Tampa Bay’s Lost Window of Contention

Between 2008 and 2013, the only team to win more games than the Rays was the Yankees. Think about what that means. Over the span of six years, only the richest franchise in baseball could out-perform one of the poorest. The Rays ranked in second, with 550 wins, 14 fewer than the Yankees, but 12 more than the Phillies. The Rays made the playoffs on four occasions, once, of course, getting as far as the World Series. The Rays were a model organization. At least, the Rays were a model, provided you had an organization with comparatively limited resources. It was a minor miracle how much they were able to accomplish.

The recent years haven’t been so rosy. Which, in some ways, is hardly surprising — not only are success cycles cyclical by definition, but the Rays are also at a massive financial disadvantage, at a time when more and more front offices are beginning to think like they do. There’s a popular theory out there that it used to be way easier to build good baseball teams on the cheap. It’s probably true! So one could use the recent Rays as evidence that parity is beginning to slip away. Small-market teams might be increasingly screwed. It wasn’t long ago we saw the Rays trade away the face of the franchise. It’s possible Chris Archer could be next.

There’s no question the Rays aren’t what they were. There’s no question they’ve been on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. And yet, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s interesting to look at what the Rays have been, and at what they’ve almost been. By one measure, the Rays haven’t had that much of a dip.

In 2013, the Rays lost to the Red Sox in the ALDS. Those were the last crucially important games they played. Over the four seasons since, the Rays have failed to reach .500, and they’ve won exactly as many games as the Diamondbacks. Maybe that’s not very helpful — the Diamondbacks did just make the playoffs. So let’s do this instead. Here are all 30 teams, and their combined four-year regular-season win totals.

The Rays are tied for 20th place. They’re sandwiched between the Brewers and the Marlins. Their seasonal win totals have gone from 77 to 80 to 68 to 80 again. It’s not that the team has been dreadful. Rather, the team has been consistently forgettable. Harmless, for lack of a better word. The Rays just haven’t mattered a whole lot, in the grand scheme of things.

But now I’d like to show you another plot. You could call it a plot of an alternate history. Above, you see four-year actual wins. Here, you see four-year BaseRuns wins. BaseRuns, if you don’t know, is a team performance estimator, which aims to strip away unsustainable factors like luck and timing. Like any estimator, BaseRuns isn’t perfect, and it reduces baseball to something more simple than it actually is, but one shouldn’t take this too far; BaseRuns is pretty good. Usually does a solid job of explaining how well a team has played. Okay, I don’t need to defend BaseRuns anymore. Here’s the plot.

The Rays scoot up. Where they’re tied for 20th place in actual wins, they’re 10th in BaseRuns wins, only three behind the Red Sox. Now, 10th place is a far cry from first or second or third, but there’s a big difference here. The biggest negative difference, it turns out. Here are all of the four-year differences.

The Royals have the biggest difference overall, with 35 more actual wins than estimated wins. And that’s fascinating, but at the same time, we’ve talked about the Royals countless times before, in this regard. It is what it is. The Rays have received less attention, for their comparable level of under-performance. The Rays’ difference is at -32 wins, since 2014. I have this information going back to 2005, which is a weird starting point, but, just go with it. Out of the whole sample, the 2014 – 2017 Royals are the greatest BaseRuns overachievers, at +35. And, the 2014 – 2017 Rays are the greatest BaseRuns underachievers, at -32. This has been extraordinary, even if it’s been difficult to notice.

Pretend, for a moment, that BaseRuns were reality. In 2014, the Rays ranked 18th in baseball in wins. They ranked 12th in BaseRuns wins, and would’ve been within three BaseRuns games of a playoff spot. The next season, they ranked 17th in baseball in wins, and 12th again in BaseRuns wins. They would’ve occupied a playoff spot. The next season, they ranked 26th in baseball in wins, and 15th in BaseRuns wins. They would’ve been within four BaseRuns games of a playoff spot. And finally, last season, they ranked 13th in baseball in wins, and 10th in BaseRuns wins. They would’ve occupied a playoff spot.

Two times in the last four years, the Rays were within the American League’s top five, by BaseRuns. The other two times, they were close. As doesn’t need to be repeated, BaseRuns doesn’t exactly mirror reality, which is why I’m writing this post in the first place, but think about how different the circumstances might be. Where would the Rays be today, had they made the playoffs two times, with another two competitive stretch runs? They’d still be a lower-budget ballclub, I’m certain, but they would’ve kept up sustainable success. They’d be viewed differently. They’d still be thought of as a ballclub run by geniuses. The Rays would still be a model franchise.

You can’t go and just dismiss under-performance entirely. The front office put together baseball teams that didn’t win as many games as it seems like they should’ve. I don’t mean to suggest it’s all just horrible luck, and that the team is totally blameless. But you can understand why the front office might be frustrated, because it might not have an answer. Historically, under-performing BaseRuns just hasn’t been a thing that keeps up. I looked at the gaps between actual and estimated wins, and then I looked at the gaps for the same teams in the next season. Here’s the plot for 2005 – 2017.

It’s more or less a picture of randomness. Though the relationship isn’t completely random, this is something you should regress almost all of the way. Over- or under-performing BaseRuns doesn’t seem like a sticky skill. Maybe it really is a sticky skill, sometimes for some clubs, but it doesn’t seem like something to plan on. The Rays might feel like this mostly isn’t their fault.

The team with the next-biggest negative four-year difference is the 2012 – 2015 Astros. Those Astros under-performed by 28 total wins. The next year, they over-performed, by two. As for the 2006 – 2009 Angels, who over-performed by 25 wins? The next year, they over-performed by one. Baseball is forever finding ways to not be what it seems like it should be.

Before I get to the end, I should explain how the Rays have gotten here. How does a team end up so far off its BaseRuns estimate? It’s timing. Which means, it’s clutch. I’ll show you what I mean, by subtracting team wOBA allowed from team wOBA for. Overall, since 2014, the Rays have out-performed their opponents by 8 points of wOBA, ranking ninth in baseball. In low-leverage situations, the Rays rank fifth-best. In medium-leverage situations, they rank 11th-best. In high-leverage situations, they rank dead last. When the stakes have been at their highest, the Rays have been out-performed by 38 points of wOBA. The next-worst mark is 24, and the gap here is huge. The explanation, therefore, is simple: The Rays have played their worst at the biggest moments. That’s a surefire way to underachieve the surface stats.

What’s unsatisfying is trying to find an explanation for the explanation. So the Rays have been terribly unclutch. Why have the Rays been terribly unclutch? You can try to point to different factors, but doing so ignores that research on clutch performance has never been very conclusive. Maybe there’s just something about the players the Rays have had. I genuinely couldn’t tell you. Maybe they’ve been built to wilt this whole time, and it’s no mystery to the front office at all. But I’m skeptical. Most explanations of clutch performance fail to hold up. At least, they don’t point to this strong a signal.

Nevertheless, what’s done is done. Based on the overall numbers, the Rays have been pretty good over the past four years, which means they’ve been very good over the past decade. But because of some godawful timing, the Rays playing in the playoffs is a distant memory. No one has under-performed quite like the Rays have of late, and while I suppose that might offer some faint glimmer of hope for the season just ahead, all I can think about is the wasted window. For four years, the Rays have been something. They came close to being something else entirely.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Jacob Faria
6 years ago