How good has Rays pitching and defense been this season?
Buckle up for this one: The Tampa Bay Rays have had the best run prevention performance since the 1909 Cubs.
Comparing baseball stats across seasons or decades generally requires mental gymnastics. It’s not clear whether an elite relief pitcher would best Babe Ruth when the two may has well have played different sports.
But what we can compare is performance against league average in a given season. That’s where statistics like ERA- come in, which I’ll let the FanGraphs library fully describe:
ERA Minus, FIP Minus, and xFIP Minus are the pitching version of OPS+ and wRC+ and are a simple way to tell how well a player performed in relation to league average. All of these statistics have a similar scale, where 100 is league average and each point above or below 100 represents a percent above or below league average. However, as lower is better for (almost) all pitching stats, a lower ERA- or FIP- is better.
So just how good have the Rays been? Filtering for team performances since 1900, the Rays rank third in ERA- with the best ERA performance against league average, dating back more than a century to the 1909 Cubs:
You can peruse the full list for yourself here. Looking at the top 15 teams above, a couple things stand out:
- The Cubs were really good in the 1900’s! They would win two World Series in that dominant stretch of pitching — in 1907 and, oddly enough, 1908 (which is not listed above). The Cubs also won the NL pennant in 1906, but lost the Series.
- The 2017 Indians and 2018 Astros both rank among the top-15 teams since 1900 in ERA- with each team entering the top of the list the year after a World Series appearance.
- Boy there are a lot more strikeouts in the modern game than there were in the 1900’s.
- Bill James once advocated that the modern baseball era began in 1993 (although we might already be in a new one with the change in ball — let’s call it the Brandon Lowe era). With that filter, the Rays 68 ERA- is currently five percent lower than the next team on the list. You can view that list here.
There’s an interesting juxtaposition going on here, with the list dominated by those great Cubs teams from the early 20th century, including a smattering of teams from the latter first half of the century, then the 1993 Braves, and then three teams in a row in the last three years.
What does it take to be vastly better at run prevention than your peers?
We know how the Astros and the Indians have done it these past two years. Both of those teams have combined elite pitching talent with an advanced, analytics-driven approach to rack up strikeouts at never-before-seen rates, with the Astros getting 6+ WAR seasons out of Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, and the Indians getting a 7+ WAR season out of Corey Kluber with a 5+ WAR season out of Carlos Carrasco.
The 1993 Braves, by contrast, pitched in an era with fewer strikeouts, but they did feature a starting rotation with three Hall of Famers.
The Rays are more similar in style to the former, more recent group than to that Atlanta pitching staff, but they’re not a clone.
Other than Charlie Morton (also on the 2018 Astros), and a propensity for high spin fastballs up in the zone (also liked by the 2018 Astros), there’s not a ton that these 2019 Rays have in common with the other recent pitching juggernauts.
While the Rays have some very impressive starting pitchers (Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, and Charlie Morton compare favorably in both stuff and results with any other trio in the game right now), they really try to avoid working them too hard or exposing them too much.
Between early hooks for starters who are pitching well, various bullpen games, and the opener strategy, the Rays are at the forefront of a pitching revolution that shifts inning loads away from starting pitchers and spreads it throughout a talented and capable bullpen.
Which brings us to that Cubs dynasty, with the 1909 Cubs the last team to best the pace of the current Rays.
How did they do things in Chicago? Lots. Of. Starting. Pitcher. Innings.
The 1909 Cubs had three starting pitchers with above 250 innings pitched, with Mordecai Brown hitting a whopping 342.2 (!!!) innings pitched at a 1.31 ERA/1.71 FIP (no those numbers rate stats aren’t as impressive as they would be in today’s environment, yes they were still really impressive then). Orval Overall was only a hair behind Brown with 285 innings pitched at 1.42 ERA/1.66 FIP. Ed Reulbach chipped in 262.2 innings at a 1.78 ERA/2.40 FIP, and the “back of the rotation starters,” Jack Pfiester and Rube Kroh were excellent and durable as well.
We need to talk more about Hall of Famer Mordecai Brown, and there’s an excellent profile by Josh Timmers on our sister site, Bleed Cubbie Blue. You should read the whole thing, because it’s an amazing story. Brown came from a working class background, the son of a coal miner. As a child, he mangled his hand in a corn shredder, losing his index finger entirely, and eventually losing the function of several others, leading to the nickname “Three-Finger” Brown. Despite all that was stacked against him, he became one of the greatest pitchers of his generation.
But as compelling of a story that may be, let’s focus on his usage.
While Brown started 34 games in 1909, he also relieved in 16. The affects of high workloads and the times through the order may all have been different in 1909, but manager Frank Chance evidently understood the importance of knowing his best pitching option and shifting high-leverage innings that way.
To quote from Timmers, writing about the 1908 pennant playoff:
But most of all, [Mordecai Brown] was angry at his manager Frank Chance, who told him that Jack Pfiester would start the game instead of him.
To be fair, Chance had some good reasons to go with Pfiester rather than his ace Brown. First, Pfiester wasn’t called “The Giant Killer” merely because of his name. But a bigger reason was that Brown had pitched as either a starter or reliever in 11 of the previous 14 Cub games . . .
Chance did tell Brown to warm up in secret behind the fans in right-center field. When Pfiester gave up two runs in the first inning. Chance signaled for his ace . . .
Once on the mound, Brown struck out Art Devlin to get out of the first inning. He then proceeded to shut out the Giants for the final eight innings, and his Cub teammates scored four runs off of Mathewson to win the game, 4-2.
That sounds a lot like an opener and a bulk guy, doesn’t it???
There’s a lot of baseball left to play in the 2019 season, and it’s far too early to start celebrating this selection of pitchers, or their unorthodox usage pattern, as one of the great run prevention seasons of baseball history.
A lot of the 2019 Rays success comes from an extraordinary ability to avoid HR’s, and that’s a stat prone to regression. While the Rays pitching staff also features strong peripherals, their league leading xFIP is certainly not historic.
Even a better performance from the ERA-lagging Orioles, Mariners, and Pirates could raise the league average and knock these Rays out of the history books.
But for right now, one thing is clear: what the Rays have done in 2019 has worked really well— ridiculously, unexpectedly, and yet undeniably well — so far. The goal is the playoffs and then World Series. The history books would be a welcome bonus, but let’s go get a ring first.
It’s a wild ride. Hang on.