Last week Jeff Sullivan wrote an article at Fangraphs detailing the under performance by the Tampa Bay Rays from 2014-17. Using the metric “BaseRun,” Sullivan was able to examine which teams have performed the best and worst in high, medium, and low leverage situations.
As much as the Kansas City Royals have over performed their BaseRun expectations the Rays have under performed.
Before looking into the leverage breakdown we need to understand what the breakdowns used at Fangraphs. The average leverage situation is set to 1. Low leverage situations come in at .85 or lower, medium come in between .85 and 2.00, while high leverage situations come in at 2.0 or higher.
You take the current base-out state, inning, and score and you find the possible changes in Win Expectancy that could occur during this particular plate appearance. Then you multiple those potential changes by the odds of that potential change occurring, add them up, and divide by the average potential swing in WE to get the Leverage Index.
Of the 737,427 plate appearances that have occurred since 2014, 73,498 (10.0%) were classified as high leverage, 298,724 (40.5%) were classified as medium leverage, and 365,205 (49.5%) were classified as low leverage.
Roughly 10% of plate appearances lead to a bulk of the wins and losses.
For a more in depth discussion on the subject I recommend Tom Tango’s piece about how it was created.
How does the league perform in different leverage situations?
2014-17 League Average by Leverage
It’s not too surprising that the low and medium leverage results are close to the average overall. They comprise 90% of the sample size, and removes most of the innings against dominant late inning relievers.
How much worse the batters perform in high leverage situations is both surprising and expected. You would expect some selection bias where pitchers have allowed base runners allowing the leverage index to rise.
The first factor that determines leverage index is having a close game and second is how late in the game the situation occurs. 61.3% of the high leverage plate appearances were against relief pitchers. In those situations batters were held to a .233/.327/.374 line and .300 wOBA. The strikeout rate against relievers rises to 23.3% along with a 10.5% walk rate.
How have the Rays performed?
2014-17 Rays Bats By Leverage
Overall the Rays have been a roughly average offense, but the results by leverage have been quite polarizing.
In low leverage situation the Rays bats have been tied for the third highest wRC+ with the Detroit Tigers, and Los Angeles Dodgers while trailing only the Houston Astros and Toronto Blue Jays. The Rays offense has produced solid batting averages, and get on base. They hit for a lot of power.
In medium leverage situations the Rays offense has been right in the middle. They rank tied for 15th. The strikeout rate rises by 1.0% but the offense has been less productive than they have been in lower leverage situations with small drops across the board in batting average, on base percentage, and isolated slugging.
Then in the highest leverage situations the Rays have been absolutely dreadful. They rank second to last ahead of only the Milwaukee Brewers in overall production.
The offense has done a good job in forcing high leverage spots with an above average 10.4% of all plate appearances qualifying, but success falls short. The strikeout rate and walk rates increase substantially. The batting average plummets. Due to the extra walks they maintain their average on base percentage. The isolated slugging percentage sees a massive drop. In low and medium situations the Rays have posted a .163 ISO, but that drops by .048 points in high leverage situations.
It’s clear as day that the Rays production in high leverage has caused them to under perform what their overall line would suggest. The batting average plummets and the slugging is non-existent. That will lead to lesser results anyway you cut it.
It is fair to ask the question why have the Rays under performed? Let’s dig deeper and see if we can find any reason or rhyme.
2014-17 Rays Batted Ball Profile By Leverage
This breakdown removes the strikeouts and walks. Here, not all is bad in high leverage situations. The Rays bats have posted their highest line drive rates, which provide the best results on average, when it matters most. Performance should improve with a lower groundball rate.
However, the Rays batters hit too many balls to the opposite field in the higher leverage situations. It might come from facing higher average velocities in higher leverage situations (resulting in getting to the ball late) or it could come from trying to go the other way intentionally, but likely not.
Overall, pulled batted balls have a 156 wRC+. Going up the middle it drops to 121 wRC+. Opposite field ball only achieve a 101 wRC+. Power is the main driver of this drop in production, but the batting average also sees a substantial drop when the ball is hit the other way.
With the Rays performance, we see the power from flyballs takes a nose dive as the HR/FB rate drops. Some of that should be expected as it’s much harder to hit a home run off the high octane relief aces that get a bulk of the sample, but a contributing factor is the oppo-rate.
Isolating the flyball results in high leverage the Rays results have mostly been deservedly awful. They have a league low 29.5% hard hit percent.
More contact couldn’t hurt, but the results likely won’t improve enough to close the gap unless the corresponding contact quality also improved.
Is it fair to wonder if any particular players are to blame?
Rays Bats in High Leverage Situations
|Steven Souza Jr.||166||30.7%||12.0%||0.259||0.352||0.427||0.340||116|
There has been a lot of turnover the years. 16 hitters have been up to bat at least 50 times in high leverage situations.
Caveat: 50 PA is a very small sample. Even Evan Longoria’s 272 plate appearances isn’t a statistically significant sample to identify true talent over that time period. But a full time bat will usually see around 60-70 high leverage situations a year, and since we’re splitting hairs, let’s carry on.
The first thing that sticks out is how much Evan Longoria under performed. He has been the face of the franchise, but there’s a legitimate argument to make that he has been the biggest contributor to the under performance in high leverage situations. He hasn’t been the worst bat, but he has had the most opportunities.
During this same time span in low and medium leverage situations, Longoria combined to hit .268/.322/.456 and put up a 112 wRC+. All the blame shouldn’t be laid upon his shoulders, but he was a major contributor.
Even if the bar is lowered to the league average 91 wRC+ for batters in high leverage situations, only six bats have cleared that bar. Logan Forsythe, Steven Souza Jr., Yunel Escobar, Kevin Kiermaier, David DeJesus, and James Loney have been the strong performers.
The batting styles of the above average bats couldn’t be more diverse. You have Souza with his high strikeout rate as one of the two best bats, while Escobar and Loney were very low strikeout guys. Forsythe was a balanced bat. Kiermaier and DeJesus got on base with big differences in batting average. There’s not a clear trend in type.
Then there’s are a long list of under performers, but with the inclusions of left handed bats Corey Dickerson, Brad Miller, Logan Morrison, and Matt Joyce one has to wonder if platoon issues could be at play.
Hitting left handed pitching as a left handed batter is among the most difficult things to do at the major league level. As a whole hitters put up a 82 wRC+ in lefty vs lefty situations. This also has the advantage of being a highly biased sample where the truly good bats take an uncharacteristically high percentage of the plate appearances.
Rays left handed bats have hit .256/.301/.338 and put up a 77 wRC+ in 119 high leverage plate appearances since 2014. Overall the Rays left handed bats have put up a league average 82 wRC+ against left handed pitchers.
The Rays need to improve in high leverage situations
Variance likely plays a large role in what seems like a large sample only because it took place over four seasons. Variance in baseball in massive.
On a personal note: In my life as a professional poker player I have lived with more variance than most could imagine. Most of the time when you under perform over samples that look large it is a combinations of poor play and variance. You absolutely can be playing at your best and go on downswings that you can’t imagine. Sometimes you can’t win.
So, none of the above means players, coaches, and analysts shouldn’t be looking to improve. If you truly believe that it is mostly variance that has caused the under performance the team should continue down their current path. They always should be looking to improve and get that extra 2% edge if they can.
It doesn’t matter how many runs BaseRuns say the Rays should have scored or whether there’s some flaw in that. This is what happened and nothing can change the results already in the books.
The Rays can’t feel sorry for themselves. The results should eventually regress towards their mean talent level, but they also need to get better.