The Tampa Bay Rays are officially on top of the baseball world. It took 3 months and a hockey season worth of games, but the media has finally given in to this young, and impressive ball club. On last evenings 'Baseball Tonight', the ESPN crew took phone calls from local Tampa celebrities including Dick Vitale and Barry Melrose (links to videos).
Entering the season, I picked the Rays to win the American League East. To me, this had been a long time coming, but I was confident the moves the club made in the offseason, coupled with years of impressive drafts would be enough for the club to win what is arguably baseball's toughest division.
Currently, the Rays are playing only a marginal amount over their heads, with an expected win-loss of 3 wins below their current standing. Expected win-loss, for those who are unfamiliar with the formula, X WL utilizes runs scored and runs allowed in a Pythagorean-like formula to calculate how many wins and loses a team should have based on essentially run differential. The formula is far from an exact science, but often times it comes as a strong predictor of things to come.
With the Rays however, the club has had very few overachievers. If one were to look up and down the roster, the batted ball data supports, for the most part, the successes the players have had to this point in the season.
Take for example the teams leading hitter, and The Outsiders favorite, Dioner Navarro. Navarro currently supports a .313 batting average. While this figure is far from what was expected from Navarro entering the 2008 season, his .337 batting average of balls in play (BABIP) supports this figure.
The hitter with the highest amount of home runs, rookie Evan Longoria. While the home run per fly ball rate (HR/FB) is higher then league average, for a hitter of Longoria's ability, it is not an unsustainable figure. In fact, there are currently 23 hitters who have a higher HR/FB rate then Longoria. Of whom, only 6 have a higher line drive rate, which tells me that Longoria is consistently putting good wood on the ball.
Furthermore, the rest of the regulars, on average, are performing up to expected levels. If they are achieving at a slightly higher rate in one area, they are failing in another. Take Eric Hinske for example, his HR/FB rate is 7 points higher then his career average (which is negatively skewed by a handful of seasons where Hinske was admittedly out of shape). However, his BABIP is lower then his career average (which is also negatively skewed). Thus, while Hinske may be projected for fewer second half home runs, his hit safely rate should increase and Hinske may not see any difference in his final line.
Additionally, hitters such as BJ Upton, Carlos Pena, and Carl Crawford are all having substantially lesser seasons then they did in 2007. While much of this is regarded as regression towards the mean, it should not shock anyone if these hitters have a move successful second half in 2008 then their first half.
The starting pitching has definitely been a strong point for the Rays this season. Currently, the starting rotation-which included a month sans Kazmir-has the 8th best ERA in all of baseball. The relievers are even better, sitting at 5th overall. However, one may ask how legitimate the pitching staff is?
Ranking in the top 10 in strikeouts per nine (K/9) and the top 5 in strikeout to walk ratio (K/BB), the starters are definitely keeping runners off the bags. The starters are also preventing home runs, owning the leagues 10th lowest slugging percentage against.
Individually, unlike the hitters where there aren't any true overachievers, the Rays have a few pitchers which could stand to regress slightly. Although as a unit, regression should be very minimal. That is, when one compares the pitchers earned run average (ERA) to fielding independent pitching (FIP) it becomes obvious that the pitchers are not far exceeding expectations. For example, while Kazmir's FIP is .59 higher then his ERA, it is not unreasonable that with some luck and strong fielding that he may remain below expectations.
Whereas Kazmir, Matt Garza and Edwin Jackson are having marginally lucky seasons, James Shields and Andy Sonnanstine are having fairly unlucky seasons. Thus, one can assert that the Rays starting staff should perform at relatively the same rate in the second half of '08 as they performed in the first.
Keep in mind, that the Rays have a youthful squad, with a deep minor league system. As I mentioned in March, with the depth of this organization, the club can afford to make a couple big splash moves. At worst, the club will have traded nearly ready prospects for first round picks. At best, the club adds some veteran stability and first round picks.
How about the bullpen? Respective to the rest of the league, the relievers have a slightly worse K/9 and substantially worse K/BB. And while the club has received better then expected production out of veteran relievers Wheeler, Balfour, and Miller. Even a crash from one of the aforementioned three wouldn't really hurt the bullpen. I would also anticipate a slightly superior pitcher to be acquired near the deadline to make up for the expected crash.
My verdict is the same as it was in March, the Rays are for real. I'd love to see the club make a few moves with some of their surplus young arms. While they may be moves that bite them in 3 to 4 years, it won't be so painful where they are in the Mets situation. Also, consider what a real run in August and September will do for a fan base that has been fairly stagnant since the club's inception. Furthermore, what if the P word happens, imagine the revenues that would stream in from that, not only for 2008, but also for 2009. The new ballpark may become more of a reality with an excited fan base.
Additionally, keep in mind that the Rays do not have a whole lot of major holes within the current roster. The club we see on the field today, should not be much different from the club we see on the field in 2010. Making certain prospects untouchable is reasonable, however, if the club can find a way to land a starter in CC Sabathia, a reliever Heath Bell, Brian Fuents, or George Sherrill, and a hitter like Raul Ibanez. I am certain the Rays have enough chips to make trades such as these while not affecting the long term plans of the franchise.
In a weekly column by Jayson Stark of ESPN he concludes that the Rays are in fact for real. The debate continued with a live chat where presumably Sox fans jeered at all of the injuries the Red Sox have accumulated. Each of those who brought that point up negated the fact that Kazmir missed all of April, Pena missed all of May, and Percival missed most of May. While the injuries are less, this is to be expected as young players traditionally have fewer injury issues.
Stark, and certain Sox-haters point out that the Rays had the toughest first half schedule, that things will presumably get easier before they get harder. Furthermore, the Rays, as Stark mentions, have an outstanding record against teams with a .500+ winning percentage. In fact, the Rays have the best winning percentage against these teams.
Also working in favor of the Rays is their sudden home field advantage. While the club performs well on the road (one of 4 AL teams with a winning record away), the home record is outstanding, and has become a downright advantage since the end of April. Additionally, Nate Silver of Baseball Prospectus writes (subscription required) that the Rays have traditionally been particularly strong at home.