By Chris Glover
Memorial Day is often regarded as the unofficial start of summer and a time when we can first glance at the standings and take player hot streaks seriously. Given that summer starts in Canada when the first 17 feet of snow melts in mid-August, I can’t comment too much on the first point, but hopefully we can shed some light on the latter.
Tuesday night’s win over Texas came in the Rays’ 54th game, marking the end of the first third of the season. Having been warned about paying too much attention to small sample sizes, we are now at the point where trends become reliable and a player having a career year really may have changed for good. With that in mind, let’s extrapolate some player production to date over the remainder of the year and you can decide if you are buying or selling the following season totals:
Matt Joyce over/under .370 batting average
Joyce is already close to hitting career highs in HR, RBI and runs and his development is such that he has forced his way into contention as an every day player. Joyce’s current average is 5 points higher than his career OBP and at the time of writing he is leading the batting title race. Now, before we get our ‘race to .400’ t-shirts printed, Joyce’s BABIP is a ridiculous .416 – a full 100 points above his career average – so we can expect some regression but you also need to factor in that Joyce is clearly playing better with a regular spot in the lineup secured. As this excellent piece at DRaysBay explains, there are still holes in his swing (most notably on pitches down and away) and .370 is likely out of reach but I would buy .330 as a realistic benchmark (batting .310 from here on in would give Joyce a .330 average assuming his at-bats stay at a steady rate).
Number of articles published about relocating/contracting the Rays over/under 5.5
Providing Forbes (link intentionally excluded) continues to exist and finds time between making lists of the 100 richest people in Chile or the 250 biggest dairy manufacturers to write the occasional baseball article, the smart money is on the over here. Way over.
Five players hit 20 HRs for the year
Right now Joyce (26), Zobrist (25), Upton (23) and Damon (23) are all on course to top 20 bombs for the year while Longoria (16) is generally expected to pick up the pace after starting slowly on return from injury. Zobrist (‘09), Upton (‘07), Damon (’04, ’06, ’09) and Longoria (’08, ’09, ’10) have all enjoyed 20 home run seasons in their career while Joyce’s career averaged over 162 games would give him 24. While 20 HRs may look like a modest target, last year the Rays had just two players top the mark (Pena and Longoria) and only three teams (Blue Jays, Brewers and Yankees) had five players over 20. FanGraphs updated ZiPS projections have Joyce (21), Zobrist (21) and Longoria (20) hitting the mark while Upton (19) and Damon (16) are forecast to fall just short.
Based on those predictions and the old fashioned eyeball test, Damon is the obvious candidate to question here but the protection of playing DH should ensure he gets plenty of at bats and his HR/FB rate for the year (11.1%) isn’t unbelievably high (career average 9.0%) or unsustainable. Six of his seven bombs have come against righties which roughly mirrors his career numbers and there doesn’t appear to be any home/road or lineup spot splits that would concern you going forward. Some would also be concerned about Upton getting to twenty but I would suggest he’s shown consistent power this year (.168 ISO versus a career average of .154) and the fact he seems to enjoy playing the AL East teams is a bonus (4/7 HR in 2011 and 11/18 in 2010 came against division opponents). In light of that, and so as not to pile on BJ based on the next paragraph, let’s take the over here.
B.J. Upton to set a new franchise strike out record (Carlos Pena 166 in 2008)
So far B.J. is on course for 165 strike outs, one more than last year and just one shy of Pena’s swingtastic 2008. Over the past four years, Upton has increased his swing rate from 40.4% to 46.8% including 25.9% at pitches outside the zone (up from 15.0% in 2008). His swinging strike percentage has also risen from 7.7% to 10.0% over the same period. Having topped 150 SOs three times he’s always had the potential to eclipse the franchise mark so perhaps this is the year he puts it all together and achieves his lofty goal. On the bright side, a few more bad calls may lead to more amusing ejections from the stroppy outfielder.
Casey Kotchman to have more walks than strike-outs
Among qualifying players last season, only four players managed this statistical feat and two of them (Pujols and Mauer) are among the MVP favorites every year. Okay, even the most optimistic Rays fan (or Kotchman’s mom for that matter) would equate Casey more with the other two (Daric Barton and Jeff Keppinger) than that elite pair but regardless it’s an interesting quirk which Kotchman has a good shot of hitting. I know he takes some crap for his offensive play but he’s ground into just 3 double plays and struck out 12 times this year, and while I’m not sure if stats can back it up, there is surely some value to be had in players who don’t cripple team rallies. I might sell this one based on his career stats but Kotchman certainly has a chance to attain this unlikely mark.
Number of Nirvana albums owned collectively by the Rays over/under 4.5
Based on this shot from the Seattle ‘grunge trip’, there is a fundamental misunderstanding what ‘grunge’ was/is exactly. I don’t think Jim Hickey was a big Pearl Jam guy.
James Shields to have 9 complete games
‘Big Game’, or is it now ‘Complete Game’ James already has three complete games in 11 starts under his belt despite only having previously registered 5 in 151 starts. With a third of the season gone, that puts him on course for 9 on the year (I used a complex sabermetric spreadsheet to work out that 3 x 3 =9). No one has gone into double digits since Randy Johnson in 1999 and the Rays franchise record sits at five, set by Joe Kennedy in 2002, so is this goal way out of reach?
Shields is obviously pitching extremely well so far this year and while some factors point to a slight decline as the year goes on (a left on base % of 86.4 and a HR/FB rate 1% lower than his career average), his ability to throw three plus pitches – his cutter, curveball and changeup have all delivered more value in 2011 than all of 2010 – suggests he should be able to maintain a comparatively high level of play. Shields has been able to deliver incredible efficiency all year, going at least seven innings in every start while only topping 110 pitches twice. Based on history the smart money would have to be on the under but if anyone is going to do it, Shields may just be the best pick not named Halladay.
Rays season wins over/under 87
Back in March the line on Rays wins was 84.5 and Jonah Keri – perhaps the (or only) Canadian baseball authority on team wins over/under bets suggested we all throw our jelly beans on the over. So far so good. After the bad start, “Manny being Manny” and Evan’s injury, few would have picked the Rays to be on pace for 87 wins yet here they are. The recent struggles at the plate and the question marks over the 5th starter makes it hard to believe this is a 90+ win team but 87 feels about right and given I’ve been over on pretty much everything else, why not throw this one in too?