The Rays (20-14) have 128 games left. Please do fasten that fact onto the inner recesses of your mind as we plow through this.
First of all: Them Tampa Bay Rays are in furst place! Say what? Yes, my fellow bespectacled and bearded comrade, the Rays have erased nearly all the foul stench of the early season stink bomb. In our first fistful of games, we went a resoundingly bad 1-8. Then, on the most magnificent of April 11ths, the Rays plopped a lurid turd of dominance on the Boston Red Sox, scrapping the Dignity Barrels with their once-proud franchise while beating them 16-5. (This was also the game when Sam Fuld heroically hit for the cycle-plus-one.)
From that point, the Rays season has been a fair bucket of awesome. The Rays presently lead the American League in Ultimate Zone Rating (thanks in large part to Sam Fuld, Evan Longoria, and Ben Zobrist), have an above-average offense (with a 104 wRC+), and have the third best winning percentage in the AL.
Let's look at some early-season MVPs:
- Ben Zobrist is now 5th in the MLB in wins above replacement (2.1 WAR). He started the season a little hot, got cold but defended well, and then got solar-flare hot. He's 3 homers short of last year's total, he's got 5 steals, and great advanced stats (166 wRC+, 3.4 UZR -- or 4.3 fielding runs saved after positional adjustments). The Zorilla seems to be back and all manners of One Hit Wonderful.
- James Shields leads our starters with a 2.01 ERA and a 3.05 FIP. His last four starts have been a pitching clinic. He's already got over 53 innings this year, good for 5th in the AL. The Rays workhorse (Shields has gone over 200 innings the last 4 years) looks like their racehorse right now.
- Sam Fuld started the season wicked hot -- both offensively and defensively -- and won himself a spot in left field. Fuld's been cold of late (as he returns to his career norms), but his play earlier this year proved more-than-key to the Rays returning to contention. For a long stretch, the Rays offense seemed to be just Fuld getting on base, and Johnny Damon knocking him in. Now that more of the Rays offensive machine has returned to form, the Legend can normalize with little repercussion.
- Casey Kotchman is currently 3rd on the team with 158 wRC+. That's a very pleasant surprise for a minor league free agent who started the season in Durham. His regressed wOBA (via Statcorner) has him at nearly the same production as his career-best 2007 year. He's not dominated games or anything, but he's provided a 0.7 WAR for a position that was a huge question mark going into this season. Moving forward, I'm a little wary of his BABIP (which presently stand 100 points higher than his career norm) and would not be surprised to see Dan Johnson win some more playing time from Kotch, but Kotchman has been nonetheless a cog in our sudden return to the top.
- Matt Joyce may not have shown the above average defense expected from him yet, but who's noticed? The dude's become a terror with some pine in his hands: .351/.398/.515 (163 wRC+). These rate stats are incredible because he started the season the about as cold as can be. Anyone want Edwin Jackson and his $8M salary back?