Through 60 games in 2017, the Rays have a 29-31 record, nearly identical to their 28-32 record through 60 games in 2016. However, there are quite a few differences between the 2016 Tampa Bay Rays and the 2017 Tampa Bay Rays.
Here are five metrics (two hitting, two pitching, and one base running) that distinguish the 2016 and 2017 versions of the Rays.
Batter walk and strikeout rates
(walks up from 7.4% to 9.8%; strikouts up from 24.5% to 26.3%)
The Rays are following league trends as every team seems determined to have a Three True Outcomes offense. League wide, both walk and strikeout rates are up half a percentage point, and the Rays are doing their best to contribute to this phenomenon. The Rays 2.4 percent jump in walk rate is the largest in all of baseball from 2016 to 2017 and has been powered by several sources.
Brad Miller is leading the charge for the Rays with an 18.6 percent walk rate that is drawing attention all around the league. His MLB walk rate was never above 9.5 percent before this season (although he did have some lofty minor league walk rates), but given that he gave pitchers something to fear last season with his 30 homers added to the fact that he is swinging at eight percent fewer pitches outside of the zone this season, this change could well be sustainable, not some sort of Odubel Herrera walk-rate flash in the pan.
Joining Miller in the ranks of the double-digit walk rate are Steven Souza Jr. (prolific minor league walker, basically double-digit walk rate for career), Logan Morrison (putting the fear of God into pitchers with an ISO of .300 this season), Daniel Robertson (another prolific minor league walker, surprisingly), Rickie Weeks (at least he’s doing something well), and Evan Longoria (nice bounceback year for him in terms of his plate discipline). There’s really no reason to suggest that the team’s improved walk rate will fade with the months to come.
On the flip side, there isn’t much reason to believe their higher strikeout rate will fade either. If Weeks is demoted at some point this season, that might shave a few strikeouts off the top (43.8 percent strikeout rate), but it’s not as if Weeks is in a full-time role for the club right now. Tim Beckham has the highest strikeout rate of any of the regulars (33.6 percent), but with the way he is smashing the ball when he does make contact (46 percent hard hit ball rate), he won’t be taken out of the lineup any time soon. His strikeout issues aren’t just bad luck, either. His 16.4 percent swinging strike rate ranks fourth among all qualified hitters in 2017.
The Three True Outcomes Rays are here to stay.
Batter home run to fly ball rate
(up from 13.8% to 16.3%)
Speaking of which, the Rays haven’t been left behind when it comes to league-wide rising home run rates either. I’m not saying that I definitely buy into the “ball is juiced” theory, but I am saying that the Rays have four players with a HR/FB rate over 23 percent through the coldest two months of the season.
(up from -0.1 to 14.1)
The Rays slightly cost themselves when it came to base running in 2016, but the story has been much different in 2017, as they have already earned themselves nearly one and a half wins (in the broad sense of value) with their base running this season. FanGraphs had the Rays as the 16th-best baserunning team in 2016; in 2017 that rank has jumped all the way up to second. Now baserunning metrics can be tricky. It’s only been just over a third of a season, and defense and baserunning metrics may be a bit less trustworthy. Sure, FanGraphs has a formula that I’m sure is quite legitimate, but when I see all of base running distilled into one number, I feel like Michael Scott on the Booze Cruise.
That being said, this year’s team does have some distinct base running advantages on last year’s team. The bottom five base runners from last year’s squad (Curt Casali, Mikie Mahtook, Hank Conger, Brandon Guyer, and Matt Duffy) haven’t made a single appearance for the Rays in 2017, and the second-best base runner on the current roster (Beckham) is playing an expanded role this season. Svelte Corey Dickerson and Logan Morrison are also both having better baserunning seasons, at least according to FanGraphs. I’m not sure I buy this being a sustainable change quite as much as the walk and strikeout rates, but I do buy the Rays at least being a somewhat better baserunning team in 2017.
Pitcher strikeout minus walk rate
(down from 14.3% to 11.9%)
As we transition from team hitting stats to team pitching stats, the news goes from good to bad. The 2017 Rays pitchers have been just about on par with 2016 when it comes to some of the surface statistics, such as a decrease in team ERA from 4.20 in 2016 to 4.03 this season. The process behind those results has been a little bit sketchier, however.
Rays pitchers have seen their strikeouts per nine drop from 8.56 in 2016 to 7.92 in 2017, while their walks per nine have risen from 3.10 in 2016 to 3.39 in 2017. All of that can be summed of most strikingly in the 2.4 percent drop in strikeout minus walk rate shown above.
Chris Archer is the only starting pitcher with more than a strikeout per inning this season, and it’s not particularly close. Matt Andriese is second among the Rays’ starter in strikeouts per nine, and he’s down at 8.10 K/9. Jake Odorizzi and Alex Cobb are both posting the lowest strikeout per nine rates since their rookie seasons, and this is against the backdrop of a league in which strikeouts are more common than ever.
The issue is hardly limited to the rotation. Only one Rays’ reliever has more than a strikeout an inning in 2017, and that’s Diego Moreno in less than six total innings this season. The other Rays’ relievers tend toward the 6.0-8.0 strikeouts per nine range, which is well below the league average for relievers in 2017 (8.99 K/9).
Now pitcher strikeouts and walks are not the end of the conversation - the Rays are an above-average defensive team (despite some beat reporters refusing to admit that), so more balls in play are going to hurt the Rays less than a team like the Oakland A’s who have been a defensive abomination each of the past two seasons. This hasn’t just been an allowing-more-contact issue, though. It has also been an allowing-better-contact issue, which leads us to…
Pitcher hard hit ball rate allowed
(up from 31.7% to 35.5%)
Despite the lower ERA, Rays’ pitchers have allowed 3.8 percent more hard contact in 2017, according to FanGraphs. The league-wide hard hit ball rate is indeed up this season, but the jump has been only 0.6 percent, a far cry from the massive leap seen in the Rays’ pitching numbers.
Now it must be noted that Rays’ pitchers are actually allowing fewer fly balls to be turned into home runs in 2017 (12.0 percent HR/FB rate in 2017, down from 13.1 percent in 2016), but it’s fair to question whether that is sustainable over a full season, especially with warmer weather ahead. (Warmer weather may not affect an indoor park like the Trop as much, but it will certainly affect some of their most popular road destinations like Camden Yards and Fenway Park.)
Of the 21 pitchers to have appeared for the Rays in 2017, two-thirds are allowing hard contact at a higher rate than the league average, so this is hardly a one- or two-player issue. All five of their main starting pitchers are allowing higher than league-average hard contact, and it is something that could well rear its ugly head as we head into summer’s dog days.