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Why The Rays Are In First Place

Clutch brothers! (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Clutch brothers! (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
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I've asked it before and I'll ask it again: how are the Rays in first place? How the heck have they managed to weather Evan Longoria's extended absence so well, considering they had to give significant time to Drew Sutton, Chris Giminez, and Will Rhymes? It's not even like Carlos Pena and Luke Scott have been mashing; their bats have been all but silent of late. It's nuts. Ridiculous. This is so, so strange, but in an awesome way.

I keep hammering in on this point, and I'm sorry if it's getting old or tiresome, but I think it's important we don't take it for granted that the Rays are sitting pretty in the standings at the moment. It's all too easy to take the incredible for granted when you're sitting there watching it day in and day out, and the Rays have lulled us into this weird easy mindset. Of course they're in first place! Of course they have the best record in the AL! We've been watching them find a way to win all year long, so why shouldn't they be in first?

Well, for a number of reasons. When you get down to it, the Rays have a good team on the field these days -- a good team, but not necessarily a great team. Most projection systems had them pegged as around an 88-92 win team coming into the season, and that was before the rash of injuries that struck the squad. Baseball Prospectus still projects them as the third-best team in the AL East going forward. Yet despite all that, the Rays are currently on pace to win 94 games. What gives? How have the Rays been this good?

The obvious reason why the Rays have been so solid are rather obvious; pitching and defense are always the Rays calling card, and it's the one area of the game where the Rays have clearly excelled this season. Their team ERA is fifth best in the majors, and they have the fifth fewest amount of runs allowed this season. Considering their offense is mediocre-ish at 4.3 runs/game -- 17th best in the majors* -- run prevention has been the name of the game for them.

*Although to be fair, the Rays offense may only have a .313 wOBA, but that still clocks in as the eighth best offense in the majors according to wRC+. That's the Trop for you, apparently.

But that doesn't explain everything, now does it? When you look at things on a more detailed level, there are still questions here. Maybe the shifting has been a huge help, but how does the combination of 5th fewest runs allowed and 17th most runs scored equal the best record in the American League?

Clutch Performances

Since 2008, the Rays have oscillated back and forth between clutch performances on a yearly basis. They were super clutch in 2008, getting great performances in high-leverage situations, but then they stunk in those areas in 2009. In 2010 they were impressive again in hi-lev spots, but then they slumped to around average last season. Clutch may be important, but it sure as heck isn't predictive.

And this year? The Rays are back to having nerves of steel. In fact, the Rays have been the third most clutch team in the majors, trailing only the Pirates and Mets.

Team Pitching Offense Total Clutch
Pirates 3.29 2.11 5.40
Mets -0.12 4.40 4.28
Rays 2.35 1.63 3.98
Indians 0.75 2.50 3.25
Giants 2.62 0.42 3.04
Orioles 3.68 -0.86 2.82
Dodgers 0.87 1.81 2.68
Braves 0.94 1.22 2.16
Nationals -0.13 2.22 2.09
Marlins 0.08 1.85 1.93
Reds 0.59 0.73 1.32
Angels 0.18 1.06 1.24
Tigers -0.22 0.39 0.17
Astros 0.77 -0.86 -0.09
Rockies -1.51 1.11 -0.40
Brewers 0.17 -0.83 -0.66
Mariners -2.08 1.42 -0.66
Yankees 0.60 -1.40 -0.80
Blue Jays 1.44 -2.24 -0.80
Twins -0.98 0.08 -0.90
Diamondbacks -0.98 -0.88 -1.86
White Sox -2.17 -0.02 -2.19
Athletics 0.36 -2.60 -2.24
Rangers -0.57 -1.88 -2.45
Phillies -0.92 -1.69 -2.61
Royals 0.15 -2.88 -2.73
Red Sox -1.93 -1.42 -3.35
Padres -0.80 -2.78 -3.58
Cardinals -2.48 -2.56 -5.04
Cubs -3.01 -2.10 -5.11

We love to complain about the Rays problems with runners in scoring position, but the truth is this season they have performed quite fine in those situations. Their overall team OPS is .710, and they have a .709 OPS with RISP. And the same is true of the pitching staff; they have an overall .679 OPS against, but when a man gets on, that OPS against drops to .661. Clutch is the name of the game.

The Pirates and Mets are two mediocre teams that are playing out of their minds due to their clutch performances this season. The Rays aren't quite in the same boat; they're a better team than the Pirates and Mets, but their record is definitely higher now than it would be if they were playing leverage-neutral.

The Rays are, you know, quite a good team. And they're just going to continue to get better as the season goes along and their roster returns to full strength. But I think it's good to keep an eye on the big picture and realize that to date, this is a good team that's benefited from some clutch performances. If that clutch performance had turned out another way...well, keep this in mind.

Run Diff. Total WAR Clutch Win%
Rays +27 14.4 Good 0.583
Blue Jays +30 11.6 Average 0.508
Cardinals +55 21.9 Bad 0.508

Here's hoping those hits keep falling in at just the right time. Oh, and please hurry back Longo.