Note: All data gathered through September 7.
The Rays offense is a completely different animal away from Tropicana Field.
Entering last night’s game the Rays had scored only two fewer runs on the road than at home, but in twelve fewer games, leading to a difference of 3.87 runs a game at home versus 4.57 runs a game away.
The difference of 0.70 more runs is quite substantial and is the fourth largest gain on the road. The Cardinals (+1.01 runs), Dodgers (+0.77 runs), and Astros (+0.74 runs) are the only ones that have a bigger gain when hitting the road. The league average is -0.14 runs when playing on the road.
Rays hitters average .252/.317/.443, good for a .760 OPS on the road, which is a substantial improvement over their .234/.302/.411 and .713 OPS at home. Their .047 OPS gain is only behind the Phillies (at .066) and Athletics (at .057). The league averages a drop of -.029 OPS when playing away.
Tropicana Field’s effect on the offense
Most hitters perform worse when away from their home park, but park factors definitely play a role. The park factors from Fangraphs.com attribute Tropicana field as an overall 97, which is 3% below average, with real negatives coming in strikeouts and infield fly balls (or as I like to call them, the strikeouts of batted balls).
At Tropicana Field, batted balls result in fewer hits, and the automatic outs of strikeouts and infield fly balls are inflated more than any other park in baseball. This makes it difficult to string together a high scoring inning, as unproductive outs occur more frequently than in other stadiums.
Infield fly balls the Rays are an extreme 108 in the park factors. This is likely due to the large foul territory, so weak contact trying to foul off pitches aren’t helping as much as would do in a more neutral setting. Rays bats lead the league with a 12.4% of fly balls being infield flies, but that spikes to 13.5% at home versus an 11.2% rate on the road.
The real problem, though, is strikeouts. Players typically strike out 1.0% less often when at home, but that trend hasn’t helped the Rays in recent years.
The Batter’s Eye
Dating back to last year, the Trop has significantly caused strikeouts to spike, and it might have to do with a change in the Batter’s Eye after the most recent renovation to give Tropicana Field a 360-degree walkway.
This year the Rays have struck out at home 25.1% of the time, but only strike out 23.2% when away. A fall of 1.9% is extreme, and almost 3% different than what would be expected. A similar thing occurred last year as they saw a drop of 2.7% (23.0% home and 20.3% away), the season the walkway and platform were added to the right field side of the Batter’s Eye.
Is there something to this? Is it possible that the ball looks different out of a pitcher’s hand due to changes to the Batter’s Eye?
Rays pitchers also see a similar gain as they have struck out 24.0% at home versus only 21.2% away (A gain of 2.8% when around only 1% should be expected).
I’m not sure what the ideal strategy should be to take advantage of the home park, as it appears strikeouts will be elevated on both sides of the ball, and weak contact doesn’t give you much to compensate.
The Rays may have been working around this when they sought more power this off-season, but that doesn’t make clear whether the Batter’s Eye is to blame at least in part.
How does the Rays road offense compare to their AL East foes?
The Rays 4.57 runs per game on the road only trails the Red Sox 4.84 runs per game. They are slightly ahead of the Blue Jays 4.54 and Orioles 4.52 runs per game. The Yankees are significantly behind at 3.90.
The Rays do have the advantage of trading a handful of game in the Trop for more friendly environments, but the Rays offense is much closer to the other offenses than one would initially expect.
The Rays .760 road OPS is also second in the division behind the Red Sox at .765. Not all OPS is created equal as a point of OBP is worth about two points of slugging. The Rays .317 OBP is ahead of all but the Red Sox at .332.
The problem is the Rays aren’t competing with those offenses on their road. They are competing against opposing home offenses where the Red Sox score 6.03, Blue Jays score 5.19, Orioles score 4.89, and Yankees score the same 4.57 runs per game.
The Rays offense isn’t without it’s flaws, and I think OBP is their biggest need this off season even if you give up some power to get there.
Dealing with conditions at the Trop will make it difficult, but it’s easier to improve things you are weak at than improve upon your strengths.