Take a look at Fangraphs’ Wins Above Replacement leader board for position players since 2010, you’ll notice plenty of familiar suspects among the top 10. There’s Miguel Cabrera sitting atop the pile, followed closely by Robinson Cano and Joey Votto. Andrew McCutchen and his long flowing locks sit in the middle, as do a pair of popular AL 3rd basemen. Baseball’s next legend Mike Trout sits near the bottom of the list of 10, despite having spent what equates to an entire season in the minors. Suspended slugger Ryan Braun rounds out the bottom of the group. Tucked in among those perennial All-Stars and highlight-making machines is one of the last guys you would ever suspect: Ben Zobrist.
The Rays’ super-utility All-Star has carved out a highly valuable, highly important role on Joe Maddon’s roster by acting as the franchise’s Swiss army knife. Do you need someone to cover 3rd base in order to give Evan Longoria a day off? Call on Zobrist. Do you need a right fielder until Wil Myers is good and ready for the big leagues? Zobrist. How about a middle infielder who can make all the plays? Zobrist, Zobrist, Zobrist. He affords Joe Maddon a level of flexibility that few other players in baseball history can match and he’s been doing it for years now.
The single most surprising performance from any player through the first 30-40 games of the Major League season has to be that of Rays’ 1st baseman James Loney. For the better part of the past 5 seasons, the former Red Sox and Dodgers’ 1st baseman has been a punchline to a bad joke. Loney’s offensive production at 1st base was severely lacking for the position’s standard and his power numbers were meager for any player, no matter his position. After being traded to the Red Sox last year’s mega-deal, Loney’s offensive game bottomed out. He hit just 2 homers in 30 games as a member of Boston and his .230 batting average left plenty of seats empty throughout Fenway Park. Entering free agency, Loney’s stock was at rock bottom.
Luckily for Mr. Loney, that’s when Andrew Freidman and the Tampa Bay Rays came calling. You see, the Rays have a habit of turning one team’s trash into their own treasure. They’ve been doing it since Joe Maddon was handed the big job on the bench and thanks to the Rays extra emphasis on defense, the slick fielding Loney seemed like a good fit. There was also the fact that Tampa Bay was not only able to offer Loney a contract worth $2 million dollars, but they could promise the 1st baseman something that could turn out to be infinitely more valuable: playing time.
Every single Major League team now has 30 games under their belts, which gives us enough data to start surveying the MLB landscape looking for surprises and disappointments. Fans in Boston, Kansas City, and Denver have to be thrilled with their respective teams hot starts.
However, for fans in other cities things haven’t been as bright. The Toronto Blue Jays were handed the AL East by most pundits before the season even began and they’ve fallen flat on their face out of the gate, carrying a 10-21 record that only the Houston Astros and Miami Marlins are envious of. Things are also starting to get dicey in Anaheim, where the Angels have once again stumbled in the early weeks of the season. Their supposedly vaunted offense has yet to earn its pay, thanks to its middle of the pack ranking in the AL in runs scored, and L.A.’s pitching staff minus Jered Weaver has been a disaster.
They’re not the only cities that are getting anxious about their ball club’s slow start either. Fans in Philadelphia were hoping that a once-great pitching staff led by Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Cliff Lee could rebound to carry the Phillies to the playoffs, but that hasn’t materialized thus far. The Dodgers were imagining themselves as the west coast Yankees with a budget to match. So far all that lavish spending has gotten them is 4th place and a struggling Matt Kemp.Even the handful of fans that attend Rays games have to feel a little nervous in the AL East watching their starting nine drop to 1-6 in games started by Cy Young winner David Price.
After carving the New York Yankees batting order up for 7 innings, Matt Moore figured that his night was probably over because he was already sitting at 105 total pitches. But Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon had other ideas, running his 23-year-old ace back out to the mound to face the Yankees in the 8th. Maddon’s faith was rewarded with a clinically dominant inning from Moore.
The left-hander shut that Yankees down 1-2-3, needing just 12 pitches to do so before yielding to the bullpen for the 9th inning. Moore finished the game with a beautiful stat line for a pitcher: 8 innings, 1 run allowed on just 2 hits, with 9 strikeouts to go against 3 walks. The only Yankee hitter that didn’t look completely overwhelmed at the plate was all-world 2nd baseman Robinson Cano, who had the Yankees 2 hits on the day.
Since the day he was hired as the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays back in December of 2005, Joe Maddon has preached an organizational philosophy that starts with pitching, strong defense, and aggressiveness on the base paths. The organization-wide changes took a couple of seasons to fully catch on, but by his 3rd season on the job the Rays were fully buying in to Maddon’s methods, particularly on defense. The 2008 Rays possessed the most efficient defense in baseball, turning balls put into play into outs at a 70.8% frequency, just one year after having the worst fielding team in baseball, ranking dead last in defensive efficiency at 65.2%. In terms of defensive runs saved, the 2008 Rays were credited by Baseball Info Solutions as being over 100 runs better on defense than they were in 2007. That kind of improvement led Tampa’s pitching staff to cut out 300 hits from their opponents, nearly 2 per game, and it produced the franchise’s first winning season ever. Those Rays would eventually fall to the Phillies in the 2008 World Series, but even in defeat Maddon’s principles had taken hold of the franchise.
Together with Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman, Tampa has been able to continue to excel on the defensive side of the ball since that pennant-winning season, frequently ranking among the top 5 in most team defensive statistics. But the 2012 edition was a little bit different. While the Rays were still one of baseball’s five most efficient teams in the field, it was more a product of a fantastic pitching staff and Maddon’s frequent shifting more than great team play in the field. The team actually led the AL in errors committed while ranking in the middle of the pack in most of the advanced range statistics. That kind of thing is bound to happen when you ask Hideki Matsui or Luke Scott to don a glove. The difference between having the 5th best defense and the first may not seem like a lot, but for a team on a limited budget with an even more limited offense, it may have been the difference between watching baseball in October and playing it.
Under Maddon’s leadership the Rays have made the playoffs three different times, and in each year they boasted one of the best defenses, by any metric, in baseball. Although last year’s unit was better than average on defense, they slipped in the rankings just a little bit, which may be driving Friedman’s pursuit of better glove men. The Rays front office has already acquired shortstop Yunel Escobar and 1st baseman James Loney to meet those needs, and they are hot on the trails of an outfielder. Both, Escobar and Loney, come with excellent reputations with the glove that are backed up by most advanced numbers, and they should thrive behind a brilliant pitching staff.
“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.
With the playoffs fast approaching, half of the teams in Major League Baseball are either looking at a playoff spot or still have fantasies of winning one. All that means is that we as fans have a smorgasbord of delicious games to watch between wanna-be playoff teams. Let’s take a look at the 3 best series of the weekend: