The team that made openers baseball’s hot new thing made a run at the playoffs with a blazing final act, but fell short of the playoffs thanks to the daunting win total non-AL Central teams needed to stretch the season into October.
The Tampa Bay Rays, newly shorn of the Devil in their name, were rightly one of baseball’s darlings from 2008 to 2013, winning 90 games in all but one season and making four playoff appearances, including one World Series. That’s no easy feat in a division with the Red Sox and Yankees, the baseball versions of Rich Uncle Pennybags from Monopoly come to life. If Tampa has an avatar, it’s more akin to Chris Farley’s plaid-jacketed motivational speaker who lives in a van down by the river.
The initial run of the Rays eventually lost steam, the team dragged down by some difficult realities they had to face. One of the biggest problems for the Rays was that the common notion that building a consistent winner will lead to increased attendance (which would in turn lead to larger revenues that could keep the team together), didn’t actually work in their case. Whether it’s the fault of the park or not, by the time of their final 90-win season, the team was welcoming barely 100,000 fans more to the Trop than they were in 2007, a 66-win slog and the team’s tenth consecutive losing season.
For a team payroll that has never even come close to nine digits to compete in the AL East, the Rays absolutely have to have an assembly line of prospects, a continual cycle of replacement of talent. The team has always shown a knack for trading or letting players depart before their collapses rather than after, but that isn’t enough by itself.
What failed the team was largely the amateur drafts, starting around 2008, not providing enough quality to replace the departures. Entering 2018, only a single player drafted by the Rays over the previous decade had established himself as an impact player in the majors, Kevin Kiermaier. Let’s put in this way: The Rays made 14 first-round picks from 2008 to 2017 and the second most-accomplished player after Tim Beckham of that group is likely Ryne Stanek or Mikie Mahtook. (I’m talking players taken in the first round proper; the Rays got Blake Snell as a supplementary pick.)
The virtuous cycle of rebuild-invest-push-repeat failed to work for the organization for whatever reason and without a steady flow of prospects, the fact that the Rays have only had one season in which they fell below 70 wins is a testament to the front office’s scrounging abilities. Running the Rays is a bit like being asked to turn straw into gold and oh yeah, you don’t actually have the budget to buy straw.
Trading Evan Longoria, Brad Boxberger, Steven Souza, Corey Dickerson, and Jake Odorizzi before the season didn’t do wonders for the team’s reputation among fans, either. It could rightly be argued that most of these moves made sense from a baseball perspective — almost all of these players were at the height of their value, with the obvious exception of Longoria — but the problem with always making the cheap move is that your fanbase will come to believe that even the good, cheap move was done purely for reasons of thrift.
Not helping the Rays coming into 2018 season was the revelation that every pitcher the Rays had, ever had, or ever will acquire, required Tommy John surgery before the season started. OK, that’s what they call a “lie,” but it felt a bit like the truth when Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon, both pitchers who the Rays hoped to count on, needed elbow surgery within just a couple weeks of each other.
While the projections didn’t adopt quite the same panicked tone many writers displayed regarding the team over the winter, I can hardly claim ZiPS was predicting greatness with a 76-86 projection and a 6% chance at making the playoffs. The computer felt that pretty much every player Tampa Bay traded would have a worse season than with the Rays, but also predicted that with the loss of Honeywell and De Leon, the pitching was stretched too thin, and it was hard to see the Rays improvising enough of a lineup to make up for these losses.
THE TAMPA BAY RAYS BROKE WINS ABOVE REPLACEMENT!
Sometimes things just need capital letters. If you made a movie about the 2018 Rays, it would be impossible to craft a trailer that didn’t heavily mention the “openers,” possibly with some hoary An Experiment So Crazy That It Just May Work cliché booming over Ryan Yarbrough striking out batters to an 80s rock anthem.
For those curiously still unaware of this concept, beginning with Sergio Romo’s one-inning, three-strikeout “start” on May 19th, the Rays started using relievers to open games; they would quickly give way to a long “reliever,” who would pitch several innings. The general idea was that with a thin pitching staff — the Rays didn’t engage in any such shenanigans with the Blake Snell or Chris Archer starts — there was a benefit to being able to play matchups early in the game and get guaranteed innings from relievers, who are easier to find than a starter with an identical ERA.
As for breaking WAR, starters and relievers are pegged to different replacement levels, reflecting the better quality of free or cheap talent among relievers than starters. But what happens to WAR when relievers are being used as starters and vice-versa? A pitcher like Yarbrough ends up getting pegged relative to the higher replacement level of relievers even though he’s been given the workload of a starter. If these changes become pervasive, it will likely require a reimagining of how we categorize starters and relievers for these purposes.
In the end, the Rays had “relievers” who went five innings 31 times in 2018, the fourth-most going back to 1908 (the limit of Baseball-Reference’s Play Index). The entirety of baseball in 2016 and 2017 only had 37 such games combined. The last team with even ten five-inning relief stints was the 1991 Orioles and that wasn’t so much by design as due to the fact that the team’s rotation was a terrifying Lovecraftian amalgamation.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating, however, and none of this would have persisted if the Rays didn’t get results. In the five-inning “relief” stints, the team (Yarbrough was the most notable, but the team also used Austin Pruitt, Yonny Chirinos, and Jalen Beeks prominently in this pseudo-starter role) combined to throw 170 2/3 innings with a 3.48 ERA, sort of like a weird J.A. Happ chimera to join the A-Rod centaur among baseball’s mythical menagerie.
After starting this opening strategy, the Rays went 69-50, a 94-win seasonal pace, and after receiving quick boosts from midseason trades for Tommy Pham and Ji-Man Choi, the team went 36-19 in their closing kick.
Unfortunately, this was the wrong year for that kind of thing. The AL and NL have reversed roles the last couple of years, with the NL becoming wide-open and the AL the league bifurcated into essentially two leagues, one with super-teams, the other with rebuilders.
What’s depressing from the point of view of the Rays is that the team still would have missed the playoffs by two and a half games if the standings reset on the morning of May 19th.
If the Rays had won 94 games instead of their actual 90, it would have been enough to take the AL East in 2017, 2016, and 2015, while earning a wild card appearance in 2014, 2013, and 2012. The last time 94 wins didn’t get October baseball for an AL team was 2010, when there was only one wild card spot; the Yankees went 95-67 that year. Whether 94 or 90 wins, it was only enough in 2018 to make the Rays the last team eliminated from the playoffs in the American League.
What Comes Next?
The Rays will remain misers for the foreseeable future if they don’t finagle their way into a new stadium. Even with the recent success, the team will have to continue to find values on a shoestring budget, something that is harder to do than it used to be with the general inflation of smartness in front offices over the last 15 years.
From a general baseball standpoint, it also remains to be seen how the opener strategy will affect pitcher salaries if more teams adopt this for their lesser pitchers. I don’t believe that in the end it’ll make a big difference; teams are far less likely to care about a starter’s win totals or a reliever’s saves than even ten years ago. But I’m naturally cynical, so I expect to still be watching this closely.
The really good news for the Rays is that they’ll return almost the entire core of the roster in 2019, with only Vidal Nuño, Carlos Gomez, and Sergio Romo hitting free agency. The 2017-2018 bloodletting has resulted in a roster that, even with everybody tendered, has only a single player making $5 million (Kiermaier) and a payroll that can stay short of $50 million.
I suspect we won’t see the Rays shedding much in the way of 2019 talent this winter; if they were close to doing that, I don’t see them adding Mike Zunino, now the team’s veteran in terms of service time. A Kevin Kiermaier trade strikes me as very unlikely, both because he’s coming off a down year full of injuries and because they just traded Mallex Smith. Nor would Austin Meadows be a candidate to make such a trade practical as he’s the probable right fielder.
The very early projections, based solely on what the Rays have on the roster right now, see a team in the mid-80s for wins, with diminished expectations on the De Leon/Honeywell returns. The Rays are a clever organization, however, and with the farm system recovering over the last few years from the doldrums of the early-mid ’10s to once again be in the top tier, I suspect this team can continue to punch above its weight class, even if in miserly fashion.
Preliminary ZiPS Projection, Blake Snell
I think that Snell is likely to be the AL Cy Young winner when the award is announced this afternoon, and with his performance being a key factor in the team’s revival, avoiding serious regression is crucial for Tampa. ZiPS saw an improvement for Snell in 2018, projecting a 3.70 ERA and 186 strikeouts in 175 1/3 innings, enough to just about the hit the three-WAR mark (with a four-to-five win peak), but it didn’t see the Cy Young breakout.
No 219 ERA+ repeats there, but those are legitimate ace numbers, and ZiPS is being surprisingly un-grumpy about downside risk outside of innings in future seasons. ZiPS sees enough talent in Snell to compensate for the inherent fragility of pitchers and the skewed risk you see in all great players (there are simply larger downsides than upsides). It’ll be interesting to see if the Rays can sign Snell to a similar contract to the recently departed Archer.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.