It wasn’t so long ago in July, when the Tampa Bay Rays were sitting 10.5 games out of first place. They were a mire 47-45, slumping, and rumor had it that core players like James Shields and BJ Upton were on the trading block. GM Andrew Friedman, perhaps the finest GM in all of baseball, decided to hold onto his assets and see if the team had another 2nd half turnaround in it. Well, thanks to a red-hot Upton (.266/.316/.564, 14 HR, 37 RBI, 14 steals in 57 games) and the best pitching staff in baseball, the Tampa Bay Rays look like one of the most dangerous teams in the American League heading toward the end of the season.
Led by Cy Young contender David Price and veteran starter James Shields, Tampa Bay has posted a 2.42 ERA as a staff (Atlanta is 2nd best at 3.01), which has led to a 32-22 (.592 win %) 2nd half record. Price’s dominance has been a season long theme in St. Pete, and he may be having a career-best season at age-26. The right-hander has a 17-5 record with an AL-best 2.54 ERA (147 ERA+) while striking out 175 batters in 180.2 innings. Price frequently dials his fastball up between 94-97 miles per hour, and he has dominated batters all season long with his change-up and curveball.
Shields hasn’t been too shabby either this 2nd half. Friedman has to be absolutely giddy that he didn’t trade away his starting staff’s senior player. The right-hander has gone 6-1 with a 1.90 ERA and a .152 batting average against since the Trade Deadline (July 31st). He’s struck out 55 batters while only walking 8, and has 2 complete games over the time frame. Shields last start was his most dominant on the season. He devoured the highest scoring lineup in baseball, the Texas Rangers, going 9 innings while striking out 8 while giving up just 2 hits.
The rest of the current starting staff is all 25-or-under and each pitcher has the potential to be just as dominant. Jeremy Hellickson is the reigning AL Rookie of the Year and has proven his dominance from last year was no fluke. Hellickson is a master change-up artist who uses the pitch in nearly any count with great success. His 8-10 record underscores how he’s pitched this season, because in 151.1 innings he has a 3.33 ERA (112 ERA+) with just a .244 batting average against.
Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, and Chris Archer have made the rest of the starts down the stretch for this young, successful pitching staff. Moore in particular has had a very successful rookie campaign, getting stronger as the season goes on putting up a 2.44 ERA in the 2nd half after a 4.42 1st half ERA. That improvement is due, for the most part, to an improvement in command. In the 1st half he walked 50 batters in 99.2 innings. In his last 66.1 innings Moore has only walked 20 total batters as he starts to figure out how to command his naturally electric stuff.
The bullpen has also been lights out as well, posting a 2.78 ERA which is the 2nd lowest in baseball. Their led by Fernando Rodney, the arrow-shooting extraordinaire, who has an AL-best 42 saves. He’s been the American League’s answer to Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel as far as dominance at the back end of the bullpen is concerned. Rodney has a 0.69 ERA (545 ERA+) in 65.1 innings while striking out 66. He’s threatening to put up one of the most 10-15 dominant seasons by a relief pitcher of all time, he’s been THAT good. Wade Davis (2.21 ERA), Burke Badenhop (2.95 ERA), JP Howell (2.89 ERA), and Jake McGee (2.01 ERA) have all thrown more than 40 innings this season in relief and have pretty much ended games if Tampa can get the lead after the 6th inning.
Out of the 6 starting pitchers listed above, 5 are direct products of the Tampa Bay farm system. That speaks volumes about the quality of their scouting department to pick out hard-throwing, durable arms. the ability of their front office led by Andrew Friedman to draft these players, and the ability of their coaching staff at each level to develop these young pitchers. Only the Atlanta Braves have had this much consistency developing homegrown pitching talent in recent history, pumping out above average-to-elite arms year in and year out, and no team has been THIS good at it since the Braves of the 1990s.
If Tampa Bay can get any amount of offense they are a legitimate threat to not only make the playoffs, but to win the World Series. The team is 63-11 (.851 win %) in games when they score 4 or more runs, which is tied for the best record in the league with Oakland. Tampa is also 9-6 against New York this season, and they are 6-6 against Baltimore, giving the team a good chance to win the head-to-head series against both of their AL East competitors. Their plus-85 run differential is the 3rd best in the American League as well, behind the struggling, wounded Yankees and 2-time AL Champion Rangers. If BJ Upton and Evan Longoria (145 OPS+, 11 HR, 40 RBI, in 53 games) can keep bashing the ball the lineup and Ben Zobrist can keep getting on-base, the Rays might have enough potency to do some real damage in the playoffs. With the best pitching staff, anything is possible.