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The Rays first half of 2018 was a roller coaster ride

Who said rebuilding can’t be fun?

MLB: Houston Astros at Tampa Bay Rays
Rays center fielder Mallex Smith (0) gets a gatorade bath by second baseman Willy Adames (1) and pitcher Chris Archer (22) after they beat the Houston Astros at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Rays are who we thought they were, and something more. They are a team that has spent the first half flirting with .500 while in transition on the position player side of the roster. They are also entertaining as hell.

How did we get here?

The Rays traded their franchise stalwart in Evan Longoria. They shipped traded Corey Dickerson and Jake Odorizzi in deals that were widely panned, but did have some support from guys like Jeff Sullivan at Fangraphs who wrote that the moves in total (including the Rays trade for CJ Cron) didn’t make the Rays worse, effectively shuffling the deck chairs.

This was all to bide time.

The Rays entered the season with one of the strongest farm systems. A lot of help was on the way with big guns Willy Adames, Jake Bauers, and Brent Honeywell sitting in Durham waiting for their major league debuts, and while Honeywell required surgery, the plan has been working.

Built as a high variance team, the Rays have had wild swings. They started the season losing eight of their first nine and 12 of their first 15 games. Now we sit here in July with the Rays at 42-41.

Since that dreadful start to the season the Rays have gone 39-29.

One can’t just waive your hand and pretend that the start of the season didn’t happen. The results are what they are. The roller coaster of highs and lows to get to this point have gone through both extremes.

MLB: Houston Astros at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

If anybody told you this is how they envisioned the Rays would get to this point they are straight up lying. Pitching and defense were going to be the keys to victory, but he team lost it’s best defender for two month when Kevin Kiermaier went down with a torn ligament in his thumb.

Then the pitching injuries mounted. Brent Honeywell, Jose De Leon, and Anthony Banda required Tommy John surgery. Yonny Chirinos went down after a great start to the year with a strained flexor tendon and has missed two months after a setback has landed him on the minor league disabled list during his rehab. Jacob Faria went on the 60-day disabled list with an oblique strain. Chris Archer landed on the disabled list for the first time in his career and hasn’t yet returned.

Injuries happen. Pitchers especially are prone. The Rays didn’t use this an excuse, but had to rethink their plans on what their pitching staff looks like with the healthy arms they had at their disposal.

The solution was to use an Opener for 3-6 outs then hand the ball to a traditional starter coming out of the bullpen. This wasn’t due to a lack of arm talent like some have suggested. They are throwing major league arms out there, and they are just putting them in the best position to succeed. As a result, the Rays pitching has transformed into one of the most effective in baseball.

It’s looking like it could be working and that scares the hell out of the baseball purists.

The Rays pitching staff is built and used differently than any else, so it’s pretty useless to compare starters stats and bullpen stats. The Rays are inflating the rate stats by their starters with a sacrifice coming from the relievers. The ultimate goal is the totality of results.

Unlike with other teams there is no place to hide if you are a pitcher for the Rays. You will throw innings and in some cases the leverage will be higher than you would prefer.

The post season has become all about bullpenning and now it invaded the regular season.

The workload is the key and Kevin Cash has done a masterful job in making sure pitchers aren’t overworked. Sometimes this means you will bring in a lesser pitcher than you would prefer to cover important innings. The staff is full with major league quality arms. They might not be household names, but they’ve gotten the job done.

Rewind to eight weeks ago, when the many off days of April relented. A run of 40 games in 41 days from May 11-June 20 would be the true test.

Injuries had already forced the Rays to get creative, but with a lack of front line pitching, the Rays chose to double down on bullpen days with Sergio Romo making starts on two consecutive days against the Los Angeles Angels beginning on May 19.

In those consecutive appearances, Romo faced nine batters, striking out six. Over the next six weeks, the Rays pitching would be the best in baseball.

Tampa Bay Rays v Detroit Tigers
Rays manager Kevin Cash
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The logistics of distributing workloads is what will determine how effective this strategy can be, but we should note the Rays aren’t throwing bullpen games daily. There are pitchers who come in and throw five plus innings regularly. There have also been some bullpen games where there hasn’t been a pitcher who was expected to get more than 2-3 innings, but those have been few and far between, despite the national narrative that the Rays are going full bullpenning.

In that 40 game in 41 day stretch the Rays went 19-21. They survived, but got out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Overall, Tampa Bay’s schedule in June might be one of the most difficult stretches for any team this season. Including the finale against the Houston Astros, the Rays played 28 games where the only opportunity to catch their breath was a three game series against the Toronto Blue Jays, as they were the only team under .500.

The Rays played seven games against the Seattle Mariners (54-31), New York Yankees (54-27), Houston Astros (55-31), four against the Washington Nationals (42-40), and three against the Blue Jays (39-44). That’s a combined weighted winning percentage of .609, or a 99 win pace. The Rays went 14-14.

Again, the Rays survived when nobody thought they had any right to. They fought back by finishing the stretch by winning eight of nine at home in one of the most impressive homestands in franchise history. Perhaps this is what pundits call “the will to win.”

For the sabermetrically inclined: the Rays pitching staff (with help from their defense) has the third highest WPA (winning percentage added) at +8.48. The Rays have ran good with +0.75 clutch. They have earned most of these wins.

Yes, the batting leaves much to be desired. Testing Johnny Field and Mallex Smith with everyday play will help your pitchers but hurt your production (Mallex’s first home run of the year not withstanding). Overall the Rays haven’t been bad with a .250/.322/.385 line and 99 wRC+, but it’s a little light.

The offense is much different than last year.

They have more runners on base. They hit for a lot less power, and the runs aren’t consistent.

This has led to a -8.00 WPA that is 3rd lowest in the league. These hitters are particularly unclutch as well with a league low -4.18 clutch rating. But the increased frequency of base runners has also made watching these Rays far more entertaining.

If the Rays ran neutral that would be a four game swing in the standings, but they haven’t. The bats will have to perform better if there’s any hope of climbing the standings.

Ultimately this has been a good first half of the season and the Rays have put themselves in a great position to end the season strong, even if their +5 run differential shows that .500 baseball is what they deserve.

But if you trust the 39-29 performance more than that 3-15 start, it’s just enough to make you believe...