Outside of an exhilarating Opening Day victory over the Boston Red Sox, the start of the 2018 season for the Tampa Bay Rays was less than ideal. 17 games into the season the Rays were 4-13 and had dug them a hole they couldn’t get themselves out of.
This year the Rays the exact opposite has happened. After a disappointing Opening Day loss, the Rays sit at 13-4 with the best record in all of Major League Baseball.
It’s not merely a hot start. The Rays have been very good for a while. Despite their slow start in 2018, they ended the season with 90 wins.
More impressively over the last 162 games the Rays are 99-63. Over that same period of time the New York Yankees are 99-63 and the Red Sox are 98-64. The Rays have been every bit as good as the two perennial powerhouses in the American League East.
Banked wins and losses matter a lot as the season progresses, but with roughly 90% of the season remaining so does being a good team.
Most importantly the Rays have gotten off to a fast start while the rest of the division has not.
A 5.5 game lead in the division in season that is approaching three weeks old is quite large. Last year when the Red Sox got off to a 15-2 start they only had a 3.0 game lead over the Toronto Blue Jays.
At FanGraphs, Jay Jaffe took a look at 16 game starts during the two wild card team era. This only covers the 2012-18 seasons, but 7 of the 12 teams made the playoffs that have started 12-4 and averaged 89.9 wins.
So far the Rays have deserved every bit of their record if not more. The Rays +40 run differential leads to 1st order win percentage (pythagorean win percentage) of .766 that is one thousandth behind the Rays actual .765 winning percentage. By 2nd order win percentage based on how many runs they should have scored and allowed the Rays should have a .841 winning percentage (14.3 wins). By third order win percentage based on quality of opponents the Rays should have a .830 win percentage (14.1 wins).
At FanGraphs the Rays have underperformed their BaseRuns where they have a .792 win percentage (13.5 wins) and a +48 expected run differential.
The Rays are playing really well overall and they won’t stay this hot the whole season, but the initial reports look very good.
The Rays haven’t made the playoffs since 2013, but there is reason for optimism this year.
After 8 games I wrote about how the playoff odds have already shifted for the Rays. After a 7-2 run the odds have only risen even more.
According to FanGraphs simulations they have the Rays playoff chances increasing to 77.2%. That is an increase of 24.5% over the last nine games and 49.0% increase over their preseason projection. The odds of winning the division have surged to 36.5%. That’s an increase of 25.4% over the last nine games and a 34.5% increase over their preseason projection. The Rays aren’t favorites over the wounded Yankees, but they are closing in.
At Baseball Prospectus the Rays are bigger favorites. The Rays have a 79.1% chance to make the playoffs which is up 16.0% in the last nine days. The Rays now are the favorites to win the division at 47.2% compared to the Yankees at 36.2% and the Red Sox at 16.6%. The Rays have increased their odds of winning the division by 21.1% in the last nine games.
The hot start is better than a slow start that is for sure, but the Rays can’t afford to be complacent. The Yankees will get healthier and the Red Sox will remember how to pitch and hit at some point.
The Rays don’t face an opponent that is currently over .500 until May 21 against the Los Angeles Dodgers. In those 29 games the Rays do face the Red Sox six times and the Yankees three times.
Over the next two weeks the Rays play six games against the Red Sox. Returning the favor and burying the Red Sox further in the division would be ideal.
The Rays have put themselves in the position to race out to sizable lead early on. They need to get it done on the field as being the better team on paper doesn’t mean you’ll beat your opponent in MLB where any team is capable of beating another on any given day.