More than Sushi: Devil Rays Make a Swim for the Top
Can Tampa Bay make a wildcard run?
Like the 2003 Royals who preceded them, this season’s edition of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays have made a mockery of preseason fortune telling. No one but Spielberg’s precogs could have predicted the Devil Rays’ winning record through July 2, but with the Rays only 3 1/2 games back of Boston for second place it now appears Lou Pinella’s plucky band of small-ballers have yet a possibility of joining Boston’s alliterative gang of phantoms (e.g., Bucky, Buckner, Boone, and the Babe) in devastating the Red Sox Nation’s psyche at season’s end.
Even with last week’s wretched sweep in New York, however, Boston still bails out the Pequod while fixated on their white whale in the standings above. The Flatfish below them are yet considered to be little more than a sushi-like snack on the way to a wild-card battle – precocious winning streaks notwithstanding. For the Rays, however, all is goodness and light. A recent mini-crisis illustrates: Having established a non-losing record for nearly a solid week, Tampa Bay dropped back to .500 Thursday courtesy a 14-0 shellacking at the hands of the Blue Jays, the worst home shutout in the Rays ignominious history. Since this came on the eve of a gulag-like road trip – 11 games in 10 days, seven coming against last year’s World Series teams – few would have been shocked to see Tampa Bay wither and end their presumptuous assertion that they can attain a higher caste. The collapse did not come - just as it didn’t when the Blue Jays ended the Rays’ 12-game winning streak on June 23. Though the losing may still occur, the Devil Rays continued to show resiliency in the road trip’s early go as they beat the Marlins and the All-Star worthy Carl Pavano 4-2 Friday night.
Friday’s win brought the Rays’ record since May 20 to 29-10, a neat juxtaposition of the 10-28 record the team posted prior to that point. The Rays’ 20-6 June easily bested their record for wins in a month, but that minor historical note pales to the achievement of becoming the first team in baseball history to climb back from such a deep hole to post a winning record. (The 1899 Louisville Colonels broke even, but could only give winning territory a neighborly salute.) The question remains, however, whether Tampa Bay’s winning is the legitimate progress of a newly solid major league team, or simply the fluke of scheduling and the timing of random players’ individual hot streaks.
The Rays schedule, however, held no favors over the past 39 games. Of the 29 wins, a respectable 18 came against teams now at or above .500. Ten of those wins were against teams currently leading or within 2.5 games of leading their divisions. The Rays have been fortunate in occasionally avoiding teams’ best pitchers – in beating the Marlins four times, the Rays didn’t face Dontrelle Willis, Josh Beckett, or Brad Penny, and the Giants didn’t send Jason Schmidt against the Rays in their three-game series. Even so, the pitchers the Rays did beat could form an acceptable All-Star roster, including Randy Johnson, Johan Santana, Roy Halladay, Brad Radke, John Lieber, C.C. Sabathia, Pavano, and a streaking Brian Lawrence. The team has been lucky in one-run games, going 8-2 over the streak, but that kind of luck is common for streaking teams. (The 2002 A’s went 6-1 in one-run games during their 31-5 sprint in August/September.)
But with all the winning against good teams, the Rays still appear to be doing it more with force of personality than by performance. The team is 12th in the AL in runs scored, 10th in runs allowed, and their Pythagorean record stands at 35-42. (Thursday’s 14-0 embarrassment was worth two losses according to Pythagoras.) The Devil Rays are true to species and swim at the bottom of nearly every statistical area of interest – their team batting is compositely no higher than 11th out of the 14 teams in hits (13th), doubles (13th), home runs (12th), striking out (13th), taking walks (11th), on base percentage (11th), slugging (11th), and OPS (12th). The pitching is objectively no better – their league rankings for strikeouts per 9 innings (13th), walks allowed (13th), home runs allowed (13th), hit batsmen (last), and wild pitches (11th) indicate that this is the same bad pitching staff that has led the team to last place records as long as the Rays have existed.
Offensively, the only thing the team has done well is run – they’re second in the league with 23 triples, second in steals, and fourth in steal percentage. Since few teams have run their way to a winning record in the absence of other skills, how is the team winning?
For one thing, in an odd way no one can hit their pitching. Tampa Bay’s pitching/defense combination has turned the team into a True Outcomes pitching staff. Devil Rays pitchers plunk people, walk them, and give up home runs, but they don’t allow hits – opponents are batting a league second-worst .259. This is in part due to the Devil Rays having an athletic pitching staff whose pitches move so wickedly that pitchers can’t control them and batters can’t hit them – Victor Zambrano being the chief example, but Dewon Brazelton and Jesus Colome starting to fit into this category as well. However, enlightened sabermetricians know that pitchers can’t control balls hit in play – the Rays DIPS ERA is a very bad 5.13.
Even so, the key term in DIPS – “Defense Independent” – suggests how much the Rays defense has backed its pitchers. Although MGL’s UZR ratings are not yet available for 2004, the Rays defense will almost surely be found to be very good by that metric. The outfield combination of Jose Cruz, Carl Crawford, and Rocco Baldelli has been called the league’s defensive best. Likewise, the middle infield combination of Julio Lugo – still a tremendously underrated all-around player – and a defensively re-emerging Rey Sanchez has been consistently solid.
More importantly, the experiment of moving Aubrey Huff back to third base appears to have paid off admirably. Although UZR will be able to better determine Huff’s defensive ability, his range factor and zone ratings at the hot corner are superior to players such as Houston’s Morgan Ensberg and comparable to division rivals Melvin Mora and Eric Hinske – no Gold Gloves in this group, but legitimate big leaguers all. With the defensive struggles of Boston’s Bill Mueller, UZR just might find Huff to be the second-best defensive 3B in the AL East.
Regardless of defense and speed, however – the only two legitimate strengths of this still objectively weak team – the Rays gave no indication on May 19 that the team was about to make a historic run through their next six weeks’ schedule. That night, Curt Schilling shut the Rays down on five hits, 4-1, the final loss in a debilitating stretch that saw Tampa Bay go 3-19 and lower their record to a major league-worst 10-28. The Rays righted themselves somewhat and reeled off a 5-game win streak, but they still ended May with an 18-31 record.
One month later, the team stood at 38-37, with players assigning the team catchy nicknames (Lugo’s “Stinging Rays”), national sports programming leading off with Rays highlights, and Crawford noting, “It’s fun to be a Devil Ray,” perhaps the first time since “The Sword in the Stone” outtakes that those seven words have been found in combination.
The June explosion was sparked by the team’s bats, which went from limp spaghetti to lights out as the team out-hit, out-homered, and out-scored their opponents. The team OPS, .654 in April and .714 in May, increased to .800 in June, with Jose Cruz flashing the exciting bat that had been imagined about for years. Cruz had 12 extra-base hits (including 6 homers) and walked 20 times to post a 1.015 OPS in June. Although Cruz seriously slumped in April, his May and June performances were both over .900 OPS and Cruz’s OPS is now at .872, driven mostly by his 48 walks and .375 OBP.
It was the energetic and popular Crawford, however, who solidified his All-Star credentials with a transformative month that was by far his most complete to date. Consider Crawford’s performance of one year ago – in 2003 he posted a June line of .241/.291/.291, which yielded a .582 OPS and made his seven steals extraneous. This season, Crawford’s June went .345/.361/.517 with 11 more steals but also six doubles, four triples and two home runs. His 40 hits more than doubled last year’s June production, and his 60 total bases nearly tripled last year’s.
Crawford’s June performance was a follow-up to a decently – though not outstandingly – played April and May. The same cannot be said for Rey Sanchez, the peripatetic middle infielder who burst out with a .913 OPS in June, including two amazing home runs. The first, June 11 against the Rockies, was a walk-off, extra-inning, inside-the-park job that defined the Devil Rays month. The second, a three-run homer against the Blue Jays, was the light-hitting player’s first knock over the fences in more than two years. Like St. Rey I – the much maligned Rey Ordonez, who hit a full 216 OPS points higher than his career average in his stint with Tampa Bay last year – the second St. Rey II brought the baggage of a horrific offensive reputation to Tropicana Field, and has then preceded to hit like an actual major league player, at least for a month. In June, Sanchez batted .333/.366/.547 for a where-in-the-heck-did-that-come-from .913 OPS. Perhaps the only explanation for his month is Peter Parker’s friendly irradiated spider, since Sanchez’s OPS in the two previous months was .460 (April) and .462 (May), roughly the performance expected from a wax dummy of Barry Bonds.
Oddly though, Sanchez’s play was perhaps the only extraordinarily unusual performance in the entire Devil Rays lineup – other players are simply playing at the upper end of their expected range, with a bit of normal player development thrown in. Baldelli hit .313/.363/.475 in June, despite a strained quadriceps that forced him to DH duties and sapped his trademark speed down the baseline; Lugo’s .316/.407/.418 June line and strong defense has brought his name up in trade rumors; only Huff, who hit a disappointing three home runs for the month, was somewhat below expectation. Even so, Huff contributed with a .284/.373/.402 performance and has rebounded almost fully from an awful April.
Along with the bats, the Rays bullpen has kept the team in games and sealed down wins. Despite the team’s lack of previous overall success, the Rays bullpen has been quite solid ever since Pinella’s arrival in Tampa, a performance has now become somewhat spectacular. For the year, the Rays bullpen has posted a 3.60 ERA, fourth in the league, but Pinella has been riding the bullpen hard, largely because the starters have been wildly erratic, though mostly bad. The Rays June 22 game typifies the Rays pitching staff – and Pinella’s management of it – in microcosm. Chad Gaudin starts the first, gives up no hits but walks four batters, and gets yanked by Pinella after 2/3 of an inning. Four Rays relievers follow, who give up a combined three hits, one home run, two walks, a hit batsman, and seal down the 4-1 win. None of the four relievers were Jesus Colome, who consistently breaks 100 on the radar gun, blows away major league hitters, and now sports a nifty 1.00 ERA, nor Dany Baez, who can sometimes flash a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy that can make the 9th inning an excruciation, despite his own decent ERA of 2.97. (For an example of Baez’s white-knuckle follies, witness the Rays’ July 2 win over the Marlins.)
Gaudin and his compadres in the starting rotation have offered little respite for the bullpen, though Lurch Henderson did put a mini-run together in June until the wheels fell of in the aforementioned 14-0 loss Thursday. The one minor exception to the rotation’s erratic play has been the wondrous, happy emergence of former 1st round pick Dewon Brazelton. Although only 24, Brazelton has seemingly been a prospect since the Devil Rays flopped out of the primordial ooze. Drafted out of high school at age 18, the Rays were contractually obligated to bring Brazelton up in 2001 (he didn’t play). They brought him up again in 2002 and 2003, but he pitched poorly. This season, Brazelton has become the younger, perhaps better, version of Wildman Victor Zambrano, and has allowed opposing players a paltry .220 batting average, but starts fires with his five walks per nine innings.
The Devil Rays performance to this point offers conflicting evidence that they can sustain their recent winning ways. Their overall season performance and standard sabermetric analysis suggests not – overshooting one’s Pythagorean record by four wins is not unprecedented, but is hard to sustain and suggests that some regression will occur. Additionally, the team’s bullpen cannot continue to compensate for such poor starting pitching. On the other hand, the team’s defense will likely continue to excel and the hitting gains of still-developing players like Crawford, Baldelli, Lugo, and Cruz will likely be maintained to some degree. Rookies like B.J. Upton and Joey Gathright could provide sparks if they can handle the bigs – Gathright looks promising right now, if somewhat raw in the field, and Upton would be an offensive upgrade on the regular-edition Rey. A .500 record is definitely within reach, but the starting pitching could seriously undermine the team.
As of this writing, the Rays are 5.5 games out of the Wild Card lead. Although the Rays would have to compete against the likes of Anaheim, Minnesota, Oakland, Texas, and Boston to stay in the race, at this point in the season expectations have to ratchet up. The ideal direction for this team to take would be to trade from its stockpile of touted minor leaguers to gain at least one, hopefully two legitimate starting pitchers – hopefully those who can contribute in future years. But even if the team stands pat and shoots for third place and a .500 record, such a finish would mark a tremendous achievement for a team whose pre-season vow to not end in last place drew widespread guffaws. If ownership pulls their usual tricks of dumping emerging stars like Julio Lugo and keeping mediocrities like Rey Sanchez, the goodwill the team has earned from its fans over the past six weeks will burn like a gossamer thread.
Posted: July 03, 2004 at 07:29 PM | 10 comment(s)
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