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Trending for the Rays: Openers, Shifts and Lady Luck

Which Rays story lines are on your mind?

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MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

With a rare off day during this busy stretch of baseball for the Rays, yesterday was the perfect time to zoom out just a bit and take a bigger picture look at the season. The Rays 2018 has been jam-packed with interesting story lines, some of which make us optimistic, some of which make us cringe a bit, and other that just seem to be treading water. Let’s take a quick look at some Rays 2018 trends and decide whether their stock is up, down, or neutral.

The Opener: Stock neutral

Easily the biggest storyline of the Rays season so far, and one that has stirred controversy. The decision to go with “Openers” to attack the top of the lineup and bolster end-of-the-rotation starters has drawn both scorn and imitation.

So how has it actually worked out for the Rays so far?

Well, it’s hard to say. The sample size is still tiny, and the potential impacts of this strategy are complex, with implications for starter and bullpen use across multiple games. So far the experiment has been, well, mixed:

Opener Experiment

Brand of start Team W-L IP ERA WHIP K-BB%
Brand of start Team W-L IP ERA WHIP K-BB%
"Normal" 24-25 258.1 3.83 1.17 14.9
Opener 4-5 11.2 5.40 1.29 11.8

(* It’s actually a little tricky to define which starts have been “Openers” because the team has also experimented with Bullpen Days. Also, while Romo got the most buzz, the Rays were using Andrew Kittredge as an Opener — just not with that title — as early as April 8. For our purposes here, all five Sergio Romo starts, both Ryne Stanek starts, and two of the three Andrew Kittredge starts were counted. Those are the nine starts in which the Rays starting pitcher faced fewer than 10 batters.)

With the once-more caveat of this being an 11.2 inning sample size, even then it’s hard to say what the early results have shown. On the one hand, the Opener ERA is certainly higher than the non-Opener ERA, and the rest of the metrics follow the same pattern. Higher WHIP, lower K-BB%, and a lower winning percentage.

On the other hand, that’s to be expected. These Opener experiments are taking the place of the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation. To compare their numbers to what the Rays are getting from Blake Snell and Chris Archer at the top of the rotations is a silly comparison. There’s no way they could be that good.

On the other, other hand, if the Rays want to win over the skeptics, the Openers likely do have to clear the bar of “what would be expected from your typical fourth and fifth starter.” That reaction might be nonsensical, but let’s be honest, that’s how it is going to play out.

Regardless, we’re a mere 11.2 innings into this experiment. “Stock neutral” is the correct decision regardless of how the numbers look this second.

Rays defense (and defensive positioning): Stock up

While the Rays defense as a whole ranks only 15th by FanGraphs DRS as of right now, they may well be doing more with less than any other team in baseball. According to Ben Harris of The Athletic, the Rays sit atop all of baseball with their 17 Shift Runs Saved. That total is a whopping 28 runs (almost three wins) better than the last place Phillies.

The defensive wizardry of Joey Wendle, Carlos Gomez, and Daniel Robertson has been on display often this season, but it’s the little things, a shortstop sitting right up the middle to steal a hit, or an outfielder hugging the line and taking away an extra base hit, that can often add up to even more overall value than the flashy play.

The Rays are succeeding on both fronts this season, and it has helped keep them right around .500 despite battling some tough luck. Speaking of which...

Lady luck: Stock (still) down

Where have we heard this before? By Baseball Prospectus’ third-order winning percentage, the Rays are the fourth-best team in the American League, trailing only the three best teams in baseball: the Red Sox, Yankees, and Astros. Their .570 third-order winning percentage would put them as the leader (by 29 points) for the second Wild Card spot, and the 83-point gap between their actual winning percentage and their third order winning percentage is topped by only Houston in 2018.

This has become a running theme for the Rays in recent seasons, and it’s tough to discern the cause. Trust us, we’ve tried.

Once again, playing in the AL East (they are 4-11 against Boston and New York) and not having a dominant home record (11-13) appear to be factors, as well as the Rays 9-14 record in one-run games this season.

Whatever it is — and maybe we’ll have to dive in again to try to figure this out soon — it’s quite frustrating for the fans, the players, and undoubtedly the front office.

Blake Snell: Stock (all the way) up

OK, so Blake Snell isn’t a “Rays topic” as much as he is a “Rays player,” but if you’re not hording Blake Snell stock like Ron Swanson with his underground gold, you’re doing it wrong. His most recent outing was just straight ungodly. If you’re not more all in on Snell than Daniel Negreanu on 10-7 offsuit, I don’t wanna talk to you.