Last year, I couldn’t help but be a little bit captivated by the whole Rays phenomenon. I was a believer from even before the season started, though I admit to thinking they’d hit some kind of prolonged dry spell some time during the season that they never actually hit. They were an easy team to root for, with their speed, defense and teeming corps of young, exuberant starlets, especially as they took on the purportedly unbeatable Boston Beaneaters.
But you crazy kids had your dream season and enough is enough, right? Yesterday’s brash prodigy is today’s annoying punk. I’m sick of these brats and am looking forward to a fresh 2009 without them biting at our heels. They’re bound to regress, after jumping so many games from 2007, right? Not according to the NY Times’ Tyler Kepner in this article, here. He doesn’t go into too much depth, but he, and a growing trend of other pundits, seem to feel that they are for real, and many are predicting a second year of reigning atop the A.L. East. So what’s the deal? Are the Rays as good as they were last year (or even better) or are they likely to regress to a good, but probably sub 90 win team?
The biggest knock on the Rays is simple: they can’t score runs (supposedly). Looking at last year’s stats, that’s not necessarily true. They finished in the middle of the A.L. pack last year in runs scored (ninth), partly due to losing major contributors like Crawford, Navarro, Longoria, and Pena for large chunks of the season (none of them reached 500 ABs). Moreover, their WOBA was excellent (6th – just behind the Yanks), and their BABIP was a little high (sixth) but not alarmingly so (very comparable w/ the Yankees), so they shouldn’t see a major regression in that area. If anything, they should be a little better with the bats this year.
The Rays had one of the best staffs in baseball last year, allowing the 2nd fewest runs in the A.L. (671). Are they likely to repeat these numbers or was there an element of luck in their pitching success? If you want to make the argument for regression, Kepner already made it in his article, by saying,
“No other team in baseball had five pitchers make 27 starts apiece. That stability kept the bullpen fresh enough to post a 3.55 earned run average, fifth best in the majors.”
This is a telling stat. While the Yankee rotation was being ravaged by injuries, the Rays starters were eating innings like David Wells at the Sizzler buffet table. They are unlikely to get that lucky again.
The statistics also indicate that they were also lucky on the field. They led the league in lowest BABIP against (a shocking .285) and, while their ERA was 2nd in the league, their FIP was only average (9th), and this large discrepancy is often predictive of regression.
The problem with all these nice, encouraging statistics is that, unfortunately, you can’t look at them in a vacuum. There’s a reason why the Rays were so fortunate in those areas. The ages of the starters in their rotation are 24,24, 24, 25, and 26. That’s one of the main reason why no one got injured. They’re not so young that they’re getting the nagging 1st or 2nd year pitching injuries, but they’re obviously not old enough to be starting to break down. They’re all in that damned Goldilocks zone and they’re not likely to experience any major injuries (outside of Kazmir, perhaps) this year, either. Pitching injuries DO happen, however, even to 25 year-olds, so the Rays are not likely to get quite THAT fortunate again, but with Price in the wings and a host of high level prospect arms, they have guys who can fill in the rotation and gobble up inning in the pen, as well if need be.
Regarding the FIP and BABIP, there is an explanation for that, as well. It’s called defense. The Rays D is so good that they are likely to get a nice bump in those areas every year. It’s very tough to tell exactly how much of that was defense and how much was luck (interestingly, the Yankees were a shocking 2nd in FIP last year – just goes to show how bad THEIR defense was).
So I think the Rays are still a 90+ win team. It seems like they did have at least SOME luck in achieving what they did last season, but it’s tough to tell exactly how much. They might have a few more injuries to the staff and have a few more balls drop in than last year, but that should be offset by better lineup health and prospect who can take up the slack. Damn, I’m starting to hate these Rays. Rays, Rays, go away, come back again some other day.
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