A Closer Look at the Rays' Fielding Issues

Brian Blanco

The usually sharp fielding of the Tampa Bay Rays has let the team down in 2014.

At 24-40, not much is going right for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2014. Pitching has been inconsistent all season, partially due to injuries, and the team's hitting has been less than stellar pretty much all year.

That said, the Rays have never been an offensive juggernaut. Rays' management has made it clear that this team is built on two things - pitching and defense.

Since 2008, this philosophy has paid off because the Rays have practically done it better than anybody else. Combine their top pitching and defense with timely hitting and it's no surprise they have recorded five 90-win seasons in the last six years.

And while the hitting woes get a lot of the blame for the worst record in baseball, anybody who has watched this team this season knows the fielding has been lacking as well.

But where are they struggling in the field?

A quick look at the errors category doesn't really give you much of the story. In fact, the Rays have the second fewest amount of errors this season with 32, behind only Cincinnati with 26 errors. Fielding percentage is similar at .986, which is also second in the Majors.

Yes, certain Rays players have more errors than normal this season like Yunel Escobar, who has more errors already in 2014 (8) than he had in all of 2013 (7). The rest of the Gold Glove nominated infield for the Rays in 2013 isn't looking much better. Ben Zobrist has matched his 2013 error total already with five, James Loney has three errors compared to just seven in 2013, and Evan Longoria has five errors, nearly half of his 11 errors last season.

So the normally sure-handed Rays have struggled from the scorer's perspective, but are still relatively among the best in the Majors when it comes to limiting errors in the field (32; second in MLB).

However, other team fielding categories aren't quite as friendly to the Rays.

Defensive Efficiency Record (DER) is a method of evaluating defense by Bill James that analyzes the defensive ability of an entire team. It measures the percentage of balls that are put in play and then converted to outs by the defense. You can look at it as an inverse percentage of BABIP.

For context, let's look at how the Rays have done in this category prior to this season as well as the league average from 2008-2013.

Year DER MLB Rank League Avg.
2008 .708 1st .689
2009 .695 8th .690
2010 .709 3rd .691
2011 .724 1st .694
2012 .704 4th .691
2013 .707 3rd .692

As you can see, the Rays have been in the top five of DER ever season except 2009. Coincidentally, 2009 is the only season the Rays haven't won 90 or more games since 2008, which isn't shocking because DER is often correlated with winning. For example, in 2007 the Rays were dead last in DER (.652) and the jump of more than 75 points in 2008 was one several contributing factors in the team's World Series run.

How are they doing in 2014?

Year DER MLB Rank League Avg.
2014 .686 19th .690

The Rays are almost in the back-middle of the league in DER this season, but that's simply not good enough for this team. They don't have the firepower on offense to make up for deficiencies in the field, so converting only approximately 68 percent of balls hit into play for outs just won't help the Rays win games.

A stat you may be more used to seeing is  Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). I recently wrote an article on Jose Molina, detailing how important he has been in this aspect throughout his career through his pitch framing, but how many runs are the Rays saving in the field??

To clarify DRS, here is the definition given by Fangraphs:

"The numbers determine (using film study and computer comparisons) how many more or fewer successful plays a defensive player will make than league average. For instance, if a shortstop makes a play that only 24% of shortstops make, he will get .76 of a point (1 full point minus .24). If a shortstop BLOWS a play that 82% of shortstops make, then you subtract .82 of a point. And at the end, you add it all up and get a plus/minus."

Essentially, we're looking at how well the Rays are at making both the easy plays and the web gems. Once again for context, let's look at 2008-13 and see how many runs the Rays have saved defensively. For this stat, league average is always 0.

Year DRS MLB Rank
2008 15 10th
2009 31 6th
2010 41 5th
2011 85 1st
2012 23 7th
2013 10 14th

Another fielding statistic that the Rays have excelled in. Since 2008, the Rays' fielding has saved them a combined 205 runs and they have been on the right side of 0 every season.

For 2014, it's a much different story.

Year DRS MLB Rank Over 162 games
2014 -29 28th -73.4 runs

The Rays defense has actually cost the team 29 runs so far this season. If you flesh it out to over the course of 162 games, they are on pace to costing the team more than 74 runs, the most since 2007 (-81 runs).

Only the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians have cost their teams more with -32 and -42 runs, respectively. But both the Twins and Indians score an average of 4.36 and 4.41 runs per game, while the Rays managed to plate an average of 3.69 runs per game. This allows the Twins (29-32) and Indians (32-31) to make up their atrocious DRS stat post a better record than the Rays (24-40).

So it's not that the Rays are making mistakes in the field, but rather they aren't making the plays they've made in the past. For example, here's Yunel Escobar a couple weeks ago against the Boston Red Sox.

Escobar goes for the bare-handed pickup and the ball sneaks underneath his hand into left field and A.J. Pierzynski ends up hustling for a double on the play. In actuality, it's a double that should have never happened. It's a bounding ball to shortstop and if Escobar plays it normally by picking it with his glove instead of his hand, he has plenty of time to get the slower Pierzynski out at first.

Instead, Escobar misplays it and allows a double. Pierzynski was awarded a hit, rather than Escobar being charged with an error.

Yesterday, Endy Chavez for the Seattle Mariners knocked in the GW run on a single to left field (link). Now, this play isn't as obvious because it was a nicely played ball by Chavez. However, you could argue this a ball that Escobar gets to in past years, but because he doesn't, the Rays can't get the final out and the Mariners go on to score five runs in the ninth inning.

And a more obvious play where the defense cost the Rays runs:

Now, I'm picking on Escobar here, but really it's been a team issue.

Escobar is the worst offender, costing the Rays 15 runs so far this season. Wil Myers follows with -9 runs and Longoria at -4 runs.

There's a thin line for the Rays when it comes to their fielding and pitching. Those two areas have to be exceptional for this team to have success over the course of 162 games.

Unless the team receives an overhaul, it won't ever be a lineup known for run production, so when the fielding is costing a team like this nearly 30 runs only 64 games into the season, it means rough times ahead for the remaining 98 games unless things change.

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