This season we are seeing the continued trend of homers spiking as there have been 3,082 home runs have been hit around the major leagues this season, good for a rate of 2.32 per game.
This represents a sharp increase from the 2.02 allowed in 2015 and 1.72 allowed in 2014 (The 2014 season represented a low point as the MLB rate was at 1.92 in 2013 and 2.03 in 2012). Since the 90’s, the only season that baseball saw homers at a greater pace was 2.34 per game in 2000.
The Rays have done more than their fair share as they have contributed a 2.66 rate in games they have played in this season, and gives this season a bit of irony.
For the 2016 season, the Rays went out of their way to add power to the lineup, and it looks like they accomplished that as they have hit 118 homers in the first 88 games of the season, good for seventh in MLB and fourth in the AL.
The Rays pitchers have unfortunately also done their share, as they have allowed 116 homers which ties them for the fifth most in the majors and fourth most in the AL. And even though they are fifth in HR allowed, they are exactly the same distance from the most (Reds at 154) and the fewest (Cardinals at 78).
How has the increase in home runs affected the Rays pitchers?
The Rays pitching staff was built around fly ball pitchers that would use good defensive outfielders and Tropicana Field to their advantage. accordingly, the last three years the Rays have been top three in the league in fly ball percentage as they have allowed 39.0% in 2014 (1st in MLB), 38.0% in 2015 (2nd in MLB), and 37.4% in 2016 (3rd in MLB). Since 2011 the league average has held steady at right around 34%.
In 2014 Rays pitchers allowed a .175 batting average on fly balls with a .331 ISO. In 2015 they allowed a .169 batting average with .361 ISO. This year things have increased to a .238 batting average and .513 ISO.
Unsurprisingly, since the dead ball era of 2014, the HR/FB rate has increased from 9.5% in 2014 to 11.4% in 2015 to 12.9% in 2016. This has resulted in the homerun rates from the Rays pitchers rising from 9.1% to 11.2% in 2015, and then to 13.8% in 2016. The Rays pitchers have been able to suppress home run rates at better than league rates which Tropicana Field surely plays a role.
This year, though, they have allowed a much worse rate of flyballs, which has in turn led to the increase in homers allowed, and that’s likely a combination of bad pitching and bad luck, both by injuries and spreadsheet calculations.
Extreme fly ball rates aren’t necessary a problem, but they will inflate the amount of homers allowed by the volume of fly balls.
How much damage is being done on fly balls that aren’t homers?
Some of this is sure to stem from the loss of Kevin Kiermaier patrolling the outfield, but how much does this play a role?
In 2014 the Rays pitchers allowed a BABIP of .096 on fly balls with a .066 ISO on the fly balls that weren’t homers. In 2015 Rays pitchers allowed a BABIP of .069 and .049 ISO. This year Rays pitchers have allowed a .097 BABIP and .052 ISO.
Since May 22 when Kiermaier went down in the outfield with a broken hand trying to make a diving catch in Detroit, the Rays pitchers have allowed a .110 BABIP and .054 ISO. The defense with Kiermaier on the roster allowed a .083 BABIP and .046 ISO.
The .027 difference in BABIP over the 237 fly balls since his injury would only equate to six additional outs. The loss of KK is definitely something, but there have been inconsistent parts in that sample and having to put fielders like Corey Dickerson and Oswaldo Arcia in the outfield and moving guys like Brandon Guyer and Desmond Jennings to center, so you take a hit at two spots in the field.
The difference of six balls in play to outs only drops the batting average from .238 to .226 on fly balls. The outfield defense could definitely help out the pitchers more and more importantly give the pitchers more outs, so starters pitch deeper into games and you don’t have to see the bullpen pick up as many innings.
Are the Rays starters making strides in dealing with their fly ball problems?
Rays starters over the past 30 days have slightly increased their fly ball rate from 40.1% to 40.4% and significantly lowered their HR/FB rate to 11.1% from 12.9%.
This has caused a drop in HR/9 from 1.34 to 1.17 over that span, and has led to the Rays starters putting up a 4.09 FIP good for sixth in the majors and second in the AL during that stretch. Their ERA is fifteenth in the league over that stretch at 4.77 and sixth in the AL. The pitchers have the fourth lowest left on base percent at 66.0% which is the likely culprit of the additional runs.
The Rays will only go as far as their starting pitching takes them for the foreseeable future. The problem has been in the rate of the fly balls leaving the ballpark and the answer is equal parts regression and better pitching.
Rays starters need to continue to make strides to returning to their former glory as there really isn’t a solution available other than getting better production from the guys that already here.
The Rays rotation will surely look different by the end of the off-season. Those changes could be coming in the next few weeks as we approach the trade deadline or wait until this winter to make moves when there are more teams looking for rotation help.
The Rays need to bet on the correct guys bouncing back and their production will likely guide the direction the team takes going forward.