The Rays Are Becoming Baseball’s Most Aggressive Team

Yesterday I published my annual reminder that it’s never too early to look at the standings. That is, even though we’re through just one week, the Orioles have done themselves a hell of a favor by starting out 6-0. Now, on the flip side, it can be too early to look at the leaderboards. Like, Tyler White is first in baseball in WAR. If you want to find some real signal, you just have to be patient. But sometimes I just can’t help myself. I mean, I practically live on this website, so of course I’m going to go exploring. And, related to that — it’s been just six games, but the Rays are already up to something.

It’s not something entirely new. I wrote about this when the Rays traded for Corey Dickerson, but during last season, the Rays switched to taking a more aggressive offensive approach. So if you were curious, no, that hasn’t been abandoned. The Rays hitters remain aggressive today, and based on the early indications, they’re going to be more aggressive than anyone else.

You can start with simple swing rate. That’s what first drew my attention when I was screwing around on the plate-discipline leaderboards. I shouldn’t even need to warn you about the sample sizes here, but let’s all throw caution to the wind. Look at how teams have swung to this point:


Note that the y-axis doesn’t start at 0%. I zoomed in on the relevant numbers, and it makes the Rays’ lead look bigger, but the fact of the matter is that they’re in the lead, by four percentage points over second place. The Rays’ lead over second place is as big as the difference between third place and 24th. It’s a pretty massive separation, and while it is six games, here’s another way to put it — the difference in rates between first and second works out to 30 extra swings, already. Five more swings per game.

What’s fueling this? The Rays have seen 47% of pitches in the PITCHf/x strike zone. The league average is…47%, so it’s not like it’s the pitchers’ collective fault. The Rays’ rate of swings out of the zone is higher than the average by about three percentage points. Meanwhile, the Rays’ rate of swings within the zone is higher than the average by about 10 percentage points. So it’s not just swinging for swinging’s sake. They’ve targeted many of their swings at would-be strikes.

A big part of becoming more aggressive is becoming more aggressive against first pitches. So now here’s a plot of first-pitch swing rate, which again shows the Rays in the lead:


Toward this end, it helps to acquire players like Dickerson, but first-pitch aggressiveness is also the easiest kind of aggressiveness to adopt. The Rays have made a point of making sure their hitters are more prepared to swing the bat as soon as they step in. Not that it’s always a good idea to swing, or that it’s always a good idea to take, but there’s no sense in gifting a strike if you don’t have to. I don’t know how much this means yet, but 10 Rays hitters have batted at least 10 times, and all of them have first-pitch swing rates above their career averages. This is a plan.

I went browsing around Baseball Savant, to hunt for more detail. The Rays as a team lead baseball in swing rate against fastballs. The most interesting split I found: the Rays are in 11th in first-pitch swing rate against non-fastballs. They’re close to league-average. But the Rays are first in first-pitch swing rate against fastballs, and they’re in first by 11 percentage points. The Rays are at 47%, the second-place Cardinals are at 36%, and the average is at 29%. Just based on this, I have to think the plan is pretty clear. Go up there ready to hit a fastball. Why take it, if it’s hittable? It’s not the easiest immediate adjustment to make, but it can be made, and it helps to have an example like Dickerson, who always wants to swing. It’s one of the things the Rays liked the most about him.

I hesitate to start looking at individual numbers, but I will note that Evan Longoria is showing signs of a dramatic shift. He’s swung at more than 60% of all pitches, after consistently having swung at less than half. Steven Souza’s swing rate in the early going is up from 46% to 55%. Logan Forsythe has already swung at nine first pitches, after last year posting a first-pitch swing rate around half the league average. Players have bought in, at least for now. This is a real and legitimate attempt. The Rays don’t want to give away free strikes, because they don’t want to end up behind in the count. These days, almost every pitcher in baseball is good enough to get a strikeout given a strikeout opportunity. Two-strike counts are something to avoid.

A key question: is this working? Incidentally, the Rays rank dead last in baseball in contact rate. They’re currently near the bottom in walks, but they’re sitting on elevated strikeouts. They’re right in the middle as a team in wRC+. By the results, it’s a mixed bag, and it’s not like there are any guarantees here. But it’s also far too early to worry too much about those results. The Rays are going to give their process more time, and while they could eventually reverse course, as they’ve already done, until that happens they might well stand as baseball’s most aggressive offense. First-pitch fastballs beware.

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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Original Greaser Bob
6 years ago

Interesting. Also surprising to see the Cubs on the other end of chart for team swing rate.

6 years ago

It was the theme of the off-season, obp and working counts. opponents have thrown like 500 pitches more than the cubs so far this season I believe.

6 years ago
Reply to  JediHoyer

Nice theory . . . but wrong. Cubs hitters have faced 1114 pitches vs 874 for their opponents but that is almost entirely a function of the hitters having 55 more PA than the pitchers have faced (289 v 234). That’s what happens when you hit for an 812 OPS and allow a 528 OPS.

The averages are 3.85 for Cubs hitters and 3.74 for Cubs pitchers v a league average of 3.87

6 years ago
Reply to  Anon

Well Schwarber getting hurt didn’t help.

6 years ago
Reply to  Anon

The Cubs have a .372 OBP. That leads to more plate appearances. Pretty much exactly what Jed Hoyer said, not counting working the count which is not all about seeing more pitches anyway. It’s about swinging at strikes and not swinging at balls. If you can do that perfectly you’ll see LESS pitches per plate appearance.

6 years ago
Reply to  Anon

Also consider that dangerous Teams see more pitches outside the Zone than bad Teams. if you face the blue jays or cubs you will be more carefull with attacking hitters than if you face the phillies or braves.