The previous piece looked at some surprising early season developments that are perhaps indicative of meaningful changes in players, or perhaps not. Here are three more.
The Rays Rotation's Improved Ground Ball Tendencies
Traditionally, the Rays rotation has not induced many ground balls. They've hovered at 3rd and 4th lowest in the league the previous two seasons, which is very bad considering that ground balls rarely go for extra bases, and never for home runs. This season, the boys have upped their game in this sphere with a rise to 4th best, and it isn't just one pitcher doing all the work.
James Shields has clearly made the biggest improvement (and people have been taking notice), but David Price has also made a huge step forward in this regard, while Hellickson and Niemann's improvements have been more modest. Overall, we see a significant improvement of 6.3% (which, all else equal, would mean a drop of roughly .2 runs every 9 innings). Given that ground ball rate for pitchers is something that stabilizes rapidly, it seems safe to assume the rotation ends the year above 42.1%. Hopefully, it stays significantly above there.
Coming into the year, it seemed as though Matt Joyce had roughly established his offensive talent level in the major leagues, with him putting together identical wRC+s of 129 for 2010, 2011, and his career. A closer look shows mild improvement in 2011, as he faced a career high portion of plate appearances against lefties. This season, Matt Joyce has seemingly improved in every facet, with him walking more, striking out less, getting more hits, and hitting for more power. As a result, he's been the fourth best hitter in the American League, cobbling together a 168 wRC+ via a .295/.409/.545 triple slash. With Evan Longoria and Desmond Jennings being out of commission, Matt Joyce has been a huge part of why the Rays sit atop the AL East.
The big knock on Joyce has always been that he's a "platoon player", only capable of hitting right-handed pitching. This season this hasn't been the case, as Joyce has hit left-handed pitching to the tune of a 133 wRC+ from a .277/.382/.426 triple slash. His strikeout rate has dropped a decent amount and he's hitting the ball with a little more power against southpaws, and notably has done this while facing LHPs much less discriminately than in past. Indeed, Joyce has been playing nearly every day against lefties, unlike in past, where he only faced lefties the Rays thought he would succeed against.
Projecting Joyce going forward is fairly difficult. Against LHP, it's almost certain he won't maintain his performance thus far, considering that an unsustainable .367 BABIP is buoying it, but he could be anywhere between his numbers thus far this year to his much improved career mark of an 84 wRC+ (still not bad). Overall, ZiPS projection of a wOBA of .359 going forward is oddly pessimistic, considering that Joyce's career wOBA is .364 (albeit with disproportionately favorable platoon splits). Joyce's offensive production (particularly against lefties) going forward will be interesting to see, no doubt.
Superficially, Matt Moore's April and May are not all that different. Moore sported an ERA of 4.68 in his four April starts, and followed that with a 4.83 ERA the next month. His peripherals, on the other hand, tell a different story.
Now that's interesting. Moore improved across the board in the three true outcomes, most notably nearly doubling his strikeout rate. His "luck" influenced peripherals, on the other hand, all moved negatively. The difference between the type of pitcher he was each month is simply staggering, with April resulting in an xFIP of 5.39, and May in one of 3.66. Given Moore's penchant for slow starts, his previous track record of performance and pedigree, and my unending optimism, I'm inclined to believe that Matt Moore's May is more indicative of his ability than his April. If the inputs keep coming in this well, given Tropicana Field and the Rays defense, the results are sure to follow.
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