The best team in baseball is the Tampa Bay Rays. This is no typo.
The defending champion Red Sox are a dismal 9-14. The Cubs are .500. The Rockies, Nationals, and A’s all have losing records, as well. What is happening to the MLB we know and love? How is Tampa on top?
Simply put: The Rays are out-hitting and out-pitching their opponents, especially away from the Trop. This team was mediocre through the first half of 2018 before putting together a tremendous stretch run and finishing with a 90-72 record. Kevin Cash’s boys have carried that momentum right into 2019 to the tune of a 15-8 overall record and a 7-2 road record- both tops in the majors.
You know me. Before I begin blindly betting a team I want to conduct a bit of deeper research to make sure I am not throwing my hard-earned money at a fluke. Today, I will break down a few hitting statistics to determine if Tampa’s offense is a flash in the pan or a legitimate force that belongs to be mentioned among the league’s elite. I will save the pitching discussion for a later date.
The Rays Have a Suspect BABIP
I do not claim to be an expert Sabermetrician, but I do enjoy talking BABIP. Batting average on balls in play is a great truth serum because it always reverts back toward the mean. A BABIP too high or too low is a sign that current statistics are unsustainable.
The Rays lead the majors in BABIP at .327.
16 of the league’s 30 teams hold a BABIP of .290 or higher but only 4 are above .320 like Tampa. The Rays are no stranger to high a BABIP, however. Last year, Cash’s squad also led the majors with a .317 mark.
Why the elevated numbers? The artificial turf helps. The Rays hit the 6th most ground balls in the majors in 2018 and are 1st in ground ball rate this season. This is an excellent strategy when you play on carpet. Unfortunately, this style of hitting will not travel well.
This was evidenced last season when the Rays won 90 games but were under .500 on the road. Take a look at the home/road splits since 2014 – the Rays last season with a winning road record.
|Year||Home Record||Road Record|
Is it a small sample size? You betcha, but Rays fans have to love the 7-win road trip in early April. Now here’s the catch – 3 of those games were against the lowly White Sox and 3 were on turf in Toronto, basically a home game.
When Tampa went out west to face the Giants they averaged 4 runs per game. Against Chicago and Toronto, that number jumped to 7.3. I think it is safe to say the Rays will not continue to score 7 runs per game on the road.
As long as the Rays are good, their BABIP will be one of the highest in baseball due to their ground ball tendencies on the fast turf. This means they will gain an extra hit or two at home but that their road numbers will end up regressing and looking similar to 2018’s numbers.
The Rays Hit the Ball Hard
Tampa Bay strikes out quite a bit. Their 25.5% K rate is 9th in the majors and 5th-highest among teams with a winning record. While it would seem a team who pounds the ball into the turf and strikes out a lot is doomed to suffer some long dry spells, it works out for Tampa. Why?
The Rays walk a lot and hit the ball very hard.
High strikeout rates are bearable so long as you are also walking. At 9.8%, the Rays BB rate is 11th in the majors. This puts Tampa Bay’s BB/K ratio at 17th in the league – respectable.
You might think that because Tampa walks and strikeouts a lot that they see a ton of pitches. This is actually not the case. At just under 4 pitches per plate appearance, Tampa is middle of the ground in that respect – 13th in the majors.
I just threw a lot of numbers at you, I know. This is what you should take away – the Rays walk and strikeout rates are average as are their pitches per plate appearance. This is not impressive on its own, but it becomes eye-opening once I throw in the kicker – the Rays rank 5th in the MLB in hard hit ball rate and own the lowest softly hit ball rate in baseball.
Each hitter on this team walks into the box looking to drive something to the fence. Striking out is not a concern. The Rays want to mash. 42.5% of their batted balls are hit hard, which then seem even faster skipping along on turf.
When a team can launch the ball all over the park while still maintaining healthy BB/K numbers, watch out.
Tampa Bay Rays Verdict
Here are my 2 cents on Tampa Bay. This offense is designed to excel on the quick surface of Tropicana Field and they have been doing just that since last season.
A higher-than-usual BABIP is sustainable due to how many ground balls Tampa hits on their turf, but a 7-2 road record is not sustainable. 2018 was a perfect example of how the Rays should play. They can beat anyone at home, but will show their mortality on the road.
As long as New York and Boston keep slumping, expect Tampa to control the East. This team really began clicking in the second-half of 2018 – a half in which they played .620 baseball.
Tampa Bay is currently on pace for 108 wins. While this will not happen, I would not be surprised at all if Tampa matches their .620 win rate and winds up with 98-100 victories in 2019.
The Rays are playing out of their minds but their numbers (at least at home) are sustainable.