Yes, the Rays will be sending a pair of players to this week’s All-Star game, but Chris Archer and Corey Dickerson have been far from the only reason this team is currently sitting in a tie for the top wild card spot in the American League. There has been Logan Morrison, Steven Souza Jr., Alex Cobb, and now Jacob Faria.
You could keep going down the line. Mallex Smith and Tim Beckham have been pleasant surprises; Wilson Ramos and Brad Boxberger have been very solid in their recent returns; Erasmo Ramirez and Daniel Robertson have been crazy-helpful utility men on their respective sides of the ball.
What the Rays may lack in true “Star Power,” they make up for with their depth. And depth is not just something we can discuss anecdotally. In a recent piece on The Ringer, discussing how the Milwaukee Brewers have been able to have success this season, Ben Lindbergh referred to a metric based on proprietary data created to measure team depth around baseball. The Rays, easily, ranked first. As defined by Lindbergh, “the lower the number, the less dead weight the team is carrying on its roster.”
Here were the top three:
Tampa Bay - 0.16
Cleveland - 0.33
Milwaukee - 0.80
That’s a massive gap between first and third. The last-place team, the Atlanta Braves, registered a 3.62 on this scale, to give some perspective. It’s worth noting that this was even before the Rays returned Ramos and Boxberger to the active roster.
There is no doubt that the Rays have the deepest team in baseball, and there is no doubt that it has been of the utmost importance to their success in 2017.
For those of you who are Malcolm Gladwell fans, you may remember the term weak-link network (or its opposite, strong-link network). Gladwell referenced the term in Season 1 of his podcast, Revisionist History. He sought to distinguish between weak link systems, where it is most important to improve the weakest link, and strong link systems, where investments at the top will pay dividends. While he was largely using this concept to make critical comments about higher education, he also noted the relevance of this analysis to sports. Soccer, he claimed, was a weak-link sport whose teams perform best when their worst players are improved. This is in direct comparison to a sport like basketball - a strong-link sport - where the game is driven by stars, and therefore it is far more important to improve a team’s best player.
Baseball is almost certainly a weak-link sport. Just look at teams like the 2016 Los Angeles Angels or the 2003 Texas Rangers. Despite having the best player in the league, neither team made the playoffs. Need further proof? Just look at the careers of Ted Williams and Barry Bonds. These are two of the greatest players of all time, and they have a combined zero World Series rings.
Baseball has a lot of players and a lot of games. Pretty much each player gets to bat and pretty much each player mans a defensive position. So being pretty darned good everywhere is likely to trump being outstanding in one or two places.
In a weak-link sport like baseball, then, depth is key. And the 2016 Rays have depth.
The Rays may not have superstars on the level of a Chris Sale or Aaron Judge. They don’t have as many All Stars as the Houston Astros, and they can’t match a Clayton Kershaw or Max Scherzer (as much as we may love Chris Archer). But they have as few weak links as any team in baseball, and that’s a massive advantage to hold. If the team is able to hold onto their spot in the playoffs, and potentially surprise some folks when they get there, look at the team’s depth as a viable reason why.