2008 Rays v2.0

Sustainable win production is often the hot topic for baseball writers once May hits (I will be guilty of such a charge with the conclusion of this article). Cleveland, Kansas City and Pittsburgh have so far exceeded pre-season expectations. Can they keep it up? That’s the million dollar question. We’ve seen teams flop after a great start—though sometimes these surprise teams are contenders through the full season. Last year, the Padres. A few years back, the Rays.

Ah, the Rays…

Although the Padres did only lose the NL West by one game, the Rays beat out the tough guys in the AL East on their way to their first World Series appearance in 2008. We’ve all heard the story. Teams who are consistently known as bottom feeders look up to the 2008 Rays; theirs was a transformation likely never to be repeated. But who knows, right? The hammer of Thor could strike again…

That’s another question: are any of the surprise 2011 teams comparable to the 2008 Rays? They all have similar backgrounds. Royals and Pirates fans know the pain they’ve suffered through for the past decade-plus. They’ve carried hope with each high draft pick, only to be disappointed by the likes of Bryan Bullington or Kyle Snyder. Instead of drafting high-caliber talent, the Indians have accumulated major league pieces through various trades and international scouting.

Comparing records

Prior season:

Year	Team	W-L	W-L%	RS	RA	PythW-L%
2007 	TBR	66-96	.407	782	944	.415
2010 	CLE	69-93	.426	646	752	.431
2010 	KCR	67-95	.414	676	845	.399
2010 	PIT	57-105	.352	587	866	.329

Standings on the morning of May 1:

Year	Team	W-L	W-L%	RS	RA	PythW-L%
2008 	TBR 	15-12 	.566	130	109	.580 
2011 	CLE	18-8 	.692	141	95	.673
2011 	KCR	14-13	.519	135	134	.503
2011 	PIT	12-15	.444	91	115	.395

For the prior seasons, although all four teams had similar records (and similar Pythagoras records), the way they got there looks a bit different. The Rays offense in 2007 was better than any other by more than 100 runs, but defense and pitching allowed more runs than anyone else on this list. Goes to show how a team’s run differential can be an important piece to the puzzle. The Rays needed to improve their run differential by minimizing runs allowed, while the other three were far less capable on offense (but would also need to improve their pitching/fielding—an all around makeover).

For the first month of 2011, the Indians and Royals have scored more runs than the Rays did back in 2008. The Indians are allowing runs at a lower clip than the Rays did, while the Royals have not been so successful. And while Pythagoras suggests the Pirates should not even be considered as a comp to the Rays, they still have plenty of bright spots on their roster.

Now that we’ve seen the records, let’s try to dive deeper, as Pythagoras won’t tell us how the teams will develop going forward.

Offense

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It’s evident each team’s offensive production comes from different parts of the order (which seems normal, as the quality of hitting at each position can and will vary). As suggested by the prior season’s runs scored, the Rays’ team wOBA is higher than the others. You can also see that most of its specific position components performed at a higher level than the 2010 teams.

Looking at the April graph, the Rays’ group of hitters did not perform at the level seen by Kansas City or Cleveland this year. Grady Sizemore‘s healthy comeback has jumped Cleveland’s CF-wOBA by more than a hundred basis points. A big scoop of Travis Hafner, a hot start from Asdrubal Cabrera and Jack Hannahan (!) are also big reasons for Cleveland’s better than average (by wOBA) offense.

As for the Royals, they’ve been led by their DH superstar Billy Butler and corner outfielders. Yes, Jeff Francoeur and Alex Gordon. It’s unsure (and quite unlikely) the two are playing at a sustainable level (Frenchy more so than Gordon), but Royals fans can only hope. The replacement of Kila Ka’aihue with Eric Hosmer could prove to be a huge success (albeit a long term financial nightmare by granting Hosmer’s Super two status). He could be the Royals’ version of Evan Longoria.

Pittsburgh, on the other hand, has not been able to produce as well with its lineup. They rank third or fourth in almost every position comparison. Their biggest issue last year was scoring runs, and it seem evident that not much has changed so far. But they have been beating their Pythagoras record (whatever that means in terms of skill).

Pitching and Fielding

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The 2007 Devil Rays had two up and coming pitchers in Scott Kazmir and James Shields. It seemed pretty safe the duo would continue to develop into 2008. Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine were young kids who would take a leap in development in 2008. The addition of Matt Garza also proved to be a huge success (and risk, when you think about the fact the Rays traded away former number one draft pick Delmon Young).

With this rotation in mind, the only comparable pitching staff from this year might be the Indians’. Fausto Carmona and Justin Masterson, ground ball specialists, have so far been Cleveland’s best duo since Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia. But after that, their rotation doesn’t have much experience, so far relying on Josh Tomlin, Alex White and Carlos Carrasco. Not saying they can’t have leap seasons (as seen from the young 2008 Rays rotation), but expecting huge seasons would be foolish. But, in April, and in terms of FIP, their starters have performed at a higher level than the 2008 Rays.

For the Royals and Pirates, I find it troubling their number one starters would have trouble finding a rotation spot on other teams. There’s just no real standout ace. If the Royals or the Pirates are really serious about contending (or to even to play to their potential), they would likely need to add to their currently thin rotations. Calling up their hot shot prospects would obviously help, but the effects on their long-term financial situation and the ease of maturation for their young prospects seems to be their main concern.

In Jonah Keri’s latest book, The Extra 2%, we learn that one of Andrew Friedman’s main issues with his 2007 team was it’s fielding. He attempted to fix things by trading Brendan Harris for Jason Bartlett or essentially replacing Ty Wigginton with Evan Longoria. If you believe UZR, the team’s fielding prowess skyrocketed—from a second-to-last-place ranking in 2007 to the top of the list (almost identical to their winning percentage jump). Other defensive metrics, such as Total Zone, agree with the drastic improvement.

For the Indians, Royals and Pirates, all three ranked at the bottom of most defensive metrics last year. And while it’s way to early to find any meaning behind UZR numbers, so far this season an improved defense could go a long way in improving these teams’ run differential.

Conclusions

It wouldn’t be fair to suggest—since a team’s make up is similar to a previous “worst to first” team—they will likely succeed as well. The point of this exercise was to see which components of this years’ surprise clubs have been at the root of their successes, and how these rising clubs compare to Tampa’s dream season.

I find it interesting that the Royals have the most similar path to the Rays. By stocking up with young talent, they evidently have a bright future. Whether that is to be seen this year is unlikely, as the front office most likely will not bring up all their talent from Omaha come June first. There is no doubt they are playing extremely well so far, however, and that might be the main push to bring up others to join Hosmer as a Royal rookie. Even then, it’s hard to imagine a team can be carried on the shoulders of more than two starting rookies. The Pirates are in the same boat, but with less talent in their minor league system.

The Indians seem to have the most compelling case, though. Adding Grady Sizemore back into the lineup is the obvious catalyst. Their pitching and fielding has so far handled the American League fairly well (they ranked sixth in runs allowed in April). But I think their season hinges more on the development of their young pitching than it does on their hitters. I don’t think anyone is convinced Jack Hannahan or Asdrubal Cabrera can keep on their current pace.

But let’s not get carried away here. The 2008 Rays were definitely the extreme case of bottom-dweller to league-champion. Another team accomplishing the same thing only three years later… as Han Solo suggests, never tell ‘em the odds.

References & Resources
Team record information came from Baseball Reference. wOBA and FIP data came from Fangraphs.

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Comments

  1. Chris said...

    If you’re going to compare teams across seasons, shouldn’t league offensive levels be part of the conversation?

    The 2007 and 2008 Rays played in substantially higher offensive environments than the 2010 and 2011 squads, so comparing raw wOBA or FIP across seasons without scaling misses the relative strengths of each team.

    In particular, the 2007 Rays and 2010 Royals look like very similar teams once you adjust for offensive levels: worst pitching in the AL by a fair margin and a slightly below average offense.

    That said, I do agree that the 2011 Royals’ pitching staff is not comparable to the 2008 Rays’—although the current Royals do have a massively improved youth-infused bullpen, they don’t have anyone resembling a front-line starter on their current roster.

    The 2012 Royals, on the other hand, have as good a shot as anyone at being the 2008 Rays if the current edition does slide back in the standings this year while introducing Duffy, Montgomery, and possibly others to the rotation…

  2. jswede said...

    Cool piece.

    you say “I find it interesting that the Royals have the most similar path to the Rays”… and previous in the conversation you mention Cleveland built by international scouting and trading, as opposed to drafting (though the recent draft picks look great).

    perhaps also mention that KC and TB built their teams through draft picks accumulated by finishing in last place for 8-10 years,  while Cleveland last won 95+ games in 2007…  so yea, they had to build differently.

  3. Bob Rittner said...

    No, No, No, No.

    Ok, not exactly, but very misleading. There were 2 first round draft picks who played a significant role all year on the Rays 2008 squad. They were Upton and Longoria. Price did contribute down the stretch. I do not count Garza because although he came in a trade for first round pick Delmon Young, that was a more complicated trade which might not have happened without other pieces.

    Otherwise, the regulars and major contributors came via trade (Navarro, Bartlett, Zobrist, Garza, Jackson, Kazmir, Howell, Balfour, Wheeler, Aybar), free agency and “dumpster diving” signings (Iwamura, Pena, Foyd, Gross, Hinske) and later round draft choices (Shields, Crawford, Sonnanstine)

    In 2010, Price and Niemann were first round picks who contributed significantly along with Upton and Longoria, but much of the team, including many critical players such as Soriano, Benoit and Jaso as well as others with important roles such as Choate, Shoppach, Dan Johnson, Joyce, Wade Davis and Sean Rodriguez were acquired either in later rounds of the draft (Davis) or via trade or free agency.

    Of course, having major stars such as Price and Longoria was important, but to credit the Rays success primarily to high draft choices is inaccurate. In fact it probably closer to the truth to say that TB built its team via trades and smart signings supplemented by a few high draft picks.

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