Rays preview: Tampa Bay is the New Boston (w/o the $$$)

Last September, the Rays staged a miracle comeback versus the Yankees.  Down 7-0 in the 7th inning, Evan Longoria homered off Cory Wade to cap a six run 7th inning.  Dan Johnson, who was batting .108, then connected for a homerun in the 9th to tie it.  In the 12th, just as Boston blew a lead versus the Orioles, Longoria homered a second time off of Scott Proctor (0-3) to not only cap a dramatic, come-from-behind-win over the Yankees, but  to deny the Red Sox a playoff berth.

The Yankees all but underhand-pitched to the Rays batters that night, opting to rest their starters in anticipation of the ALDS, but the local media (an umbrella term that for me includes everything from the reputable Tampa Bay Times to what passes for “sports-talk radio” in Tampa Bay) went nuts nevertheless – and why not?  If you are a Rays fan, you’ve finally got one thing over the Yankees and you’ve got yet another thing on the Red Sox (remember the 2008 ALCS?).  The Red Sox meanwhile, had blown a lead over the Orioles (excuse me…hard to type….laughing) and faced an impending ban on fried chicken, beer, and model airplane glue for the 2012 season.

Many in the national baseball punditariat saw this as a magical night, a statistical anomaly, a “special” event that will be remembered across the ages. But the Rays are an amazing team and have elevated odds-defying performances to an art form.  Below is a list of Five Baseball Myths that the Rays have thus far Exposed:

  1. Small market teams can’t compete (especially in the AL East).
  2. Teams with sub .250 team batting averages can’t make the playoffs.
  3. Constant noise from the owners about moving to another city distracts a team from winning.
  4. Managers don’t win games, players win games.
  5. National Baseball Analysts are NOT distracted by pretty, shiny, expensive things.

 Beginning at the top:

Small Market Teams Can’t Compete (especially in the AL East):

The Rays’ payroll was the second lowest in baseball last year at just over $41 million.  This year, it is the sixth-lowest, at just over $64 million.  The payroll discrepancy would be bad in any division, but it is especially so in the AL East where the Yankees are attempting to pare down payroll to $189 million and, after their 2010 spending spree, the Red Sox have the third-highest pay-roll ($173 million) in 2012.

Attendance at “the Trop” was only 1.5 million in 2011, while the average per-game home attendance was the second-lowest in the league at 18,878.  Only Oakland fared worse last year.  They were the sixth-worst in terms of visiting-team attendance for 2011 though they averaged 10,000 more fans on the road than at home.  In 2010, the Rays amassed their first winning record on the road, and in 2011 they won nearly as many games at home as on the road (47-34, and 44 and 37 respectively).

Yet, since 2008, they’ve got two American League East titles, three playoff-berths, and one American League Pennant (2008).  Their record versus the Yankees since 2008 is 33-39 while in that same time, they’ve dominated the Red Sox 42-30.  They’ve accomplished this with an average salary in 2011 of $1.6 million per player (compared to the Yankees $6.7 million and the Red Sox $5.9 million –heck, even the Orioles pay their players $3.2 million!)  Compare that with Boston’s record since 2008; two wild card playoff berths and two divisional round exits, and two years of extra rest, one coming on the heels of the most colossal meltdown in baseball history.

Teams with sub .250 team batting averages can’t make the playoffs:

The Rays batted .244 last year, won 91 games, and won a wild card berth in 2011.  They were ousted by the Rangers in the ALDS, but that is excusable since they lost to the eventual AL pennant winners (the Yankees, meanwhile, with the fourth-best offense in the major leagues, were ousted by the team that lost to the Rangers).  The Rays scored 4.36 runs per game (15th in the league) but gave up only 3.79 runs per game (5th in the majors).

Before you misapply Moneyball principles to the Rays’ formula for success, this is not a team comprised of misfit toys.  Rather, they do an outstanding job of controlling their prospects and keying in on match-ups.  Consider that the Rays have one of the two or three best farm systems (if the emphasis is placed upon ceiling over probability) in major league baseball.  Because their payroll is so low, they have to ‘hit’ on their draft picks with greater efficiency than, say, the Yankees (and they do!).  Since the Stuart Sternberg-Joe Maddon revolution in 2005, they have selected Evan Longoria (rookie of the year in 2008), David Price, and traded Delmon Young trade for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett.  They signed Evan Longoria (arguably the best third-baseman in baseball) to a nine-year, $17.5 million (guaranteed) contract, which after options, could amount to $44 million over its lifespan.  In this past off season, Carlos Pena’s career was all but done, until the Rays resigned him (after having released him after the 2010 season and after the Yankees passed on him).

Young players love playing for Maddon.  He keeps them loose, he introduces them slowly and puts them in situations that enhance their strengths.  When Carl Crawford took the money and left Tampa Bay for Boston in 2011, his poor performance probably had as much to do with the change in management styles as it did to the lack of clarity for his role in the lineup – a situation that Joe Maddon would never have allowed to fester.

And this is a team designed to offer Evil Genius, err, Manager Joe Maddon flexibility when constructing a line-up , which he changes with the frightening-suddenness of a west-central Florida thunderstorm.  Consider the Rays’ come-from-behind victory versus the Y ankees – why was Dan Johnson (hitting an anemic .103) even in a Rays uniform, let alone actually pinch-hitting last September 29?

Ans:  Match-ups.   Dan Johnson has a knack for coming up with big hits in big games, as he did in 2008, rushing to Fenway Park from the minors, to clobber a  Jonathan Papelbon pitch over the Green Monster.  For example, tonight (as I write this after the Rays experienced déjà vu all over again to start 2012 as they ended 2011), Carlos Pena was slated sixth in the line up – he’s a career .239 hitter, with 258 homeruns and 1292 strikeouts over 11 years and what’s more, he struggles mightily against left-handed pitching.  Even more mind-boggling, he is 4 for 35 against Sabathia lifetime with 19 strikeouts!  It was almost as if Girardi were baited into walking Sean Rodriguez to load the bases in the first inning.  And then batting him sixth increased the odds that we’d see his bat more often during the game, and of course, he hit a walk-off single to end the game off the greatest closer in baseball history.

This is exactly the opposite of what the Yankees do.  Girardi usually manages very conservatively. The Yankees’ farm system is improving, but historically, they prefer to acquire established players rather than develop their own (the “Core Four” being a notable exception).  In other words, the Rays opt to control players through their ascendancy, whereas the Yankees acquire players through trades and free agency, thus controlling them through their decline.

Constant Noise from the owners about moving to another city distracts a team from winning:

Stuart Sternberg waited all of ten minutes after the Rays were ousted from the ALDS in 2011 by the Rangers to unload to the Tampa Tribune about the poor attendance at “the Trop”:

““I know we can’t sustain ourselves like this. It hasn’t gotten better. If anything, it’s worse.  To run a payroll like we do now, basically the second-lowest in baseball, and barely keep our nose above water, we can’t sustain that.  Baseball is just not going to stand for it anymore.  And they’ll find a place for me. They won’t find a place here though.”

He has kind of, sort of, got a really, really, really good point.  Attendance statistics are cited earlier in this article, so here’s an anecdote.   On the eve of their last home stand against the division rival Orioles and, on the verge of clinching only their second AL East title in 2010, Evan Longoria, tired of hearing crickets chirping at “the Trop” on game nights, called the lack of fan support “embarrassing”.   In order to accommodate their superstar, overwhelm the sound of cricket-chirping, and mend community relations after the comment, the Rays proceeded to give away 20,000 tickets – that’s right they GAVE AWAY 20,000 TICKETS to a major league baseball game!  As in, FREE!  By way of contrast, I once was mistakenly given an extra quarter in change after I bought a Coke at Yankee Stadium back in 1994.  I still have it.

The AM sports talk shows will recycle this topic (relocation) every so often.  Fans will phone in and vent. Conspiracy theories will air, and when all is said and done, there aren’t any other options.  It’s unlikely that Asheville, Las Vegas, or Jacksonville will provide more consistent attendance.  The Yankees, Red Sox and Mets will probably not allow an MLB franchise in Connecticut.  But, the real issue is that the Sternberg group wants a new stadium, replete with luxury boxes and the attendant corporate sponsorship.  “The Trop” was hastily constructed in the mid-1980s to attract a franchise – not necessarily to make money (or to facilitate the playing of baseball, or to promote the unimpeded viewership of baseball, or for convenience of location … you get the picture).

BOLD PREDICTION ALERT: The Rays will not move from Tampa Bay.

EVEN BOLDER PREDICTION ALERT: Evan Longoria and Stuart Sternberg will continue to be disappointed by lousy fan attendance through at least 2027.

Managers Don’t Win Games, Players Win Games:

Yes they do, especially when they can figure out how to win 91 games and make the playoffs while their team bats  .244, have their five-hitter (Manny Ramirez) retire from baseball after testing for PEDs, stitch together a bullpen, and begin the season with a closer-by-committee .  I rarely agree with the Manager of the Year selections each year, primarily because the Yankees have to win 114 games to even be considered.  It’s hard, though, to disagree with Joe Maddon’s selection as AL MoY in 2011.

National Baseball Analysts are not Distracted by Shiny, Pretty, Expensive things:

Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Ozzie Guillen, Jose Reyes, and Yu Darvish dominated national baseball chatter for most of the 2011 off season.  Recently, the questionable contracts of Matt Cain and Joey Votto have provided noteworthy distractions.  Everybody is picking the Yankees to win the AL East, the Tigers to win the Central, and either the Angels or Rangers to win the AL pennant.  You’ve probably heard national analysts crown the Angels or Phillies as World Series Champs for 2012, just as they crowned Boston last year.

The punditacracy, meanwhile, have missed what I predict will be among the biggest stories of 2012.  Desmond Jennings and Matt Moore.  Jennings got on base three times tonight, with two hits, one walk, and two runs.  Matt Moore was pulled up from AA Montgomery last year and started an ALDS playoff game against the Rangers in which he threw for 7 shut-out innings, with two hits and six strikeouts.  His fastball was clocked at 95mph and the Rays won.  How does Tampa Bay continue to fly under the radar?

The New York – Boston rivalry is considered to be one of the most intense in sports.  This owes partly to the proximity of the two cities, partly between the “sports-hate” between the two fan bases, partly to the northeastern bias of sports media, and partly to the lucrative audiences that each team affords advertisers.  But the long brush stroke of history shows this not to be much of a rivalry at all since the end of World War I (2004 being the lone exception).  Boston ended their “curse” in 2004, won a second world series in 2007, and may well surprise everyone and actually contend this year.  In other words, the rivalry really began in 2004.  If the chatter coming out of Boston is any indication, their problems may be more intense than fried chicken and beer in the dugouts.

Regardless, Tampa Bay has better pitching than Boston, a better manager, one of the youngest squads in baseball and one that routinely beats Boston.  They are becoming less and less intimidated by the Yankees.  Opening Day was no anomaly – the Rays believe they are going to win the AL East and return to the World Series.  Joe Girardi would do well to recognize the poker game he is continually being drawn into playing with Maddon, and Yankee pitchers need to understand the likely match-ups that they will face.  Meanwhile, Yankee fandom should embrace this new rivalry.  There’s some great baseball ahead.

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4 Responses to Rays preview: Tampa Bay is the New Boston (w/o the $$$)

  1. Gonzalo says:

    OMG I really don't understand Girardi. It's just the second game and Nuñez is already playing SS he is going to be a defensive headache all season. Rapada is 100% against lefties, If he didnt work against Peña you have to change him.
    Only 2 games and very bad decitions in both games

    • map2history says:

      I want to believe that Girardi is using the early part of the season to experiment, whereas Maddon seems to be in late-season form. He can't employ the shift all season, but, who knows with him. If so, that bodes well for us as the season progresses. But I never would have put CC in a position where he had to pitch to Carlos Pena – you have to keep that guy guessing.

  2. George says:

    This is a great article by a closet Rays fan. This guy is like the gay student community at BYU….Just come out of the closet.

    • Bullshark says:

      Just looks like an in depth article on an AL East foe; probably the one to race in September. The Rays are a suprising, intriguing team in many ways. They are essentially brand new, they are not located in anything nearly close to a baseball town, they play in sub par confines without decent crowds. Their payroll (lack off) is a fraction of other teams. Oddly enough, the Rays will be in the thick of it in September. They are probably the wild card team.