One of the most commonly held notions going into the 2012-13 hot stove is that the Tampa Bay Rays, those gluttons of pitching, need to trade away at least one of their starters to pick up a nice middle-of-the-order type bat. A cursory look at Tampa’s stats from a year ago give credence to this idea.
Tampa Bay had the best team ERA in baseball. They piled up the most strikeouts in baseball. The Rays even had the lowest batting average against any staff in baseball. Basically general manager Andrew Friedman and company have stockpiled arms like the Americans and Soviets had during the Cold War. Meanwhile, the Rays offense struggled to produce even meager run totals, resembling something similar to the Eastern block of Europe during the 1950s, to stick with the Cold War theme. They struggled to hit consistently for power, they were abysmal at hitting for average, and in the run scoring department they ranked a meager 18th in baseball, trailing every one of their AL East rivals.
The solution appears to be simple on the surface. Trade a little bit of the enviable starting pitching depth for a little bit of premium offense. The Rays won’t miss one of their frontline starters too much with all their depth and with some more pop at the plate, a playoff appearance and maybe even a parade could be coming to St. Pete in a matter of no time. But it’s not that simple. The Rays could stand pat and decide to peruse the free agent market for offense, hoping to turn trash into treasure yet another time. And if they deal a pitcher, who goes, who stays, and what do they want in return?
Even though all 10 playoff spots have already been claimed this year, the last day of the season still has the potential for fireworks, particularly in the American League. There are plenty of important story lines floating around out there including: the American League West having a winner-take-all game out in Oakland, the AL East dogfight finally reaching a conclusion , and a Triple Crown coming into fruition, among other things. Let’s take a sneak peek at some of the more intriguing bits of news still left in the regular season.
“You’ve got to believe it. If we didn’t learn anything from last year you have to keep playing until you’re mathematically eliminated. In the meantime, believe that you can — and I do.” – Joe Maddon, commenting on his belief that the Rays can still make the playoffs
If any team in baseball history can pull of miracle finishes in back-to-back seasons it would have to be the Maddon-led Tampa Bay Rays. In 2011 the team sat 9 games back of a playoff spot on September 3rd before racing to a 16-8 finish to edge out the Red Sox and ride into the history books. Well, this year the Rays are vying to repeat history in what may turn out to be even more unlikely fashion. Tampa Bay is trying join the 1964 St. Louis Cardinals and the 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers as the only teams to make up a 6 game deficit in the standings with 14 or fewer games left. Led by a strong pitching staff, a finally healthy Evan Longoria, and a surging BJ Upton, the Rays have already cut the deficit in half. And thanks to a potentially favorable schedule the rest of the way, they have the chance to do much, much more.
For the past couple of seasons, Sports Illustrated’s excellent Tom Verducci has written a pre-season article concerning the “Year-After Effect”, which has since been named the Verducci Effect. This link, contains the 2012 version of Verducci’s list, which was published all the way back in mid-January. This type of thinking is especially important when we consider innings caps for young pitchers, as evidenced by the recent shut downs of Stephen Strasburg, Jeff Samardzija, and others.
Basically Verducci tries to highlight young pitchers who have seen a considerable increase in their workloads from one season to the next. It’s interesting research mostly because it attempts to spotlight at-risk pitchers, ones who may see a substantial increase in ERA at best, and ones who may become injured at worst.
The stretch drive in baseball has finally arrived. It’s September, which means that each and every Major League team has about 30 or so games to make one final push toward October. Some teams like Texas, New York, Detroit, Cincinnati and St. Louis were expected to be here, possessing teams that lived up to their early season potential. Other teams like Baltimore, Oakland, Pittsburgh, and Washington have surprised this year, finding themselves in a position to chase a playoff spot. Others (Boston and Philadelphia) have been far more disappointing in 2012 and won’t be participating in the October fun this year. With just one month left it’s a good time to survey the field of contenders to try to find the teams that have the best chance to make some noise come playoff time.
Yesterday Felix Hernandez threw the 23 perfect game in baseball history, dispatching the Tampa Bay Rays with a variety of perfectly located fastballs, earth-shattering sliders, and mind-bending curveballs. Watching him dispatch one Tampa Bay hitter after another was akin to watching Van Gogh paint his starry night or catching the Beatles during the recording of the White Album. King Felix turned one afternoon in Seattle, in front of his adoring court, into his personal thesis on pitching. Here’s just a few thoughts on what I saw: Continue reading
Reigning AL Rookie of the Year, Jeremy Hellickson, is showing his success from a year ago was no fluke, and is now looking like one of the top pitchers in the American League. Hellickson is 4-1 on the season with a 2.73 ERA in 56 innings pitched and has struck out 38 batters against only 19 walks. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that he has made 6 of his 9 starts against elite offenses that rank in the top-10 in baseball in runs scored. Let’s take a look at how Hellickson has been able to have success during the 2012 season.
Hellickson, in his 2nd big league season now, has never been a dominant strikeout pitcher, possessing a mediocre K rate and a below-average K/BB rate. The Rays righty uses 4 pitches a fastball, cutter, change-up, and curveball, all of which are above average, with none being spectacular. When Hellickson does get his strikeouts he primarily uses his 90-93 mph fastball and baffles batters with his change-up, which is his most effective pitch. He accumulates only 6 outs per every 9 innings pitched from strikeouts, so Hellickson has to find another way to get batters out. This is where his ability to generate ground balls and the positioning of the Rays defense come into play.
For the 2nd straight season the Rays righty has had one of the lowest BABIPs in baseball. BABIP stands for batting average on balls in play and the league average most seasons sits around .295. Last season Hellickson posted the lowest opponent’s BABIP in baseball at .223, which means that the average batter turned into a deadball-era hitter when the put the ball in play. And this year its been more of the same as he has limited AL hitters to a .247 BABIP, another 50 points below league average. Some around baseball assumed that Hellickson is just getting lucky but he shrugs that off as well saying “I hear it; it’s funny,” Hellickson said. “I thought that’s what we’re supposed to do, let them put it in play and get outs. So I don’t really understand that. When you have a great defense, why not let them do their job? I’m not really a strikeout pitcher; I just get weak contact and let our defense play.”
Hellickson’s strategy is one of the most intelligent in baseball and he has become the master at manipulating batters to hit into one of Tampa Bay’s many shifts. A year ago the Rays had the best defense in baseball, turning a league leading 72.4% of all balls in play into outs. Tampa also had the best fielding percentage in the league, and was rated highest in defensive runs saved as well. This trend has carried over in 2012 as well.
Tampa Bay’s defense hasn’t been great this season, and while its too early to look at defensive statistics due to small sample size, the Rays have committed the most errors in baseball, ranking in the middle of the pack in defensive efficiency. They do rate 3rd in baseball in defensive runs saved, and Joe Maddon’s shifts coupled with Hellickson’s pinpoint location can carve up opposing offenses, reducing hitters to meek ground outs and infield pop-ups.
A perfect example comes from his most recent win against the Boston Red Sox, when the shift took away multiple hits, including a couple from David Ortiz. Hellickson pounded Ortiz low and away repeatedly with his fastball and cutter, getting the Boston slugger to successfully roll over for groundouts into the overshift. The Rays young right-hander dominated most of the Red Sox lineup in a similar fashion, winning his May 16th outing 2-1.
Hellickson has also been able to up his ground ball rate so far this season. He currently generates ground balls on an excellent 40.3% of all batters he faces. This is a very important skill because ground balls are more easily turned into outs and far less likely to go for extra-base hits when they do get through the infield. This also allows Hellickson to keep his pitch count down and work deeper into games, because he can get hitters out earlier in at-bats, a tough skill for young, talented pitchers to master. This will pay dividends over the long season, and should keep Hellickson’s arm strong deep into September.
It should be no surprise that Jeremy Hellickson has been able to repeat his success from last season. Anyone who says that he is a lucky pitcher who only relies on his excellent defense to bail him out is missing the point. Instead of trying to get every hitter out himself, Hellickson allows batters to make weak or partial contact with the baseball, which generates easy outs, creating a very pleasing style of pitching to watch.