The Cardinals were great last year, and one reason was their performance with runners on base. The Cardinals had the highest wOBA by 14 points at .362, with the Tigers and Red Sox tied for second at .348. The Rays would place tenth at .321.
With runners solely in scoring position, the Cardinals lead is even more staggering with a .370 wOBA, 16 points above the second place Tigers. In wRC+ it's a flabbergasting 138 to the Detroit 116. Here we find the Rays were also competitive, with a team 105 wRC+ with RISP, good for sixth in baseball.
Here's the rub: ten teams notched a 100 wRC+ with runners in scoring position, including the Orioles, Athletics, Blue Jays, and Angels. Red flags, anyone?
Correlation is not causation. The Giants won the Series in 2012 when they had a 95 wRC+ with RISP, 15th overall and below the Rays (who missed the post-season), and an even worse 20th wOBA at .306. But count the rings.
What's the difference maker with men on base or with RISP? Is it luck-driven?
The average BABIP since 2008 with RISP has been a .295, which the Rays match over that time frame, and the Giants match in 2012. Having a BABIP over .300 with RISP is notable in just about any season.
Last season, the Cardinals were sustained by a .377 in-play batting average with RISP - flabbergasting for a full season - with the Red Sox (nods head) and Rockies (scratches head) benefiting the second and third most luck. The Rays were fifth last season with a .307.
Looking back, the Rays had a second-to-worst .256 BABIP with RISP in 2011, when the Red Sox were second-best with a .314 BABIP. One of these teams would make the playoffs. Performance with men on the base paths does not have an automatic bearing on the playoff ability of a team, but it certainly helps.
The Giants rode their poor-luck to the World Series and won in 2012. The Cardinals rode their good-luck to the world series in 2013 and lost.
The Red Sox, simply ripped the cover off the ball through the second half and only got better with time, ending with a .371 wOBA in September and October across all situations, men on or otherwise. Timing was their key.
Performance with men on base, or with RISP, is not necessarily luck driven, but it can be.
Why say all this? Because it's interesting to see where the run production came from.
So if the Rays were top-10 on offense with men on the base paths, and only mildly helped by in-play batting average, who was doing all the work? We have built up biases when it comes to watching the Rays try and "get the man in," but last season that was less of a problem. Who done it?
Men on Base
Before we get into runners in scoring position, let's take a generic look at how players performed with men on base.
Here we find all positions but catcher, and two offensively mediocre bench players, were above average for the Rays with men on base last season:
Jennings, Escobar, and Scott were not names I expected to be in the top five in performance with men on base.
The top four in performance were each above their career averages in BABIP for the situation by 10-15 points, with the exception of Longoria who averages .331 with men on. Luck helps some, but not all. Luke Scott and Kelly Johnson both did considerable damage at fifth and sixth on this list, considering they had BABIP's below the league average with a man on base (.297). Both players had also made adjustments and were playing outside their platoon split last season, though, which is not necessarily sustainable.
Molina, Joyce, and Fuld were the most disadvantaged by BABIP, but only Joyce seems to have had his offensive expectation suppressed by it over the season. That's moreso emphasized by his ability to take a walk. Take a look:
Interestingly enough, Joyce and Scott led the Rays in walks with men on base, with Joyce performing 2% above his career average. While the bat wasn't performing, his patience still was. Joyce, Scott, and Longoria walked at a 13% clip or better in that situation, but Zobrist and Yunel had the distinction of almost as many walks as strikeouts.
Runners in Scoring Position
The Rays performed slightly better with men further along the bases last season, and again the who-done-it is intriguing.
Scott and Escobar are again in the top five, this time in a more valuable hitting situation (and to think Escobar spent most of his time batting behind Molina). It goes to show that Scott's issues were less about productivity and more about health.
A statistical oddity here is Wil Myers, who was barely above average with a 105 wRC+ with men on base, but led the Rays in performance with men past first base with 144 wRC+. To accomplish this, Myers had to be nearly 50% below average with men on first base alone over those 76 plate appearances. How odd.
A player I expected to see at the top of both lists was Longoria, but even with a high BABIP he was again not highly productive in basic situational hitting. The performance was above average, to be sure, but for a player with a season long wRC+ above 130 in each of the past five seasons, how is that not translating into RISP? The quick answer is regression. Last season Longo held a 197 wRC+ with RISP, and a 155 the year before that. 2013 seems to be the outlier.
In the same way Joyce seemed to under perform with men on in general, it's worth mentioning that Longoria led the Rays in walks with RISP.
And the familiar names of Yunel and Scott shine through once again, accentuating great performance where otherwise my mind might have remembered something decent. It really is a shame The Wolverine couldn't stay healthy. I would have like to see whether his performance on these lists was sustainable.
It's a pleasant surprise to see Myers in the top five for walks with RISP, and in one other important category: BB/K
Myers was able to balance his strikeouts in a rather productive way with RISP last season. It's not indicative of future performance, but it's encouraging. Take that as you will.
There's a few things we can gather from the data stated above. Zobrist and Escobar had very steady approaches that got them on base in great situations, which (again) is not predictive but encouraging. The same could be said for Myers with RISP.
Joyce and Longoria performed below career norms and expectations when men were on base, so while we observe poor performance in 2013, it's reasonable to think they'll offer more in 2014. That's enticing for Joyce, especially when I remember the hand wringing when he stepped into the batters box last year. In my mind, I sold him a little short. The bat let him down, but the eye was still keen.
There's also some confirmation bias in Scott's stats on these lists, showing him not to be such a bust as we might be inclined to remember. This season he's playing over seas, but the Rays weren't terribly off in bringing him back for a second season, despite the criticism I remember.
Feel free to play with the data yourself and see what you find. Full spreadsheet of data, courtesy of Fangraphs.