Randy Arozarena Couldn’t Do It By Himself

Facing elimination in Game 6 of the World Series on Tuesday, the Tampa Bay Rays were in desperate need of some offense. As he has so many times, rookie outfielder Randy Arozarena delivered. With one out in the top of the first inning, Los Angeles starter Tony Gonsolin threw a slider running off the plate outside that wasn’t able to evade the bat of Arozarena, who launched it over the right field fence to give the Rays a 1-0 lead. It was his record-setting 10th homer of the postseason; no other player in history has more than eight in any playoff run.

But in a game that would see the Dodgers tally three runs, one solo homer wasn’t going to cut it for the Rays. And in spite of Los Angeles using seven pitchers in a bullpenning effort, one solo home run was all Tampa Bay was going to get. After Gonsolin exited just five outs into the game, Tampa Bay totaled just two hits and zero walks over the final 7.1 innings. It was the third game of the series in which they scored two runs or fewer, and the second time they totaled five or fewer hits. Given those numbers, it’s hardly a surprise the team in the other dugout was the one celebrating a championship on Tuesday.

During and after the loss, much of the discussion surrounding the Rays had to do with the pitching staff — both the way it performed and the way it was managed. There was the controversial decision to lift Blake Snell in the midst of a shutout in the sixth inning, the sudden struggles of Nick Anderson, the disappointing pair of starts made by Tyler Glasnow in this series, and plenty of other points to dissect. The focus on the pitching side makes sense. The Rays are a team known not only for the lights-out arms they boast, but also for the unconventional-yet-typically-successful ways those arms are utilized. Tampa Bay’s pitching staff was the reason the team had made it this far, and if the team won the title, the pitching staff would probably be the reason for that too. It isn’t, however, the reason it lost.

It would be incorrect to classify the Rays lineup as a liability during the regular season. With a 109 team wRC+, the team had the ninth-best offense in baseball. As the playoffs progressed, however, Tampa Bay became increasingly reliant on its pitching staff and well-timed home runs to win games.

Rays Offense By Regular Season & Playoff Series, 2020
Season 2,261 .238 .328 .425 .753 .187 10.7% 26.9%
ALWC 69 .254 .309 .460 .769 .206 7.2% 29.0%
ALDS 194 .202 .290 .423 .713 .221 9.3% 25.3%
ALCS 260 .201 .296 .379 .675 .178 9.2% 31.2%
WS 232 .216 .275 .397 .672 .181 6.9% 30.2%

To a degree, depression of offense like this in the playoffs is to be expected. The Dodgers are the best pitching staff Tampa Bay faced this season, and they were dialing up high-leverage arms whenever possible. A team’s numbers in six games against the Dodgers are just about always going to be noticeably worse than what they do against the league as a whole. That’s part of what makes Los Angeles’ performance in this series all the more impressive — facing a Rays staff that held the third-lowest ERA in the majors during the regular season, it still managed an .819 OPS in the World Series.

Tampa Bay’s overall offensive output, however, is bolstered considerably by the outliers of the group. Arozarena, the ALCS MVP and very likely the World Series MVP had his team found a way to win, hit .364/.462/.773 in these six games with three home runs. That’s more or less exactly what he’s been doing for the last month — in addition to setting the record for homers in a playoff run, Arozarena also broke the records for both hits and total bases for a single postseason.

Arozarena wasn’t totally without help. Outfielder Kevin Kiermaier, largely quiet for most of the postseason, broke through with a .368/.400/.737 line with two homers and a double. Second baseman Brandon Lowe tied Arozarena’s team lead with three homers in the series, two of which helped seal a victory in Game 2, and outfielder Brett Phillips leveraged the one at-bat he got in this series into one of the most memorable walk-off victories of our lifetimes.

It would be greedy of a team to hope for more than a couple of its hitters to become red-hot in the biggest series of the year, but the rest of the Rays lineup didn’t simply fail to replicate Arozarena’s already-legendary tear; They struggled so much, they essentially canceled him out.

Rays Hitters, 2020 World Series
Brandon Lowe 24 3 3 .125 .160 .500 .660
Randy Arozarena 22 8 3 .364 .462 .773 1.234
Willy Adames 21 3 0 .143 .143 .238 .381
Kevin Kiermaier 19 7 2 .368 .400 .737 1.137
Manuel Margot 19 6 0 .316 .381 .368 .749
Joey Wendle 18 2 0 .111 .105 .222 .327
Austin Meadows 16 3 0 .188 .188 .188 .375
Mike Zunino 16 1 0 .063 .180 .063 .180
Yandy Díaz 12 4 0 .333 .429 .500 .929
Ji-Man Choi 9 1 0 .111 .333 .111 .444
Hunter Renfroe 8 1 1 .125 .222 .500 .722
Mike Brosseau 6 2 0 .333 .429 .333 .762
Yoshi Tsutsugo 3 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000
Brett Phillips 1 1 0 1.000 1.000 1.000 2.000

Stars can go a long way toward deciding a World Series, but since even a fortunate team can usually bank on getting only a couple of those performances going at one time, you also need your supplemental hitters to be fine. Just fine! A lead-off hitter getting on-base at a .321 clip and hitting a couple of homers, the way Mookie Betts did in this series. Players at the bottom of an order coming up with timely extra-base hits, the way Chris Taylor and Austin Barnes did. The Rays, however, had four everyday starters finish the series with an OPS under .400. That doesn’t even include Lowe, whose three homers counted as his only hits.

Aside from the team’s two legitimate studs in this series, this is pretty close to a nightmare outcome. Lowe was the team’s best player in the regular season and an MVP candidate. Adames, Wendle, and Choi were above-average hitters this season as well, and Meadows is just a year removed from his major breakout in 2019. Having every one of those players bottom out in the World Series was as unexpected as it was disastrous, and made it incredibly difficult for the Rays to string runs together.

The struggles of the Rays’ offense provides us another chance to second-guess skipper Kevin Cash, along with whomever else had a say in the lineup card on any given night. The team clearly had a plan in place for who it wanted batting against each Dodgers starter and who it valued most as a possible substitutions later in games, and the series didn’t provide nearly enough sample size to convince them to adjust their plans. The Rays being set in their lineups for this series is understandable, but because of the extent of some players’ struggles, one can’t help but wonder if things may have been different if we’d seen the team’s depth utilized more aggressively. Would Mike Brosseau made more of an impact if he wasn’t so strictly platooned against lefties? Should we have seen more of Yandy Díaz? Should Mike Zunino have been the starting catcher throughout the series despite not recording a hit until Game 6? Could Yoshi Tsutsugo have been given an opportunity to replace Austin Meadows as the DH?

All of those are reasonable questions, and yet, maybe none of them make a difference. Because as good as the Rays’ offense was in the regular season, it had a glaring flaw that stood in stark contrast to every champion of the last decade, including the newly crowned 2020 Dodgers.

K% of 2020 Rays & Last 10 WS Winners
Team Season K% MLB rank
2020 Rays 26.9% 29th
2020 Dodgers 20.3% 3rd
2019 Nationals 20.9% 5th
2018 Red Sox 19.9% 3rd
2017 Astros 17.3% 1st
2016 Cubs 21.1% 15th
2015 Royals 15.9% 1st
2014 Giants 20.5% 15th
2013 Red Sox 20.5% 22nd
2012 Giants 17.7% 4th
2011 Cardinals 15.7% 2nd

In retrospect, it’s impressive Tampa Bay made it this far. Even as players and teams have held much less scorn for strikeouts in recent years, the last team standing at the end of each year is still usually one of the best at avoiding them, and basically never one of the worst offenders. As the playoffs progressed, the Rays’ problems with whiffs were only exacerbated, while their ability to draw walks deteriorated considerably.

The good news for Tampa Bay is that the future still looks bright. Arozarena, Meadows, Lowe, and Adames are all young, and the latter three are much better players than they appeared to be in recent weeks. Nate Lowe, another good young hitter, wasn’t even used after the Wild Card series. And we shouldn’t have to wait much longer to see top prospects like Wander Franco, Vidal Bruján, and Josh Lowe in the majors. There is real work that needs done at the catching position, where neither Zunino nor Michael Perez should be starting for a serious contender, but there will be options there in the offseason, even if a play for J.T. Realmuto likely won’t be considered.

The proximity to the organization’s first-ever championship, as well as some of the curious decisions made in their season-ending loss, will make this sting for a while. But the Rays are getting better, not worse. Even when Arozarena is no longer a 1.200 OPS hitter next season, the bats surrounding him should be more than enough to pick up the slack.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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Dave from DCmember
1 year ago

It’s a tough thing to measure, but I want an article about where Arozarena’s postseason run ranks all-time. He did a pretty decent 2002 Barry Bonds impression.

1 year ago
Reply to  Dave from DC

1928 Ruth, Arozarena probably number 2 considering the consistency across so many games.

Dave from DCmember
1 year ago
Reply to  Fredchuckdave

Yeah, Arozarena posted an absurd OPS in every series.

Ryan DCmember
1 year ago
Reply to  Fredchuckdave

I dunno about that, David Ortiz had some ridiculous postseasons