Going into the season, I stated multiple times that the Rays were going to need to get lucky to make the playoffs. That's not a knock against the talent on the Rays, but merely an observation that luck influences the final standings to a considerable degree. That is why we play the games - a team may look like a 90-win club on paper, but they could end up with anywhere from 80 to 100 wins through luck alone. Luck can come in many forms too. It could be having your roster remain relatively injury-free; it could be hitting extraordinarily well with runners in scoring positions; it could be stranding a high number of opposing runners on base. The list could go on, but the main point is that you have to be good and lucky to make the playoffs, especially in a division race against the Yankees and Red Sox.
The Rays have been good this year, no doubt about it. They currently hold the best record in baseball at 14-5 and the best run differential as well - 113 runs scored (tops in baseball; take that Phillies!) to 63 runs allowed. They've also gotten very lucky, though. Our pitching staff is currently out-performing its Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) by 1.17 runs and is stranding batters at an incredible 83% rate, both of which are by far the best in baseball.
Who's benefiting the most from this good luck? Find out after the jump.
*For more information on Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), Left On Base Percentage (LOB%),or home run per fly ball rate (HR/FB), please visit the Saber Library.
I'm only looking at starters because our relievers have only around 5-10 innings each on the season, while our starters at least have four starts under their belts (minus Wade Davis). Without a doubt, our starters have all benefited from good luck with balls in play and with runners on base. Garza and Price have also gotten lucky with home runs, while Niemann, Shields, and Davis have let up more home runs than they should have. The most interesting case for me is Matt Garza: while it appears that he's getting lucky, we could also be seeing a breakout. Pitchers do have some control over their BABIP and LOB%, with elite pitchers being able to limit hits on balls in play and strand more runners than league average. For example, last season Chris Carpenter limited hitters to a .272 BABIP and stranded 79.5% of runners. This is an extreme example, though, so expect some regression from Garza (and Price, for that matter) regardless of if this is a breakout year for him or not.
Obviously, this run of luck is pretty excellent for the Rays. Even if the Rays play like a true-talent 90-win team for the rest of the year and the Red Sox play like a true-talent 95-win team, the Rays have enough wins in the bank to edge out the Sox, 94 wins to 92. This is the type of math that thoroughly depressed me last year, but now it's working in the Rays' favor. The Sox are sinking - slowly sinking at the moment, but they're one losing streak away from taking on too much water to be able to recover.
And on the other hand, this good luck means our staff is bound to regress at some point and man, that's going to stink. Whenever that happens, expect lots of newspaper articles about how Maddon is working the staff too hard and the pitchers are falling apart as a result. Watch out, don't fall into their trap! If any of our starters has a bad start, in the words of Douglas Adams, DON'T PANIC! They are playing over their heads right now and as fun as it is, the run can't last forever.