It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Well, with all due respect, Dickens may have had that backwards. For the 2011 Rays, it was the worst of times first.
The Rays have now gone 6-1 in their last 7 games, exactly the opposite of the 1-6 stretch they opened the season with. So, what gives? Are the Rays the 6-1 team or the 1-6 team?
Probably neither. All the reasons that the 1-6 stretch was no cause for concern also apply to the 6-1 stretch. Eight games is a blip on a 162-game schedule and this good stretch is no more reason to start engraving rings than the 1-6 stretch was reason to inch near the ledge. So, let’s allow that particular bandwagon to streak by.
There is a lot of reason to think the 2011 Rays are somewhere between the 1-6 team and the 6-1 team and that both stretches were caused by a certain extremes of luck:
- During the 1-6 stretch, Rays hitters had a BABIP of .194 (meaning they got hits on about 19% of the balls they put into play). But, during the 6-1 stretch, Rays hitters have a BABIP of .354.
- During the 1-6 stretch, Rays pitchers allowed a BABIP of .317. During the 6-1 stretch, Rays pitchers have a .241 BABIP.
If we assume, as I am told we are supposed to, that the average BABIP is .300, we can conclude that the Rays were just supremely unlucky during the 1-6 stretch and supremely lucky during the 6-1 stretch. And, that is certainly part of the explanation.
But, I think there are two reasons that discount luck as the SOLE explanation for the different results. First, the Rays might be hitting fewer at’em balls but, they are also hitting the balls in play much harder. The Rays are making a concerted effort to hit off the fastball earlier in counts thanks to a change in approach by hitting coach Derek Shelton. Due to the changed approach, the Rays put 35 more balls in play during the 6-1 streak than they did during the 1-6 streak (and also lowered their strikeout total by 15…15! That is five innings worth of Ks they dumped in 8 games.). While some of the increased offense is due to luck, some of it is due to created luck. So, I think we can safely believe that the Rays have overcome some of the non-luck reasons for their bad start.
Also, Rays pitching has been great during the 6-1 start (allowing an ERA of just 2.21) but it didn’t necessarily have to be as great as it has been. During the 1-6 start, Rays pitching allowed an average of 4.25 runs per game. If they had continued to perform at that rate during the 6-1 stretch (instead of totally dominating) the Rays would still have won or had a good opportunity to win 5 of the 8 games. That means, when the Rays’ pitching staff comes back to earth — a virtual certainty because they are definitely getting some good hops lately — the revived Rays’ offense is still good enough to win most nights.
All of this seems to confirm that the Rays look a lot like the team we expected them to be in Spring Training. They are going to be really really good when their pitching staff is really really good. They are going to be pretty above average when their pitching staff isn’t really really good. But, they aren’t likely to be that 1-6 team again anytime soon.