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The 2018 Rays prioritized contact over power and it worked

Rays 2018 Trends: Part 1

MLB: Houston Astros at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

One of the best parts of the offseason is it allows us fans to zoom out and look at the bigger picture. Baseball provides one of the best Bigger Picture scenes across sports, with 162 games and hundreds of thousands of individual batter-vs-pitcher to analyze once the dust is settled.

Over the course of the offseason, we’ll be looking at some trends among individual Rays players, but let’s start zoomed out as far as we can today: looking at team-wide trends for the Rays in 2018.

We’ll cover a pair of related offensive trends today before getting to pitching and defense later this week.

Contact over Power

This one shouldn’t be shocking to anyone who followed the Rays in 2018. They swapped out sluggers like Logan Morrison, Steven Souza Jr., and Corey Dickerson from the 2017 roster and gave plate appearances aplenty to slap-happy hitters like Mallex Smith, Joey Wendle, and Matt Duffy.

As a result, the Rays saw their team batting average go up 13 points, while their slugging dropped 16 points. Despite league-wide strikeout rates surging once again (up another 0.7 percent from 2017 to 2018), the Rays saw their team-wide strikeout rate drop from 25.0 percent to 22.4 percent. Despite giving up 30 points of ISO, they saw their wRC+ jump from 98 in 2017 (14th in MLB) to 105 in 2018 (6th in MLB).

Now, one season a tale does not tell, but there should be a lot less turnover from the 2018 to 2019 Rays, or at least not nearly as much as before this most recent season started. However, Smith, Wendle, and Duffy will all be facing stiff competition when it comes to accumulating as many at bats as the punch-happy trio did in 2018. Even still, the Rays, as an organization seem to be favoring a more balanced approach over hitters who bring just their power to the table.

With a balanced approach often comes an ability to go the other way. The Rays saw their opposite field percentage jump from 24.6 percent in 2017 (22nd in MLB) to 28.0 percent in 2018 (1st in MLB).

One potential benefit to this approach may be better results against a league which is shifting more and more every year. The Rays saw their team BABIP jump from .296 in 2017 (18th in MLB) to .317 in 2018 (1st in MLB).

One season isn’t enough to really make too broad a conclusion here, but it’s worth noting that the correlation between BABIP and Oppo% in 2018 was very strong (0.71, to be exact)

2018 Team BABIP-Oppo% Correlation

Team BABIP rank Oppo% rank
Team BABIP rank Oppo% rank
TB 1 1
CHC 2 12
BOS 3 10
CIN 4 4
CHW 5 7
COL 6 5
ATL 7 14
MIL 8 20
SF 9 2
MIN 10 13
PIT 11 3
WAS 12 6
SEA 13 23
LAD 14 24
OAK 15 21
STL 16 15
DET 17 9
SD 18 18
MIA 19 19
KC 20 8
TEX 21 11
CLE 22 28
PHI 23 25
HOU 24 29
BAL 25 16
TOR 26 22
ARI 27 17
NYY 28 27
NYM 29 26
LAA 30 30
Correlation 0.705895

There was also more Speed

Speed typically goes hand-in-hand with a contact-first approach, so it’s no surprise that the Rays also increased their overall team speed from 2017 to 2018. (This increase in speed was likely another factor that helped the Rays on their way to having the top BABIP in baseball in 2018.)

In the most simple terms, the Rays saw their stolen base total jump by 45 percent overall from 88 steals in 2017 (16th in MLB) to 128 steals in 2018 (2nd in MLB). This, despite the league-wide stolen base totals going down for the third straight season overall. A good chunk of that came from Mallex Smith (40 SB, 3rd in MLB), but they also got stolen base bumps from Joey Wendle (16 SB) and Matt Duffy (12 SB) getting everyday at bats.

If we want to look past just stolen base numbers (since that may have more to do with team philosophy than speed, per se), the Rays also improved their Spd score on FanGraphs, going from 4.5 to 5.2 - the highest such rating the team has had since the 2011 season.

According to Statcast sprint speed, MIS (Mallex International Speedway) was the sixth-fastest player in all of baseball last year (min. 100), while Kevin Kiermaier also cracked the top 25. Even their midseason acquisition, Tommy Pham, ranked well by Statcast sprint speed, coming in above names like Lorenzo Cain, Cameron Maybin, and Francisco Lindor.

We’ll be back to take a look at some trends on the pitching side of things later this week.