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Why are the Rays in first place?

Focusing on the positives and negatives of the current Rays' team

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Most of us knew that the Rays were better than the "experts" told us they would be at the beginning of the season. But to be in first place in a tightly-contested American League East, with all the injuries they have sustained, seems nothing short of a miracle. So, is it? Or is this sustainable success that will continue over the rest of the season?

"Elite" Pitching

When the season started out, most people had the Rays with the best rotation in the AL East with Alex Cobb/Chris Archer/Drew Smyly/Jake Odorizzi, but the injury bug took hold of the Rays hard. With only one-fifth of the rotation intact, it was hard to see how the Rays could stay competitive. But the factory keeps on producing with Archer taking the ace role head on, and emerging as one of the league's best young starters and an early favorite for the Cy Young award.

Even the Erasmo Ramirez project has paid off for the Rays (and right now early signs are that his groin strain is not serious). If you have some time, take a look at Kevin Antonevich's great work on the success of Erasmo.

The Rays have pieced together a better-than-expected rotation that is fourth in the majors with a 3.18 ERA. The Rays pitchers are outperforming their peripherals by a bit, posting a 3.51 FIP and 3.50 xFIP, but BABIP is not to blame for that. The Rays are a little below league average at .280 BABIP compared to .295. Strikeouts per nine innings is at a respectable 8.33 for the Rays' staff, good enough for seventh in MLB, and their LOB% is second in the majors at 77.7% -- only the Cardinals' pitching staff has left more runners on base. Rays pitchers also have the lowest batting average against at .232, but that has something to do with the defense, which we will get into later.

So are there any improvements needed for the Rays' pitching? The returns of Moore and Odorizzi (and hopefully Smyly towards the end of the year), will provide much-needed stabilization to a Rays' bullpen that leads the league in IP. The most alarming aspect of the Rays' pitching staff is the amount of free passes given. The Rays rank in the bottom half in BB/9 at 2.98, with the bullpen giving out a walk more per nine (3.65) than the starters (2.57).

The Rays' strategy with managing most of the starting rotation is: get through the batting order twice, and let the bullpen take over for the rest of the game. The third time through the batting order is a danger zone. And yanking the starter early has paid off for the most part, but is it always the correct decision to make? I'm not so sure.

The Rays starters are posting a top-six FIP of 3.50. The Rays Bullpen? Twenty-fifth in the league with a FIP of 4.14. That's a pretty significant difference, even taking into consideration the "bullpen days" the Rays have used in National League parks. I don't know what the results would have been if Cash had let his starter go deeper, but if the bullpen is performing worse than the rotation, that's a sign that they may be being worked too hard.

If the Rays can cut down on their walks and take some pressure off of the bullpen, they could make a strong push to win the AL East.

Actual Elite Defense

Although Asdrubal Cabrera's bat has left much to be desired, his defense at the shortstop position has been absolutely insane. At the beginning of the season, a few people questioned Cash's decision to start Cabrera at shortstop, noting a lack of range as the main culprit. But as many have learned, there is a method to Cash's madness, and Cabrera ranks fifth among all shortstops in Fangraphs DEF rating (based on UZR) and seventh in Defensive Runs Saved with five. The only Rays defender who has shined brighter than Cabrera is the Outlaw, Kevin Kiermaier.

KK Diving Catch

There is no giveth, only taketh away (Photo Cred: AP Photo/Chris Meadera)

KK has been an absolute monster at his position. He leads all players the MLB in DRS (19) and DEF (13.9). Desmond Jennings only posted 4 DRS and a DEF rating of 6.6 in CF last year and that was in over 1,000 innings played.

These two, along with Evan Longoria, Logan Forsythe, David DeJesus and Joey Butler (?!) lead the Rays in defensive metrics, and as a result, the Rays are second in the baseball in DEF rating (trailing only the Royals), and tenth in DRS.

Not So Elite Baserunning

The Rays' baserunning skills are less than superb, though. Fangraphs' Ultimate Base Running (UBR), which, depending on the event, assigns a weighted value to the baserunner's action, has the Rays next-to-last with a rating of -6.0 runs. The Rays seemingly have gotten faster with Steven Souza, Nick Franklin, and Kiermaier, but smarter decisions need to be made on the base paths to improve results from the offensive chances that the team gets.

UBR doesn't account for stolen bases, but fortunately Fangraphs also has wSB, "which estimates the number of runs a player contributes to his team, compared to the average player." The Rays rank towards the middle of the league at 0.9 in that regard.

Average Offense

The Rays' offense might be better than you (and a lot of other people) think. There is a pretty nifty stat called Weighted Runs Created Plus which takes all the various weights of a hitters performance and actions, and assigns it a single value that is park adjusted, and can be compared to the league average of 100. For example, the Blue Jays currently have a wRC+ of 116, which is 16 percentage points better than league average. The Rays wRC+ is not as exciting at 100, but that means that it's dead average, which is good enough for thirteenth in the MLB (and ninth in the American League).

Editor's note: FanGraphs perceives Tropicana Field to be a strong pitchers' park (with a factor of 95 since 2009), so if you don't believe in that particular adjustment, you will of course consider the Rays offense to be below average. There are reasonable people who hold this opinion, but I (Ian) am not able to discuss this intelligently right now, so I'm acknowledging the nuance of those people's argument and moving on with the normal adjustment.

Ian wrote a fantastic piece on Souza Jr's strikeout problems and what needs to be fixed. As it turns out, it's not just a Souza problem, its a Rays problem. The Rays rank eighth in the MLB in strikeout percentage, striking out almost 22% of the time. They also walk at a 7.4% clip, good enough for nineteenth. So why are they striking out so much? Are they swinging at pitches outside the zone a lot? Actually the Rays at one of the best at not doing that, swinging at only 29.2% of pitches outside the zone, seventh best in MLB. And the ones they do swing at, they make contact on 66.4% of those which is in the top-10.

What about in the zone? Maybe the Rays are not swinging at the pitches, and getting called strikes. Nope. The Rays are in the top 10 for swinging at pitches in the zone at 67.9%. But of those pitches in the zone, the Rays are only making contact on 83.7% of those pitches. Which might not sound that bad, but when compared to the rest of the MLB, it's good for twenty-eighth-best. The seemingly frustrating part is that the power is there. The Rays rank number twelve in baseball with an isolated power rating (ISO) of .141.

I came across this thread on Reddit in which "cozeners" used PITCHf/x data from Baseball Savant to calculate the percentage of balls outside the zone being called as strikes against each team. The Rays batters rank in the top-10 in pitches called strikes outside the zone. So they are taking pitches outside the zone, but with the expanding strike zone, the Rays are getting more strike calls against them, which probably is leading in part to the higher strikeout rate.

As a side note: Nick Franklin is batting with a .191 BABIP, which suggests he is getting extremely unlucky. He isn't helping himself, though, with a strikeout rate of 30.8%. But better luck with batted balls could lead to him being much more productive.

Conclusion

So, is this run of success sustainable? I say yes, and that's partly because there are areas in which they need to improve. The Rays must limit the number of free passes they give out, avoid overworking the bullpen, and decrease the number of strikeouts on offense. They also need to make better decisions on the base paths. The pitching has been great, thanks in part to a rock-solid defense, and it will be even better once Loney, Moore, and Odorizzi come back from the DL.

All of these factors combined mean just one thing: The AL East is theirs for the taking.