The Rays have posted four straight losing seasons. That is a fact. They finished below 81 wins each of the past four seasons, and in a sense, that’s all that really matters.
But on the other hand, each of the past four offseasons should have given Rays fans some amount of hope heading into the following seasons, because in each of these losing seasons (yes, even 2016) the Rays finished the season over .500 by Baseball Prospectus’ third-order winning percentage. In fact, by BP third-order winning percentage, the Rays have been over .500 every season since 2007, and they have been a playoff-worthy team six of the past 10 years (with added playoff appearances in 2012, 2015, and 2017, and a lost playoff appearance in 2011).
“What exactly is Baseball Prospectus third-order winning percentage?” you may be asking yourself right now. The BP website defines the metric as:
3rd Order Winning Percentage: A team's projected winning percentage, based on underlying statistics and adjusted for quality of opponents.
Uses Adjusted Equivalent Runs scored and allowed, which adjust the Equivalent Runs totals for the quality of each team's opponents' pitching and defense.
In other words, third-order winning percentage tries to strip out some of the inherent luck involved with a single year of baseball and determine how many wins and losses the team truly deserved in a neutral context. Most baseball fans know about Bill James’ Pythagorean winning percentage formula (based on runs scored and runs allowed), and third-order winning percentage is that idea taken to its natural next step.
Instead of looking at wins and losses through the lens of runs scored and allowed, third-order winning percentage goes even more granular and looks and wins and losses through the lens of runners on base and runners allowed on base.
In theory, it should be even more predictive than Pythagorean winning percentage, in terms of season-to-season comparisons.
So how is it possible that the Rays have underperformed their third-order winning percentage for seven seasons on the trot?
Here’s a crazy chart for you:
Third-order win difference 2010-2017
That’s the past eight seasons of difference between actual wins and third-order wins. No team comes even close to the Rays level of malaise. The difference between the bottom-ranked Rays and the top-ranked Royals has been an average swing of over 11 wins a season. That’s the difference between a .463 winning percentage (75 wins) and a .531 winning percentage (86 wins). It’s no wonder that the Rays would have been to three additional postseasons in the past six seasons if they had done as well as their underlying metrics said they should have.
So why haven’t the Rays actually been a perennial playoff team? Lets go over some possibilities.
The AL Beast
Notice the team right above the Rays in terms of worst third-order success since 2010. It’s the Boston Red Sox. Up five more spots are the Toronto Blue Jays, and after last season, the Yankees are now below water when it comes to third-order wins in the past eight seasons, as well.
In a sense, this is logical. The AL East has long held the “strongest division in baseball” title, a claim supported by two of the best teams in baseball this millennium (Sox and Yanks) calling the division home. Toss in one of the sneaky-biggest markets in baseball (Toronto, who gets all of Canada) and a pesky Orioles team (more on that in a second), and the division has power at the top, and depth throughout, at least when it comes to 21st century talent. If everyone in the division is winning, it kind of breaks the third-order formula, which tries to strip out schedule difficulty.
As such, the only AL East team to win more real games than third-order wins since 2010 is the Orioles. The Orioles have been the third-best team at overperforming their third-order winning percentage since 2010, with only Kansas City and Pittsburgh topping them. They are basically the anti-Rays. They have overperformed their third-order winning percentage each of the past seven seasons, a trend that has allowed them to make the real playoffs in three of the past six seasons, despite only one playoff appearance in the hypothetical third-order winning percentage playoffs. (I think their fans are find with that tradeoff.)
So what has allowed Baltimore to *cough* buck *cough* the trend that has plagued the rest of their division?
If you bring up the Orioles incredible ability to overperform both their third-order wins and their regular preseason projections, the top answer is usually Buck Showalter. Showalter is one of the most respected managers in baseball these days, and while correlation does not mean causation, Showalter just so happens to have been hired by Baltimore seven seasons ago—right when their streak over overperforming their third-order winning percentage began.
Of course, at the same time, the Rays have employed managers (Joe Maddon and Kevin Cash) who are also generally well-respected in the industry. Now, the Rays job was Cash’s first managerial gig, so it’s hard to mine anywhere else for data, but it’s interesting to note that in the three seasons since Maddon took over the Cubs, they have underperformed their third-order winning percentage by 11.4 wins. Almost all of that is driven by a 2016 season in which they still won 103 games, but they had one of the best third-order winning percentages of all time (113.3 third-order wins). One would be hard-pressed to say the 2016 Cubs actually underperformed.
Still, is it possible that Maddon and Cash both employ tactics that don’t play well to third-order win differential? I wouldn’t write it off entirely. At the same time, it almost certainly doesn’t explain all of the phenomenon.
The other most-common explanation for the Orioles third-order outperformance is their bullpen, specifically the backend. Over the course of the past seven seasons, the Orioles have the sixth-best bullpen ERA in baseball. The top bullpen ERA over that stretch belongs to the Royals, and the second-best belongs to the Pirates. Do those names sound familiar? Kansas City and Pittsburgh also rank first and second in third-order win differential in our chart above. Aha!
However, it’s not as if the Rays and Red Sox sit at the bottom of these bullpen ERA ranks. The Rays rank 14th and the Red Sox sit 12th.
If we look at blown saves instead, it may seem telling that the Padres (fourth in our chart above) have the second-fewest blown saves since 2011, and the Rangers (sixth) have the third-fewest, but at the same time, the Rays rank seventh, with fewer blown saves than those pesky Orioles.
So maybe there’s a slight explanation in the top-tier bullpen of Baltimore, but it doesn’t do much on Tampa Bay’s end to explain their third-order struggles.
Grasping at straws
Those were the most likely possibilities. The rest of the possible explanations feel a bit like grasping at straws:
- There’s something about the Rays lack of a home-field advantage that consistently costs them an almost 12-wins-a-season difference from those wild crowds in Kansas City.
- Bad luck. I’m a big believer in luck playing a role in a lot of small sample size noise, but seven straight 162-game seasons seems like a pretty massive sample.
- The Rays are simply living out the self-fulfilling prophecy of the small-market struggles of a tiny fish in the massive market of the AL East. Confidence, lads!
- The smoke monster from Lost.
- We live in a simulation, and this is the sign the gods are giving us as to the fact that the simulation is glitching.
Most likely, the Rays malaise when it comes to failing to match their third-order winning percentage is some confluence all the factors mentioned here (with the possible exception of the smoke monster). It maybe breaks down something like this:
- 50% - the AL East is really fricken tough.
- 25% - Poor managerial performance. Cash may be on the hot seat these days, and Maddon has lost a bit of his shine in recent seasons, so I don’t think this is too high a percentage to suppose.
- 10% - Bad luck. Seven seasons is a long time, but crazier things have happened.
- 8% - Their bullpen hasn’t been as absurd as Baltimore’s.
- 5% - Lack of true home-field advantage.
- 1.9% - Small market mindset.
- 0.1% - The smoke monster from Lost.
To paraphrase Marshall Mathers, hopefully the Rays can “move toward a, new third order,” and finally find the success that their third-order winning percentage has suggested they could have had this past decade.
Although with Giancarlo Stanton added to the AL East mix, and the divisional arms race likely to ensue, it’s going to be another uphill battle in 2018.