In early February Buster Olney of ESPN.com ranked the Rays schedule as the third hardest early season schedule in the AL. In the article Olney noted that one manager discussed his theory of early season schedule suggesting that he would rather play the toughest teams early because "you want to get them before they're going on all cylinders."
A look at the Rays schedule backs up Buster as 19 of their first 22 games are against teams the finished above .500 in 2011. Additionally, 16 of their first 24 road games and 24 of their first 27 road games are against those same teams. Added on to the April schedule was the just completed 3 city 10 game road trip through Detroit, Boston, and Toronto which is the teams longest road trip of the season.
Even with a healthy roster the Rays knew that victories were going to be difficult to come by in the early season. The task became even more daunting as spring training progressed and the injury bug began to take a bite out of the Rays roster. First it was the starting depth that took a hit when B.J. Upton hit the DL with a back injury suffered in a collision with Desmond Jennings. Then the bench depth was weakened when Sam Fuld had surgery to stabilize a tendon in his wrist which will cause him to miss the majority of the 2012 season. Finally, the bullpen depth was dealt a blow when Kyle Farnsworth landed on the DL after a MRI of his elbow revealed a strained flexor muscle.
Despite the injuries the Rays opened the 2012 season by sweeping a 3 game series from the New York Yankees before struggling on the just concluded 4-6 road trip. The top 4 teams in the AL East are only separated by 1.5 games and after 13 games the Rays have a winning record of 7-6 and are only 1 game behind the Baltimore Orioles.
Despite the positive record through a very difficult schedule there are several areas of the club that the Rays need to clean up. The Rays play a certain brand of baseball that we have labeled as Raysian and thus far in 2012 we have won with a non-Raysian approach. It seems silly to be overly concerned about numbers and performances after a brief 13 game window which is why I'll refer to each problem listed below as a hiccup which is best defined by Merriam Websters dictionary as a "usually minor and short-lived interruption or disruption or change."
The Starting Pitching
The Rays starting staff is usually the rock that the rest of the team can lean on. Thus far in 2012 the Rays starting pitching staff ranks 12th in the AL in ERA at 5.35, leads the AL in walks (57), and are only 11th in K's (79). On the recently completed road trip the Rays starting pitchers had an ERA of 5.91 (86.2 IP/92H/53ER). In 2012 Rays starting pitchers are in the middle of the pack with the 7th highest ERA (4.00) but lead the AL in walks (37) and have the lowest K/BB ratio at 1.43.
The Rays bullpen has been a real area of concern in the early part of the 2012 season. On the recently concluded road trip the Rays bullpen pitched to an ERA of 9.34 (26IP/42H/27ER). Overall in 2012 the Rays bullpen ranks last in the AL in ERA (8.67), batting average against (.329), LOB% (58%) and has the second highest BB% (12.5%) in the AL.
Through the first 10 games of the season the Rays only made 3 errors which matched their fewest amount through 10 games (1998 and 2009). Bill James on-line ranks the Rays 2nd in the AL in Team Runs Saved at 15 runs runs. Entering last nights game the Rays had allowed the 4th fewest unearned runs (199) since 2008 ranking behind the Phillies (175), the Reds (197), and the Giants. After not allowing an earned run through their first 10 games they allowed 4 unearned runs in their last three games vs the Blue Jays.
The main culprit to the defensive lapses thus far has been Evan Longoria who has been charged with 5 errors (although 1 error is under appeal) in just 34 chances after making only 14 errors in 367 chances in 2011. Although it may not show up as an error the ability to block balls in the dirt has seemed to plague catcher Jose Molina as well.
The Raysian way of playing includes swiping bases. The Rays have led the league in stolen bases every year since 2008 yet return home last in the AL in stolen bases with 4 and they've been caught stealing 3 times.
The Rays offense has had some good points and some bad points. and overall they are hitting .255/.345/.428. Their OPS of .773 ranks 3rd in the AL and they also have drawn the 2nd most walks (54) but have also struck out 102 times which is the 4th most in the AL. After scoring 21 runs in the final 2 games against the Blue Jays the Rays have now scored the 4th most runs in the AL.
Runs scored can be a deceiving stat especially in such a small sample as 13 games. In 2012 the Rays have been held to 2 runs or less 30.8% of their games (4 out of 13). This was a problem in 2011 as well as the Rays were held to 2 runs or less 32.1% (52 out of 162 games).
One of the biggest problems associated with run scoring in 2011 was the failure by the Rays to hit with runners in scoring position. In 2011 the Rays had the 6th most plate appearances in the AL with RISP (1688) but unfortunately didn't take advantage of the opportunity finishing 9th in the AL runs scored w/RISP (508) and 13th in th AL in batting averge w/RISP (.224).
So far in 2012 the Rays are following a similar script. Despite ranking 4th in the AL in plate appearances with RISP (127) they rank 9th in the AL in runs scored w/RISP with 37 and are 12th in the AL with a .216 batting average with RISP.
Again, all of these problems noted above have been categorized as hiccups. They are noted with an understanding that we are viewing these through a very small window of 13 games but all trends have roots which begin somewhere.
The Rays return home tonight to begin a stretch of 13 out of 16 games at Tropicana Field and the offense, defense, baserunning, and bench will receive a boost with the return of B.J. Upton and the addition of recently acquired Brandon Allen.
Hopefully, the Rays will use the new additions and the home cooking as a remedy to alleviate some of the concerns and we will see a return to a Raysian way of playing baseball. Thus far in 2012, the Rays are that team that the manager quoted in the Buster Olney article references as the team he wants to play before they're hitting on all cylinders.