The Tampa Bay Rays have the reputation for being good defensively ever since they turned things around as a franchise in 2008.
Sometimes fans (and I) feel they go too far in valuing defense at the expense of offense, but it’s generally been the way they have leaned, if there was a choice.
This year was no exception when they continued to value players like Adeiny Hechavarria on the roster. Let’s see how that played out in 2018:
2018 Rays Defense by Position
Catcher: -6 DRS, -11.5 FRAA
The Rays used five catchers in 2019: Wilson Ramos (610.1 innings), Jesus Sucre (491.0 innings), Michael Perez (185.0 innings), Nick Ciuffo (111.0 innings), and Adam Moore (51.0 innings).
Ramos cost the Rays the most defensively with a -4 DRS, however by FRAA (Baseball Prospectus) which includes framing he did the least damage of the group of five with -0.8 FRAA despite catching the most innings. This is one time the Rays bucked their trend of caring about defense behind the plate. He hit well enough that costing you a run or two behind the plate over a full season is an acceptable trade off.
Jesus Sucre was a positive with a +2 DRS, but FRAA saw things differently. He posted a -4.2 FRAA in 2018 after posting a +3.1 FRAA in 2017 with similar playing time. Most of the difference came in framing falling from +4.1 to -4.9. He has a track record of being a good defender and framer, but didn’t perform in 2018.
Michael Perez was traded for after the all-star break and thrown in the deep end with Ramos on the disabled list. In his short time receiving the bulk of the work behind the plate before landing on the disabled list he put up 0 DRS and -3.6 FRAA. Most of the runs lost came from his -3.5 framing runs. Perez looks athletic and has the reputation of being a good framer. He was thrown straight into the fire while learning a staff that he had no previous experience with. The small sample showing wasn’t good, but the jury is still out what he is defensively.
Nick Ciuffo took over for Perez after he went to the disabled list. Ciuffo has the reputation for being a good defender, but posted a -2 DRS and -1.2 FRAA in his first MLB run. Most of the runs were lost due to blocking. He looks like a less athletic version of Perez.
Adam Moore was your typical AAA veteran catcher. He put up -2 DRS and -1.7 FRAA in limited work. Most of the runs were given up in framing.
First Base: -8 DRS, +0.4 UZR
Three players received the bulk of the playing time at first base: Jake Bauers (626.2 innings), CJ Cron (513.0 innings), and Brad Miller (302.1 innings). Four others received playing time, but no more than three innings.
All three put up negative DRS with Bauers (-1), Cron (-2), and Miller (-4). UZR was more kind with Bauers (+0.7), Cron (+1.2), and Miller (-1.7).
As things stand the Rays will replace their worst defender here with more experienced first basemen.
Second Base: +8 DRS, +5.8 UZR
Three players received the bulk of the playing time at second base: Joey Wendle (771.1 innings), Daniel Robertson (291.0 innings), and Brandon Lowe (219.0 innings). Five others combined for 167.0 innings with Willy Adames leading the way with 77.0 innings.
By DRS the finished with the fourth best total at second and fifth best by UZR.
Wendle performed as advertised defensively with +5 DRS and +4.3 UZR. Robertson posted a solid +2 DRS and +1.0 UZR. Lowe showed well in his first run with 0 DRS and +0.3 UZR.
Shortstop: +1 DRS, -7.2 UZR
Adeiny Hechavarria did what was expected out of him defensively to start the season. In 512.1 innings he put up +3 DRS and +1.3 UZR.
Willy Adames eventually took over the job and was either just below average (-1 DRS) or bad defensively (-5.4 UZR) in 628.2 innings. To put in perspective Adames’ -17.3 UZR/150 was worse than Brad Miller’s -16.7 UZR/150 at the position in 2016.
Daniel Robertson filled in when needed with -2 DRS and -2.0 UZR in 230.0 innings. That’s about what you would expect out of a 2B/3B when playing short.
Next year the defense will take a hit on some level by not having Hechavarria at shortstop. Adames is likely still a below-to-average defensive shortstop that will get carried by his bat, but will need to improve if he’s as bad as UZR thinks.
Third Base: -3 DRS, +5.6 UZR
Matt Duffy played 1,063.0 innings at third base in 2018. DRS and UZR don’t see eye to eye on his performance with -4 DRS and +3.6 UZR. FRAA rated Duffy as the second base third baseman in baseball with +11.3 FRAA.
In the latest update to the SDI (SABR Defensive Index) that is used as part of the voting for gold gloves, on August 19 Duffy was at +1.4 runs. DRS is the only one that saw Duffy as a negative, and the others saw varying degrees of above average.
Duffy has a track record of being a great third baseman, but definitely looked like a guy who missed a whole season early on, and committed more errors than he typical does.
Wendle put up +1 DRS and +2.6 UZR in 154.1 innings filling in at third and might have put up one of the most impressive innings you’ll see during a game in Cleveland. Daniel Robertson picked up 140.0 innings with -1 DRS and -0.4 UZR.
Left Field: +6 DRS, -1.5 UZR
11 players saw playing time in left field for the Rays in 2018: Tommy Pham (303.2 innings), Denard Span (263.0 innings), Mallex Smith (223.2 innings), Rob Refsnyder (173.0 innings), Johnny Field (172.1 innings), Joey Wendle (112.1 innings), Jake Bauers (103.1 innings), Brandon Lowe (65.0 innings), Daniel Robertson (30.0 innings), Andrew Velazquez (1.0 innings), and Austin Meadows (1.0 innings).
The outfielders by trade — Pham (+3), Span (+1), Smith (0), and Field (+3) — did well by DRS. The infielders put in the outfielder performed about how you would expect inexperienced players to perform with Wendle (-1), Bauers (-1), Lowe (-1), and Robertson (0) by DRS.
The best performer Tommy Pham will be back next year and should receive the bulk of the playing time.
In 1,241.1 career innings in left he has put up +10 DRS and +6.9 UZR. He also has been just below average in 1,566.0 innings in center with a -2 DRS and -0.6 UZR, so as long as the Rays don’t see infielders in left field nearly as often they should see improvement in 2019.
Center Field: +17 DRS, +11.0 UZR
The Rays ranked third by DRS and UZR in center. Most of the playing time was split between Kevin Kiermaier (747.1 innings) and Mallex Smith (567.0 innings).
Despite the struggles at the plate Kiermaier provided great defense when healthy. He put up +14 DRS and +9.8 UZR. Kiermaier is still one of the premier defensive center fielders in the game, even if injuries have prevented him for qualifying for the last two gold glove innings thresholds.
For the second year in a row Smith saw significant time in center while Kiermaier was on the disabled list. This year Smith looked more comfortable out there and put up +3 DRS and +1.0 UZR. He isn’t Kiermaier out there especially when completing plays he can get to, but he gets by with the brute force of being one of the ten fastest players in the majors.
As long as Kiermaier is healthy the Rays should expect elite levels of defense. With three guys capable of playing center in Smith, Pham, and Meadows the Rays should be able to weather his absence, but the defense will take a hit.
Right Field: +5 DRS, -5.3 UZR
Three players saw significant time in right field for the Rays in 2018: Carlos Gomez (798.2 innings), Mallex Smith (344.0 innings), and Johnny Field (160.0 innings).
Carlos Gomez was either great (+8 DRS) or below average (-2.1 UZR) depending which metric you use. FRAA tends to side with DRS grading him out at +5.2 FRAA. Smith’s weakest outfield position is RF where his lack of arm strength gets most exposed putting up a -1 DRS and -0.9 UZR at the position. Field put up -1 DRS and -1.2 UZR in right field.
Including his time with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Austin Meadows put up -4 DRS and -2.4 UZR in 139.0 innings in right field. As the roster stands Meadows is likely to get the most playing time in right field. Things are subject to change, but with the speed to play center he should be better than his initial showing.
Shifting: +31 DRS
Recently DRS has added runs saved/cost due to the shift and was added to FanGraphs tables. +31 DRS is tied with the third most in the majors behind only the Arizona Diamondbacks (+39) and Oakland Athletics (+36).
The Rays popularized in the shift and seem to shift more than almost any team. This is one area that Rocco Baldelli was in charge of and his contributions could be missed in 2019 after accepting the head coach job with the Minnesota Twins.
The Rays will still continue to shift and give all the resources available to whomever the next person is in charge of defensive alignment.