Thanks to Ian from The Rays Tank, for penning another excellent piece for us!
By: Ian Welsh
Identity crisis, the definition for this season. The season looked quite bright for most fans after the end of spring training. The Roberto Hernandez experiment looked strong, Rodney just dominated planet earth in the WBC — continuing his strong showing from last season, we gained some new pieces and it seemed we could weather the loss of Davis and Shields. We got to know new players like Kelly Johnson, James Loney, Juan Sandoval and Shelly Duncan, we learned to accept Escobar, we saw what a healthy Scott looked like, Longoria seemed ready, we saw dominance from prospects like Lueke, O’Malley, Figueroa, Anderson, Archer, Romero and Lee. Finally, we got to see our big pick ups, Myers and Odorizzi. Things looked great, especially following comments by Rays skipper Joe Maddon regarding the team’s strength as compared to previous rosters. But the wheels fell of quickly…
Pitching has been this teams hallmark. Forget defense, scrappy play, or speed, our fear factor is dominant pitching. But that certainly wasn’t the case the first few weeks, especially from the usual suspects. Price and Hellickson looked like rookies, and the bullpen lost its bite — especially All-Star closer Fernando Rodney, and flame throwing lefty Jake McGee. Roberto Hernandez also looked like a problem early on, and before we could even see a reversal of Niemann’s fate, he was out for the season having to undergo right shoulder surgery. To add insult to injury, Tampa Bay also started without its designated hitter, after Scott was placed on the DL a week before the start of the season. The Rays brought up Shelly Duncan to take his place, though he performed a lot like Luke Scott from last season. Surprisingly, the games weren’t lost because of the starters or lack of offense, they were being lost by the bullpen.
April brought some hope. Much to everyone’s surprise, Moore and Cobb carried the team for almost all of April. Moore, who was a question mark last season and shaky during spring training, found his groove. Sure he walked too many batters, but he worked around them and reintroduced us to the young lefty we fell in love with when he showed Texas and New York he wasn’t scared. Moore found this flicker of confidence, growing to the point we thought we were looking at Price on the mound. Moore won all five decisions in April, boasting a 1.13 ERA and only giving up four earned runs and three homers, with 38 strikeouts over 32 innings pitched. And Cobb looked like a grizzled veteran. Cobb ate innings and went long into games, picking up where Shields left off. Cobb had a 3-2 record with a 2.55 ERA over five starts by the end of the first month of play, all the while racking up 27 strike outs in 35-1/3 innings of work, while giving up only 10 earned runs. The key to his success: keeping cool under pressure. We’ve seen him get shaky before with runners in scoring position. However this season opponents have hit just .214 off him when runners are on second and/or third.
April ended with a 12-14 record, and it seemed like Maddon’s predictions were off. Our Cy Young winner looked like a has-been, our offense was anemic and our keystone, pitching, had crumbled. We also had a abysmal record against our own division and teams deemed “must win.” The month ended on an upswing though. Fans began spouting off on the need to bring up the Rays number one prospect — MLB’s overall number four prospect — Wil Myers. But those calls would be deemed premature, and soon the Rays saw a turn around.
Something that Rays fans have gotten used to over the past few years happened: We fell in love with our new free agent first baseman. James Loney came out of nowhere and surprised us all. The entire month of May was really about Loney. He was hitting .398 by May 5th with 33 hits, 14 RBI’s and a .987 OPS. It seemed like he got a hit every time he came to the plate. Every time he was needed to produce, he drove in a run. He also kept up with power hitters like Cabrera and the new look stud, Chris Davis. Something clicked for him, after all he was hitting .213 with 17 hits, 6 RBI’s and a .617 OPS the same time last season. The Rays saw a triumphant return of stellar defense at every position, due in part Loney.
Kelly Johnson heated up quickly as well, showing power with a .442 slugging percentage and a .328 average with runners in scoring position (a .318 average with RISP and two outs). Johnson has also been a surprisingly good outfielder, proving valuable. The lineup’s production was bolstered by a healthy Longo who is having his best year since 2010, and Matt Joyce, who — true to form — kept with a early show of production. The infield impressively resembled that of the 2008 Rays, after floundering in 2012. Longoria and Loney became the best corner combo in franchise history, while Escobar’s slow start was made up for by he having the most amazing range I’ve seen from a shortstop in awhile. We even saw production from Luke Scott, something we haven’t seen out of a DH since the days of Canseco.
Tampa Bay began to claw back in May, thanks to something we never thought we would see from a Rays team — Run production. Low scoring games with domination from the mound had always been the Rays MO. But come May, Tampa Bay was scoring five, six, seven, sometimes even eight runs a game. It scared me, to be honest. I dreaded getting comfortable with this. I thought it was just a fluke, but a fluke it was not. And though we kept in the race, it felt like we were falling out of contention the entire time… At least in my mind. We saw production from our new pieces, but not everything was cheery. Though we got back into the race, Tampa Bay was in third and fourth over this stretch. Pitching was still an issue, but the bullpen began to find its groove. The Rays wins were predicated on how well Loney and Longoria were doing: When things cooled off for them, it seemed to bring us back to biting our nails.
Tampa Bay had a 18-10 record by the end of May. Gaining ground in the division, Tampa Bay started to find a sense of normalcy with pitching. But not everything was peachy. Price still wasn’t effective, inevitably being placed on the DL because of a triceps strain. Hellickson was giving up homers like it was cool, our catchers were non-effective automatic outs, Zobrist — lynchpin of this team — was struggling, and Jennings had lost his spark. Furthermore, Hernandez was still not cutting it, and the pendulum swung back to the dark side by the end in June.
A tough schedule mixed with slumping offense did the Rays in for 3/4 of the month. Pitching ultimately kept Tampa Bay afloat. Moore and Cobb held the team together, while Hellickson started to find his confidence… Even Hernandez began to find his groove. But the team was still up and down, splitting series’ against division opponents. Longoria and Loney had cooled down, Jennings was slumping so bad that Maddon took him out of the lead off spot and replaced him with Joyce, and platoons were used more often, giving Johnson, Rodriguez and Fuld more time on the field. Even Scott saw time on first and in left field. Injuries began to take a toll on the pitching staff, forcing Lueke and Torres to be recalled from Triple-A Durham. What’s more, the prospect of Fernando Rodney being sat down due to his lackluster performance became an ever present one, while Joel Peralta began to show signs of wear and tear.
Then on June 15th, Alex Cobb incurred a mild concussion after being hit in the head by an Eric Hosmer line drive. Jake Odorizzi was brought up then sent back down, while Chris Archer and Alex Colome were brought up to stop the bleeding while not one, but two key starters were placed on the DL — one of which was holding the team together. Something happened by June 18th, the pendulum swung back to the side of good. The Rays decided it was time and brought up Wil Myers, and he seemed to be the catalyst to get the team going in the right direction. The Rays have been 18-8 since Myers was called up.
The team rode this into July with everything on the up and up. Loney, Longoria, Johnson, and Escobar found their stride once more, while Jennings started to break through. Not doing well for the better part of the first half, Jenning’s has a .304 (.280 wRISP) BA and an .888 OPS, with 11 RBI and 12 extra base hits in 102 at bats since the June 18th. And he started to tear up the base paths, swiping seven bags in that stretch.
The most harped on position for the Rays, the catchers have added to the teams production. Molina, who most the time would be better substituted by a bat boy, is hitting .252 on the season (.283 since June 18th) with a .370 OBP and a .296 average on the road. It should be noted that his production dropped in July. Lobaton is hitting .270 on the season, with 20 RBI and four homers. He’s also hitting well with runners on base, having a .361 BA wRISP, a .300 BA with two outs, a .429 BA with bases loaded, and a .284 BA with a runner on first. A switch hitter by trade, Lobaton has an even split against righties and lefties, and is hitting .291 at the Trop. But I’m more impressed by the fact he’s starting to throw out base runners. Once abysmal behind the plate, Lobaton has a pick-off machine.
The much maligned Luke Scott has also been productive in that stretch posting a .333 BA/1.032 OPS with four homers and 13 RBI, while hitting .404 wRISP, and .350 wRISP and two outs. Loney is hovering in the top 10 in the league, sitting with a .315 BA, while getting the job done wRISP, hitting .295. Wil Myers closed out the first half with a productive .288 BA (.353 with two outs and RISP), 15 RBI and three stolen bases. But not everything is sunshine and rainbows on the offense.
Longoria had a set back due to plantar fasciitis and is just now starting to claw his way back. Credit where it’s due, Longo has hammered 18 homers on the year. Kelly Johnson has hit .235 since the 18th , while Joyce is hitting .157. Zobrist is also in the cellar with a .235 average and .310 OBP, though he’s still posting a .299 BA with RISP.
The bullpen — especially McGee, Peralta and Rodney — have gotten their act together. Peralta has struck out 10 and batters in 9-2/3 innings, holding hitters to a .171 BA in 13 appearances since June 17th. McGee has given up only two earned runs in 11 innings of work, walking only three and striking out 14. He’s held batters to a .111 BA, accruing seven holds, and earning his first professional save against Minnesota on July 11th. And Rodney has returned to his powerhouse ways, in spades. Putting together 11 innings over an 11 appearance span, Rodney has not relinquished an earned run, while walking only one and wringing up 19. The Rays closer has held opponents to a .195 BA, wracking up eight saves and a win against Detroit on June 29th.
The Rays starters have showed the same gusto. Archer has gone from a jumpy young buck, to a composed strike hurler. Tampa Bay has recorded five consecutive wins with Archer on the mound. He’s logged in 32 innings with 22 strike outs and a opponents average of .193, while giving up only six runs in that stretch — His last start against Houston being a complete game shut out. Hellickson is riding the same winning streak, racking up 31 K’s in 32 innings of work, while giving up only seven runs and walks. Helly’s also boasted a .224 opponents average.
Moore has continued his pace to put his name in a bid for the Cy Young, going 5-for-5 with 40 strikeouts over 33 innings, while lowering his walks and upping his innings pitched. Hernandez has even showed hope, eating innings and winning his last two decisions before the break. The Rays ace is back in the rotation and sitting opponents down at a record pace. Price put together two complete games since his return, going at least seven innings in each of his first three outings since coming off the DL. He has recorded 18 strikeouts in 25 innings, posting a 75% K/BB while giving up only three earned runs and no walks.
So what can we take away from Tampa Bay so far? Four key things: warmed up, streaky, defense and RISP.
Warmed up. It has taken until June for the pitching staff to get to the form we are used to, but now the Rays are right where they were projected to be. Price has been the biggest surprise. Suffice to say, Tampa Bay lives and dies with pitching. The team felt like it was treading water until now.
Streaky. The offense is streaky, but thankfully not all at the same time. It goes something like this: Three main parts hit a hot streak all at once. When they cool down, three more pick up the steam from there. That has been the tale this season — Loney, Longo and Johnson heat up and Scott, Escobar and Zobrist cool down until it is their turn. Then vice versa, rinse and repeat.
Defense. In my opinion, this is the best infield defense we have ever had, even better than 2008. Our infield is one of the top five in all of baseball, and Longoria is at the top of his game. When he is on, all of them are on. Escobar has made it so Longoria doesn’t have to over exert himself, while Zobrist has held down a steady second base, and Loney’s been exceptional at first.
RISP. Tampa Bay has never done well with runners in scoring position, however the entire team is pulling its weight when it needs to. They’ve been able to effectively move runners on the base paths, and drive in runners. The Rays are manufacturing runs and hustling; Myers is legging out doubles, Jennings is stealing his way into scoring position, and Lobi and Scott and are bringing men in. It’s a cycle that needs to continue if this team wants to go to the playoffs again.
Here we are at the symbolic start of the second half, and the Rays are faced with a handful of pros and cons moving forward. The pros? Run production, the pitching is coming around, and solid defense. The cons? The fact that key players aren’t where they need to be. Streaky run production isn’t sustainable, and we can’t survive on it like we have. Zobrist and Joyce need to pick up their production, and Johnson needs to wait on pitches — Don’t chase pitches out of the zone as a means to make something happen.
It’s time to see if the rest and reflection offered by the All-Star Break can help keep this ship on a steady course, and they can use their recent success as momentum going forward. If they can, this team has it in them to go far in the playoffs.