The Rays Are Steamrolling Opponents at a Record Clip

Tampa Bay Rays Brandon Lowe Wander Franco
Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Friday night’s game at Tropicana Field featured a rare sight: the Rays trailing a team by a 1–0 margin. It was a blink-and-you-missed it moment, with a run in the top of the second inning putting Tampa Bay behind for the first time since Tuesday night, and just the second time all season. But it didn’t last long: on the first pitch of the second inning, Harold Ramirez hit a Ken Waldichuk offering for a solo homer into the right field corner, kicking off a six-run inning that also featured a grand slam by Isaac Paredes. The Rays never looked back, beating the A’s, 9–5, on Friday and then 11–0 on both Saturday and Sunday to run their record to 9–0.

It’s an understatement to say that the Rays are off to the best start in franchise history (their previous record for season-opening wins was three) or the best of any team this year. By consecutive victories to open a season, they’re off to the best start in 20 years, and by run differential, they’re doing some things not seen in the majors since the late 19th century — and some never seen before.

For starters, the Rays are the first team since the 2003 Royals to win their first nine games and the 13th in AL/NL history since 1901:

AL/NL Teams That Started 9-0 Since 1901
Team Season Run Dif Final W Final L Final Win% Final Run Dif Finish
Giants 1918 31 71 53 .573 65 2
Dodgers 1940 40 88 65 .575 76 2
Browns 1944 21 89 65 .578 97 1, Lost WS
Dodgers 1955 29 95 55 .633 207 1, Won WS
Pirates 1962 29 93 68 .578 80 4
Cleveland 1966 22 81 81 .500 -12 5
Athletics 1981 36 64 45 .587 55 1, Lost ALCS
Braves 1982 27 89 73 .549 37 1, Lost NLCS
Tigers 1984 34 104 58 .642 186 1, Won WS
Brewers 1987 26 91 71 .562 45 3
Reds 1990 34 91 71 .562 96 1, Won WS
Royals 2003 25 83 79 .512 -31 3
Rays 2023 46
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Six of the previous 12 teams to start that hot made the playoffs, two before division play began in 1969 and four more before the Wild Card era began in ’95; three went on to win the World Series. Those 12 teams combined for a .570 winning percentage, which equates to about 93 wins over a 162-game season. All of them finished with records of at least .500, though one just barely; only one team went on to win at least 100 games, though the 1955 Dodgers’ clip would extrapolate to 102 wins over a 162-game schedule.

Of those 12 teams, six extended their winning streaks even further. The 1955 Dodgers, ’62 Pirates, and ’66 Cleveland teams each reached 10 straight wins before losing, the ’81 A’s 11 straight, and both the ’82 Braves and ’87 Brewers 13 straight.

If the Rays have plenty of company in terms of going undefeated, their run differential is something else. They’ve outscored the opposition 75–18 — that’s an average of 8–2 — for a +57 run differential that is by far the largest through nine games of any team since 1901, as far back as Baseball Reference’s Stathead goes:

Largest Run Differentials Through First 9 Games
Team Season W L TmRDiff Final W Final L Final Win% Final Run Dif Finish
Rays 2023 9 0 57
Cleveland 1999 8 1 44 97 65 .599 249 1, Lost ALDS
Giants 1905 7 2 43 105 48 .686 275 1, Won WS
Cubs 2016 8 1 43 103 58 .640 252 1, Won WS
Cleveland 1959 8 1 42 89 65 .578 99 2
Dodgers 1940 9 0 40 88 65 .575 76 2
Yankees 1932 6 3 38 107 74 .591 278 1, Won WS
Rockies 1997 7 2 38 83 79 .512 15 3
Athletics 1981 9 0 36 64 45 .587 55 1, Lost ALCS
Yankees 2003 8 1 36 101 61 .623 161 1, Lost WS
Yankees 1999 7 2 36 98 64 .605 169 1, Won WS
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Tampa’s 75 runs scored through nine games is merely tied for sixth, well behind the 1932 Yankees’ 84, and the 18 runs allowed barely crack the top 25; five teams allowed 13 runs through their first nine games, most recently the 2004 Marlins.

Where the Rays have separated themselves from the pack beyond their cumulative run differential is that they’ve won every one of their games by at least four runs. No other team has done that more than four times in a row to start the season, and only four others have done so at any point in the season since the start of the 20th century:

Not since 1884 has a team accumulated a +50 run differential or better through nine games:

On both Saturday and Sunday, the Rays beat the A’s 11–0, marking just the third time since 1901 that an AL or NL team has won back-to-back shutouts by 11 runs or more. The Tigers did it in both ends of a doubleheader against the Browns on September 22, 1936, and the Orioles did it against Cleveland on June 28 and 29, 2019.

Now, it’s fair to point out that the Rays haven’t exactly faced high-caliber competition. The three teams they’ve played — the Tigers, Nationals, and A’s — lost 96, 107, and 102 games last year, respectively, and all were forecast to lose at least 90 games in this year’s preseason Playoff Odds. But if we’re going to nitpick the Rays, it should be pointed out that the 1884 Maroons dominated the Union Association in its only season of existence, going 94–19, winning the pennant by 21 games, and getting absorbed by the National League when the circuit disbanded that winter. More recently, that 1999 Cleveland team that ranks second in the modern rankings opened against two teams that would go on to lose 97 games and another 92 games. The two teams tied for third fattened up on weak teams as well, with the ’05 Giants playing series against teams that would lose 103 and 104 games, and the 2016 Cubs facing two teams that would lose at least 93 games. And so on.

The Rays weren’t supposed to be this good — nobody is this good — but it does feel as though they were overlooked at the outset of the season. Our preseason Playoff Odds forecast them for 86 wins, with a 19.6% chance of winning the AL East and a 61.3% chance of making the playoffs, yet in our preseason Staff Predictions, just one out of 27 participants picked them to win the division, compared to six for the Yankees (who had 42.7% odds) and 19 for the Blue Jays (29.4% odds); one person picked the Orioles as well. As I pointed out last week, this was the only division where our consensus pick went against our odds. Now the Rays are up to a 46% chance of winning the division (with a 92-win projection), with the Yankees (6–3) at 31.2% and the Blue Jays (6–4) at 19.4%.

As their per-game scoring averages suggest, the Rays have been dominant on both sides of the ball. Their .289 batting average leads the AL, and their .379 on-base percentage, .588 slugging percentage, 171 wRC+, and 24 homers all lead the majors; no other team has more than 18 homers. Of the 13 players to come to bat for them thus far, all but catchers Francisco Mejía and Christian Bethancourt have a wRC+ of 100 or better, and five regulars have a 200 wRC+ or better: Wander Franco at 222 (.351/.400/.757), Randy Arozarena at 213 (.371/.463/.629), Josh Lowe at 209 (.364/.417/.682), and Luke Raley and Ramirez both at 205 (.235/.391/.765 for the former, .286/.348/.762 for the latter). Franco is in a five-way tie for the league lead in homers with four and is tied with Aaron Judge for fourth in wRC+; the shortstop is also fourth in SLG, one point behind Judge. Arozarena is eighth in wRC+, ninth in OBP, and 10th in SLG. None of the others have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, but Brandon Lowe, whose grand slam on Sunday off James Kaprielian blew the game open, is 11th in wRC+ at 198 and eighth in OBP at .464.

Franco and Arozarena are the biggest and most electrifying players on this team. The former, who just turned 22 on March 1, played in his 162nd career game on Sunday; he’s accumulated 17 homers, 12 steals, and 5.5 WAR in that span, with a 127 wRC+ (.286/.341/.457). We’re not yet to the point of batted ball stats stabilizing, but it nonetheless bears noting that he’s barreled six balls for an 18.8% rate, nearly four times his 4.8% rate (25 total barrels) from 2021–22, and his average exit velocity is up 2.8 mph to 90.5 mph.

Arozarena, fresh off a star turn for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic, is one of six players to collect a hit in every game so far this season, along with José Abreu and José Ramírez (both with 10 games), and Nolan Arenado, Bryan Reynolds, Bryson Stott, and Jordan Walker (all with nine games).

It doubtless owes something to the caliber of pitching they’re facing, but the Rays have five players who rank among the majors’ top 25 in xSLG: Raley (.791, albeit on just 12 BIP, which is enough to qualify for the Statcast leaderboard), Brandon Lowe (.765), Franco (.724), Jose Siri (.675, and who just landed on the injured list with a right hamstring strain he suffered while making a catch at the wall on Friday night), and Arozarena (.672).

As for the pitching, Rays starters have the majors’ lowest ERA (1.90), FIP (1.97), and the second-lowest K-BB% (24.7%); notably, they’ve also got the lowest home run rate (0.17 per nine) and highest groundball rate (51.2%) as well, all of which is to say that they’re doing things that keep them out of trouble. And they’ve done this all without Tyler Glasnow, who began the year on the injured list due to a strained oblique that will probably cost him the whole first month of the season.

Thus far, all but two Rays starters have gone at least six innings in each turn, the exceptions being fifth starter Josh Fleming, who was chased after allowing 10 hits and five runs in three innings on Tuesday (the other game where the Rays had to come from behind), and Zach Eflin, who went only five innings on April 1. Five times a Rays starter has left with a shutout intact, and once with a no-hitter intact: Jeffrey Springs tossed six hitless innings and struck out 12 Tigers on April 2. On Saturday, he allowed three hits in seven shutout innings, striking out seven and walking three — just the second time a Rays starter walked multiple hitters, by the way — and on Sunday Drew Rasmussen allowed just one hit in seven innings, striking out eight. The two have yet to allow a run and have yielded just three hits in 13 innings.

Meanwhile, the bullpen — a typically Rays-flavored patchwork of castoffs and guys coming back from injuries, only few of whom have exceptional stuff — has put up a 1.86 ERA in 29 innings, though that’s less the product of dominance than it is a .195 BABIP offsetting a 4.67 FIP. Rays relievers have struck out just 16.4% of all hitters, the majors’ third-lowest rate. If that’s unremarkable, what is remarkable is how untested the unit is: Rays relievers have yet to encounter a single save opportunity thus far, even one of those seventh-inning ones that only get noticed when they’re blown. The unit’s average leverage index (pLI) is just 0.45, the majors’ second-lowest, and of the individual relievers’ 24 appearances, only two began with a game leverage (gmLI) of 1.0 or higher, one by Jason Adam on April 3 and the other by Jalen Beeks the next night.

The Rays’ schedule is about to toughen up. Their remaining strength of schedule (.508) is tied for second in the AL, and they kick that off by hosting the Red Sox for four games and then facing the Blue Jays for three in Toronto. Along with three games in Cincinnati and seven against the White Sox, they’ve also got a three-game set against the Astros this month. Sooner or later, somebody — perhaps even one of those lesser teams — is going to beat them and end this ridiculous streak, but already they’ve established that they’re a team that can’t be overlooked, and that we should expect them to be in the thick of the AL East race.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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Jason Bmember
1 year ago

When your division is a tough one, they did what they’ve gotta do – bank a lot of wins against the cupcakes. Most good teams will be .500ish against the other good teams, but in a tight division going (for example) 39-17 against the weaker sisters as opposed to 32-24 can be the difference between a division win, a wild card appearance, or a premature end to the season.

1 year ago
Reply to  Jason B

That’s what they did when they won 100 games and the division in 2021, beating the Orioles 18 out of 19 teams that season while the Yankees struggled with Baltimore.