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Five Rays keeping the offense alive in May

A quarter-season check in for the Rays offense.

Los Angeles Angels vs Tampa Bay Rays Set Number: X164056 TK1

The Rays are 42 games into the season, which is just over 25%, and the roster as it is constructed today is not what might have been anticipated at the start of 2022.

After an extremely hot start to the year, RF Manuel Margot injured his hamstring on May 14 and has not been seen since (although he is returning to the lineup tonight), and All-Star 2B Brandon Lowe has been pulled from the roster due to a pre-stress-fracture back injury that could have him sidelined for some time. If you’ve tuned in this week, in the last few days, two top of the order hitters Yandy Diaz and Wander Franco have been sidelined by injury as well.

By design, the Rays bench is supported by three switch-hitters in C Francisco Mejia, SS Taylor Walls, and 2B/RF Vidal Brujan so there was already coverage available to help the Rays. All three are being regularly rotated into the Rays lineup, which is not surprising given Kevin Cash’s modus operandi of keeping his bench players fresh and his starters rested. It’s a wise strategy for a team that has fairly inexperienced players (after all, the only players on Tampa Bay’s roster with 4+ years of service time are C Mike Zunino, CF Kevin Kiermaier, and 1B Ji-Man Choi) and plays on turf (Wander Franco attributes his ongoing injury concerns and early season slump to playing on an artificial surface).

But those three bench players are not the names keeping the Rays afloat. Instead it is two recent acquisitions and three underperforming familiar faces that have stepped into starting roles for the team this May.

DH Harold Ramirez

Ramirez holds a 114 wRC+ in just over 100 plate appearances, and projects to be performing even better with an xwOBA .070 points higher than his current .315 wOBA. Steamer, for instance, projects a 128 wRC+ and FGDC a 120 wRC+ on the strength of his expected stats. This shouldn’t be too surprising given his performance to date if you’ve been watching carefully. He has only one homerun to his name in a Rays uniform, but H-Ram has been adept and hitting hard singles in seemingly every game this season.

According to Statcast, Ramirez has the highest xBA in baseball (.353), sits in the 93rd percentile for max exit velocity (113.7), and 92nd percentile for hard hit rate (51.1%). He’s done so primarily by not striking out, thanks to a 98th percentile strikeout rate (9.5%). Breaking balls can still give him trouble, but anything fastball or offspeed is getting seen well by the Rays seemingly scrap heap replacement for Nelson Cruz.

3B Isaac Paredes

The Rays were the highest bidder for Paredes this off-season, picking up the young but surplus infielder from Detroit in exchange for All-Star Austin Meadows, with the added symmetry of Paredes taking Meadows’s No. 17 jersey.

Like Ramirez, this recent acquisition is performing at a career best 112 wRC+, and is also performing well under his expected results. Steamer sees Paredes as a 127 wRC+ hitter, FGDC at 126, and even ZiPS has a 124 projection. But instead of getting it done through batting average, the similar sized RHH is getting his work done against the breaking ball, with a .375 xwOBA against the pitch type, and by making adjustments to his approach:

It’s too early to declare Paredes as a success after just 38 plate appearances over 13 games into his Rays career. He needs to punish a few more fastballs and show he can take a walk before there’s staying power in the bat; nevertheless, Paredes has looked more than comfortable in the field at third base and his two-home-run coming out party against the team that traded him was more than enough to prove that he deserved an extended look with the Rays while Brandon Lowe is on the shelf.

LF Randy Arozarena

It’s taken a while for Randy Arozarena to look like his usual self this season. His rolling 15-game wRC+ did not reach 100 wRC+ until May 8 of this season, but since then Randy Arozarena has been hitting extraordinarily well. His 188 wRC+ since that date ranks 18th in baseball, just ahead of Jose Ramirez and Shohei Ohtani, and includes 4 HR and 3 SB.

The most impressive aspect of his resurgence has been the power. Baltimore recently altered Camden Yards to be more pitcher friendly, particularly in left field, but both longballs batted by Arozarena were no-doubters.

CF Kevin Kiermaier

KK has been the star of the show in the last week, spending the last three games as the Rays leadoff hitter and starting Tuesday evening’s kick off to the annual Citrus Series with a first pitch inside-the-park homerun, but his solid performance is not limited to recent theatrics.

Through 116 plate appearances, Kevin Kiermaier boasts a 126 wRC+ with six homeruns. If these results continue, KK would be in line for only his third season with a wRC+ greater than 104, and on pace for a career high 25+ homeruns (with his previous high being 15 in 2017).

Unlike the previous two names above, it seems more likely however that Kiermaier is simply riding a hot streak, as there is little in his expected stats that signal this high level of performance will increase or stay; projections expect a career norm performance at the plate going forward in the 100-105 wRC+ range.

Of course, there could be factors outside the spreadsheet at play. Marc Topkin reports that KK recently asked the hitting coaches to make his swing more “boring” at the plate, and perhaps his recent 11-for-20 streak speaks for itself, but this is a moment where the pictures paint the words.

Let’s start with a classic KK moment from 2018, his grand slam off Gio Gonzalez, which features the traditional, imitable Kiermaier approach at the plate: front leg back, bat waving, body bouncing as the pitch approaches.

Now compare that to yesterday’s inside-the-park homerun, which put KK atop the Rays homerun leaderboard. The front leg has his body in a more closed position, the bat is waving but only slightly.

The overall impression is, indeed, more “boring” overall, but the result is not. At age-32 Kiermaier continues to be one of the fastest players in the majors, with a 95th percentile sprint speed, as that homerun exemplifies. Has quieting his swing helped KK reach his final form?

“RF” Brett Phillips

Finally, there’s the star of the show.

One of five players on the Rays roster contributing at least 1.0 WAR thus far, local boy Brett Phillips has also taken a step forward in the early run this season as he slotted in for the injured Manuel Margot. It also helps that by playing “out of position” in an outfield corner, Phillips has put up a league leading 6 Outs Above Average among outfielders.

But it’s at the plate that Phillips has most recently shone.

In the article linked above, Phillips credits biomechanist Jillian Hawkins, who worked with him to identify a specific flaw in his swing:

Hawkins and Phillips watched the videos together and briefly went into the cage, where she threw to him. Hawkins noted a flaw in Phillips’ swing, specifically the angle of his hands, which left him only able to get the barrel of his bat on pitches that were low and away and vulnerable to the high fastballs that he was striking out on often.

The results have been a similar performance to Kiermaier, with 10 hits in the same stretch of plate appearances and a couple homeruns as well. Earlier this month Phillips had struck out in 9 consecutive at bats. Over the last 21 plate appearances, he has only 6 with a near .500 batting average.

As Margot is reactivated from the injured list, Phillips may not have the same frequency as appearances going forward, but his contributions are noteworthy in what could have (and has) been a tough month for the Rays offense.