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Tampa Bay Rays II: Do You Believe In Magic?

Posted By Cliff Corcoran On May 19, 2010 @ 5:24 pm In Cliff Corcoran,Series Preview | Comments Disabled

The Tampa Bay Rays have the best record in baseball and a three-game lead on the second-best Yankees in the American League East. At 28-11, the Rays are on a 116-win pace, and their run differential suggest they’ve been even better than that.

This trick is that, though the Rays have indeed been scoring a lot of runs, they’ve not been hitting much. Tampa Bay is second in the AL and third in the majors (behind the two defending pennant winners) in runs scored per game with 5.31, but they rank 17th in slugging, 18th in on-base percentage, 20th in batting average, and 19th in VORP. According to Baseball Prospectus’s Third-Order Winning Percentage, which figures a team’s expected record from run differential but takes the extra step of figuring their runs from their component parts (hits, walks, outs, etc.), the Rays should be “just” 23-16. That .590 winning percentage still puts them on a 96-win pace, but flips the standings with the Yankees three-games ahead at 26-13, a game better than the Bombers actual record and on a 108-win pace. That’s something to chew on the next two nights as the Yankees, even with a two-game sweep can’t catch the Rays in this series.

Looking at the roster, the only Rays who are hitting are Evan Longoria (raking at .318/.386/.596) and Carl Crawford (putting up a solid walk year at .313/.372/.510 with ten steals, though he’s been caught four times). Many expected a strong walk-year performance from Carlos Peña, but the man the Yankees let go has turned back into a pumpkin, hitting a mere .191/.310/.344. Ben Zobrist and Jason Bartlett are proving their 2009 power surges to be flukes. After combining for 41 homers a year ago, the don’t have a single long ball between them and are hitting a combined .257/.327/.346 on the season. Similarly, bounce-back candidates B.J. Upton and Pat Burrell haven’t bounced back. Upton is doing a fair job of replicating his miserable 2009 performance minus about 20 points of batting average, and the fork sticking out of Burrell’s back was causing so many issues with airport metal detectors that the Rays just up and released him last week, replacing him with former Ranger Hank Blalock. Job shares at second base and catcher haven’t produced much either (.243/.310/.400 and .231/.336/.300, respectively).

Despite all that, the Rays have scored nearly 20 percent more runs than they should have thanks to some team speed and clutch hitting (.301/.378/.485 as a team with runners in scoring position compared to .221/.302/.351 with the bases empty). Don’t expect that to continue (in fact, it has already begun to tail off a bit as the Rays were leading the majors in runs scored not that long ago). That puts the onus on the pitching and defense.

Despite all that, the Rays are on a record win pace. Why? Pitching and defense, of course [1]. Buoyed by the most efficient defense in the American League (in turning balls in play into outs, that is), the Rays have allowed a major league low 2.97 runs per game. To put that in perspective, no team in either league has allowed fewer than three runs per game over an entire season since 1972, when the Orioles and A’s both did it the year before the implementation of the designated hitter. Last year, the Dodgers and Giants were the stingiest teams in baseball in 2009 and both allowed 3.77 runs per game, as did the Blue Jays, who were the stingiest in 2008.

Rookie Wade Davis, who faces A.J. Burnett tonight, has the highest ERA of any of the Rays five starters. That inflated number is 3.38. As a group, the Rays’s starters, and they’ve only used five of them, have gone 21-6 with a 2.58 ERA while averaging nearly 6 2/3 innings per start. Three of those losses have been charged to Davis, and the Rays scored a total of five runs in those three loses. The Rays’ bullpen, meanwhile, has been merely the fifth best in baseball (by both ERA and WXRL).

The Rays can’t keep up that pace of run prevention, and they can’t keep scoring runs via clutch hitting alone, so it seems clear they won’t continue on their record winning pace. The only question is how much will they fall off their current pace, and can the Yankees take advantage. The two games this week will tell us a little, but not enough.

Jorge Posada is going for an MRI on his foot. Nick Swisher is still out with his sore biceps problem. Joba Chamberlain and Mariano Rivera both threw about 30 pitches last night. Sergio Mitre is also unavailable having started on Sunday. So, Mark Melancon remains in the Yankees’ eight-man bullpen and the bench consists of Ramiro Peña. If the Yanks can split these two games, they should be pleased. Get ‘em next time, boys. Let the rest of the league (the Rays have yet to face the Twins, Tigers, or Rangers) and the law of averages soften them up a bit first.

Tampa Bay Rays

2010 Record: 28-11 (.718)
2010 Pythagorean Record: 29-10 (.744)

Manager: Joe Maddon
General Manager: Andrew Friedman

Home Ballpark: Tropicana Field

Bill James Park Indexes (2007-2009):
LH Avg-100, LH HR-91
RH Avg-95, RH HR-96

Who’s Replaced Whom:

  • Hank Blalock has replaced Pat Burrell
  • John Jaso (minors) has replaced Kelly Shoppach (DL)
  • Joaquin Benoit has replaced Mike Ekstrom (minors)

25-man roster:

1B – Carlos Peña (L)
2B – Sean Rodriguez (R)
SS – Jason Bartlett (R)
3B – Even Longoria (R)
C – Dioner Navarro (S)
RF – Ben Zobrist (S)
CF – B.J. Upton (R)
LF – Carl Crawford (L)
DH – Hank Blalock (L)

Bench:

S – Willy Aybar (IF)
R – Gabe Kapler (OF)
L – John Jaso (C)
L – Reid Brignac (SS)

Rotation:

R – James Shields
R – Matt Garza
R – Jeff Niemann
L – David Price
R – Wade Davis

Bullpen:

R – Rafael Soriano
R – Dan Wheeler
L – Randy Choate
R – Grant Balfour
R – Lance Cormier
R – Joaquin Benoit
R – Andy Sonnanstine

Lineup:

R – Jason Bartlett (SS)
L – Carl Crawford (LF)
S – Ben Zobrist (RF)
R – Evan Longoria (3B)
L – Carlos Peña (1B)
L – Hank Blalock (DH)
R – B.J. Upton (CF)
S – Dioner Navarro/L – John Jaso (C)
R – Sean Rodriguez (2B)

15-day DL:

C – Kelly Shoppach (sprained right knee)
OF – Matthew Joyce (strained right elbow)
LHP – J.P. Howell (strained left shoulder)


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[1] of course: http://www.bronxbanterblog.com/2010/04/09/2010-tampa-bay-rays/

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