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Tampa Bay Times claims Rays pitching is overrated

MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Times, our only truly independent resource for news about the team, has another writer stepping in to criticize the team in Spring Training, this time Martin Fennelly.

It started late Wednesday, when an article went live with the title:

Why the Rays' pitching is overrated

That link now ends in a dead url, giving a 404 error. The version that damn Thursday morning was refreshed with a new title, possibly trying to stave off ire from people like me:

Why Rays' pitching is overrated . . . for now

Hey, there’s an ellipsis! This opinion could change!

It’s warranted for an independent newspaper to be critical of its local team, so let's take this at face value and then move through the case presented.

The premise for the article starts with an implied question: Is the Rays rotation overrated?

That’s a fair thing to ask. This Rays team, built on pitching and defense, did so poorly in 2016 that they were one loss shy of the second overall pick in the draft.

The Rays are returning four-fifths of their rotation in 2017, but have otherwise been working to improve, as they’ve been revamping the bullpen with several arms who have high leverage experience . . . wait no this article doesn’t mention the bullpen.

So I guess what we’re really talking about is starting pitching . . .

I added the above ellipsis to give you hope for what’s to come. Did it work?

The problem is that Fennelly never once says that people think the Rays rotation is really good, nor will he say by what measure they're being rated. Let’s try to make sense of this together, starting at the top:

Rays occasional ace Chris Archer made a good point as spring training began, namely that it would take more than pitching to make this team a winner again. It hasn't been one since 2013. Last year's 68 wins were strictly Devil Rays stuff.

Starting with a dig at the team’s ace is interesting.

Archer has been the top pitcher on the Rays rotation ever since Alex Cobb injured his elbow, and there was never a point where he was usurped. So the word occasional here is not descriptive of changing hierarchies in the team. It’s really just there to deride Archer’s performance.

In some respects, Chris Archer had a tough 2016. He was credited with 19 losses, and had an uncommon problem with the longball. But he finished the year strong, cutting his walk rate in the second half of the season while keeping his strikeout rate at an elite level. There’s good reason to hope for a strong 2017.

But to be overrated you need to be rated highly. Is that what Archer’s doing? Does he say that he’s going to put this team on his back and carry them to the promised land, the way every real ace can?

"People are going to have to step up in the bullpen," Archer said a few weeks ago. "We're going to have to score more runs than we did last year, because when we did pitch well, we still struggled to win games. … I think it's time for us to shift away from relying solely on starting pitching."

Huh. It’s almost like Archer is saying that the starting rotation needs more help. And look, Fennelly agrees!

The Rays' offense — which hit .243, worst in the American League, with more strikeouts and fewer hits than any AL club, with the second-fewest runs and second-worst on-base percentage — needs to get it together.

It’s weird to start an article about a starting rotation being overrated by highlighting the failures of the offense and by taking a dig at a starting pitcher, but okay. Let’s give it time to make his point.

Here's another reason to do it:

The pitching might be overrated.

I mean it.

See! The introduction was a misdirection! He’s saying it was MORE than a susceptible bullpen, a fallible ace, and a poor batting average that led to the Rays failings.

Yes, starting pitching is the Rays' best hope, their only chance to avoid oblivion, with a stable of 20-something arms and more on the way. But is it really as good as its billing, consistently good?

No way.

It took a step back last season.

Okay, wait wait wait. We still need to establish that people are saying that the Rays rotation is really good. And the only numbers referenced here are that the rotation’s arms are younger than 30. That doesn’t equal overrated, or any kind of rated.

But there is one concrete claim we can deal with here, so let’s do that.

Fennelly doesn’t spell it out, but the team did take a step back in 2016, as compared to the 2015 season. Despite having an improved strikeout rate and identical walk rate, the starting rotation increased their batting average allowed from .237 to .252, dramatically increasing their ERA from 3.63 in 2015 to 4.62 in 2016.

Does taking a step back mean the pitching was bad?

The Rays had the sixth-best rotation by ERA in the American League last year (4.26), according to the Fangraphs leaderboard, and only two teams’ starters had an ERA lower than 4.20 in 2016.

Tampa Bay had the highest strikeout rate in the American League among starting rotations (22.8%) and the fourth-lowest batting average against (.252)—the other three teams won their divisions.

So the Rays rotation wasn’t bad.

Does being not-bad make you overrated?

The rub here seems to be the Rays reputation, as opposed to something measurable, which leads me to ask again: Who is calling them “consistently good?”

Let’s skip that answer—Fennelly does—and instead ask a player in the clubhouse if he thinks he’s overrated.

"Overrated?" Rays starter Alex Cobb said. "I get what you're saying. I can't argue against that if people are saying that. We haven't collectively proven anything as a group. There have been good individual years. 'Arch' had a great year in '15. (Jake Odorizzi) has been Mr. Consistent in '15 and '16. I had a good year in '13, '14, and then we have a couple of guys who are unproven. You can't argue against that."

Cobb says he gets it, but I don’t. What Cobb layed out there are reasons not to be completely confident in this rotation, despite its obvious potential. This team hasn’t made the playoffs in three seasons. Who is doing the overrating?

But Fennelly got a statement agreeing with his own, so he decides to move on.

Archer, bad luck or run support notwithstanding, is coming off a 19-loss season.

Yes, we’re still talking about individual Win/Loss records in 2017!

Cobb, a beast when he wasn't injured, is a wild card in terms of getting back to where he was before Tommy John surgery.

Odorizzi, who started Wednesday in Port Charlotte against Philadelphia, is consistent, but he hasn't had that major breakthrough season. Left-hander Blake Snell is just getting his feet wet. Matt Andriese might be a good fifth starter, might not.

Non sequitur complete; what are you trying to say, Mr. Fennelly?

There are as many questions as there is upside with these starters.

I could argue there's potential for a top-10 rotation.

But they have to go do it.

I mean, David Price and James Shields were for real.

They've been gone awhile.

Rays starters are riding on potential and upside at the moment. That's all.

(That’s not all.)

Don't be fooled. Yes, the offense needs to kick in, as Archer rightly pointed out.

Winning, as well as avoiding the abyss, is still about one thing.

"It's all about pitching," manager Kevin Cash said. "As far as I'm concerned, we're going to win games because of our pitching. I like the offense and the capabilities of hitting the ball out of the ballpark. But we're going to be built on pitching, for sure."

So are we talking about pitching or offense, because I’m starting to get confused by the back and forth. Either the offense was good enough for us to blame the pitching, or it wasn’t.

It's on the pitching — and last year was a step back.

So, for now, it's overrated.

But by what standard???

Cobb has more to say, and that’s where the article goes next:

"Until we put together a season collectively, until we all have that year as a group and we're playing in the playoffs," Cobb said. "It's about the pitching. It's on us. I've always enjoyed embracing that. Because we do get a lot of credit. With that comes pressure. It's how we deal with it."

"Just as long as we're ourselves, we're fine," Archer said. "Only time will tell. I've said that about the team in general. I can't tell you whether we're underrated or overrated until Game 162, or until I actually know where we stand."

God bless our pitchers for answering these questions with sincerity. The team as a whole did poorly last year, and 2017’s two best pitchers (one of whom missed the season) are wearing it on behalf of everyone.

And it’s a team sport, right Martin?

That's always been the safety net: The Rays have the pitching. Nobody hits, but the Rays have pitching. World to end Friday. Rays to still have pitching Saturday.

Go prove it.

Nobody hits. The end. The entire premise of the article is that the pitching was overrated. The conclusion of the article is that baseball is a team sport, even though the Rays rely on their pitching most of all.

No mention was made by Fennelly of the bullpen, which has been completely retooled. No mention was made of the defense, which suffered mightily for the month Kevin Kiermaier was injured, directly contributing to the Rays losses. Nothing about the starters was referenced other than age and the loss column.

But most importantly, there was no reference to who ever said the pitching was rated highly enough to be called overrated!

Who did this overrating? Who would dare to say last year’s team was good? At no point has there been an article saying “hot damn this Rays pitching was great in 2016!”

We have plenty of statistics to say the rotation, which will replace Drew Smyly with Alex Cobb in 2017, should have performed better because they hit high statistical markers last year, but that’s ignored.

The team uses players in their 20’s, and one of those players was credited with 19 losses. And it was kinda the offense’s fault but maybe not either. That’s the argument, and it’s a bad one.

All of this is not to say I don’t enjoy Fennelly’s writing, he had a great profile on Tommy Hunter last month that’s worth a read, but previous success doesn’t predict future success, now, does it. The Pulitzer-Prize-winning Tampa Bay Times can and should do better.

The Rays pitching staff is good enough to compete in the AL East, but that’s a matter of competency, not being overrated. If you want to say these Rays starters are being praised too highly, you have to prove it.