As part of SB Nation United, you're going to be seeing some new voices at DraysBay from time to time: SBN "Designated Columnists" writing about issues both local and national. Think of them as guests in the community. We're beginning this week with Bill Parker, better known as one of the minds behind The Platoon Advantage.
It was a really strong year for the Rays. They had the 25th-highest payroll in baseball yet wound up with its 9th-best record. So who can we blame for this?
Any time you finish that close to a playoff spot -- three games from a tie for the wildcard, five from the AL East title -- there are going to be a few minor things here and there that meant the difference from making it and missing it, things that, had they gone differently, could mean the Rays' next game was tonight, not six months from now.
The thing we won't count: Evan Longoria missing 88 games with a hamstring injury. A full season of Longoria alone could easily have meant a wildcard spot, but that's too obvious, and injuries can't be controlled. What could actually have been done differently?
Here are the five most blameworthy items, from this outsider's perspective, for 2012:
1. The John Jaso trade.
It might not have seemed like much at the time, but sending Jaso to Seattle last winter for Josh Lueke could, itself, have cost the Rays a playoff spot. Jaso's 2011 was disappointing, but he was coming off a very strong 2010, and he rebounded -- and then some in -- 2012, to .276/.394/.456, despite playing half his games in the worst hitters' park in the American League. The three WAR systems credit Jaso with an average of 3.1 wins above replacement, in just 108 games. He's a poor defensive catcher -- he DH'ed almost half his games in Seattle -- but there's nothing to suggest he's so bad that catching him more often would be such a disaster that it would impair his value much more than that DH position adjustment already does.
By contrast, the four catchers the Rays used in 2012 were all offensive disasters, and combined for 0.4 rWAR. Retaining Jaso would presumably have obviated the need for Jose Lobaton and Stephen Vogt (who combined for -0.9), and would have allowed Joe Maddon to use Jose Molina and/or Chris Gimenez more effectively as backups or defensive replacements.
Meanwhile, Lueke is a soon-to-be-27-year-old relief pitcher who managed three major league innings that were bad enough to earn him -0.3 Baseball-Reference WAR. Plus, the Rays are the team who is paying this guy money. The Rays don't make many awful moves, but the early returns on this one have been disastrous.
2. The cheap gambles stopped paying off.
A big part of the Rays' success since 2008, complementing all the home-grown talent, has been shrewd, relatively cheap veteran signings and trades that "worked out" at an impressive rate. Cliff Floyd and more or less the whole bullpen in 2008. Most of the bullpen in 2010. Johnny Damon and Casey Kotchman and most of the bullpen in 2011. Sure, there's always some element of luck in those sorts of moves, and there was the occasional Pat Burrell thrown in there, but for the most part, they worked.
This year, those hole-fillers, by and large, were just holes. Keppinger, as previously mentioned, was bizarrely phenomenal, but Ryan Roberts, Luke Scott (about whom more below), Ben Francisco, Brooks Conrad, and especially Hideki Matsui? All flops. Carlos Pena v2.0? Old, very suddenly, and probably the most damaging flop of them all. It left them a very thin team, and it certainly combined to cost them a good deal more than three wins.
One of many things you had to love about Upton when he came up was that not only did he have all the physical tools, but he had an excellent eye at the plate; he might strike out a bunch (and he did), but he walked in at least 11 percent of his plate appearances in four of his first five full seasons. As noted here, Upton swung at a lot more pitches in 2012, inside the zone and out, and missed more often, especially late in the year. He hit with plenty of power, but apart from nine good games in his injury-shortened April, he never posted a monthly OBP above .316. His walk rate of 7.1 percent was his career lowest by a full two percent, His 28 homers were a career high, but so were the 169 strikeouts, and the 45 walks were his career low as a full-timer. Given his career average walk rate, he could have improved those 45 walks to around 70; with improved discipline, his batting average and slugging would likely have been up, too.
It's also worth noting how completely Luke Scott's plate discipline went out the window. His previous career low in walk rate was 9.9 percent; this year's was 6.1, 5.3 if you exclude the three times he was intentionally walked. The lack of patience and discipline made Scott a huge drag on the offense, which isn't a great thing for a DH to be. Upton and Scott drawing walks at their career rates and swinging at better pitches would have been worth a slew of extra runs to the Rays, and possibly, with some good timing, could have pushed them over the top.
4. Lack of a real shortstop.
Elliot Johnson is probably a good utility man. He's not a player who should be starting 80 or playing 123 games for any big-league team, especially not one with designs on the postseason. Unimpressive on both offense and defense, Johnson added basically nothing to the Rays' effort as a half-time starter. Sean Rodriguez was no better. Not until Ben Zobrist took over short on August 9 (and performed surprisingly well there) did the Rays have a capable, above-replacement-level shortstop. That left a hole at second that Roberts tried to fill, which largely meant shifting a hole from one side of second to the other.
This is one area in which the Rays' money could've gone pretty far; signing just an average shortstop, or a second baseman (moving Zobrist to short), may have paid huge dividends. Clint Barmes (whose bat was abysmal in 2012, but whose shortstop defense is among the best in baseball) and Jamey Carroll (excellent second base defense, average shortstop defense, and solid on-base abilities) both signed two-year contracts last offseason averaging $5.25 and $3.25 million, respectively, both with unlikely-to-contend teams. Either of them could have been signed relatively painlessly by the Rays, putting Zobrist at second or short as appropriate. Either could have significantly out-produced Johnson and Rodriguez, very possibly picking up the three or more wins the Rays ultimately needed.
5. Amazingly terrible luck and/or un-clutchiness.
The 2012 Rays weren't a great offensive team, but they weren't that bad. Fangraphs' wRC+ has the Rays at 100 -- exactly average. They scored 697 runs, 10th in the AL, but not far off the league average of 721. Their run differential suggested a 95-67 record, the record with which the Yankees won the division.
Rather than an inability to hit or score, what really did in the Rays was an inability to hit at the most important times. The Rays' overall batting line was .240/.317/.394, and they retained an identical OPS with runners in scoring position (.243/.336/.374), but fell apart in "Late & Close" situations (seventh inning or later, tied, ahead by one, or with the tying run at least on deck). The average American Leaguer hit .238/.311/.369 in this situation; the Rays, .197/.281/.293, in 1049 PA. In the most important situations, the Rays collectively hit roughly like, I don't know, Adam Eaton.
It's easy to see how just a few more hits late in close games could have led to an extra three to five wins. They went 21-27 in one-run games and (by my own count) 15-19 in two-run games, while in "blowouts" -- games decided by five or more runs -- they went 24-11. I tend to believe the studies that suggest "clutch hitting" isn't a skill and conclude that this is just really bad luck -- the distribution of the Rays' hits over the season just happened to cluster into games that were going to be wins anyway, and abandoned them in close games. But whether you agree or think it's some sort of lack of ability to hit in important situations, their failures in those situations deserve a heavy (possibly the heaviest) portion of the blame for the fact that the Rays are at home right now.
If any of those five things had come out differently, I might be watching the Rays as I write this rather than (one of) the Yankees or Orioles. But what's done is done. It will be interesting to see how Friedman and company approach this offseason, with several of these issues and (very likely) the hole left by B.J. Upton to contend with.