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Keys to the game: What each Ray needs to do to succeed in 2018, Part I The Lineup

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Here are the offensive stats you should be watching

Chicago Cubs v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Statistics can tell us a lot about players. We are in an analytic era, and DRB is a proudly analytic site, so I don’t have to tell you that.

That being said, there are just so many numbers out there these days. We haven’t quite reached what Bill James worried about when he coined the phrase “Chernobyl of numbers,” but we’re close.

But if we want to get a quick overview of how a player is doing, we don’t necessarily need to consider every offensive metric. Given what we know about each player, we can usually identify one or two numbers that will provide real insight into how his season is progressing. Especially early in the season when many of the surface statistics are not yet meaningful because of the small sample size, we can cut through the noise if we hone in on the most telling metrics for each hitter.

Wilson Ramos: Hard hit ball rate

Not to play spoiler to a future article, but there is a lot of reason to be excited for Ramos in 2018. After missing the first half of the 2017 season while recovering from knee surgery, Ramos will be fully healthy to start 2018, and it will be his second full season after the LASIK surgery he underwent during the 2015-16 offseason. Here’s what he did in his first full season after LASIK:

Wilson Ramos Beast Mode

G R HR RBI BA OBP SLG wRC+ fWAR
G R HR RBI BA OBP SLG wRC+ fWAR
131 58 22 80 0.307 0.354 0.496 124 3.4

Ramos’ success came, in large part, thanks to a 9.0% jump in his hard hit ball rate from 2015 to 2016. To hear Ramos describe it, he was simply seeing the ball better, and so he hit the ball harder. In his 2017 half-season, Ramos saw his production drop from 2016 (wRC+ from 124 to 92), but his hard hit ball rate suggests that he was quite a bit unlucky. His 33.1% hard hit ball rate was a lot closer to 2016 than 2015, making it a lot of easier for Rays fans to write his wRC+ of 92 in 2017 as bad luck instead of decline.

C.J Cron: OPS vs. LHP

Cron will likely start against both righties and lefties, but given that he is one of the line-ups few big-power bats from the right side of the plate, the Rays will certainly look to Cron as a power source against southpaws.

The interesting part of Cron’s profile, noted a few times on this site, is that Cron actually has reverse splits for his career when it comes to hitting righties and lefties (.772 OPS vs. RHP; .716 OPS vs. LHP). While the Rays would obviously love for Cron to hit righties hard (they’ll still the dominant side from which pitchers throw), if Cron can boost that power production against lefties, it would be a huge boon for this lineup.

Brad Miller: Walk rate

You were thinking this was going to be HR/FB rate, weren’t you?

It easily could have been. It also could have been BABIP, ISO, games played, games played/position, and tons of other stats.

Personally, I’m going to be watching the walk rate. It’s almost a guarantee that Miller bounces back at least a bit from his power drop in 2017. He’s been one of the Rays who has consistently hit the ball hardest over the past two seasons, and a home run total in the high teens seems likely if he gets regular playing time.

Where Miller actually made real strides in 2017 was in his ability to draw free passes. His walk rate jumped from a previous career high of 9.5% all the way up to 15.5%. That walk rate salvaged a .327 OBP despite hitting just a hair over .200. If he can maintain that walk rate and see a bit of a bounce back in his power numbers, Miller will have definite value this season.

Adeiny Hechavarria: Days until we get to see Willy Adames

Sorry, Hech. You seem like a cool dude, and you’re a defensive wizard, but Adames is the future. Hech is one of the richest contracts on the Rays right now, but it’s hard to imagine him in their long-term plans. There’s some talk of Adames playing second when he is called up (which shouldn’t be too far into the 2018 season), but if Miller is more 2016 than 2017 (which seems very possible), there may be a better path to a Hechavarria trade with Adames at short.

If none of that happens, and Hech does indeed end up the Rays shortstop for all of 2018, it’ll be the defensive highlights, not his offensive production, that will be worth watching, anyway.

Matt Duffy: Contact rates

One of the pet theories about the Rays offseason is that the club is moving away from a high-power approach to a high-contact approach. Out with the big whiff rates of Dickerson, Morrison, and Souza; in with the more contact-friendly approaches of Denard Span, Christian Arroyo, and Nick Solak (and Ryan Schimpf ¯\_(ツ)_/¯).

If that is indeed the case, the return of Duffy makes for a perfect fit. For his career, Duffy owns a 84.0% contact rate, 92.7% zone contact rate, and 66.4% contact rate on pitches outside the strike zone. That contact rate on pitches outside the zone is almost the same as the overall contact rates of Steven Souza (69.6%) and Tim Beckham (67.9%), and it was higher than the in-zone contact rate for Rickie Weeks in 2016 - remember that fun little experiment?

From the time of his debut, Duffy ranked in the 86th percentile of players for zone contact rate and the 73rd percentile for overall contact rate. Duffy isn’t going to be a massive power machine for the Rays in 2018, but if he can come close to his 2015 production (12/12 HR/SB, 113 wRC+, 4.7 fWAR in 149 games for San Francisco), the Rays will be ecstatic. It will begin with finding his groove at the plate and feeling comfortable in his contact-first approach.

Mallex Smith: Stolen base percentage

For player known first, second, and third for his speed, you may be shocked at his relatively pedestrian success on the basepaths in his MLB career. Smith has 32 steals in 153 career games - the first real red flag. A player of his speed should be up in the Billy Hamilton/Dee Gordon range of 50+ steals per 162 games. The even bigger red flag is his 71.1% career success rate on those stolen base attempts.

Smith has been caught stealing 13 times in his 45 career stolen base attempts, a total likely to surprise anyone who has ever watched Smith play.

Much of that is likely due to his relative youth and inexperience, but it’s an interesting metric to keep an eye on. Smith did indeed improve from 2016-2017, going from 66.7% to 76.2%. Still, Gordon and Hamilton were squeezed on either side of 80% - a percentage Smith should be holding himself to.

Kevin Kiermaier: Games Played

This is a bit of a cop out, but if KK is out there for 150+ games, he could be a potential sabermetric darling in the MVP race. Of course, that same bordering-on-reckless defensive style that helps in part provide that massive value comes with some drawbacks. Mr. Gorgeous Eyes has missed over 50 games in three of the last four seasons. Just to re-emphasize the potential MVP comment from a second ago: his value in that one healthy season? 7.3 rWAR.

Kiermaier’s health may well be the biggest factor for the 2018 Rays season. I’m scared to write any more on this subject. Moving on.

Carlos Gomez: GB/FB

The Baseball Hipster sect of Rays fans is really hot for Gomez these days. There are even whispers out there that Gomez might be more valuable in 2018 than Souza. I’m not 100 percent on board with that just yet. Gomez may just be 32 years old (he feels older than that, doesn’t he?), but he has battled injuries for all of his career. (Really, he could join KK in the “games played” category.)

If he stays healthy, the key for his success while be elevating the ball. Gomez saw a nice bounce back in his numbers in 2017, which was in part thanks to this exact distinction:

Gomez Success When Elevating the Ball

Year BA OBP SLG wRC+ GB/FB
Year BA OBP SLG wRC+ GB/FB
2014 0.284 0.356 0.477 132 0.92
2015 0.255 0.314 0.409 98 1.12
2016 0.231 0.298 0.384 84 1.27
2017 0.255 0.340 0.462 110 0.97

While the percentages are massively different, that extra 5 or so percent in fly ball rate can make a big difference, especially when you hit the ball as hard as Gomez does (39.0% hard hit ball rate in 2017).

Gomez will almost certainly provide entertainment when on the diamond for Tampa Bay in 2018, whether he can provide value or not will come down to whether he can get lift on the ball.

Denard Span: Surface stats (in order to trade)

Honestly, the best thing for Rays fans would be if Span gets off to a hot start in the first half of the season and can be flipped to some team desperate for a veteran bat having a throwback season. So, pimp that BABIP and ride a fluky HR/FB% if you need to Span.

* * *

There are obviously plenty of stats you can watch for any and all Rays players, but those are the ones that will likely have the greatest impact on each player’s value to the club.

A bit later in the preseason, we’ll come back to do this same exercise for the rotation and the bullpen, so you know what to look for when you go on your inevitable Rays stats deep dives.