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The 2020 Rays finally conquered Third-Order Winning Percentage

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Was it just a 60-game fluke?

World Series - Tampa Bay Rays v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Six Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Just about three years ago, during the post-2017 offseason, I penned a piece looking at just how bad the Rays franchise had been in terms of living up to their billing in regards to Baseball Prospectus’ third-order winning percentage.

As a friendly reminder, the BP website defines the metric as:

3rd Order Winning Percentage: A team’s projected winning percentage, based on underlying statistics and adjusted for quality of opponents.

Uses Adjusted Equivalent Runs scored and allowed, which adjust the Equivalent Runs totals for the quality of each team’s opponents’ pitching and defense.

At the time of the December 2017 article that you can peruse back through right now, the Rays had under-performed by this metric a staggering seven straight seasons. At that point in time, the Royals, Pirates, and Orioles had out-performed their third-order winning percentage the most over the past eight years, while the Rays, Red Sox, and Oakland Athletics labored at the other end of the spectrum.

In the piece, numerous potential causes for this trend were noted with the conclusion:

Most likely, the Rays malaise when it comes to failing to match their third-order winning percentage is some confluence all the factors mentioned here (with the possible exception of the smoke monster). It maybe breaks down something like this:

50% - the AL East is really fricken tough.

25% - Poor managerial performance. Cash may be on the hot seat these days, and Maddon has lost a bit of his shine in recent seasons, so I don’t think this is too high a percentage to suppose.

10% - Bad luck. Seven seasons is a long time, but crazier things have happened.

8% - Their bullpen hasn’t been as absurd as Baltimore’s.

5% - Lack of true home-field advantage.

1.9% - Small market mindset.

0.1% - The smoke monster from Lost.

So, how have the Rays stacked up, per third-order wins, since 2017?

Well, in 2018 and 2019, the trend continued, with the Rays finishing a whole 7.5 wins off their third-order winning percentage in 2018 (their fourth straight year at over a six-win difference) before shrinking that gap slightly in 2019, when the gap was “just” 3.2 wins off their third-order winning percentage. But, it was frustration again, as the Rays finished atop the AL East in terms of third-order winning percentage, while having to settle for a Wild Card spot in the real world.

That meant 2020 would be the year to go for a full decade in the red by this metric, but something funny happened on the way to the ball.

American League Championship Series Game 7: Tampa Bay Rays v. Houston Astros Photo by Matt Thomas/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The 2020 Rays topped their third-order winning percentage!

The 2020 Rays snatched up 40 wins en route to their first division title since 2010. It’s worth noting, that 2010 was also the last time the club out-performed their third-order winning percentage... In the meantime, it was the Yankees who actually were the third-order winning percentage division champs, making up at least in part for 2019.

So, what changed for the Rays in 2020?

Let’s look back at some of the potential factors laid out in the last article, with the caveat that there will be even fewer true answers this time around. That is in part the case because of the biggest asterisk to go with this whole story: the shortened season.

Baseball Prospectus didn’t actually even post third-order winning percentage on their website this year, and as such, Clay Davenport’s numbers had to be used for this article. When comparing seasons in which the Rays had 162 games with the 60-game version in 2020, that difference obviously has to be noted first and foremost.

However, what’s interesting is that that may only be part of the equation because, interestingly enough, almost all the factors laid out for reasons the Rays under-performing their third-order winning percentage for nearly a decade flipped in 2020. Let’s go through them one by one:

The AL Beast: This was the factor that three years ago I thought was the most likely cause of the Rays long-term struggles to match their third-order winning percentage. The American League East has long been one of the toughest divisions in baseball, stacked with a pair of teams that rank among the largest spenders in baseball each year (New York and Boston), along with a Toronto team that has an entire country as its market share, and a team that actually broke the third-order winning percentage model for a stretch in the last decade, soaking up all those real-life wins away from the Rays.

In 2020, the Yankees were still elite, but the Red Sox notably traded their best player, fired their manager, saw their second-best player miss the entire season, and all around went in to the tank. Now, the Red Sox have been known to do this every few years, like from 2012-2015 when they finished last in the East three of four years. So a faltering Red Sox squad can only explain so much. However, when combined with an Orioles team that, unlike that 2012-2015 stretch, was not a legitimate contender, and there was a bit more breathing room for the Rays in the East. Similar to last time, I’m not willing to say this was the only factor, but I think it played a role.

2020 World Series Game 5: Los Angeles Dodgers v. Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Poor Managerial Performance: This is the section that has aged the worst from the 2017 article. Cash has established his managerial bona fides over the past few seasons, culminating with a Manager of the Year Award this season that I don’t think a single Rays fan would argue with. There’s certainly a possibility that Cash did his best work in 2020, but there‘s also a much more distinct possibility that his role in these woes may have been overrated previously.

The Bullpen: When noting how Baltimore managed to top their third-order winning percentage for so long, I referenced their manager (we just covered that) and their bullpen. I think it’s safe to say that the 98ers out their in the Rays pen made their voice heard and their impact felt in 2020. However, this same unit was also a massive part of getting to the postseason in 2019, when they still under-performed their third-order winning percentage. So again, this seems like a partial reason but certainly not the only one.

Lack of True Home Field Advantage: I put this under the “grasping at straws” section in the last article, and it’s hard to make too much of a claim that poor crows hurt third-order winning percentage given that the top three in the chart from the last article were Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore, while Boston sat second-to-last next to the Rays. In retrospect, I think putting this at 8 percent was far too high last time, and even though the lack of crowds across baseball would be a fun reason for why the Rays finally over-performed their third order winning percentage (and inevitably has been used by some for why the Rays did better in 2020), I now think that’s a load of crap.

Small Market Mindset: This was an even dumber one than the last one. Come on, 2017 Jim.

Conclusion (Part II)

So what was the biggest factor in the Rays finally topping their third-order winning percentage? Let’s dole out percentages again, because I once again think that there was no one true answer.

  • 50 percent shortened season
  • 25 percent lower than standard AL East
  • 20 percent truly elite bullpen
  • 4.9 percent Cash emergence as elite manager
  • 0.1 percent the smoke monster from Lost