An informal, non-comprehensive review of the preseason predictions from some of the country’s major sports media outlets this spring revealed little belief in the Tampa Bay Rays as a playoff contender. In fact, when 122 baseball writers, editors and talking heads employed by Sports Illustrated, CBS, ESPN, Fox and MLB Network made their playoff predictions before Opening Day, exactly one of those astute baseball minds—SI's own Albert Chen—picked the Rays to make the playoffs.
Yet entering play this weekend, with more than one-third of the season gone by, Tampa Bay is 35-34 and leading the race for the AL's second wild-card spot. Just one year after losing 94 games and completing a third straight losing season, the Rays—along with first-place clubs Minnesota and Milwaukee—are one of the biggest surprises in baseball.
Much of the credit for thei turnaround belongs to an offense that ranks second in the majors in home runs, third in runs and third in OPS. They are also sixth in the majors in isolated slugging percentage, which measures a team's or player's ability to get extra base hits, at .189. Ask shortstop Tim Beckham how he would approach the Tampa Bay lineup if he were an opposing pitcher, and at first all he can do is laugh.
“I don’t know what to tell you, man,” Beckham said after gathering himself. “We have a lot of talent in our lineup, and a lot of athletic ability. You better attack us because we’re looking to attack you.”
Indeed, “attack” is the watchword for the Rays' offense. Through Tuesday they had swung at 48.2% of the pitches they’d seen this year, the third-highest rate in the league, trailing only Kansas City and Atlanta.
What makes Tampa Bay's resurgence so unlikely is that this is largely the same roster that was out of playoff contention by midsummer in 2016. The Rays are MLB’s ultimate make-good team, a collection of castoffs mashing their way into the playoff picture.
Consider Corey Dickerson. The 28-year-old DH/outfielder had plenty of success with the Rockies, but, even then, was considered a black hole against lefthanded pitching. When he hit .245/.293/.469 last season, his first with the Rays—aka his first away from Coors Field—he was largely written off as a product of Denver’s high altitude. Yet through 62 games, Dickerson is slashing .332/.369/.600 with 15 homers and 34 RBIs. He leads the AL with 88 hits and has been the engine at the top of the team's offense all season long. He has even lit up southpaws, hitting .342/.384/.544. Manager Kevin Cash gave Dickerson a chance to prove he’s more than a platoon player, and he has capitalized on that opportunity.
“In the past I’d play against [Dodgers ace Clayton] Kershaw, and then I wouldn’t play against two average lefties,” Dickerson said of his time with Colorado. “Then I’d face a [lefty] reliever, and I’d continue to face those relievers who are designed to strike me out. I never got to consistently start against lefties. This year, I’m getting consistent at-bats against lefties.”
Now consider Logan Morrison. Back in 2011, his first season breaking spring training with a major league team, he hit 23 homers and slugged .468 at 23 years old with the Marlins. Injuries limited him to 107 games or fewer in four of the next five seasons, two of which he spent in Seattle before joining the Rays last year. He has remained healthy for one of the longest stretches of his career this season, and that fact has translated to his bottom line. Morrison is second in the AL with 19 homers, he has driven in 44 runs and he has a .349 OBP to go along with his glittering .557 slugging percentage.
“Baseball is hard,” Morrison said. "Being able to get off on a strong note on Opening Day, and then being able to stay healthy has helped out."
Next, consider Tim Beckham. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 amateur draft, Beckham didn’t make his MLB debut until 2013 and didn’t have enough at-bats to graduate from rookie status until '15. Getting his first real shot at an everyday gig this year, he’s starting to realize his potential. The 27-year-old bounced all over the field previously, but is back at his natural shortstop position and is hitting .281/.320/.443 with 10 homers and 31 RBIs.
"Nothing as far as my approach has changed," Beckham said. "It’s just about getting those consistent reps and being comfortable in the everyday lineup."
Finally, consider Steven Souza. At the start of this year, the Rays were seen as the clear loser of the three-team deal from December 2014 that sent Trea Turner to Washington, Wil Myers to San Diego and Souza to Tampa. Now, the deal looks like the rare win-win-win. Souza owns a .374 OBP and a .485 slugging percentage and has belted out 12 homers and 11 doubles to go with 39 RBIs
That’s four regulars in the Rays lineup, all of whom were left for dead at various points of their career yet all of whom have made significant improvements. That’s how a team surges without changing any of its key personnel. The personnel changes itself.
“This is a really hungry group," Dickerson said. "Guys have a chip on their shoulder when they come to the ballpark. This game is about failure. It’s the toughest game there is. Somebody is always going to doubt you. You have to always know what type of player you are and what you’re capable of. This season is showing a bunch of resiliency in our guys. Every single one of these guys has continued to believe in one another and themselves.”
Dickerson also noted the impact of their hitting coach, Chad Mottola, who allows them to “be who we are as hitters.” That came through when he, along with Morrison and Beckham—all of whom are in the midst of career years—discussed what has been different for them at the plate this season.
“I have a two-strike approach that puts me in a good position to hit [in any count], I give that a lot of credit,” Dickerson said.
“I’ve been trying to hit the ball in the air more often,” Morrison said. I’m not fast so I’m not going to be beating anything out on the ground, so why hit it there? With my swing path, I’m able to let the barrel get out in front and get the ball in the air that way. It’s about allowing yourself to feel some freedom that you can feel like you can get the ball in the air on any pitch in the strike zone.”
While Beckham has hit for good power this year, he doesn’t have the same easy pop as Dickerson and Morrison. That has led him down a different path.
“We have different hitters that have different approaches in the batter’s box,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever talked about launch angle with another hitter on the team. I’m looking to backspin balls and be direct to the ball. I’m not a guy who’s going to plug in 40 homers a year. I’m looking to hit the ball hard. The home runs will come with trusting your approach and trusting hat you’re going to swing at good pitches.”
All of that is having a trickle-down effect throughout the lineup, best explained by Morrison.
“When people do attack me I’m making them pay, so now they don’t want to attack me. That has a lot to do with our lineup. The situation will dictate it sometimes. If there’s a righty on the mound, I’m probably not going to see a ton to hit, especially with runners in scoring position. Sometimes it works out for them, and sometimes it doesn’t. Whoever is behind me in the lineup, someone is making them pay.”
The Rays are doing the same to those who doubted them.