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The First-Place Rays Are the Epitome of Modern Baseball

Tampa Bay's scorching May has them sitting atop the MLB standings. Just don't check the rest of the numbers.

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The Rays are not atop baseball’s leader boards for either offense (fourth in baseball by OPS+) or pitching (12th in ERA+). None of their individual players stands out as likely award candidates. As a group, they are not leaders in other major statistical categories, either; they’re neither proficient sluggers at the plate nor are they strikeout artists on the mound.

But Tampa Bay boast the best record in baseball.

With their 3–1 victory over the Yankees on Monday, they have now won 16 of their last 17, taking them from a .500 record in mid-May to a solid perch atop the American League by the start of June. Which might reasonably have you asking … how?

If you feel like you’ve seen this question before—well, if you’ve ever read much at all about the Rays, you probably have. Despite its terminally low payroll, this front office has once again put together a club whose success is rooted not so much in the strength of its individual pieces, but in the way that it all fits together. Take two parts creative roster construction, one part strategy, and one part luck, and fiddle with the precise ratios until you achieve the desired outcome. It’s a playbook that is likely familiar by now: There were similar points to make about the 2020 Rays, who went to the World Series, or the 2019 Rays, who jumped out to a hot start, or about almost every successful variation of this team that has existed in the last decade and a half.

Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays are unlikely to keep playing quite like this. Still, in one capacity or another, they’re likely to be worth paying attention to for weeks to come. And while they’re not statistical leaders in the categories that you might expect from a best-in-baseball squad, they certainly do stand out in some areas, and those can tell us quite a bit about Tampa Bay—and about baseball as a whole right now.

The Rays’ Approach at the Plate: Three-True-Outcomes Percentage and Strikeout Rate

Perhaps you are tired of hearing about how little the ball has been put in play this year across the league—the questions about whether baseball has a batting average problem, a strikeout problem, an entertainment problem.

If so, back away from the conversation about the Rays, because you’ll find a lot of those questions here. Tampa Bay leads baseball in three-true-outcomes percentage—the proportion of its plate appearances that are home runs, walks or strikeouts. More than 40% of their PAs end in one of those three events. If they finish the season like this, they’ll set a record, becoming the only team ever to put the ball in play so infrequently during a full season. (“Full” season, because there is one other team that’s done this, and it’s none other than the 2020 Rays, who posted a 41.2% three-true-outcomes percentage during the 60-game pandemic season.)

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Their spot on that leader board is not driven by homers or walks. (They’re solidly in the top third of the league for each stat but do not come out on top.) Instead, it’s strikeouts where the Rays rule. Entering Monday, they had the lowest rate of contact in the strike zone, and they led the majors in raw strikeout total.

Which is perfectly fitting for what we see across the league right now. As you may have deduced from all the big-picture conversations about how infrequently the ball is being put in play, MLB currently has a three-true-outcomes percentage of 36.2%, an all-time high. That’s led by a record total not in home runs or walks but in (what else?) strikeouts.

Baseball has been trending in this direction for a while. The Rays have been helping to drive it, and now, they’re on the cutting edge.

The Structure of Their Pitching Staff

So maybe you’re not excited by a team whose hitters lead the league in strikeouts. Perfectly fair! Turn your attention instead to the Rays’ pitchers, who don’t stand out in many statistical categories but do stand out in, uh, pitches per start. (Look, we said they have the best record in baseball, not the most traditionally compelling record in baseball.)

The average Rays start lasts just 73 pitches, well below the league average of 84, which comes out to a typical start of fewer than five innings. Now, this number carries some important context—the fact that the team makes fairly regular use of an opener instead of a traditional starter notably drags down the length of its average start. But even in games with a starter, Rays manager Kevin Cash is often quick to go to his bullpen, which offers a deep selection of varying looks. (If you’re lucky enough not to be haunted by the “arm clock” graphic that Fox showed during last year’s World Series, displaying the variety of arm slots available in the bullpen for the Rays, know that some of the arms are different now, but the overall effect is the same.)

The length of the average league start has been dropping for the last few seasons. Tampa Bay is just the most extreme example in the most recent year: This, like three-true-outcomes percentage, is another statistic where the Rays are on the edge of a trend that’s obvious across MLB.

Monday’s win over the Yankees perfectly captured the Rays’ strategy for bullpen management. Starter Rich Hill cruised through five shutout innings with three hits—only to be yanked after just 56 pitches in favor of Michael Wacha, traditionally a starter, who is now settling in as a swingman in his first year with the Rays. The team rounded out the afternoon with work from Pete Fairbanks, Ryan Thompson, and new addition J.P. Feyereisen. The early hook for Hill was not indicative of any sort of problem, Cash said. He just wanted to show hitters “a different look.”

Which is all in a day’s work for the Rays—who boast not just baseball’s best record but also, perhaps, the best representation of the game’s modern form.

More MLB Coverage:

Baccellieri: The Year of the Pitcher (Again)
Verducci: Inside the Mets' Extraordinary Improvement on Defense
Martell: Don’t Praise the Rays for Not Spending
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