The Tampa Bay Rays, five-game losing streak or no, may be the best team in baseball. They have a terrific pitching staff, a strong defense and, not least, rank third in the majors in runs scored. Which leaves an onlooker wondering why exactly they've been on the wrong end of so many brilliant pitching performances this year.
Sunday, Toronto's Brandon Morrow pitched a game that rated, by Bill James' Game Score metric, as one of the seven best in the last 30 years: Seventeen strikeouts, two walks, and one hit off the bat of Evan Longoria, that coming with two outs in the ninth. It was the worst thrashing the Rays have had this year, but nothing near the first. Oakland's Dallas Braden pitched a perfect game against them in May, Detroit's Edwin Jackson no-hit them in June, and four other pitchers before Morrow came close to lining blanks against Joe Maddon's men.
The Rays have, in fact, been held to two or fewer hits seven times in 2010. That's as many as any two teams save the San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners combined. As with any statistical anomaly, one is tempted to say that this is random chance, but the legitimate question remains: Are the Rays unusually prone to the no-hitter?
Cautiously, hesitantly, one can say "yes." A lot of this is bad luck. But probably not all of it.
First, look at the pitchers who have shut them down: Braden, Jackson, Morrow, Cleveland's Fausto Carmona, Boston's Jon Lester, Arizona's Rodrigo Lopez and the Yankees' CC Sabathia. That's an impressive lot of pitchers -- Lester and Sabathia are among the best in the game, while even such lesser lights as Jackson and Lopez have famously nasty stuff -- but as a group they have actually not had an especially impressive 2010.
In the aggregate, these seven pitchers have run up a 4.22 ERA this year, allowing 8.7 hits per nine while striking out 7.1 The league averages in these categories are, respectively, 4.18, 8.9 and 6.8. Nothing in particular would make you think them more likely than anyone else to throw, or come near throwing, a no-hitter.
If not the pitching, there are two candidates for a cause of the no-hit spate: The hitters, and their environment. On both counts, we find some real reason to think this is no accident.
Tampa Bay's hitters are good, but they have a flaw: They are, essentially, a take-and-rake lineup. The team rates fifth in the American League in on-base percentage, but fourth from the bottom in batting average. They lead the league in both walks and strikeouts as a percentage of plate appearances, and are fourth-worst in both groundball-to-flyball ratio and line drive percentage. Basically they draw walks, hit for extra bases and otherwise beat the ball into he ground, which is essentially what you would be looking for in a team especially liable to being dominated on a given afternoon.
Additionally, their home park is possibly the worst in baseball for the base hit. Tropicana Field has reduced base hits by about 11 percent compared to an average park this year; the Rays and their opponents have hit .256 away from Tampa Bay this year, but just .238 at the Trop. The only worse park for the base hit in the majors has been the Oakland Coliseum.
Perhaps not coincidentally, five of the seven games in question here have been played in one of those two parks, four coming in Tampa Bay while the fifth, Braden's perfecto, came in Oakland. Cleveland's Progressive Field, where Carmona pitched his gem, is the 11th worst park in the majors for base hits. Only Toronto's Rogers Centre, where Morrow exhibited his brilliance, rates above the average as a base hit park.
There are no dire implications for the Rays here, it should be noted. Whatever one can tease out of the numbers, the most significant cause of all this really is probably bad luck. Even if the opposite were the case, none of their prospective playoff opponents play in a yard especially hard on contact hitting, and all have lineups built along the lines of the Rays', so that they would probably be just as likely to run up a low-hit game at the Trop as the Rays would be.
Still, all else being equal, the Rays could probably use a hitter like Ichiro Suzuki than they could one like resembles Adam Dunn -- something their sharp front office will likely note this winter. And don't be at all surprised if they're blanked a third time this year; that's what happens when a lineup like theirs is asked to play in a place like the Trop. The upside? This is a team that drew, in the Jackson game, eight walks without reaching base once by base hit. A club that can generate enough offense to stay competitive in a no-hitter is a club that can go places. They may be a bit more susceptible than anyone else to a bona fide pitching gem; the Rays are still at least as likely as any other team is to win.