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Bad Luck and Injuries Contribute to Rays Recent Struggles

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The Rays have been bad, but there are reasons to believe they can be better

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

At the start of June, the Rays gave us reason for optimism.  They started the month 7- 4 and seemed to be trending in the right direction.  But then the bottom fell out as they limped to the All Star break. The Rays had a barely respectable 47% winning percentage before June 11th, and a humiliating 20% since.

Why the dreadful end to the first half? Injuries, the strength of schedule, and bad luck were the big reasons the Rays struggled so mightily.

With all the usual caveats about cherry-picked samples, let's take a look at that awful stretch from June 11 until the merciful pause of the past week.

STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE

First, the Rays played some good teams during this stretch.  Before June 11th, the Rays opponents were 671-623 (0.51 Win%), after June 11th, opponents were 431-323 (0.57 Win%). Of course the Rays themselves may be responsible for some of this difference:  They were playing many of the same teams, but those teams had the benefit of inflating their win percentage thanks to games against the hapless Rays! The only team they played during their 6-23 stretch that has a losing record were the Angels (37-52), against whom the Rays lost 3 of 4.

The eight teams they faced during this period were some of the best offensive teams in the league.  Seven  rank in the top 12 according to Fangraphs OFF and all but the Angels and Astros  ranked in the top half in wOBA (although both were very close). They didn't play a single team in the bottom third of the league for offensive production. Offensive Runs Above Average (OFF) is used by Fangraphs and it "measures a player's context neutral batting runs and base running runs above average." To Calculate OFF you add the Batting Runs Above Average with the Base Running Runs Above Average to try to understand the full value they offer on the offensive side of the field. A full explanation of its calculation can be found here.

Team OFF Rank OFF wOBA Rank wOBA
Red Sox 1 82.8 1 .356
Orioles 3 42.1 2 .341
Mariners 5 23.1 7 .331
Giants 6 19.5 15 .320
Indians 7 18.5 10 .325
Tigers 11 -2.4 8 .328
Angels 12 -7.3 17 .318
Astros 19 -20.5 16 .319

As far as pitching goes, the teams were a bit more dispersed. The top 7 teams are separated by 6 WAR, and can be divided into great pitching teams (Astros/Indians/Giants), and good pitching teams (Tigers/Orioles/Red Sox/Mariners).  The Angels followed with a 2.7 WAR. Overall, they were faced with some tough matchups on the mound throughout this stretch.

Team WAR rank WAR
Astros 4 12.8
Indians 7 10.5
Giants 9 10.1
Tigers 12 9.4
Orioles 16 7.6
Red Sox 17 7.2
Mariners 19 6.8
Angels 28 2.7

So how did the Rays fare against this formidable schedule?

Pitching

The Rays allowed 165 runs over those 27 games which equates to 6.1 runs/game. They allowed 5 or more runs in 20 of those games. Prior to June 11th, they only allowed 4.9 runs/game, a difference of 1.2 runs/game. From June 11th through the All-Star Game, the Rays posted a 21.1 K% to go along with an 8.5 BB%. Those numbers are slightly worse than the numbers they put up before going 6-23 (23.4 K%, 8.2 BB%), but this slight regression over the last 30 days doesn't add up to an additional 1.2 runs/game.

An obvious problem area for the Rays in this period was their defensive LOB%. At 64.8%, it was the worst in the league over that span, and a sizable 7.1% under their season rate of 71.9%. Unfortunately, they were also dealing with a bit of bad luck in the form of .326 BABIP (5th highest over that stretch), which was 20 points higher than their season rate of .306.  More balls were falling for hits, and more runners were finding their way to the plate. These two factors played a significant role in the additional 1.2 runs/game that they surrendered. Kiermaier's absence could be expected to alter the Rays defensive BABIP and is a possible reason for some of the increase.

Hitting

Five key players missed time with injuries (Kiermaier, Pearce, Jennings, and Mahtook). I don't think Jennings (-0.3 WAR) and Mahtook's (-0.6 War) absence would account for a 27% drop in win percentage, but Pearce (14.3 OFF), Kiermaier (1.1 OFF) and Souza's (0.6 OFF) missed time significantly affected the offense.

During this stretch, the Rays produced an 83 wRC+, which came in as the 2nd worst in baseball (the Reds are at 70.) So the Rays weren't exactly creating a ton of runs. They were walking less --a 6.5 BB% compared to the season of 7.7 BB% -- but their K% of 24.8% was almost identical to their season K% of 24.5%. The difference in 1.2 BB% only accounts for about 11 walks over the duration of the 27 games which could have potentially changed the outcome of a game or two, but overall isn't a big factor for the offensive woes.

The big problem was that the Rays weren't hitting as many home runs. They only hit 30 over this span at a 1.1 HR/game rate. They hit 88 home runs in their other 61 games at a pace of 1.44 HR/game. This reduced pace cost the Rays 8 home runs over the 27 games. Pearce was placed on the DL on June 21st and missed 19 games; Souza was placed on the DL on the 15th missing 16 games. The absence of these two power bats was a big reason for the power outage as they have combined to hit 19 HR so far this season at a pace of an HR every 24 plate appearances. Considering the Rays have generated a lot of runs by way of the long ball, losing two power bats undoubtedly hurt their offensive production.

Conclusion

The Rays didn't play well over the last 27 games, but there are some reasons to be optimistic.

The pitching posted lower LOB% and higher BABIP, both of which contain some element of luck, so I would expect a better outcome moving forward as those numbers normalize, especially with some key players returning from injury.

Archer (3.52), Moore (3.84) and Snell (3.89) put up some very encouraging FIPs over those 27 games indicating that they are still displaying good peripherals. The offense lost some power, but with Souza back and Pearce's return imminent, it should resurface nicely.

They had a pretty terrible stretch, but with players recovering from injuries, and a little better luck the Rays should bounce back to around a .500 level team after the All-Star Game.