I, admittedly, have been swamped of late. Between teaching, managing a band and this website, as well as a personal life, I sadly have missed out on a lot of great things — including the annual Playing Pepper web series I so dearly love. Such is life, I suppose. Thankfully Spring Break offers me a reprieve of sorts. While it is already too late to take part in Playing Pepper, with the start of the new baseball season tomorrow, I do have an opportunity to answer the questions Doug sent to me for my inclusion in this year’s edition of the series.
Without further adieux…
What are your thoughts on the offseason? Did the club improve over the winter?
In spite of the major psychological hit the team (and fan base) took after Evan Longoria, Jake Odorizzi, Steven Souza Jr. and Corey Dickerson were traded away, the Rays neither improved nor got worse over the offseason. Back in February, before Black Saturday, the Rays were projected by PECOTA to go 84-78 on the season — the exact same projected W/L record as in 2017 — and PECOTA hasn’t really deviated from that projection since; +/- one win or loss.
Because the team is bereft of high powered veterans, as RJ Anderson (Baseball Prospectus) noted, a lot of things have to go right for Tampa Bay if it is going to hit the 83 or 84 high water mark projection:
I’m focusing on the postseason part more than the 83-win projection part. At minimum, Kiermaier has to stay healthy, and Snell and Faria have to be legitimate above-average starters. You can also throw in that the bullpen has to way overachieve and the lineup has to have most/all the question marks (Denard Span, Brad Miller, C.J. Cron, Wilson Ramos, Matt Duffy) avoid injury and cratering. Oh, and the kids probably have to hit the ground running, especially Adames. That we can list so many things reveals why it’s hard to take the projection seriously―it feels like there are bigger error bars here than with most teams.
What’s the focus of this club this season? Pitching, defense, hitting?
All of the above.
Pitching wise, the Rays have opted to go with a hybrid four-man starting rotation. After Chris Archer, Nathan Eovaldi, Jacob and Blake Snell, we’ll get a day of Matt Andriese/Austin Pruitt/Triple-A guys. That leaves Jose Alvarado, Yonny Chirinos, Alex Colome, Andrew Kittredge, Chaz Roe, Sergio Romo and Ryan Yarbrough in the ‘pen. The pitching projections are good, and the computers have Tampa Bay allowing the fifth fewest runs in the American League at 696.
As for defense, the Rays are projected for best FRAA (fielding runs above average) in the league. The team is banking on staying competitive in the American League East by being better at catching the ball.
Our defense as a whole is just really, really nice, Chris Archer said. We’ve got three center fielders in the outfield. Whoever plays second is going to be a really good defender. Our catching situation is the best it’s been since I’ve been here.
Matt Duffy has already shown how good of a third baseman he is. And (Adeiny Hechavarria) is one of the top defensive shortstops in the league. … I wouldn’t be surprised if we have the best overall defense in the league if this group stays together and stays on the field.
Last season the Rays showed well in some of the advanced defensive metrics, most notably leading the majors with +88 DRS and ranking fourth best by Baseball Prospectus in turning batted balls into outs.
However, the team made the ninth most errors (100), posted the ninth worst fielding percentage (.983), turned the fifth fewest double plays (129) and allowed the fifth most unearned runs (66).
To solve that, the Rays made a point at solidifying the defense during Spring Training, specifically in drills designed to be done at game speed.
Where we’re better is we’re going to catch the ball better in theory, Rays manager Kevin Cash said. We’re going to show more range, more range in the infield, more range in the outfield. We’re going to make routine plays at a better clip than maybe what we’ve done in the past, not to say we were bad at it.
We all know the margin of error is very slim. We play a lot of tight ballgames, that’s due in large part because we’ve shown the ability to pitch. One hiccup on defense can be game-changing.
The Rays are projected for the lowest on-base percentage and slugging percentage in the American League, and the fourth-lowest True Average (Tav; a measure of total offensive value scaled to batting average). Part of that has to do with the losses of Dickerson, Logan Morrison and Souza, who combined for 93 home runs, a +9.9 WAR, and an All-Star berth. However, they all each ranked among the top 10 in whiffs on four-seam fastballs.
As Travis Sawchik (FanGraphs) noted, the Rays sought out replacements that fare better against four-seam fastballs:
C.J. Cron, who essentially replaces Dickerson, is a much more adept fastball hitter. Cron whiffed on just 21% of four-seamers last season and hit .297 against them. Carlos Gomez fills some of the Souza void — and, while Gomez has plenty of swing and miss in his game, he’s been slightly better against four-seamers the last two seasons, posting .253 and .243 averages, respectively.
With all the data available MLB clubs, teams are likely only to further try and exploit such weaknesses. Perhaps there is feeling within the Rays, specifically, that not only is this an exploitable weakness, but also one that is difficult to improve.
If the Rays are going to be competitive, they will have to rely less on the long ball and more on OBP and hitting for contact as a team.
What’s one thing people may overlook (either positively or negatively) about this team?
There is a perception that, because the Rays have a relatively small fanbase, as compared to other teams in the league, the fans don’t care about the team or the product the front office puts on the field. Yet that couldn’t be further from the truth. Sure, the attendance numbers are not what they could/should be, but a lot of that has to do with the tail that is wagging the dog.
The reality is that we are passionate about the Rays, and there are valid reasons for why fans have turned away from the ball club … even if those reasons aren’t acknowledged by the ownership, or may be overlooked by a local media that is more consumed by easily digestible, yet low hanging, narratives.
It is incumbent upon the ownership to make conciliations to the fan base, and frankly act as though it cares about those it expects to attend ball games, as much as the bottom line.
Or to put it another way:
Spending more money would be helpful ― they reportedly received $50 million in revenue sharing; another $50 million from the BAMtech sale; and are closing in on a television deal reportedly worth another $80 million per year ― but whether they feel the same way is to be determined, writes Anderson.
Who is the one key player, the guy that must have a good year for the Rays to do well?
The easiest answer would be the whole squad.