The Rays remind us how little we understand about baseball.
There is a light bulb in a fire station in Livermore, California that has been lit since 1901. It’s called the Centennial Bulb, and no one has satisfactorily explained how it keeps functioning after 117 years and counting. The average incandescent light bulb lasts 750-2,000 hours. The Centennial Bulb is just a few years away from one million.
Was the Centennial Bulb designed better than its counterparts or successors? Is there some kind of environmental anomaly at the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department that makes conditions just right for incandescent stability?
No one knows, really. It’s a marvel that transcends our understanding. As such, the bulb is an essential reminder that for all our science, technology, and engineering, the most intelligent species in the world still has so much to learn. There will always be more that we don’t understand than that which we do.
The Tampa Bay Rays are baseball’s Centennial Bulb. No, they haven’t been around since 1901 like more than half the American League, and no they aren’t always well lit. But for all that we know about baseball, or at least all we think we know, they still manage to surprise us.
Sometimes, they do so in obvious ways. If modern pitcher usage has all the rigidity and rules of a middle school dance, the 2018 Rays pitching staff was a 1970s key party. Ryne Stanek started 29 games and threw 66 1⁄3 innings. Ryan Yarbrough started six games and through 147 1⁄3 innings.
Other times, it’s more subtle. Joey Wendle, a castoff from Oakland, batted .300/.354/.435. Matt Duffy put together a 2.4 fWAR season out of nowhere. Blake Snell, heretofore more potential than experience, beat out Justin Verlander, Corey Kluber, and Chris Sale for the Cy Young (all of whom might make the Hall of Fame someday). They cut Corey Dickerson before the season, then replaced him with C.J. Cron, who hit 30 home runs. Then they cut him, too!
All of this defies conventional understanding. This isn’t how successful baseball teams are built, yet they finished 90-72. Just like the Centennial Bulb, we have to learn what we can from the Rays, accepting that our comprehension will only grasp a small portion of why everything works the way it does. As for the rest, we just have to marvel and appreciate.
When evaluating prospects, we talk about “five-tool players,” guys who can hit for contact, hit for power, run, field, and throw. In reality, very few players excel at all five. However, a player can be quite good with only a subset of these tools. The Rays recognize this, and have built a roster full of guys who each excel at a few of them.
Hit for Contact
At least three of Joey Wendle, Matt Duffy, Willy Adames, Daniel Robertson should start on any given day. None of them posted an ISO higher than .153 last year, but that’s okay. Power is not their primary function. All of them reached base in the .348-.382 range. With an abundance of good contact hitters who reach base a lot, the Rays are well stocked with table-setters.
There’s also Tommy Pham and Austin Meadows. Both of these guys actually are close to all five tools, and both were acquired via trade last year. Pham was vocally unhappy in St. Louis but exploded in Tampa Bay, increasing his OPS from .730 to 1.071 after the trade.
Meadows was a perpetual prospect in Pittsburgh, appearing on Top 100 lists each year from 2014-2018. He was stalled by a combination of injuries and the Andrew McCutchen/Gregory Polanco/Starling Marte outfield in front of him. No longer technically a prospect, he’s still unproven at the major league level. Still, he hit .287/.325/.461 in 59 big league games, and blasted triple-A pitching for a 1.167 OPS after the trade. He and Pham will receive the majority of the starts in the outfield corners.
Hit for Power
Much of the Rays’ power in 2019 will come from recently acquired bats. Early in the offseason, they added Mike Zunino to be their regular catcher. Since 2014, only four catchers have more home runs: Evan Gattis, Salvador Perez, Yasmani Grandal, and Brian McCann. His career on base percentage is just .276, but for a good defensive catcher (6.4 FRAA in 2018) with power, you’ll take that trade-off.
Ji-Man Choi will see most of the first base action. The Rays acquired him from Milwaukee last June, and he became a staple in their lineup in the second half. All told, he compiled a 135 wRC+ last year, mostly against right-handed pitching.
Brandon Lowe is a Rays draftee who debuted last year. He plays second base, left field, and right field, but none of them particularly well. He won’t hit for much average and strikes out a bit too often. He did, however, belt 22 homers across double-A, triple-A, and MLB last year.
The Rays traded away Mallex Smith in exchange for Zunino. This cuts down significantly on their runing game. However, they do still have a few guys who can steal a base, such as Wendle, Duffy, and Kevin Keirmaier. Speaking of whom…
While several of the Rays are pretty solid defensively (though several others aren’t), Keirmaier deserves this section all to himself. We are blessed to live in an age of great center field defense. In just the American League, we can witness Byron Buxton, Kevin Pillar, Jackie Bradley, Jr., and now Billy Hamilton.
Keirmaier ranks up there with any of them. Even though he missed nearly half the season, he was statistically the best center fielder in the AL. He led the league in DRS (14), UZR (9.8), and UZR/150 (16.4, minimum 400 innings).
He didn’t win the Gold Glove. He hasn’t won it since 2016. This is not because someone was better than him (no one is). It’s because he can’t stay healthy. 2015 was the only season in which he accrued enough plate appearance to qualify for rate stats. If he can last a full season, he might be the best player on the team despite middling bat skills.
Welcome to the future.
Starters, Almost Definitely
Blake Snell wasn’t the best pitcher in the American League last year. Verlander and possibly Sale were more deserving of the Cy Young, but there’s no need to re-litigate. Not being the best pitcher in the AL is the only negative about him. He’s a 26-year-old lefty coming off a 1.89 ERA, 2.95 FIP season. His strikeout rate jumped from 21.8 percent to 31.6 while his walk rate dropped. One could argue that he’s the best future value pitching asset in baseball.
Charlie Morton is riding high off consecutive 3 fWAR seasons. He’s the big free agent expenditure for Tampa Bay, and nearly as much of an ace as Snell. He’s locked up for the next two seasons at least.
Beyond these two bona fide starters, chaos reigns.
Starters? Kind of?
Tyler Glasnow came over from Pittsburgh in the same deal that brought Meadows, and he’s sort of the pitching equivalent. A heralded former prospect who never quite put it together, he started striking out the world last year. Maybe he pitches in a conventional starting role and maybe not, but either way he’ll be an important pitcher in 2019.
There’s also Ryan Yarbrough and Yonny Chirinos, who are sort of starters. They finished third and fourth on the team in innings pitched despite starting a combined 13 games. Neither is terribly fearsome, nor do they strikeout a lot of batters, but at least someone else handles the top of the order for them most of the time.
Relievers, Openers, OTTOs, and Who Knows What
For the purposes of simplicity, anyone who throws a reliever’s workload will be considered a reliever, regardless of whether they pitch in the first inning or ninth. Three young fireballers anchor the relief corps.
Jose Alvarado is a 24-year-old lefty who sits 98 and touches 101 with his fastball. That’s really all you need to know, but it also helps that he struck out 80 batters in 64 innings while allowing only one home run all year.
Diego Castillo is sort of the right-handed counterpart to Alvarado, except he reached 102 with the heater. His strikeout-minus-walk rate was 21.2 percent, and he allowed fewer baserunners than innings pitched.
Ryne Stanek is yet another righty who touched 102 last year. He was primarily used as an Opener, starting 29 games but also finishing 10 of them. No one can possibly guess how he’ll be deployed this year; maybe he starts 50 games. However he’s used, he generates tons of strikeouts, just like Alvarado and Castillo.
Predicting the Unpredictable
For all their innovation, magic, luck, or whatever else you want to call it, the Rays are in a precarious situation. The Red Sox and Yankees will almost definitely make the playoffs. So will the Astros and Indians, for that matter. This leaves one Wild Card spot available for the rest of the American League. Seven teams aren’t even trying, leaving the Rays, Twins, A’s, and Angels to duke it out.
PECOTA and the FanGraphs depth carts both project the Rays to finish 85-77. However, the Rays are among the most unpredictable teams in an unpredictable sport. Sometimes they greatly exceed expectations, leaving us wondering how and why. As with a 117-year-old light bulb, how and why are insufficient. All we can do is appreciate how much we have left to learn.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983