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The Rays are getting hits when it matters

Yes, it’s way too early to call this a thing.

Minnesota Twins and the Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Joseph Garnett, Jr. /Getty Images

Even though it feels like we’re more than a month into the season, we’re are still very much in the land of the Small Sample Size. Especially with certain trends that need full-season (if not longer) samples, there’s only so much analysis we can do. With that in mind, we’re going to start pointing out some trends that are worth monitoring, even if they may not mean anything significant just yet.

One of the more interesting subplots of the 2017 Rays season—and one of the more depressing subplots for the team’s fans—was the Rays lack of success once runners reached base.

And this has hardly been a one season pattern.

Jeff Sullivan gave the issue a look at the Rays collective inability to live up to their “BaseRuns Wins” over at FanGraphs, and our own JT Morgan broke it down by leverage, digging deep into the batted ball profile of the Rays over the past four years (2014-2017) in each leverage situation, coming to the unsurprising conclusion that the sample is noisy, but that hitting when it matters has been an issue for the club.

Well, less than a month into 2018, Rays fans have been treated to a change in results in those high-leverage situations. Here’s a refresher on how the Rays performed with the bases empty, with runners on, and with runners in scoring position in 2017:

Rays Situational Hitting 2017 (MLB Rank)

Situation BB% K% OPS ISO BABIP wRC+
Situation BB% K% OPS ISO BABIP wRC+
Bases Empty 8.3 (12th) 25.7 (4th) .755 (8th) .196 (3rd) .297 (16th) 103 (6th)
Men on Base 9.7 (12th) 24.1 (2nd) .717 (27th) .152 (26th) .295 (23rd) 91 (25th)
RISP 11.7 (10th) 24.0 (4th) .679 (30th) .131 (29th) .274 (28th) 79 (29th)

They saw their OPS plummet nearly 80 points from situations in which the bases were empty compared to when runners were in scoring position. Even more tellingly, they saw their rank among all MLB teams drop from sixth in wRC+ to 25th with men on base, and all the way down to 29th with men in scoring position.

So far in 2018, in an admittedly tiny sample, the results have been promising:

Rays Situational Hitting 2018 (MLB Rank)

Situation BB% K% OPS ISO BABIP wRC+
Situation BB% K% OPS ISO BABIP wRC+
Bases Empty 8.9 (12th) 25.4 (13th) .634 (25th) .116 (27th) .282 (15th) 81 (21st)
Men on Base 9.6 (16th) 21.7 (14th) .790 (9th) .134 (22nd) .361 (1st) 122 (7th)
RISP 8.8 (26th) 25.9 (8th) .749 (15th) .119 (22nd) .368 (2nd) 108 (14th)

It’s almost a direct swap from 2017, as the team is seeing their results improve once there are runners on base. The Rays’ OPS is more than 150 points higher with men on base than it is with the bases empty. Their overall offensive rank goes from pedestrian-to-poor with the bases empty (21st), to excellent (7th) with men on base, and above-average (14th) with men in scoring position.

Of course, the first number that will jump out to most of you is the column second in from the right: BABIP. The Rays are running ungodly BABIPs of .361 and .368 with men on base and runners in scoring position, respectively.

These figures are obviously not going to hold.

However, I’m more interested in the columns further left. The 2018 Rays have been more aggressive with more on base, a significant change from 2017 when the Rays got more patient as leverage increased.

At first blush, the 2017 approach would appear to be the more favorable of the two. Don’t oversell for contact just because there are runners on base. However, given the results in each scenario, it’s at least something to keep an eye on.

Another factor that JT brought up in his overview of the 2014-2017 Rays RISP struggles was breaking it down by hitter. As Morgan noted in his article,

“There has been a lot of turnover the years. 16 hitters have been up to bat at least 50 times in high leverage situations.

Caveat: 50 PA is a very small sample. Even Evan Longoria’s 272 plate appearances isn’t a statistically significant sample to identify true talent over that time period. But a full time bat will usually see around 60-70 high leverage situations a year, and since we’re splitting hairs, let’s carry on.

The first thing that sticks out is how much Evan Longoria under performed. He has been the face of the franchise, but there’s a legitimate argument to make that he has been the biggest contributor to the under performance in high leverage situations. He hasn’t been the worst bat, but he has had the most opportunities.”

Of course, Longoria is no longer with the Rays, and Logan Morrison (60 wRC+ with RISP in 2017) is out as well. However, also out are Steven Souza (139) and Corey Dickerson (125). Again, this is Small Sample Size Theater at its finest, but it’s all worth monitoring.

Of the new guys, Denard Span (262 wRC+ with RISP in 2018) has been the true standout, but we’re talking about 24 plate appearances. His BABIP over that asininely small sample is .634. Brad Miller, who is second in RISP wRC+, is sporting a BABIP of 1.000—again, tiny samples here, folks.

What is a bit more interesting is that Span has a career wRC+ of 112 with runners in scoring position compared to 101 with the bases empty. So, while he certainly won’t maintain his current .500/.583/.778 slash line with RISP, he may well be the type of bat who the Rays can count on to deliver when the moment calls for it. At least a bit more than the struggles that they were seeing from some of the prior gang,

The Rays could also easily reach June and none of this could be the case any more. It’s early. All that’s being said is the Rays early-season success with RISP is something to keep an eye on.