In lieu of an Under-The-Radar Highlight this morning, I’d like to discuss one of the most peculiar and unexpected happenings in all of baseball: the inadequacy of the Tampa Bay Rays.
On May 31, 2013, the Tampa Bay Rays were sitting at 30-25 and, though fourth in the AL East, just three games behind the division-leading Red Sox. The Rays would go on to finish the year 21 games over .500 at 92-71 (the extra game coming against the Rangers for the right to play in the postseason) and would defeat the Cleveland Indians in the first ever American League Wild Card game before losing in the ALDS to the Red Sox.
On May 31, 2014, the Tampa Bay Rays currently sit in the basement in the AL East at 23-33, 9.5 games behind the Toronto Blue Jays. Including last blowout loss to the now-hated Red Sox, the Rays have lost five consecutive games and are a season-worst 10 games below .500. They were tied with the Kansas City Royals for the worst record in the American League in May at 12-17 and don’t appear ready to make any sort of push towards the postseason.
What has happened to the Tampa Bay Rays?
On the offensive side of the ball, the Rays weren’t a huge threat last year and haven’t improved their hitting this year. In 2013, the Rays were 7th in the AL in batting average, 9th in home runs, and 9th in runs scored–an extremely average American League team. This season, the Rays have gotten worse. They are 11th in AVG, 12th in home runs, and 13th in runs.
Interestingly enough, the Rays have almost the same lineup this season than they did a year ago. Across the infield, in terms of most games started, the Rays have gone with a defensive lineup of James Loney at 1st, Ben Zobrist at 2nd, Evan Longoria at 3rd, and Yunel Escobar at SS. Each of these players has the most games started at their respective positions for the Rays in both 2013 and 2014.
Across the outfield, we see a nearly identical circumstance. In 2013, after Wil Myers was called up and pushed Matt Joyce to the bench, he started the most games in right, while Desmond Jennings manned center and Kelly Johnson was out in left. This season, while Myers and Jennings are still locked into their respective positions, Kelly Johnson is currently a New York Yankee. As a result, Joe Maddon decided to start Joyce in left field.
The only major difference in the lineup for the Rays this season has been at catcher and designated hitter. After Jose Molina and Jose Lobaton each worked a good portion of games behind the plate for the Rays last season, Ryan Hanigan was brought in to do the majority of the catching this year with Molina coming off the bench. Luke Scott was the most frequent designated hitter last season, but, after management chose not to resign Scott, David Dejesus has gotten the call this year.
With not much turnover offensively between last season and this season, it’s hard to fathom why the Rays have gone from middle-of-the-pack to bottom-of-the-league team in terms of hitting. This can be attributed to the Rays’ star players not performing like they did only a season ago. While Evan Longoria’s batting average has dipped only slightly, his power numbers are completely gone. After hitting 32 home runs last season, he has just 5 through the first two months of 2014. Reigning AL Rookie of the Year Wil Myers hit .293 with 13 homers in just 335 at-bats after his promotion in 2013. This season, he’s hitting a dismal .227 with only 5 dingers. In one of the most interesting stats I’ve seen all year, as of today, each of the six returning starters from last year’s team (not including Matt Joyce) has a lower batting average right now than they did last season.
While the Rays have been one of the worst hitting teams in baseball this year, the blame for their poor play in 2014 can’t be entirely attributed to the offense. In my opinion, it’s the inefficiency of the pitching staff that should get the bulk of the blame for the Rays’ 23-33 start.
Last year, both the Rays’ starting rotation and bullpen were in the top half of the American League in terms of ERA. The starters on the Rays last season had an ERA of 3.81, good for 3rd in the American League. The cumulative ERA for the Rays in 2013, 3.74, ranked 5th in the AL. The Ray’s pitching staff had the 3rd most strikeouts in the AL, the most shutouts, and the best batting average against.
This year, the Rays’ pitching staff has been a shell of how they performed last season. They are 9th in the American League in ERA at 4.12 and have a starters’ ERA of 4.26. While they are still striking out batters, nothing else has gone right for this staff. They are tied with the Rangers for the fewest quality starts in all of baseball and have allowed the 3rd most home runs in the AL.
Individually, much like the starting lineup, each player has failed to meet the expectations placed on them after their performances last season. Former Cy Young Award winner and 3x All-Star David Price has a 4.27 ERA and, although he’s struck out 90 hitters and walked just 9, has allowed the most hits and the fourth-most runs in all of baseball. Matt Moore went 17-4 last season and was one of the budding stars in the American League. Unfortunately, he went down with an elbow injury after making just two starts and has recently undergone Tommy John surgery. Two other 20+ game starters from last year’s team have returned this season, Alex Cobb and Chris Archer. After going 11-3 with a 2.76 ERA last year, Cobb missed more than a month earlier this year with a strained oblique and has made just 5 starts. Chris Archer, after throwing well enough for a 3.22 ERA last year (which helped him place 3rd in the AL Rookie of the Year voting), enters June with an ERA of 4.00, which is actually the best of any starter on the Rays. 24 year-old Jake Odorizzi has made 11 starts this year after making just 4 last year. While he a 10.77 K/9 IP ratio, he is 2-5 with a 5.13 ERA. With Jeremy Hellickson injured and Roberto Hernandez on the Phillies after pitching for the Rays’ last season, Joe Maddon has turned to Erik Bedard and Cesar Ramos to start some games, though this decision has been met with limited success.
In the bullpen, only three of the Rays’ most frequent relief pitchers last season returned to play in Tampa Bay this season. Last season, the Ray’s bullpen had a 3.59 ERA and the second-best batting average against in the American League.
This season, thanks to the inefficiency of the starting rotation, the Rays’ bullpen has thrown the most innings of any American League team and have a 4.05 ERA to show for it, nearly a half a run more per game than last year.
Clearly, the Tampa Bay Rays are not getting it done in any facet of the game. After a terrific regular season last year and not much turnover on the roster, one can’t help but wonder what happened. Why does each player seemed to be playing worse this year than last? Is there a chemistry problem? Have the players grown too complacent with Joe Maddon? We may never know why the Rays’ have played so poorly through the first third of 2014, but, if they don’t turn it around quickly, owner Stuart Sternberg will show us all the consequences of their performance awfully soon.