After the 2017 season, a narrative began to appear surrounding the current iteration of the Rays: These Rays have a lot more swing and miss in their game than previous iterations.
In 2017, the Rays collectively struck out in a quarter of their plate appearances, reaching that dubious landmark for the first time in franchise history. Of the 13 Rays to collect at least 200 plate appearances last season, 11 had strikeout rates over 20 percent, six had strikeout rates over 25 percent, and two topped the mystical 30 percent figure.
The only player in the top ten in plate appearances to post a sub-20 percent strikeout rate last season was Evan Longoria with his 16.1 percent K rate in his 677 plate appearances. With those relatively whiff-free plate appearances headed to San Francisco, what’s going to happen in 2018?
Rising tides (and strikeouts)
If the past five seasons are put side-by-side, it certainly appears as though the Rays are reaching absurd new levels of swing-and-miss:
The past two seasons have been, by far, their two highest strikeout rates in franchise history. Of course, there is a natural reason for this: The league as a whole is swinging and missing at historic rates. Here are the league-wide strikeout rates compared to the Rays strikeout rates over the past five seasons:
Rays K rate vs. League K rate
|Year||Rays K%||League K%||Difference||K% MLB rank|
|Year||Rays K%||League K%||Difference||K% MLB rank|
That league-wide jump can only explain so much, though. The Rays went from 28th in the league in strikeout rate in 2014 (and 21st in 2013) to third in the league each of the past two seasons. While the league as a whole is less worried about striking out, the Rays are really not worried about striking out.
Glancing at the aforementioned ranks, a smart reader may begin to notice something. The Rays manager in 2014? Joe Maddon. In 2017? Kevin Cash. Along with a change of manager, the Rays front office has plenty of fresh faces, and as such, could a potential change in management explain the upswing in swing-and-miss in the Rays lineup?
Time to pull a Lee Corso and pull out a “not so fast, my friend” once again (if only I had a giant Raymond head to put on after this “not so fast, my friend” action).
The final few years of the Maddon era had the Rays as a high contact team, but was that true throughout Maddon’s reign? Not as much. Despite the memories of a high-contact Rays team for a few years there, most of Maddon’s Rays teams were just as strikeout-heavy as the modern iteration of the franchise, just in a different era.
The pennant-winning 2008 team may have struck out in over five percent fewer of their plate appearances, but their league rank was practically the same as the past two seasons.
How do we explain these shifts overtime? Maybe it’s simple: how often the team strikes out depends on who is on the roster.
Who’s to blame?
The 2013-2014 iteration of the Rays was reliant on players like Ben Zobrist, Yunel Escobar, and James Loney, players who relied much more heavily on high-contact approaches at the plate. Zobrist and Escobar were gone after 2014, while Loney stuck around for 2015 before heading out the door. In replacement of that trio, players like Steven Souza (31.8 percent career K rate), Tim Beckham (29.7 percent career K rate), and Brad Miller (22.5 percent career K rate) have received far more plate appearances, so the change is natural.
And given the relative lack of moves from the Rays this offseason, the 2018 iteration of the Rays is more than likely to be among the league leaders in strikeouts once again. Other than Wilson Ramos, they are likely to have above-average K rates at each spot around the diamond.
So, is there anything wrong with that?
DRaysBay writer JT Morgan has recently discussed the Rays ongoing struggles in high-leverage situations. One theory that JT put forward was that the Rays are seeing all of their power disappear in these situations, almost as if the team is encouraging the players to adopt contact-friendly approaches once runners get on base.
I asked JT to elaborate further on his theory over Slack:
JT Morgan: “The Rays struck out less with RISP, but their contact quality tanked. They hit less fly balls and line drives. Because of that their ISO went dropped dramatically from .178 overall to .131 (second worse in MLB) with RISP. So despite having a massive spike in walks their production was terrible even though the strikeout rate dropped. Contact quality is just as important as putting the bat on the ball more frequently.”
If the team is composed of players who are predisposed to not worry about contact, and then they have to completely change their approach when runners get on, that could certainly play a role in why they have struggled in that arena of late.
Indeed, of the past five seasons, the two seasons in which they posted their best wRC+ in high-leverage situations were 2014 and 2015, their two seasons with their highest contact rates, further supporting the idea that the Rays hitters were being encouraged to favor contact-heavy approaches with RISP in 2017.
The Rays barely saw any difference in their contact rates by leverage in 2016, so the difference from 2016 to 2017 would be a pretty large shift just to put at the feet of “high variance.”
Where does that leave us? There seem to be a few takeaways here:
- The Rays have indeed seen their K-rate shoot up, even in comparison to the rest of the league, in the past two seasons.
- But only when compared to 2014 and 2015. The Rays historically have low-contact teams.
- That difference is not due to Joe Maddon being replaced by Kevin Cash, but it is due more to the personnel filling the Rays roster.
- It would appear as though this current Rays roster construction is not in line with an apparent team philosophy to cut down on power with runners on base and emphasize contact in high-leverage situations. (This could also possibly just the hitters doing this on their own, but the team-wide results seem to tell the story that it is more likely a team philosophy.)
- This issue isn’t likely to dissipate in 2018, as the Rays will have a low-contact squad once again. It may be on management to change tacks and have their hitters abandon their contact-heavy approach in favor of more power.
The 2018 season is going to heavy on intrigue for many reasons (Which direction are the Rays headed? What will life without Longo be like? Will Brad Miller produce more than a corpse?), and this is just another interesting storyline to keep an eye on.