a lot more than they don’t, as demonstrated by Baseball Prospectus’ Defensive Efficiency stat (think the opposite of batting average on balls in play):

Season DE
2011 .735
2010 .722
2009 .710
2008 .723
2007 .669

The Rays are turning nearly 74 percent of balls in play into outs, an incredible rate that exceeds even their best fly-catching and ball-scooping days of the past. Some wondered if the Rays defense would take a step back with Carl Crawford’s departure, as he is the best defensive corner outfielder in baseball. It hasn’t, if anything a step has been taken forward thanks to improved glove work at shortstop and first base, while Sam Fuld is a mighty fine defenseman himself out in left.

Defense isn’t just about the fielders either, but also the pitchers. The Rays flyball rate has remained static since 2007, but an increased number of pop flies is propping up the Defensive Efficiency just a bit, as the table below shows. Otherwise, some of the success is attributable to defensive shifts and luck (which serves as a blanket term for the location and velocity of batted ball distribution, since neither is quantifiable at this point, but you have to assume the Rays pitching staff isn’t the best in the world at getting batters to put easily fieldable balls into play).

Season Flyball Rate Pop Up Rate
2011 40.9% 13.8%
2010 40.8% 10.9%
2009 39.6% 9.3%
2008 40.8% 12.1%
2007 40.0% 9.8

The Rays might not be the best offensive team in the league, or even in Tropicana Field some nights, but they can catch the ball, and so far that’s keeping them in the race.

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