Unconventional Wisdom: The Rays Flip the Switch

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But there is such a thing as a baseball team that is less than the sum of its parts. This is a team that would be constructed less with an eye toward winning in the near-term, and more with an eye with stockpiling talent for the future. There are a couple ways to identify such a team. They probably have an excess of players at some positions, and a deficit at others. They probably do poorly at a couple of the little luxuries that good teams get right -- having a decent bullpen, for instance (nobody has much need for a closer if there are few wins to close out), or playing good defense (the effects of which are hard to quantify, and therefore, easy to short-cut).

Until this season, the Tampa Bay Rays had been such a team: the baseball equivalent of the L.A. Clippers. Consider a couple of the categories I just mentioned. In 2007 the Rays were an awful defensive team. In fact, they may have been the worst defensive team in baseball history. We've tracked each team's Defensive Efficiency Rating (DER) for each season since 1959; this is simply the frequency with which teams make outs on balls hit into play. The 2007 Tampa Bay Devil Rays had the lowest DER in our entire database, making outs on just 66.2 percent of balls hit into play. And little wonder why. For long parts of the season they had a left-fielder (Delmon Young) playing center field, a center-fielder (B.J. Upton) paying second base, and a second baseman (Brendan Harris) playing shortstop.

The bullpen? Tampa Bay relievers combined for a 6.16 ERA last season, which was also among the worst figures in baseball history. Having a bullpen that bad usually makes teams do crazy things, like deciding to pay $10 million for Eric Gagne, as the Brewers did this past offseason, or trading Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe for Heathcliff Slocumb, as the Mariners once did. But the Rays just stood there and let their relievers take one for their team's future.

Team balance? The Devil Rays had five players who had a legitimate argument for making the All-Star team last year: Upton, Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Scott Kazmir and James Shields. But they also had 28 distinct players who produced a negative VORP, collectively costing the Rays 157.9 runs below replacement level. Merely replacing those guys with passable alternatives -- never mind league-average players -- would have made a huge difference to them.

Put differently, the Rays had an awful lot of room to make additions by subtraction. The difficult part about baseball is supposed to be locking up blue-chip assets such as Upton and Kazmir at below market rate; The Rays had done plenty of that. But they hadn't really bothered to sweat the small stuff -- to dump some of their dead weight, to make sure they had guys who were up to the job defensively, or to tend to their bullpen.

Until this winter, that is, when the Rays decided to transform themselves from a sort of hedge fund for undervalued assets into a real, functional baseball club. The lynchpin move behind that transition was trading Delmon Young for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett. It is rare in baseball for a rebuilding team to give up the best young player in a deal. But the Rays were prepared to do just that. While Young has struggled this year, back in November he looked to most observers -- including in all likelihood the Rays themselves -- to be the best player in the deal. But the Rays knew that if they were going to turn things around, they needed another ready-now arm, and they knew that acquiring a veteran would be prohibitively expensive. So they made a calculated risk and traded for Garza. They also knew that they were getting Bartlett in the deal, who whether or not he hit anything (and he hasn't hit much this year) would provide a major defensive upgrade at shortstop, a position where the Rays' defenders were a combined 25 runs below league average last year according to our Prospectus Fielding Runs metric.

The Rays also decided to sign Troy Percival to a $4 million contract, their largest free-agent deal since the Fred McGriff /Wade Boggs era. Percival has not been especially outstanding this year -- in fact he has probably been only the third or fourth best reliever on his club. But for the Rays to take some pressure off their young arms, and to demote everyone else a notch such that some of the flammable arms at the back end of the bullpen would no longer have to play for them -- had the potential to be quite valuable.

PECOTA added all of this up, coupled it with the fact that the Rays' talent core was young and still on the upswing, and concluded that the club was liable to win somewhere between 88 and 90 ballgames in 2008. Not even the Rays themselves were entirely convinced by this forecast. The team executives I spoke with this winter expected -- or hoped -- to go .500 this year, perhaps making a serious run at the playoffs in 2009.

But a quick run through their offseason checklist reveals that sometimes the best-laid plans go even better than expected:

• Team Defense. The Rays have gone from having one of the worst defenses in baseball history to one of the best. In fact their Defensive Efficiency Rating of .720 ranks second in baseball, just a couple ticks behind the Oakland A's. This degree of improvement is literally without precedent. The Rays have improved their DER by 58 points this year, which is the largest year-over-year improvement that we've ever tracked (see table).

• Bullpen. This defensive gain has produced all sorts of subsidiary improvements as well. By making it easier for their pitchers to record outs, the Rays have reduced the amount of churn in their bullpen. Instead of requiring 3.0 relief pitchers per game, as they did last season, the Rays have cut that number to 2.6, and have been able to concentrate those innings among their better arms. Partly as a result of this the Rays have cut their bullpen ERA nearly in half. Instead of the 6.16 ERA their relievers gave them a year ago, this year their mark is 3.18. The key has been the realization that you don't need a lot of flamethrowers if you have guys behind you that can catch the ball. Rays relievers rank just seventh in the American League with 7.65 strikeouts per nine innings, but their .212 batting average allowed is the best in baseball. Percival -- and Dan Wheeler, who was acquired late last year for Ty Wigginton -- have been important parts of that, but the defense has made everyone look better.

• Addition by Subtraction. In contrast to last year the Rays have just six players who have compiled a negative VORP in any amount of playing time, and all but Bartlett have played sparingly. The combined negative VORP accumulated by those Rays has been just 12.8 this year, as opposed to their 157.9 figure from a year ago.

Is the Rays' success likely to continue in the second half? Odds are that it is. Certainly the Rays have had a couple of breakout performances -- take Dioner Navarro or Edwin Jackson or Evan Longoria -- but even these have come from young and talented players, to whom such things are supposed to happen occasionally. And by contrast, the Rays have had a couple of players who have underachieved. Pena and Crawford are both good bets to improve their numbers in the second half.

The whole point is that the improvements the Rays have made are structural. Yes, it is a lot of fun when you're a team like the White Sox, and you have guys like Carlos Quentin and John Danks who break out when nobody is quite expecting it. But you also have to hope those guys aren't first-half flukes; the Rays do not really have parallel concerns.

The handful of transactions the Rays made this winter were not by any means overly complicated; in retrospect, they almost seem obvious. But they were moves made by a team that had the self-confidence to look in the mirror and like what it saw. The Rays put aside the fact that they had never won more than 70 games in a season and recognized that, on a talent-for-talent basis, they had a 40-man roster that was the envy of many clubs in baseball. They recognized that guys like Longoria would be ready to start contributing immediately, and that it was not too soon to start competing.

These things are tougher than you might think, as honest self-assessment is elusive to many teams in baseball. The more commonly-seen problem is for a club to overrate the amount of talent it has, and either compromise its future for a team that needs a lot of help rather than a little (take this year's Mariners), or fail to improve on a roster that is due to regress to the mean (take this year's Rockies). But there are also teams that take too long to flip the switch and make a run at competing; the Rays turned things on at just the right time.