It’s time to wrap up report cards for the first month (or so) with the Rays’ infielders. The Rays’ offense has quieted down a bit in the past few weeks, but there have still been some pleasant surprises within this infield crew. With the aforementioned acknowledgements that this is early in the season so we will be using a non-traditional grading metric, let’s move on to the Rays’ infield.
Of all the Rays’ players this season, Longoria’s 2017 is probably most open to divergent interpretations.
Take a look at his batted ball profile. On the one hand, Longoria is hitting the ball as hard as he ever has. His 37.6 percent hard hit ball rate (all stats from FanGraphs unless otherwise noted) is higher than last season when he left the yard 36 times and hit .273. On the other hand, he seems to be struggling to elevate his swing, as his 35.5 percent fly ball rate is by far a career low, and he is pulling just 21.2 percent of his fly balls after getting around on 28.0 percent of fly balls in 2016.
The same could be said about his plate discipline. Longoria is still reaching at too many pitches outside of the zone (32.2 percent O-Swing rate) and he is striking out more often than last season, but he is back to drawing walks (10.9 percent walk rate is highest since 2011), and his swinging strike rate (10.6 percent) is trending back down after increasing in five of the past six seasons.
A quick glance at his slash line (.234/.317/.395) suggests underperformance, but this line comes despite struggles with plantar fasciitis. He is hitting .308 with an OPS north of .850 since getting a few days off at the beginning of the month, so he just need more time off his feet until he is fully healthy.
Longoria is a perfect example of why we can’t draw firm conclusions in one-month stretches. Grade: The Lady From Shanghai fun house mirror scene.
Well, if you thought Longo was tricky to break down, here’s a second baseman coming off a 30-homer season who is currently hitting .193 with just one home run but a .353 on-base percentage. (Baseball!)
When the 2017 season is done, Miller’s April is almost certainly going to stand out as one of the strangest individual months of any Rays’ hitter. Miller has never had a season with a walk rate above 9.5 percent, but this season he’s walking at a 19.9 percent clip. He’s also striking out more than ever before, but he’s lacking the Third True Outcome, with just the one homer.
That lack of long balls is what likely stands out to most Rays’ fans, as Miller’s 30 home runs in 2016 was one of the biggest stories of the season for the team. Miller had never topped 11 home runs in a season before, and while some regression was expected, a total drop off of this nature didn’t seem likely. Miller is indeed hitting more ground balls than ever before in his career, and has also been unlucky with just one of his fly balls leaving the yard. Miller’s 38.0 percent hard hit ball rate ranks fourth among qualified second basemen in 2017, while his 4.5 percent HR/FB rate ranks sixth from the bottom in that same group.
Miller is going to be a heavy regression to the mean candidate the rest of the way. Grade: Teen Wolf.
Of the 146 qualified hitters in 2016, not a single one posted a BB/K rate as poor as Beckham’s in 2017 (0.13).
Now that we have that one (rather important) caveat out of the way, let’s celebrate what Beckham has done this season. After all, if you got a report card from your history teacher that said You’ve done a great job so far, but I feel as though your approach may not work on further tests, so I’m giving you a failing grade you’d probably be pretty pissed off.
Beckham is absolutely spanking the ball this season, and his 50.7 percent hard hit ball rate doesn’t just lead the Rays, it leads all shortstops and ranks fifth among all qualified hitters in 2017.
Beckham has already contributed more to the Rays offense (per FanGraphs hitting runs metric) than is any of his four past seasons, and he has played in just 29 games so far. His .236 isolated power trails just one other Ray, and his six long balls also rank second on the team. He’s getting profiles all over the place, and he has been one of the best stories of the young season. Let’s enjoy this and worry about whether it can last another time. Grade: Landing your long-time crush and being able to ignore his/her flaws while you’re in the honeymoon phase.
There are times Morrison makes it very hard to root for him (like when he opens his mouth), but the fact remains: he has been damn fine as a Ray. In the past calendar year (which cuts out his horrific April of 2016), Morrison has a wRC+ of 133. That figure ranks 23rd among hitters with as many plate appearances and ranks ahead of: Robinson Cano, Yoenis Cespedes, Anthony Rizzo, BRYCE HARPER, and MANNY MACHADO. That’s right, over the past year, Morrison has arguably (the only argument comes down to Morrison having fewer plate appearances) been a better hitter than Harper and Machado, two of the very best baseball has to offer and some of the biggest names in the sport.
Morrison is leading the team in home runs, isolated power, and wRC+ this season, and (before Monday’s trifecta) he even had the lowest strikeout rate among Rays’ hitters with at least 35 plate appearances this season (he’s now third). He’s doing it all right now. Grade: Shark Week.
Norris is the favorite of every nerdy Rays’ fan right now, as his statistics are overflowing with potential for positive regression in the future. Norris has an extremely sexy batted ball profile, highlighted by a 29.2 percent line drive rate and 35.4 percent hard hit ball rate. He’s elevating his swing well (just 23.1 percent ground ball rate), and to top it all off, he’s been extra-aggressive at the plate this season.
It’s a minor miracle he has only two home runs, and if he continues to make hard contact like he has been able to in the team’s first 34 games, he should find himself climbing the Rays’ leaderboards in a manner faster and more furious than Vin Diesel. For that, we are giving him the first future grade, and (if all that happens) it’s this.
Rickie Weeks Jr.
Weeks is basically the anti-Norris. Nothing in his stats say he’s due for an improvement from his current .163 batting average, as his 46.7 percent strikeout rate actually demands a NSFW label at this point. However, his presence on the team is still being praised by fans and teammates alike, as he is filling the “veteran leader” role with aplomb. Several folks with inside knowledge of the Rays have suggested that Beckham’s breakout has been at least in part the result of having Weeks as a mentor, and although Weeks may be the one to go once the Rays are fully healthy, he’s been worth his weight in gold when it comes to the human side of baseball analytics that are still trying to be figured out. Grade: Archimedes the owl.
I will actually pay my life savings (approximate amount: $73.82) to anyone who steals the idea from this video to compile a Jesus Sucre 2017 Rays’ highlight mixtape.