Have the Rays peaked? Is this bad thing to peak this early?
I don't think there is such thing as peaking. I think that there are let downs, and players can lose their concentration. Look at the 2008 Diamondbacks. They started the year 21-9, with excellent hitting and a pitching staff led by Brandon Webb and Dan Haren. They finished the year 61-71, missing the playoffs. The 2003 Royals went on an amazing streak, but turned a 16-3 record into an 83-79 overall record. I think that teams that start off lucky can get complacent, but mostly, I just think they regress back to their actual talent levels.
My theory on these things is two-fold, both having to do with aspects of luck. The first is quite simple. In both cases, the teams might have been 70-75 win teams that were just lucky in their first month. The Royals the previous year were 62-100, and they had a bunch of young players (Carlos Beltran, Angel Berroa) that were getting better and they had comeback years from guys like Darrell May and Jose Lima. They were, in all likelihood, a 75 win team, which manifested itself in the 67-76 record to finish the season. Why they started the season 16-3 is beyond me, but by any stretch of the imagination the last 143 games were more indicative of their talent than the first 19.
The 2008 Diamondbacks are a little strange. They were a good team (90-72 the year before) in a weak division that started out hot. By all accounts, adding Dan Haren should have added at least two wins to their win expectancy (92), meaning they should have been a 95 win team based on their hot start. However, they regressed to a 76 win team. While I can't figure how that happened given their deep bullpen, good starting pitchers and pretty good hitting, we see that next year they were a 70 win team. Why the six wins less? Brandon Webb got injured, their 6.1 WARP Ace.
Some people argued that an early peak caused the Diamondbacks lost their concentration after having such a large lead, and they didn't see other teams coming up to catch them. Given that they were outplaying themselves in the first month, (by 16 games over the course of a season), it is not surprising that they might have not had the same kind of urgency when they began to slip. However, I think that it is much more likely that their hitters weren't as good as they thought, which has been confirmed in the last two years. Guys like Chris Young, Eric Byrnes, Chad Tracy, Conner Jackson all are boarder line replacement players now.
Now to take the Rays situation, by all accounts, we are a 90 win team. If this is in fact true, our expected wins for the last 139 games should be 77, which gives us a grand total of 94. Using the fan graphs terminology, we have “banked” four wins.
How have we had such a big improvement? Jaso? Soriano? A more mature Davis and Price? No. OPS with Runners in scoring position. While sportscaster love to use this as the measure of heart and experience, it is rarely much different than OPS with the bases empty. (The difference largely lies in the fact that if a pitcher gives up one extra base hit, he is probably less on his game than those who haven’t given up one.) This year, teams on average hit .040 OPS better with runners in scoring position, than when no runners are on (.760/.718 MLB avg). Before today, we were batting .999 (.766 MLB Avg) with runners in scoring position, as opposed to .710 (.719 MLB avg) with no runners on. On the pitching side, teams are batting .515(!) against us with runners in scoring position, and .735 without. The biggest difference between these two numbers last year were the Angels in hitting (.833/.770) and Boston in pitching with a .680/.765 split. Interesting that both of those teams are struggling this year.
Are these numbers going to continue? Unlikely. The batting number could be explained by the lack of gaps we have in the lineup. We don’t rely on a Pujols to get in all the runs, instead we are strong throughout the order. That would be a fine explanation, but I don’t think it is really true. Our RBI guys (3-6) compared to the rest of the league (in terms of OPS) are ranked:
3: 20th (out of all Teams production from the #3 spot)
Our best hitter compared to the rest of the league? 9th, ranking number 2 in OPS.
What about pitching? The way pitchers get out of these jams is usually through strikeouts. In the 167 times runners have been in scoring position, we have racked up 40 Ks. That converts to 7.2 Ks/9. League Average? 7.11 Ks/9.
Looking back on last year, we had a lot of trouble with starting pitching in the month of April. Basically all of our starters had ERAs north of 4, as opposed to this year basically all of them having ERAs south of 3. Our pitching will not continue at this level, but I believe that 4/5 of our pitchers are better than they were a year before. The bullpen is being well managed, and I think that once we have Howell back in the mix, it will be pretty relaxing in the last 2-3 innings.
As a last note, Boston is 11-12. According to most projections, Boston is a 92 win team, two better than the Rays. If they return to being a 92 win-talent team, they are projected to win 90 wins. Therefore, while the Rays have “banked” four wins, the Red Sox have banked two losses. For the Red Sox to catch the Rays, they need to be a 97 win talent (vs. the Rays 90 win), or the Rays need to be an 85 win talent team (vs. the Sox 92 win-talent). It is way too early to do this kind of talk, but it is nice to see how our hot start helps us going forward.