The Rays are currently second in the MLB in Fangraphs’ Base Running (BsR) statistic*, behind just the Arizona Diamondbacks, and comfortably ahead of the third place Milwaukee Brewers.
Could this represent a potential shift in the Rays offensive philosophy this year under Kevin Cash and new hitting coach Chad Mottola?
Base Running is calculated by adding Weighted Grounded Into Double Play Runs, Weighted Stolen Base Runs, and Ultimate Base Running (BsR = wSB + UBR + wGDP).
It’s not the stolen bases that are contributing to the league leading BsR totals, as the Rays are currently 19th in MLB at -0.3. So that leaves the other two.
Rays are second in the majors at both UBR and wGDP. Putting it simply: the Rays are really good at taking extra bases and running the bases aside from stealing, and are great at staying out of the double play.
The Rays have improved greatly in Ultimate Base Running, going from -12.7 in 2015 and -0.2 in 2016, to +11 this year. The numbers certainly support the eye test, as it’s no surprise the Rays are better this year. But you may be surprised to learn who is responsible for the improvement.
Sure, KK is leading the team with 2.5 UBR, but right on his heels is Corey Dickerson at 2.3 UBR. Tim Beckham (2.1), Logan Morrison (1.8) and Colby Rasmus (1.5) round out the top 5. The Rays are being smart and aggressive on the bases.
The Rays are also about as big a three true outcome team as can be: second in home runs (118), sixth in BB% (9.5%), and first in K% (25.5%). This certainly seems to be a major factor behind the Rays having the second best wGDP total in baseball.
Moral of the story: Strike out, don’t ground out, and you avoid double plays.
Overly simplistic? Absolutely. There are a ton of factors that go into hitting into or avoiding double plays, not the least of which is luck.
However, if the Rays hitting approach is based around elevating fly balls, swinging hard, and looking to drive your pitch for power rather than looking for contact you avoid the ground balls that turn into two outs.
I know, many of you detest strikeouts. Strikeouts are denigrated as “unproductive” outs, somehow worse than other sorts of outs. Some of these arguments do make sense. If you strike out you are failing to make contact. Contact, even weak contact, could in theory lead to a hit (or force an error).
But are strikeouts really the worst way to make an out? Not really, or at the very least barely worse than any other type of weak out.
How often is Corey Dickerson going to leg out an infield single in a season? Maybe that’s two hits he’s missing out on. How many weak pop-ups drop between outfielders? Maybe one, if the players get distracted by a rogue “I Got It!” from a Trop patron.
However, at the expense of those hyper-rare opportunities, a power hitter like Dickerson should be looking for a pitch to drive rather than simply put the ball in play. And it turns out, as a perhaps underappreciated side benefit of this approach, you avoid those rally killing double play ground balls. Either you are making good contact and the ball is sailing over the fence (or at least slicing through a power alley). Or you are swing through and missing entirely.
Chad Mottola has not been here long enough to draw any long term conclusions. However, in nearly half a season, the Rays offense looks tremendous. We are seeing career years from bright young power hitters like Dickerson and Steven Souza Jr., to breakout seasons from Tim Beckham and Logan Morrison. The Rays offense hasn’t looked this dynamic in quite a sometime. While this high octane offense produces a lot of strikeouts, it avoids many of the ground ball double plays that can sap the life out of a rally.
*Figures throughout this article current as of June 24, 2017.