Tracy Ringolsby, a shameless Colorado Rockies homer, represents a dying breed of old-school baseball journalists. Ringolsby has been criticized a lot in the past for his ignorance when it comes to looking at new-age stats.
Today, though, his column on the Tampa Bay Rays reached a new low. Even for him, prompting me to pull a Fire Joe Morgan in an email to him.
Your column today sucked. Let's analyze why.
Tampa Bay's world championship hopes are living on borrowed time.
The challenge is for the Rays to cram in three more wins before time runs out.
They split the first two games of the World Series with the Phillies at the Tropicana Field and now head to Citizens Bank Park for the next three. Every day is a hold-your-breath moment for the Rays
Were the Tampa Bay Rays running on borrowed time when they won the American League East division, overtaking the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays? You see, baseball is a sport about achieving success in a marathon, not a sprint. Over the marathon of a 162-game season, the Rays proved that they were the very best team in the American League. Sure, the Los Angeles Angels had the most wins in the league, but they racked up a number of victories by beating up on teams in the mediocre teams in the West division. You may ignore stuff like that, Tracy, but smart people don’t.
The Rays then defeated the Chicago White Sox handily in the Division series, in only four games. They then took down the best organization in baseball, the Red Sox, in one of the most exciting ALCS in baseball history. The series kept all baseball fans on the edge of their seats, but they won two of the four games in the series in blowout fashion, embarrassing the Red Sox in Fenway Park. Then there was Game 5, which I assume led to you to write this ridiculous column. A team won 97 games in the best division in the majors and somehow “every day is now a hold-your-breath moment for the Rays.”
Well, what are you smoking, Tracy?
Let's face it, while this team that had never lost fewer than 90 games in a season in its existence spent 110 days of the regular-season in first place, even those who have blind love for the Rays had their doubts. If management really thought these Rays had a chance to win a world championship they would have made the bold move back in June, or at least in July, to add a quality late-inning bullpen arm.
Who had their doubts, Tracy? 2008 is a new year, meaning that all of the losing in the past had no bearing on the outcome of this season. NONE.
The Rays had a tremendous rotation, excellent bullpen and top-notch defense and a core group of young offensive stars. They continuously took down the top teams in the AL, refusing to back down. Many intelligent writers, those who look at baseball objectively, realized that their success was not a fluke. The AL East is not an environment that allows Cinderella stories. In order to compete, a team must be competitive. In fact, they must be dominant.
This is not the NL West, Tracy, where your Rockies were a fluke last year, winning 21 out of 22 to make a surprise run to the Fall Classic. Stuff like that does not happen in the AL, where the big boys play.
The Rays did not make a move at the deadline because Andrew Friedman is smart, and refused to overpay for three months of Brian Fuentes, who lost his closer role when the Rockies shocked the world. Fuentes would have commanded two top prospects—they were asking for Jeremy Hellickson—and would have seen his numbers rise by moving into the superior league, where teams have a little thing we like to call the designated hitter. Fuentes had a nice little season, posting a 2.73 ERA while recording 30 saves. However, he did benefit by pitching in the majors’ weakest division, the NL West, a division that was so bad, let’s face it, they did not deserve to have a playoff representative. Honestly, every single team in the division would have finished dead last in the AL East, my friend. Oh, he was making 5,050,00 dollars, and the Rays, a small-market team, would have had to eat the rest of his salary in addition incurring the cost of giving up two solid prospects.
Six years of Hellickson, at the league minimum, or three months of a player for a few million, a pitcher who may have not made that big of a difference. Honestly, can you do much better than winning the American League East, then making the World Series?
Troy Percival was a feel-good story in his ability to return to duty, but the reality was glaring. He wasn't going to physically survive the season. And he hasn't. The Rays are in the World Series. Percival is at home.
Tampa Bay could have had Brian Fuentes from Colorado. Sure it would have cost the Rays a couple of top-line prospects, but we're talking about a lefty with a funky motion, 90-mile-per-hour velocity and an ability to handle the challenges of Coors Field for four consecutive seasons and to be even better at the end of his tour than he was at the start.
The Rays, however, backed off Fuentes and any other pitcher who had the semblance of a closer, not wanting to give up prospects from an overpopulated farm system, worrying about the future when the present has so much promise.
Tip the hat to Rays manager Joe Maddon. He somehow found a way to mix and match his way into baseball's showcase event, and with his cross-your-fingers, bring-in-the-reliever lifestyle he has the Rays within three wins of a world championship.
Maybe you just wanted the Rockies to steal a couple of prospects for a decent-but-not-spectacular closer who would have seen his numbers skyrocket in the AL, Trace? Is that it? Is bitterness, at the Rays’ intelligence and refusal to act through a myopic lens, driving your thinking here?
Research appears to be overrated, in your eyes.
Well, I decided to do it for you.
The Rays had the fifth-lowest relievers’ ERA in the majors, 3.55, while playing in the AL. Essentially, they had one of three best bullpens in all of baseball, when considering park and league effects. In your eyes, a closer-by-committee scenario can never work, because the save is the ultimate stat when it comes to measuring relief pitching.
But Tampa Bay proved you wrong. Damn them.
The Rays had five different relievers pick up saves, because the progressive Tampa Bay management decided that pitching high-leverage situations is more important than using a stud reliever only in save situations. Troy Percival sucks, at least at this stage of his career. So, instead of defining a clear-cut closer, they used one of the most effective relief trios in baseball to pick up saves, using them in various situations.
Grant Balfour, in fact, had a much better year than Fuentes. And he cost 330,000 dollars. That, Tracy, is why the Rays are playing in the World Series despite having the majors’ second-lowest payroll. They found a guy who would have been more effective down the stretch than Fuentes without giving up another low-cost asset, Hellickson or Wade Davis, and still managed to win their division, the Division Series and then the pennant in the so-much-better American League. The Rays’ bullpen also had the lowest opponents’ batting average and finished second in the team-driven saves stat.
Not only that, they are just as likely to sustain this success. You are wrong. They knew they could win, because they were studly studs at run prevention, but why let facts get in the way of a ridiculous column?
So far, so good
Well, they made it to the World Series, so I would say, yes. How did they do that? By having a bullpen that was one of the best in the game all season, and then adding David Price—who has the best stuff of any pitcher in the World Series, including Cole Hamels—to an already solid group.
The first two games the Rays have been able to completely shut down the clutch-hitting efforts of a Phillies team that hit .263 with runners in scoring position during the regular season, but is 1-for-28 the first two games of the World Series — and the one hit was an infield single that didn't even drive in a run.
Because the relievers are good. J.P. Howell is good. He posted a 2.22 ERA in 98.1 innings pitched, more than Fuentes. So, the former Texas star had a lower ERA, opponents’ OPS and WHIP than Fuentes while making 397,400 dollars to help the Rays make it to the World Series. Perhaps the Phillies’ struggles to hit with runners in scoring position has something to do with the Rays’ good relief work? Or—and this may be a little over your head, Tracy—it is a result of a small sample size. Sample size, go look it up on WikePedia, Mr. Ringolsby, assuming you know how to use Google or the Internet.
And more importantly, Maddon has been able to find the right answers to his bullpen questions the first two games.
It is a volatile mixture that he has to blend. It blew up in the Rays' face in Game 5 of the AL Championship Series at Boston when, seven outs from elimination, the Red Sox began a comeback from a 7-0 deficit and battered Dan Wheeler, the reliever Maddon has the most confidence in with closer Troy Percival not around. The Red Sox pulled out an 8-7 win, eventually forcing a Game 7 showdown that the Rays won, 3-1.
Actually, Maddon has the most confidence in Balfour. Did you watch any Rays games before the playoffs started? And, yeah, that was one game. Read the Sample Size page one more time. It was one game. In one game, anything can happen. Heck, in one game, Rey Ordonez actually hit a home run. That was one game. The Rays had a tremendous bullpen all year, and then had one bad game—granted, historically bad—so we should just give up on them? And, in 39.0 innings overall in the playoffs, they have a 3.00 ERA and are averaging 10.15 Ks per nine innings. And that ERA is inflated by that one bad night at Fenway Park. They are really living on the edge while playing a vastly inferior opponent?
That game did serve as a wakeup call to Maddon. It made him realize that for all that Wheeler has done to get the Rays where they are, he has worn out and every out he gets right now is a bonus. It made him admit to himself that even though Percival's injuries have him sidelined, he couldn't count on Wheeler to close out wins in the postseason.
Problem was there wasn't a legitimate alternative on a team that was so unstructured in its bullpen that while Percival had a team-best 28 saves, there were five others who had multiple saves.
Because that strategy worked. In fact, it was an excellent strategy. Just excellent.
They didn’t have a legitimate alternative? Well, according to Cork Gaines, that is not the case.
How good was The Mad Australian this season? Grant Balfour put up some sick numbers this season. In 58.1 innings, Balfour allowed only 28 hits and 24 walks while striking out 82. He pitched to a 1.54 ERA. Certainly the best season by a relief pitcher in the short history of the Rays. But we wonder if there was a bigger context we could look at to see exactly how dominating he was this season.
We went to the "Play Index" at Baseball-Reference.com.
We did a search for every pitcher that has ever posted a season with at least 11 strike outs per 9 innings, while giving up less than 9 hits and walks combined per 9 innings with an ERA less than 1.70 (minimum 40 innings pitched). Three criteria for a dominating relief pitcher.
The results? The Mad Australian is just the 4th pitcher in the history of baseball to post such a dominating season out of the bullpen. The other three is a who's who of dominating closer performances, including Eric Gagne (2003), Billy Wagner (1999) and Joe Nathan (2006). Gagne won the Cy Young Award in '03, while Wagner finished 4th and Nathan finished 5th. The only difference between their seasons and Balfour's was the number of saves. They each recorded at least 36 saves, while Balfour only had 4.
We knew Balfour had a strong season, but we had no idea that it was one of the best in the history of baseball.
Tracy, you seem to only care about saves, however—which, again, are kind of meaningless and are more about opportunity than anything else. You probably don’t know how to use Baseball-Reference.com, but if you did, perhaps you would have written another kind of column.
There were some shaky moments, including a wakeup call in the eighth when Eric Bruntlett came off the bench and Price tried to slip a 97 mph fastball by him on the first pitch only to see Bruntlett turn the pitch into a shutout-ending home run.
Price, however, didn't break.
And neither have the Rays.
They have been surprising baseball people, including their own, all season.
Now they are just hoping they can find three more wins before the magic coach they have been riding becomes a pumpkin.
The Rays won the AL East. Yes, the AL East. Their World Series opponent, the Phillies, would not have finished in fourth place in the East. They could—but probably will not— beat the Rays in the series, because this time of the year all bets are off. But over 162 games, where the Rays’ bullpen proved its worth, the Phils would have been consistently beat up by the Red Sox and New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays. And, yes, even the Baltimore Orioles, who probably would have competed for a playoff spot if they were in the National League.
So, how could they turn into a pumpkin NOW? Even if the Rays do not win the World Series, they did something that is almost more impressive: winning the East with that low of a payroll. So, why don’t you do some research next time, because you really suck at your job. I can’t believe they pay you money to write about baseball. Seriously, there is some shocking stuff in the world. But that has to rank up there.