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Rays first half grades: Hitters

These grades come with a bit of a twist

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Tampa Bay Rays v Minnesota Twins Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

It’s the All-Star break, so any good MLB blog has to have at least one article handing out grades for the most arbitrary cut-off point in sports, right?

To avoid this being too predictable, however, we’re going to put a slight twist on this exercise. When we hand out a first half grade, we will ignore entirely any role luck might have played in favor of looking at results. DRB had a bit of debate about this topic in regards to Blake Snell’s (one-time) All-Star snub, and in this article looking back at the first half, ERA will matter far more than FIP. But for the curveball, we will also hand out a predicted second half grade. This is where your BABIPs and xFIPs are going to come into play. Players who may have run lucky in the first half will get strong first half grades, but they will receive lower second half grades. And vice versa.

Pretty easy.

Since we have a lot of hitters to get to, let’s get started:

MLB roster

C.J. Cron: 45/19/49 R/HR/RBI; .256/.327/.479/122 BA/OBP/SLG/wRC+; 1.5/1.3 rWAR/fWAR

While not an All-Star, a case could be made that C.J. Cron had the best first half of any first baseman in the American League. By fWAR, Cron was the fourth-best AL first baseman, trailing only Matt Olson, teammate Jake Bauers, and Mitch Moreland, but all four are right within the same range of each other. Only Joey Gallo hit more homers, and the aforementioned Olson was the only AL first baseman to see more plate appearances.

Speaking of teammate Bauers, it was his arrival that bumped Cron from mostly first base to most DH, a move that seemed to throw Cron off for a bit, leaving him (somewhat hilariously) stuck on his magical 16 home runs for over two weeks, but with three homers in the final eight games of the first half, Cron showed that he isn’t ready to slow down in the second half.

First half grade: B+

Second half predicted grade: B

Given the late-first-half adjustments, there isn’t too much reason to be worried about Cron slowing down after the break. Cron has always had this pop in his bat, he just has never received the type of consistent playing time to rack up more substantial counting stats. The only thing to keep an eye on is his slightly deflated fly ball rate (37.1 percent down from 44.7 percent last season and 39.4 percent for his career) mixed with a slightly inflated HR/FB rate (21.3 percent in 2018 compared to 15.2 percent for his career) maybe leading to a tiny decrease in the rate at which he’s leaving the yard after the ASG.

Matt Duffy: 27/4/33 R/HR/RBI; .317/.371/.413/121 BA/OBP/SLG/wRC+; 2.0/1.8 rWAR/fWAR

After a lot of skepticism from this very writer, I am proud to announce that I have joined some of my fellow and sister writers who have taken up residence in Duffy Dale. Despite not hitting for power, and sometimes having a few struggles at the hot corner, Duffy has made himself one of the most valuable contributors to the 2018 Rays. The story of how he has overcome certain anxieties to do so only makes the 27-year-old all the more endearing. Duffy has grown into the Ray I most want up in a big situation, as his approach never seems to waver, even in the biggest moments.

First half grade: A-

Second half predicted grade: B+

It might be difficult for Duffy to keep up quite the batting average pace he has right now (his .317 batting average ranks fifth in the AL), as he is currently sporting a .375 BABIP that is the highest among all qualified batters in baseball. That being said, Duffy is the type of player who has proven his ability to post a higher-than-average BABIP, with a .334 career BABIP, and he is hitting the ball better than ever this season. His line drive rate (26.5 percent) is the highest of any full major league season, as is his hard hit rate (31.1 percent). It’s not hard to imagine him hovering right around that .300 figure for the entirety of the season and providing plenty of value to the Rays down the stretch.

Wilson Ramos: 30/14/53 R/HR/RBI; .297/.346/.488/131 BA/OBP/SLG/wRC+; 2.4/1.8 rWAR/fWAR

The Rays’ lone position player All-Star (and subject of many an All-Star break trade rumor), Ramos has fully earned that accolade. After showing flashes during his half season with the Rays in 2017, he has been at the peak of his powers in 2018. No catcher in all of baseball has more home runs (14) or RBI (53), and his 131 wRC+ is topped by only J.T. Realmuto, arguably the best catcher in baseball right now. Ramos has been impressive in his ability to strike the ball, hard, to all parts of the field, in 2018.

This consistent approach has made him the crown jewel of a quietly potent Rays offense that ranks tenth in all of baseball in wRC+ (102) through the first half.

First half grade: A-

Second half predicted grade: B

Ramos has indeed been running a bit lucky both by BABIP (.335 vs. career .294) and HR/FB rate (23.3 percent vs. career 18.3 percent), but that’s to be expected with such a strong first half. And it’s not as if the boost hasn’t been deserved. By xwOBA, Ramos has actually been a bit unlucky (wOBA-xwOBA of -0.021), but that’s likely explained away by his nickname-appropriate (lack of) speed.

The real second half grade for Ramos, though, will be determined by whether A) he proves himself worthy of a Rays re-signing (my personal preference), or B) he can bring back some actual value if the Rays decide trading the 30-year-old is the most beneficial route to take with the pure hitting backstop. We also don’t know, at this time, how long his hamstring injury will keep him off the field.

Carlos Gomez: 30/8/23 R/HR/RBI; .216/.296/.359/85 BA/OBP/SLG/wRC+; 0.6/-0.3 rWAR/fWAR

Well, there was this:

And that alone is going to get you a decent grade, but sadly that’s been by far the best moment of the first half for Gomez. Even with his recent streak of better performances (.315/.405/.452 over the past month), the first half, as a whole, has been basically replacement level. In fact, where you come down on Gomez’s overall first half value likely comes down on where you come down on his defense. FanGraphs’ fielding metrics have him negative (-6 fielding runs), while Baseball-Reference is much more positive on the vet’s performance in right (+5 fielding runs). From my personal eye test, the defense has seemed excellent, so I tend to lean more towards his rWAR, which has him right around a half-win of value in the first half.

First half grade: C-

Second half predicted grade: C+

Gomez almost certainly isn’t going to be around the Rays for the long-term future, so a second half grade only matters in the slight possibility that the Rays go on an extended run at the second wild card spot. I will say that a Gomez absolute tear is something that is imaginable, and it would definitely be the type of thing that would spark that type of a run for the Rays…

Mallex Smith: 29/1/20 R/HR/RBI; .284/.348/.388/107 BA/OBP/SLG/wRC+; 1.7/1.5 rWAR/fWAR

Smith’s bat has been a pleasant surprise this first half. A 109 OPS+ from a batter with a career OPS+ of 86 heading into this season is a massive boon, and one of the top reasons the Rays offense has been able to surprise folks. All of that note-taking must be paying off, and I don’t mean that in the least bit facetiously. Smith is an incredibly smart, hard-working player, and we are beginning to see the fruits of those labors. The defense is a whole nother matter, with Mallex Routes being the most fun roller coaster ride one can take in the greater St. Petersburg area, but given Smith’s ability to improve his output, it wouldn’t shock me to see improvement in that area sooner than later as well.

First half grade: B+

Second half predicted grade: B-

Where you come down on Smith’s second-half potential says a lot about how much you believe in regression to the mean vs. actual improvement. The flip side of the career 86 OPS+ hitter turning himself into a 109 OPS+ hitter overnight that was lauded in the previous paragraph is that it clearly screams for regression. Mallex is sporting a .361 BABIP, and he has been the “luckiest” Ray by wOBA-xwOBA this season, with a wOBA 39 points higher than his xwOBA in 2018.

Now I put luckiest in quotes above because his speed is a factor that simply cannot be ignored when looking at stats like BABIP and xwOBA. Sure, he has the 12th-highest BABIP among qualified hitters this season, but he’s among the fastest of that group, and his .341 career BABIP suggests he isn’t hitting that far above his head. Same with xwOBA. The fact that Ramos has been “unlucky” and Smith has been “lucky” by that metric has a lot more to do with speed than luck, to be honest. I’d say Mallex will come down a bit from his lofty perch right now, but not by much. I’d say an OPS+ of 100 in the second half, plus a bit of improvement in the field, could keep him as a definitive breakout player of 2018.

Daniel Robertson: 41/7/26 R/HR/RBI; .257/.384/.392/124 BA/OBP/SLG/wRC+; 2.3/2.2 rWAR/fWAR

The Rays most valuable player in the first half if we combine the top two WAR models out there, Robertson has been one of the most pleasant surprises in a lineup full of them this season. Robertson not only has produced throughout the first half, he has done so with one of the most solid approaches you’re going to find. His 13.8 percent walk rate would rank in the top 15 in baseball if he had just a few more plate appearances to qualify. D-Rob has also provided value as a poor man’s Ben Zobrist in 2018, flashing the type of defensive versatility that is so important in the modern game - especially when Kevin Cash is drawing up the lineup. Robertson has made appearances at more than half of the spots on the field (he’s missing only pitcher, catcher, right and center field on his BINGO card), and he’s been more than competent at all those spots.

First half grade: A-

Second half predicted grade: B+

Those who have read literally any analytical article I have ever written know that I bang the drum for plate discipline. I love an elevated walk rate and am a big believer in a strong plate discipline profile being a telling sign for future success. As such, it should be no surprise that I think a second half pretty much in line with his strong first half is in store for Robertson.

Joey Wendle: 28/4/29 R/HR/RBI; .283/.331/.394/101 BA/OBP/SLG/wRC+; 1.3/1.3 rWAR/fWAR

The man leading planet earth in gritty, lunchpail compliments during his home broadcasts, Wendle has indeed been pretty solid in the first half (if not quite as much of a beast as one would think simply by listening to the broadcast team.) He’s been basically a league-average bat with plus-defense and a bit of positional versatility.

First half grade: C+/B-

Second half predicted grade: C-

Grit can only get you so far, and once that .355 BABIP and .293 xwOBA come back to roost, there’s fair reason to be worried about what sort of positive value Wendle will have. Outside of all the intangibles he will bring to the team, of course…

Adeiny Hechavarria: 29/3/23 R/HR/RBI; .261/.295/.340/74 BA/OBP/SLG/wRC+; 1.1/0.6 rWAR/fWAR

Poor Hech is seen mostly as the man blocking a full-time promoting for Willy Adames right now. Hechavarria’s value basically comes from his glove, and it’s a hell of a glove, but if the Rays can flip Hech to clear a spot for Adames by the end of July, that would be great.

First half grade: C-

Second half predicted grade: ?

Please just get us one decent/wild card prospect in return.

Kevin Kiermaier: 20/2/11 R/HR/RBI; .179/.256/.279/48 BA/OBP/SLG/wRC+; 0.2/0.3 rWAR/fWAR

No Rays player is more relieved to see the end of the first half than the man dubbed as the next Face of the Franchise before the 2018 season. Instead of cementing his role as a staple of the franchise, he has suffered yet another injury with a lengthy time on the sidelines required. When he has been in the lineup, the results haven’t been pretty. His power doesn’t appear to be where it was when he broke out with 15 homers in 98 games last season, and while his defense has been back to its usual excellent self, the Rays need KK to be a lot more than Hechavarria in center field.

First half grade: D-

Second half predicted grade: B

This one is based far more on past results than any underlying numbers in KK’s current profile. Mostly, I’m laying out the case I put to paper (screen?) a week or so ago with this article.

Jake Bauers: 25/5/18 R/HR/RBI; .252/.368/.496/140 BA/OBP/SLG/wRC+; 1.3/1.5 rWAR/fWAR

The One Getting Us Excited. Bauers has been even better than advertised in his 2018 debut, posting an absurd 140 wRC+ in his 36 games at the MLB level this season. I know it literally says that number like two lines above this, but it needs to emphasized, and then emphasized again for good measure. He’s showing off the poise of a veteran in big moments, and he’s showing the each-and-every at bat focus that the truly elite players have mastered. Honestly, I’m a little scared at how high I am on this dude right now.

First half grade: A+

Second half predicted grade: A-

I only drop the grade because if he does the same thing in the second half, it will be slightly less impressive because we’ve seen it now. (Just like your professor who held you to a higher standard after your first excellent paper.) There are no signs of Bauers slowing down (a .301 BABIP and 14.7 HR/FB rate don’t portend any sort of drop off), and his plate discipline should help him deal with any potential cold streaks that are bound to happen to all players at some point. Bauers is a real one.

Jesus Sucre: 4/0/12 R/HR/RBI; .229/.276/.260/44 BA/OBP/SLG/wRC+; 0.1/-0.3 rWAR/fWAR

Backup catcher does backup catcher things.

First half grade: C

Second half predicted grade: C

Backup catcher continues to do backup catcher things.

Prospects back in the minors

Willy Adames: 8/3/9 R/HR/RBI; .216/.263/.341/66 BA/OBP/SLG/wRC+; 0.2;-0.1 rWAR/fWAR

Christian Arroyo: 5/1/6 R/HR/RBI; .264/.339/.396/107 BA/OBP/SLG/wRC+; 0.3/0.2 rWAR/fWAR

Two of the Rays more promising (and more experienced) prospects both made their Rays debuts in 2018, but they are both back in the minors for the time being. Arroyo is rehabbing from an injury, while Adames was sent down once Hechavarria returned from the DL. Both players showed flashes - Adames taking Chris Sale deep in his debut; Arroyo posting a 107 wRC+ over his 20 MLB games - but neither played enough to have a real feel for any sort of grade.

First half grade: Incomplete

Second half predicted return dates: Arroyo start of August; Adames start of September

Back in the minors; not really prospects

Johnny Field: 20/6/14 R/HR/RBI; .213/.253/.373/71 BA/OBP/SLG/wRC+; 0.3/0.1 rWAR/fWAR

Rob Refsnyder: 10/2/5 R/HR/RBI; .167/.314/.274/74 BA/OBP/SLG/wRC+; -0.1/-0.3 rWAR/fWAR

Neither of these players are really in the long-term plans for the Rays, and neither is at the MLB level right now, but they both got a fair amount of run in the first half of what some believed would be a rebuilding year for the squad. Both were very pedestrian and didn’t really show too much. Field’s name made for an excellent tweet, and Rob Walksnyder inspired lots of dumb walk jokes, but that’s about it.

First half grades: [shrug emoji]

Second half predicted grades: Hopefully not seeing them if/until there are meaningless September games.

Check back later this week for pitcher grades in the same style.