Rays' slide threatens hold on playoff spot and there's plenty of blame to go around
Less than three weeks ago, the Rays were tied with the Red Sox for first place in the AL East and held a 94.3 percent chance of reaching the postseason according to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds report. Since then, they've posted the majors' worst record by losing 12 of 16, not only erasing their shot at a division title but throwing the wild-card race wide open. After losing to Boston 2-0 in Tampa Bay on Tuesday night, they now have four teams nipping at their heels, all within three games of their spot.
The Rays (now 78-65) are still the favorites, with a 63.5 percent chance of securing a postseason berth, but they have fallen all the way into the second wild-card slot, no small matter given their home/road splits (.620 winning percentage at Tropicana Field, .472 elsewhere). Furthermore, their slide has kept hope alive for the Indians (77-67, 1 1/2 games back, 23.9 percent entering play on Wednesday), Orioles (77-67, 1 1/2 games back, 11.5 percent), Yankees (77-68, two games back, 8.2 percent) and Royals (76-69, three games back, 3.1 percent).
A closer look at Tampa Bay shows that aside from May (18-10) and July (21-5), it has actually been a pretty forgettable ballclub, posting losing records in the other four months, with a combined 39-50 mark in April (12-14), June (13-5), August (11-15) and September (3-6). The team is just 14-21 since the July 31 trading deadline, with its disappearing offense bearing the brunt of the blame:
Though they're still getting on base at the same clip, the Rays have suffered a power outage and lost the stolen base as a weapon. Individually, regulars Wil Myers (.239/.328/.393), James Loney (.277/.347/.330) and Desmond Jennings (.183/.333/.254) have been the biggest culprits, and the team has gotten rather lightweight performances from its rotating casts of leftfielders (.231/.313/.342) and designated hitters (.218/298/.345), with part-timer Kelly Johnson (.207/.270/.276) implicated in both cases.
Loney's gradual erosion after his torrid start (.331/.392/.531 through May) and the second-half disappearance of primary DH Luke Scott (.274/.359/.479 in 220 PA before the All-Star break, .143/.234/.232 in 64 PA since) due to a lower back strain both point to general manager Andrew Friedman's failure to secure any offensive upgrades around the July 31 trading deadline. At that point, the market was filled with first base/DH types such as Raul Ibanez, Kendrys Morales, Justin Morneau and Michael Morse. Not that the asking prices from other clubs in return were necessarily reasonable, but Loney's long history of running hot and cold and Scott's ongoing vulnerability to injury (he hasn't played more than 96 games since 2010) should have made Friedman particularly wary of standing pat. While he did add a pair of bats in late August (Delmon Young and David DeJesus), their impact has been predictably minimal.
While the offense has fallen upon hard times, the team's pitching and defense have taken a hit, with its runs per game allowed rising from 3.97 through July to 4.20 since. Among the starters, only David Price (3.21 ERA and 47/7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 56 innings) and Alex Cobb (2.93 ERA in 30 2/3 innings) have ERAs below 4.46 while making more than two starts in that span. Chris Archer (4.46 ERA and 1.7 HR/9 in 42 1/3 innings) has cooled off considerably while Roberto Hernandezz (5.40 ERA in 25 innings) and Jeremy Hellickson (7.27 ERA in 26 innings) have pitched their way in and out of the rotation. The situation hasn't been helped by the loss of Matt Moore for five weeks due to elbow soreness. The good news for Tampa Bay is that he's back and has allowed just two runs in 11 2/3 innings over two September starts; the bad news is that he's walked seven in that span.
The Rays' bullpen was lousy in the season's first two months, but after pitching particularly effectively in June and July, it has regressed significantly:
Even beyond ERA, Rays relievers have allowed 42 percent of inherited runners to score since the beginning of August, up from 25 percent in June and July. Deadline acquisition Jesse Crain might have helped, but he hasn't pitched since June 29 due to shoulder soreness; the Rays acquired him from the White Sox believing he'd be ready before Sept. 1. He's strung together a couple of bullpen sessions in the past week and may soon progress to facing live hitters, but with no minor league rehab option available, he'll have to find his form at the major league level, and at best he may only be a factor for the final week of the season.
At this point, there isn't a whole lot for manager Joe Maddon to do except shuffle the deck and hope that some of his slumping players shake out of their funks, which I've admittedly identified by focusing on relatively small samples of 50 to 150 plate appearances and 25 to 50 innings. Maddon has moved Jennings out of the leadoff spot except against lefties, using DeJesus against righties, and he's inserted Scott back into the lineup for the first time since mid-August, though he's 0-for-5 with a walk in two games thus far. The Rays' schedule the rest of the way is no cakewalk. After two more games with the Red Sox at home, they travel to Minnesota for a three-game set, then play host to Texas and Baltimore before heading to New York and Toronto for their final six games. Via the Baseball-Reference.com Expanded Standings, their average opponent winning percentage the rest of the way is .517, lower than the Orioles (.538) but much higher than the Indians (.420),Yankees (.483) and Royals (.497). All of that is baked into the BP odds, which are still almost 2-1 in Tampa Bay's favor as far as getting to the wild-card game, but to strengthen its chances of moving beyond that, the team will need to right the ship as soon as possible.