Rays Make Good, Ride Luck Into Playoffs
I’ve been pushing the Rays all year, and while the team made good on my faith with their playoff berth-clinching victory over the Twins on Saturday, they also confirmed my lingering suspicion that they wouldn’t actually arrive until 2009. While they currently sit in first place in the American League East with a 2.5-game lead over the Red Sox and while likely finish the season with the division title, the Rays’ run differential suggests that they are actually not quite as good as they’ve appeared this season.
Of course, a bit of luck is not only implicit, but necessary to win a pennant race. Last year, the Arizona Diamondbacks went all the way to the League Championship Series despite finishing the season with a negative run differential. In 2005, no one could have foreseen Jon Garland, Mark Buehrle, Jose Contreras and Freddy Garcia all putting up near-career years en route to the White Sox team ERA of 3.61. And who the hell knows how the California Anaheim Los Angeles Angels have been scoring any runs over the past six seasons? The point is that with any playoff team, a bit of luck is to be expected, and this season the Rays got it, and it is that degree of luck which enabled them to beat their expected won-loss total by five wins and clinch the first postseason appearance in franchise history.
Make no mistake, the Rays are a very good team. Their +98 run differential is good for second-best in the American League and third in all of baseball. Of the two teams that beat them this season, however, one of them happens to be lurking right behind them in the standings in the Boston Red Sox. The Sox have outscored their opponents by 156 runs this season, second only to the Cubs’ +180. It should be noted, however, that the Red Sox and Rays play in a division in which 80% of the teams have positive run differentials and winning records, where as the Cubs have been treated to 57 games against the Pirates, Reds and Astros this season, who have combined for a .471 winning percentage while being outscored by 256 runs. Luckily for the Rays, their luck has spread to bad luck for the Sox as well, as they have underperformed their expected won-loss total by two games – not quite a significant difference, but the same number of games that separate the two teams in the standings.
So, what went right for Tampa Bay this season that can’t be counted on in the future? First off, their primary relievers have been awesome, as Troy Percival, Dan Wheeler, J.P. Howell, Trever Miller and Grant Balfour have combined to strike out nearly a batter an inning this season. All of them except for Percival and Miller are pitching below their career ERA, with Balfour being the biggest surprise. The Australian right-hander entered 2008 having posting ERA’s of 4.15, 4.35 and 7.66 over his past three seasons, respectively. Additionally, they got a ton of production from their bench, which become wicked important with Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria each missing significant playing time. Eric Hinske and Bodymore, Murdaland’s own Gabe Gross have held down the corner outfield spots, combining for an OPS of around .835 against right-handed pitchers, while Willy Aybar and Ben Zobrist each hit right around the league average while seeing time at shortstop, second and third base. These are the kinds of variables that teams have to deal with each year, and the Rays have been lucky enough that things have worked out for them.
Recent history shows that teams often get comfortable after strong seasons and stick with their bench players and relievers, with the 2008 Rockies and 2007 White Sox serving as examples of teams that struggled after putting the same players on the field that had brought success in previous seasons. However, if they play their cards right, the Rays should have an easy time avoiding this problem, as their farm system is stocked with enough talent to keep them running for years without having to commit an ill-conceived multiyear deal to your Hinskes, Howells and Balfours. The Rays combined a lot of talent with a lot of luck in their drive to the postseason in 2008. In the coming years, however, they will be needing that luck less and less.