The Rays rounded out April with a sound 15-12 record, on the strength of a 14-4 binge to end the month. This is the same team that stumbled out of the gate; dropping eight of their first nine contests to kick off the 2011 campaign.
The team has already seen its fair share of troubles with Evan Longoria hitting the DL just two games into the season and the bizarre retirement of Manny Ramirez. However, Joe Maddon has rallied the troops around solid starting pitching and timely, if not downright lucky, hitting.
There's been the emergence of the legend that is Sam Fuld. Johnny Damon has ingratiated himself to his new fans with a pair of walk-off hits in a three-day span. And they closed the month in typical Rays fashion: a fortuitous wild pitch from the Angels' Fernando Rodney, that caromed off of catcher Hank Conger, sending Matt Joyce bounding home from third with a walk-off win in the tenth inning Saturday.
Joyce exemplifies the turnaround that's infected this group of Rays. When we're good, we're pretty damned good. When we stink, we are almost deserving of playing in the juice box that is Tropicana Field. Joyce, along with Damon, Fuld, John Jaso, Ben Zobrist and the other role players have stepped up in the absence of Longo (fingers crossed for a Tuesday return!) providing substantial run support for a pitching staff that has the third best ERA in the AL. But these hitters are hitting in bunches and at times, not at all.
Let's take a look at some of the Rays streakiest bats through April.
At the top of the class, and on the heels of his single day heroics that sent statheads scurrying to dig up names like Nate Colbert and Jim Bottomley, is Ben Zobrist. Zorilla stumbled into the season, getting just eight hits in his first 45 at-bats. Since then, he's exploded, becoming a one man wrecking machine. Similarly, Matt Joyce started 2011 going 1-for-20. And like Zobrist, he's gotten himself into a sweet little groove highlighted by scoring both runs in Saturday's walk-off. Damon also started slow, collecting only four hits in his first 32 ABs of 2011, He then immediately started a 16-game hit streak that was snuffed out Friday night. And John Jaso wasn't able to get on base for his first 11 PAs (ridiculously small sample size, I know, bear with me) but has also got it going early in 2011. Add into the mix Casey Kotchman, who was called up from Durham just in time to be a part of the Rays offensive awakening, and you have an offense as potent as any in baseball. Here's the stats, triple slashes with wOBA and ISO, for each man's resurgence:
|Ben Zobrist (Since April 16)
|Matt Joyce (Since April 10)
|Johnny Damon (Since April 11)
|John Jaso (Since April 8)
|Casey Kotchman (Season stats, called up April 8)
Zobrist has finally received attention from the national media following Thursday's outpouring of offense. Damon has garnered his fair share of attention with the walk-offs. Slipping under the national radar, and possibly some Rays fans' radars, are the efforts of Joyce, Jaso (he's a fricken catcher) and Kotchman (another feather in Friedman's cap), who are quietly putting together fine seasons and helping the club win.
I'd like to take this time to also point out that both Kotchman and Joyce were born and bred in the Bay Area. It's great to have some hometown kids to root for, especially when they are flat out raking.
With the cold we have two types of players: those that were killing it and those that have yet to kill it. Here's the former:
|Sam Fuld (Up until his 1st AB Thurs.)
|Felipe Lopez (Stopping on April 18)
Before I get death threats from the legions of Fuld fans, let's get one thing straight: I'm not saying that the man is through. I'm just pointing out that Sammy is on an 18 AB break from hitting. He earned that break. Small sizes mean squat, so relax. I'm also encouraged by the fact that while he hasn't got a hit, he has still managed to work five walks in that same "drought". Not to mention that his defense never takes a day off.
Teamed up with Fuld in the cold (sorry, couldn't help myself) is Felipe Lopez. Playing this year's switch-hitting, utility INF, think Willy Aybar, is Lopez. Lopez is currently in 3-for-31 rut, featuring no extra base hits and a single walk, an intentional pass issued Saturday in order to get to Kelly Shoppach. Lopez will be relieved of his starter's role when Evan comes back, but he has served valiantly in his role thus far and for this I am thankful.
Other member's of "The Cold" are the guys that have yet to get it going. I'm not really interested in ripping Dan Johnson. He's already been benched, but Rays' brass seems to be enthralled with his flare for the dramatic. It's not likely he'll be optioned to Durham in the coming days. Likewise, I have no interest in making a scene at the lack of production from our three young middle infielders; Elliot Johnson's days are already numbered; Sean Rodriguez is nursing a dislocated pinky finger; and Reid Brignac is at least "hustling".
This leaves only Kelly Shoppach.
Shop has had it rough. Advanced sabermetrics aren't required to breakdown his stats. He's 7-for-47, with one XBH and one BB, giving him a regrettable .149/.180/.213 triple-slash line. His primary problem appears to be his strikeouts. After posting a K% of 44.9 last season, he's continued his free-swinging ways in 2011; posting a strikeout rate of 42.6% for 2011. He hasn't made any considerable contributions with the bat since 2008, when he was still in Cleveland. Despite the fact that Kelly has thrown out 50% of would-be base stealers, it may be time to kick the tires on Durham backstop Jose Lobaton, who is shredding Triple-A with .391/.473/.630 line.
Melvin Emmanuel Upton still continues to dumbfound the ever-patient fans in St. Pete. Just ask Steve Slowinski. B.J. kicked in the door to the 2011 season by batting .314/.400/.543 through his first 10 games. Then he slumped; wandering off on a 3-for-31 stretch. Now he's apparently found his stroke again. In his last seven games, B.J. has gone 8-for-27 with four walks, a double and a homer. For his last week or so's worth of effort, B.J. has compiled a a reasonable .296/.387/.444 line. This just heightens the enigma that is B.J. Upton. One constant this season has been his walk rate, which is sitting at a healthy 13%.
As with any stats collected during just a month of games, these numbers cannot be used as a predictor of future successes or failures. They're just an interesting insight as to how the Rays were able to go from 1-8 to 15-12. With Longoria's impending return to the lineup, it's nearly impossible for any Rays fan not to get excited as they set out to attack the final five months of the season. Go get your tickets now folks!
Numbers were crunched by yours truly. I used the wOBA calculator provided by Fangraphs here. My spreadsheet is cluttered but viewable here.