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Why the Rays are so hard to project

Eno Sarris pointed out an interesting quirk over at The Athletic

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Baltimore Orioles v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Joseph Garnett Jr./Getty Images

If you still don’t have a subscription to The Athletic, you’ll be excused for missing a rather fascinating piece from the always-interesting Eno Sarris. Sarris, who leads their developing analytics department, wrote a piece entitled, “Why the A’s might be a lot better (or worse) than their projections.”

In the article, Sarris makes note of the following:

“In baseball terms, if you’re projected to a lower run environment, your record could be more volatile with respect to your projections. You’ll play a lot more one-run games, and one-run games are the biggest source of randomness in baseball.”

Sarris then goes on to point out that the A’s are in the top half of the American League in lowest projected run totals (projected runs scored per game plus projected runs allowed per game) for 2018.

However, what matters to Rays fans is that the top team in Sarris’ chart was, in fact, the Rays, giving them the lowest projected run environment in the American League: Steamer (the FanGraphs system utilized by Sarris in the article) has the Rays projected for 8.82 runs occurring per game — on either side of the ball — a significant margin below the second-lowest AL team, Kansas City (9.15) and the third-lowest team, Cleveland (9.43).

The Rays also had the second-tightest difference between projected runs scored per game (4.37) and projected runs allowed per game (4.45), trailing only the Seattle Mariners among the top seven.

As Sarris goes on to note: “The Rays are going to play a lot of one-run ballgames, and it could go either way for them.”

By this point, Rays fans are well aware that their team is among the hardest to project in baseball — PECOTA recently projected the 2018 Rays as a playoff team — and each season sees the club seemingly veer not only far off from their preseason projections, but there’s even the running trend of the club sporting an unfavorable difference from their third-order winning percentage in recent seasons.

Part of the low-scoring projections for the Rays come from their home stadium, a park which comes in as a pitching-friendly environment year-after-year.

The Rays also have consistently fielded strong rotations, a common theme that will continue in 2018 thanks to: Chris Archer, (maybe) Jake Odorizzi, Blake Snell, Jake Faria, Matt Andriese, and (possibly) Brent Honeywell. The team has elite arms at the major league level, as well as elite prospect pitchers waiting in the wings.

FanGraph projections currently have the Rays finishing 80-82, ZIPS has them winning 82 games, and Baseball Prospectus sees the club most favorably at 84-78, a playoff projection, as noted above.

Two non-statistical projections (USA Today and Bleacher Report) have the club at 76 and even 71 wins for 2018. While I take Bleacher Report about as seriously as I take Taco Bell’s Gourmet Menu, it’s telling that their in a 13-game spread across the easily-accessible 2018 team projections.

The front office themselves clearly realize this, as they have straddled the rebuild/compete line with aplomb this offseason.

While they traded off the face of the franchise, the return they got was focused on MLB-ready talent, rather than minor league lottery tickets. In Christian Arroyo and Denard Span, they won’t have as much immediate production as Longoria would have provided, but they also don’t have a hole to fill at third base, as Matt Duffy — and perhaps Arroyo and/or Ryan Schimpf — will be given a chance at third; that’s three added players who all have major league experience. This is far from the Miami Marlins fire sale.

The club also hasn’t traded Archer or Odorizzi (yet) just to offload them (again, unlike their Florida brethren down in Miami), and if the Rays are able to solidify a first baseman and another right-handed bat for the outfield (internally or externally), there’s a good chance they’ll be in the Wild Card picture come August.

In a recent press conference, Rays GM Erik Neander laid out well the murky waters in which the 2018 Rays will swim:

As Neander says, “I think 2018 is no different than any year prior... ‘How to label the year?’ I’m not really sure what would be most appropriate.”

This is where the Rays have lived for the past decade. They toe the line, and in many seasons that has turned out well (and in some seasons, it hasn’t), but even in what some would call a rebuild the Rays remain “competitive enough.”

2018 will be, in the words of David Byrne, “Same as it ever was.”