A week ago, the Rays were losing 4-2 against the Oakland A's going into the eighth inning. Defeat looked inevitable, and FanGraphs' win probability graph agreed, giving the Rays a 13.9% chance of winning. Then an unlikely series of events happened: Carlos Pena walked, Willy Aybar hit a double, and Sean Rodriguez hit a booming home run to give the Rays a 5-4 lead.
This set of events, while unlikely, also was faintly familiar. Throughout the year, the Rays have pounded opponent pitching in the eighth inning to a tune of .79 runs an inning (meaning an opponent ERA of 7.10). Comparing this to other innings, some things become clear quickly.
|Inning Number||% of times Runs are Scored||Average Runs Scored|
The Rays score more often and in greater quantity in the eighth inning than in any other inning. The only inning that even comes close is the fifth inning, which perhaps not coincidentally is nine outs earlier and so probably has a similar series of hitters coming to the plate. These aren't meaningless runs either. The Rays have eliminated deficits seven times in the eighth inning, only surpassed by the eight deficits eliminated in the fifth inning. As a result of this hitting and Joaquin Benoit's stranglehold on opposing hitters, the Rays have not once given up a pre-existing lead in the eighth.
The obvious next question from here is, quite simply, what's causing this "8th inning magic," and is it sustainable? Let's take a look.
Before you look at this table below, remember, the sample sizes we're dealing with are absolutely tiny. Tens of plate appearances are virtually meaningless on an individual basis.
Immediately one notices that Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford are getting the lion's share of plate appearances in eighth innings. This undoubtedly supports the Rays success there, although it may have more to do with those two's total playing time than random chance. The other thing that jumps out is one of alarm to those that expect the Rays to continue hitting at this torrid pace: the team's BABIP is .346, well above the normal .298 clip they drop hits in at.
After this .346 BABIP is regressed using Jack Moore's Four Factors methodology, we see that the Rays' wOBA going forward can be expected to be around .335, or very slightly below our current average offensive production. This is actually somewhat better than expected, given that the pitchers faced in the 8th inning are better than those the team faces on average.
Even if the Rays' eighth inning magic thus far is unsustainable going forward, it's been fun while it's lasted. And hey, the funny thing about calling something "unsustainable" is that you never know when it's going to end. It could be tomorrow, it could be a month from now. Hopefully down the stretch the Rays can continue stealing games in their second-to-last chance. Or at the very least, this weekend against Boston.