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The Rays will be difficult to defend in 2019

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The 2019 Rays are aiming to be shift-proof.

Toronto Blue Jays v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

For the second offseason in a row, the Rays have taken an unorthodox — which now makes it orthodox, I suppose — approach to the offseason.

After setting franchise records in home runs (and strikeouts) in the 2016-17 seasons, an era that netted a combined 148-176 win-loss record, the organization decided to retool, unloading many players who seemed to be part of their future. And even though the Rays hit 78 less home runs in 2018, the offense took steps forward in many respects.

But they didn’t stop there. They’ll go into the new year sans their top three home run hitters once again. To this point, the front office have added a defensive catcher and a utility infielder who is a home run hitter — and by that I mean literally, he’s hit a home run.

Though the team still rumored to be in on any number of power bats, even after losing the Nelson Cruz sweepstakes (Edwin Encarnacion, Nick Castellanos, Jose Martinez and J.T. Realmuto among others still remain available), it seems more and more likely the Rays will go into camp with the team it has now.

For the second season in a row, it seems Tampa Bay has subtracted more than they’ve added. And that might be the best scenario.

A ‘solid’ approach

By now, it’s no secret that the Rays have shifted to prioritizing contact just two years after the three true outcomes approach failed them. But while it’s one thing to prioritize contact, it’s another to prioritize good contact, and to all fields to boot. Combine that with speed, athleticism, and defense, and that is what makes them such a fascinating team going into 2019, if not at least an entertaining one.

What the Rays lacked in power in ‘18 they made up for in contact, striking out 150 fewer times than the year prior. With the departures of CJ Cron, Jake Bauers and Carlos Gomez, they could strikeout even less — those three went down swinging a combined 352 times. The Rays’ new offensive approach did help them win them 90 games after all, so why not take it a little further?

We already know that Tommy Pham and Yandy Diaz hit the ball hard. What’s also worth noting is that they hit the ball hard often. Mike Zunino strikes out quite a lot, but when he does make contact, he too hit the ball with a respectable exit velocity.

Hard Hit Rate Per Batted Ball Event

Player 2017 Hard Hit % MLB Rank 2018 Hard Hit % MLB Rank
Player 2017 Hard Hit % MLB Rank 2018 Hard Hit % MLB Rank
Pham 46.9 40 49.9 16
Zunino 43.1 15 44.9 48
Diaz 50 5 44.4 51
(Min. 100 BBE) (Min.90 BBE)

That’s three guys in the lineup who will consistently hit the ball with authority. But what about the rest of the Rays lineup? While the remaining players produce Statcast numbers at or around league average, their batted ball profiles (via FanGraphs) seem to show an interesting trend.

Beating the shift

Last year, the Rays ranked second to last in Pull% (37.5%) and first in Oppo% (28.0%). Compare that to 2017 when they ranked 10th (40.8%) and 27th (24.6%), respectively.

Though the Rays hit the ball harder in ‘17 (when they ranked 3rd in baseball as opposed to 17th in ‘18), as previously mentioned, it cost them in K% (3rd in ‘17 vs. 15th in ‘18). This undoubtedly contributed to the team owning the league’s best .317 BABIP in ‘18 (it was a more league average .296 in ‘17), and the replacement of power with contact (and speed) still managed a 7 point increase in team wRC+ (from 98 to 105).

In today’s age of constant shifting, guys with high pull rates are much easier to defend, and it seems like the Rays are attempting to put together a team that spreads the ball out far more evenly.

Let’s take a deeper look at two of the Rays more notable subtractions, Cron and Bauers:

Batted Ball Profiles

Player Pull% Oppo%
Player Pull% Oppo%
C.J. Cron 45.4 21.1
Jake Bauers 51.1 18.9

Both of them pull the ball — a lot.

FanGraphs

While it’s reasonable to expect most hitters to pull most of their ground balls, home runs and even fly balls, when they pull most of their batted balls in general, they’re most vulnerable to the shift.

Here’s an illustration of how the shift affects batted balls for left handed hitters:

Of batters with minimum 350 plate appearances, Bauers ranked 4th in Pull%.

Now here’s the same graph for right handed hitters:

Of all qualified batters, Cron was 23rd in all of baseball in Pull%.

By shedding these two players, the Rays also shed their two most pull-happy hitters. With them out of the picture, let’s now look at the batted ball profiles of the current Rays starters:

Projected Starting Lineup

Player Pull% Oppo%
Player Pull% Oppo%
Joey Wendle, 2B 36.00% 29.80%
Daniel Robertson, DH 41.60% 25.10%
Tommy Pham, LF 37.80% 22.40%
Yandy Diaz, 1B 28.90% 32.20%
Austin Meadows, RF 39.30% 24.30%
Mike Zunino, C 58.70% 19.60%
Matt Duffy, 3B 29.30% 32.90%
Willy Adames, SS 37.80% 27.00%
Kevin Kiermaier, CF 35.10% 27.40%

That’s a lineup which includes two players who hit the ball to the opposite field more than they pull (Diaz and Duffy) and seven players who hit the ball to center nearly as much or more.

As the graphic above shows, righties who can hit the ball up the middle actually perform better against the shift. Robertson is now the leading pull hitter among starters, and even he hits the ball to center a third of the time.

Mike Zunino is the clear outlier, unless...

Player Pull% Oppo%
Player Pull% Oppo%
J.T. Realmuto 45.10% 19.60%

Huh!

Conclusion

  • The Rays are going to make a ton of contact in 2019. They were in the middle of the pack in K% in ‘18 after slotting 3rd each of the two previous seasons. As they stand now, they look to strikeout far fewer times in the coming year.
  • The Rays are going to make a ton of good contact in 2019. Pham and Diaz bring an instant boost with elite exit velocity. When Zunino makes contact, it’s often hard as well. Add that to what was already the 6th best offense in baseball, and now you’re cooking with gas.
  • The Rays are going to hit the ball all over the field in 2019. A year after finishing nearly dead last in Pull% and tops in the league in Oppo%, they’ve added more oppo pop (Diaz) and 86’d their two most extreme pull hitters in Cron and Bauers.
  • The Rays are going to give defenses (and pitchers) fits in 2019. Even though it wouldn’t make a ton of sense to shift on a lot of Rays hitters, shifting has become conventional wisdom. Shift in 2019, and the Rays can beat you to the opposite field. Don’t shift, and the Rays can beat you up the middle.

And it’s worth mentioning, shift or not, the Rays can also beat you with pitching and defense. This is a far more balanced team than ever before, and if the hitters can deploy situational contact, the Rays could be a real playoff contender from the start.