Not a bold prediction, particularly for a blog written by and for Rays fans. (in fact, as I pointed out yesterday, 8 of the 10 writers at ESPN.com picked the Rays and I suspect the other two — Buster Olney and Pedro Gomez — had a two martini lunch before picking.)
But, if you live in the Tampa Bay area and have been consuming the local media, you might actually think I am going out on a limb. Rays coverage has been obsessed with this club’s faults for months. To recap:
- The Rays don’t score enough runs;
- Joe Maddon is too unorthodox for the postseason; and
- James Shields can’t get anyone out.
The irony is, the Rays offense — which is the result of Joe Maddon’s managerial style — and pitching will carry them through to the ALCS. Wait. What?
The fact of the matter is, most of these “flaws” are overblown or misunderstood.
Take the Rays supposed offensive ineptness. Somehow, all the gripes about the Rays’ offensive performance ever mention that the team’s 802 runs scored was third in baseball behind New York and Boston. That is 15 more runs than the vaunted Texas offense mustered against weaker competition.
The Rays offense is misunderstood, of course, because it is unorthodox. The Rays hit a measly .249 as a group, and had just one regular hit above .300 (Carl Crawford .306). So. They scored runs, which, last I checked, is how games are decided. Right? How’d they do it? They got on base and, when they were on base, took extra bases to set up run-scoring opportunities.
The Rays offense that didn’t hit for a high-average still compiled a high on-base percentage by leading the Majors in walks. Once they got on base, they pressed the advantage utilizing their speed thanks to a Major League leading 170 stolen bases. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Rays also led the bigs with a +118 Baserunning Gain — a Bill James-devised metric that measures the ability to take an extra base on hits, outs and other plays. (The Rangers rank second at +66 bases — look at that again, the Rays were 52 bases better than everyone.).
This approach is particularly relevant against the Rangers who allowed 551 walks this season, T-5th in the AL and 8th in all of baseball. In fact, in the Rays’ four wins over the Rangers this summer, they drew 18 walks and stole 6 bases. In their two losses they drew just 6 walks and stole 2 bases. (The Rays also outscored Texas 40-31 in the 6-game season series, 33-16 in the four Rays wins).
The concerns over the Rays pitching staff, particularly James Shields, is also misplaced. There was serious, albeit inexplicable, outrage when Shields was named the Game 2 starter yesterday. Rob Neyer wrote a good piece last week on The Sweet Spot explaining the Shields has just been unlucky. Basically, too many fly balls have left the yard for Shields. But that is no reason to worry about his postseason start. His high-strikeout numbers make him a good fit for postseason success (8.3 K/9, more than any other time in his career) and his problem with the long ball, which seems to come late in his starts when he gets tired and falls in love with his fastball, won’t be a problem in the playoffs because Maddon will be ready to go to a well-rested bullpen, and the Real Estate firm of Benoit & Soriano (motto: Always Be Closing).
In the end, the Rays are going to win this series thanks in part to the same formula that won them 96 games in the rugged AL East. (Incidentally, is there any better adjective for a group of teams than “rugged?” I love it.) They are going to manufacture scoring opportunities through good baserunning, compile strikeouts, and then catch balls if they are hit.
ESPN’s Stats & Info ties up this argument better than me:
Albert Larcada of ESPN Stats & Info did statistical analysis of the last 10 postseasons, looking for the factors that most separate winning and losing teams. He found three — power hitting, front-end starting pitching, and the ability to turn batted balls into outs. Using his findings, he was able to make a projection.
For the Rangers-Rays matchup, Larcada’s system picks the Rays in four games. He gives the Rays a 56.6 percent chance to win the series.
Of course, after they win the series, we are sure to see a column from Joe Henderson or Gary Shelton puzzling over the way they did it.