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Comparing the Rays to the 2017 Masters

Cross-sport comparisons, a tradition like no other

PGA: The Masters - Second Round Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

With the Masters in the throws of weekend action, it’s officially time for the mandatory Tampa Bay Rays-Masters article.

What tack to take, though? Saying which Rays would be the best golfers? Too speculative. Comparing the 18 holes at Augusta to 18 different stadiums where the Rays will play this season? Too much of a stretch.

What we’ll be doing instead is looking at the main skills needed to conquer Augusta National and deciding which Ray has best embodied that skill in team history. The skills for baseball and golf are not a perfect mirror, but there are a lot of similarities, allowing for a strong cross-sport comparison. We’ll look at six different facets of the golfing game, name a few of the best golfers in the 2017 Masters field in that facet, and finally name the Ray who fits the bill.

“Fore please, first tee now driving.”

Long off the tee

This is a pretty obvious comparison. The long bombers of the golf course (Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas, Bubba Watson) would be the go-big-or-go-home power hitters of the baseball diamond. The Rays have had plenty of power hitters in their franchise history, and while Evan Longoria is the franchise leader in home runs, this answer seems pretty straight-forward to me: Carlos Peña.

Peña is second in team history with 163 bombs, and he was a true go-big-or-go-home player. Peña hit those 163 bombs in just 726 games with the Rays, but he also hit .230 for his time in Tampa. These long balls weren’t just dinky wall scrapers for Peña either, as evidenced by the fact that he owns the longest Rays’ home run in the ESPN Home Run Tracker era (since 2006). It was a mammoth 466-foot shot off of Jordan Zimmerman on June 13, 2009. It’s fair to say even Bubba would be jealous of a blast like that.

Driving accuracy

Accuracy off the tee in golf is a lot like being able to go to all fields in baseball. While players like Martin Kaymer, William McGirt, and Jason Dufner thrive on hitting fairways in regulation, hitters across the league try to go to the opposite field to keep opposing fielders on their toes and prevent being shifted. Looking over the team’s history, there’s one all-timer and one newcomer who really stand out in this category: Carl Crawford and Corey Dickerson.

Crawford, of course, is an all-time Ray, third in franchise history in bWAR and a four-time All-Star with the Rays. He also showed an impressive ability to hit to all fields throughout his career, as his pull percentage (34.9%) and up-the-middle percentage (34.5%) were nearly identical, with his opposite field percentage (30.6%) just a hair behind. If we look to a smaller sample size, we can find an even greater balance in the form of Corey Dickerson. Dickerson has an absurdly balanced 32.9/33.7/33.4 pull/center/oppo batted ball profile in his season-plus with the Rays so far. Both hitters would undoubtedly be among the tour leaders in fairways hit.

Ball striking

Ball striking is of the utmost importance on the golf course. While driving and putting tend to get the most attention, what a golfer can do with his irons is what separates the pros from the Joes. Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler are among the best in the game at hitting greens in regulation, so it’s no surprise to see them tied atop the leaderboard to start Saturday at the Masters. As far as the Rays’ best ball strikers, a few names come to mind.

Sam Fuld owns the highest contact rate among hitters with at least 500 plate appearances in Rays’ history, but James Loney is nearly as high and did it over a longer stretch. He was also much more of a pure ball striker. Loney wasn’t always the most popular Ray, but he finished his time with Tampa with an impressive 88.4 percent contact rate and an even more impressive 81.4 percent contact rate on pitches outside of the strike zone. If Loney was swinging at the pitch, he was almost certainly making contact with it. Now where the ball went and how powerful it left the bat weren’t always to Rays’ fans liking, but he was about as pure a ball striker as the franchise has seen.

Recovery

Recovery in golf has to do with your ability to get out of sticky situations. Bill Haas and Paul Casey are two of the best scramblers left in the Masters field, and should the weather take a turn for the worse, those two might be able to make a push. In baseball, recovery typically relates to an injury. It’s a skill Rays’ fans will hope Alex Cobb and Wilson Ramos both prove capable of handling in 2017.

However, a more direct comparison is relief pitchers who come into a game with runners on base and have to scramble to get out of the jam. In that case, we have to go with Grant Balfour. In 2014, Balfour received 12 inherited runners and stranded them all, the highest number of inherited runners to be entirely stranded in a single season in Rays’ history. That’s like getting up and down from the greenside bunker on the first at Augusta.

Short game

Now we get to the Masters’ specialty: putting. Every other aspect of the game is important for the 2017 field, no doubt, but the undulating greens are where green jackets are won and lost. It’s the reason Phil Mickelson has three green jackets and young Jordan Spieth nearly has two (if it weren’t for that pesky 12th). In baseball, there are a lot of ways to go with “short game.” It could be closers, who are literally in the game the shortest. It could be the best slump-breaker, as focusing to hit that gimme three-foot putt and breaking out of an 0-for-16 slump are among the most mental aspects of both sports.

But we’re going a different route: Mallex Smith and bunting. Smith is already the best bunter in Rays’ history and I say this with my tongue only slightly in my cheek. The dude is going to be relying on quite literally the shortest part of his game—just laying down little grounders to third—quite often this season, and he already has a bunt hit this season. Similar to Anirban Lahiri, Smith’s short game may not be able to keep him up with the big boys forever, though.

Let’s end with a few, brief, player-to-player, Rays-to-golfers comparisons.

Sergio Garcia-Evan Longoria

Both are veterans who have been oh-so-close but never tasted the ultimate victory. Garcia has finished in top five six times (and tracking to do so again), but he has never been able to claim victory at a major tournament. For Longoria, he has been to the postseason three times in his Rays’ career, culminating with a pennant in 2008. He has (obviously) never won a ring, though. Luckily for Rays’ fans, Longoria is not nearly as insufferable as Garcia.

Rickie Fowler-Blake Snell

Both are flashy young guns who seem to have people dislike them for no real reason. They both have somewhat punchable faces, but, hey, they can’t help that! Now the Rays just need Blake Snell to begin coming to starts dressed like Fowler to truly bring the comparison together.

Derek Norris-Andrew Johnston

MLB: New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays
Beard A
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
PGA: AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am - First Round
Beard B
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

(Yes, I realize “Beef” wasn’t in the field this year, but you had to know this comparison was how we were ending this article.)