That Rays Magic

Closer attention is being paid to the Tampa Bay Rays and their “way”.

A large part of this is because of Jonah Keri’s book, The Extra 2%.

The hunger for a template in how to build a team using different methods was what created the myth of Moneyball and resulted in the disastrous attempts inside and outside of baseball to follow and validate that fantasy written by Michael Lewis.

Keri’s book is not twisted in the manner of Moneyball; it simply tells how the Rays have accomplished what they have within a tight budget in a hellish division. There’s no pompous, unsaid but clear statement, “this is the way you should do it or you’re a moron” inherent in the telling of the Rays tale.

And it’s why they’re built to last regardless of free agent defections; necessary trades; lack of financial resources and whatever other obstacles pop into their collective paths.

In 2011, they’re again defying conventional wisdom as they’ve rebounded from a rotten start to climb into first place in a division that still houses the Yankees and Red Sox along with the improving Blue Jays and Orioles.

So how have they done it this time?

Like in Keri’s book, it’s been a combination of luck, intelligence and putting their team into a position to succeed by executing the fundamentals correctly.

Let’s take a look how they Rays are at it again.

A blessing in disguise.

Manny Ramirez‘s retirement saved the Rays nearly $2 million. Presumably, had he held out in his contention that he didn’t use any PEDs that led to the failed drug test and precipitated his sudden retirement, they wouldn’t have had to pay him, but the money for Manny’s contract might’ve been tied up throughout the process of his investigation. To the Rays, that money isn’t an incidental cost—they need every penny they can get. With Manny off the books, that gives them nearly $2 million to add at mid-season in a deal.

I’m not convinced that Manny was completely finished despite his 1 for 17 start with no walks; he still had to be pitched to carefully and that would’ve held true into June—by then, other teams might’ve said, “let’s just pitch to Manny, he looks done”. Eventually, the Rays would’ve had no choice but to release him and pay the full freight.

Once Manny was gone, the Rays were free to move Johnny Damon to DH and insert Sam Fuld into the lineup. I’m not a believer in Fuld—midnight’s about to strike on his Cinderella story—but the Rays have gotten far more from Fuld than anyone could reasonably have expected; he can run and play great defense, two things that are constant whether he hits or not.

Desmond Jennings is murdering the ball in Triple A and it won’t be long before he’s up in the big leagues and playing left field in place of Fuld—that might not have happened this season had Manny hung around.

Pitching, speed and defense lead the way.

How is it possible that the Rays, with a gutted bullpen, injuries to Damon and Evan Longoria and a bunch of journeymen like Felipe Lopez, Kyle Farnsworth, Fuld and Casey Kotchman leading the way are still near the top of the tough AL East?

They have the speed to get to balls other clubs don’t and they catch it when they get there; they’re leading the American League in fielding percentage.

Bolstered by the confidence that balls that are kept in the ballpark are going to be caught, their pitchers throw strikes.

It’s easy to reference pitchers from the Rays past who’ve come into games and racked up massive strikeout numbers like Grant Balfour and Joaquin Benoit; but this year’s bullpen is an entirely new cast from the crew that was dispatched after last year and this staff is 12th in the American League in strikeouts.

More important than the strikeouts, they don’t walk anyone and allow few homers.

Could it be that the key to the Rays unlocking the aggravating abilities in Farnsworth and Juan Cruz—disparaged and dumped veterans both—are that simple? That they no longer has to worry about striking everyone out and can concentrate on keeping the ball down and in the ballpark confident in the knowledge that if there’s a defender anywhere close, he’ll catch it?

Maybe.

Hot starts and the beneficial schedule.

After he’d been knocked all over the place in the past two seasons, no one could’ve expected the hot start from James Shields.

Casey Kotchman is hitting .346.

You read that right.

Casey Kotchman is hitting .346.

Matt Joyce is hitting .369.

Ben Zobrist is back to being Zorilla.

Damon, Dan Johnson and Fuld have all gotten big hits or made game-saving defensive plays.

Had any of these occurrences not come to pass, the Rays would probably be hovering around .500 or worse.

The schedule has been an advantage for them as well.

The Rays 0-6 start was accumulated against a hot and enthusiastic Buck Showalter-led Orioles club and the Angels in games pitched by Jered Weaver and Dan Haren. This was seen as a portent of a long season in Tampa.

But they righted the ship against the Red Sox as they too staggered out of the gate; they then fattened their record against the Twins, White Sox and falling-to-earth Orioles.

They’ve yet to play the Yankees and have the rough part of their schedule upcoming. They have to play the Marlins, Reds and Cardinals in inter-league play in addition to the regular matchups against the AL East.

Presumably, they’ll run into inevitable lulls because of playing better teams; but the Rays way isn’t a negligible bit of fundamental correctness. They have the players to execute their plan because they can run and catch the ball.

It’s a cohesiveness that permeates the club from top-to-bottom and it all starts with that small aspect of range and glovework. It’s extended to the pitching staff and overcomes an offense that was without their MVP candidate Longoria until last week and has relied on the aged; the journeyman; the young players who are trying to establish themselves.

It seems easy to say, “throw strikes and we’ll catch the ball”, but if it’s so easy, why don’t other teams do it?

Could it be that other teams don’t have the athletes to execute the plan? That the pitchers don’t trust their fielders to handle so many balls as flawlessly as the Rays do? That the Rays speed in the field extends to running the bases and they score enough to support the pitching staff that has garnered confidence from that defense?

It’s a cycle.

A cycle to win.

Given their upcoming schedule, I’m not prepared to jump on the Rays bandwagon as so many have (some of whom jumped off after the terrible start); but they’ll be competitive for the reasons elucidated above; and if they’re competitive late in the season, they’re dangerous.

Because they do the little things right.

And that ain’t Moneyball.

****

Please purchase my book, Paul Lebowitz’s 2011 Baseball Guide. It’s good for fantasy players. For real and not fantasy.

I published a full excerpt of my book here; it’s creepily accurate.

It’s available now. Click here to get it in paperback or E-Book on I-Universe or on Amazon or BN. It’s also available via E-book on Borders.com.

It’s out on Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook.

If anyone would like to purchase an autographed copy, leave a comment; Email me; contact me on Facebook or Twitter.

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