Just How Good Are The Rays?

The Tampa Bay Rays are 13-5 in the 2010 season, a record that is fully supported by the best run differential in baseball (+44). It is, of course, still very early, but there’s no question about which team is the best in the game right now. It’s the Rays.

Given their utter dominance so far, I expected to see some pretty outlandish numbers on their team page. You know, things like Juan Uribe hitting .310/.373/.483, or Bengie Molina hitting .313/.370/.417, or any other line that is so obviously unsustainable for an established player. The Rays are on pace to win 116 games, so it seemed likely that there were at least a few hot starts that would inevitably cool the team back down to a more reasonable 95-win pace. So it seemed.

After even a cursory look at the players’ numbers, however, it’s conceivable that the Rays haven’t even peaked yet. Consider all of the following:

  • Jason Bartlett is hitting .250/.305/.316. He’s projected to hit .286/.353/.412.
  • Ben Zobrist is hitting .271/.329/.414. He’s projected to hit .268/.368/.463.
  • Pat Burrell is hitting .239/.308/.391. He’s projected to hit .223/.338/.395.
  • Dioner Navarro is hitting .136/.208/.159. He’s projected to hit .257/.315/.387.
  • Sean Rodriguez is hitting .233/.303/.367. He’s projected to hit .239/.327/.438.
  • Willy Aybar is hitting .217/.250/.522. He’s projected to hit .261/.339/.427.

The most amazing (or terrifying, as a Yankees fan) thing is that the remainder of the Rays’ c0re – B.J. Upton, Carlos Pena, Carl Crawford, and Evan Longoria – is performing right where you’d expect. Upton will probably lose some SLG and gain some OBP, and Crawford might be in slightly over his head, but all four players are well within the range of expected outcomes. It’s quite possible that the Rays’ offense, which currently lead baseball in runs scored, is considerably better than what it’s shown.

Pitching is another matter for the Rays. While the Rays have numerous players under-performing offensively, they have been receiving uncharacteristically dominant work from their five starting pitchers. Take a look:

  • Matt Garza has a 2.17 ERA (3.08 FIP). His projected ERA is 4.12.
  • James Shields has a 3.96 ERA (5.53 FIP). His projected ERA is 3.91.
  • Jeff Niemann has a 3.27 ERA (5.10 FIP). His projected ERA is 4.59.
  • David Price has a 3.20 ERA (3.82 FIP). His projected ERA is 4.61.
  • Wade Davis has a 2.65 ERA (4.95 FIP). His projected ERA is 4.58.

Using FIP, we can tell that all of the Rays’ starters have been lucky to varying degrees. Garza has been a little lucky, but has mostly pitched brilliantly. Shields, Niemann, and Davis are walking a bit of a tightrope, and should see their ERAs rise if they keep walking, striking out, and allowing homers at their current rates. Like Garza, price has benefited from a little luck, but he’s pitched very well. In the short term, we can tell that these starters are due for some regression.

But baseball is a long season, and the more pertinent question is what each starter’s ceiling is in 2010. Garza’s projected ERA seems just about right to me. His season FIPs have been strikingly consistent (4.57, 4.18, 4.14, and 4.17), so him ending up with an ERA around four makes a ton of sense. Shields, for exactly the same reason as Garza, should also end up with an ERA around four. Niemann is more of an innings-eater than a front of the rotation guy, so I can’t find much wrong with his projected ERA. Then there’s Price and Davis, who are the two wild cards in the Rays’ rotation. Both are 24 years old and possess dominant stuff. Health permitting, I’m quite willing to wager that they outperform their projected ERAs.

So the Rays have an under-performing offense, an over-performing pitching staff, and the best defense in baseball. To figure out how the Rays will do in 2010, the question becomes: by how much these units are under or over-performing? And really, it’s quite close. The Rays’ key hitters are right on track, but four or five spots in the lineup aren’t hitting up to their norms. That’s substantial under-performance. At the same time, Rays’ starters are second in the American League with a 3.04 ERA. That’s substantial over-performance (in 2009, the White Sox boasted the AL’s second best starting rotation. Their ERA was 4.20). Ultimately, I think your (and my) outlook for their season comes down to how you feel about Wade Davis and David Price. If you believe, as I do, that they can and will have very good seasons, the Rays can win a hundred games. Their current 116-win pace is a little much, particularly because six of their games have come against Baltimore and four against the slumping Red Sox. But this team has an excellent offense, an excellent defense, and a high-upside pitching staff. Right now, it’s hard not to favor the Rays to win the division.

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