The Rays Have Had One of the Most Extreme Lineups in History

As a FanGraphs reader, you’re presumably familiar with the TTO acronym. Just in case you’re not, TTO stands for Three True Outcomes, and said three true outcomes are walks, strikeouts, and homers. They’re the outcomes least likely to lie to you; they’re the outcomes that tell you the most about the individuals involved. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that there are more strikeouts now than ever before. You also know that home-run rates have taken off. So this plot should fit with what you’d figure. Viewing over an entire century of baseball, you see league-wide TTO% taking flight.

This season, a third of all plate appearances have ended with either a walk, a strikeout, or a homer. As recently as 1992, it was more like a quarter of all plate appearances. It was a fifth of all plate appearances in 1946. The image there speaks for itself, so I suppose I don’t need to address it any longer. The trends are up, is the point. There’s no sign of this pattern changing course.

Recently, the Effectively Wild podcast received a listener email, asking how high is too high. That is, how high could TTO% go before the game just feels all weird and broken? I didn’t have a good answer. I’m unconvinced the average fan cares about this as much as analysts do. We’re the ones who need stuff to write about, while the average fan just wants to know if a given team is winning or losing. Here’s one thing I can say: The future might look like the Rays. Nobody else TTOs quite like the Rays do.

The Rays took down the Indians on Wednesday. They had Alex Cobb going up against Josh Tomlin, so, you know, they should’ve won. In the winning effort, Rays hitters drew just a combined one walk. But they struck out 10 times, and they socked three dingers, all in a total of 39 plate appearances. The lineup’s TTO% for the game was 36%. That’s rather low, for the Rays.

On the season, the Rays hitters rank eighth in baseball in home-run rate. They rank fifth in walk rate, and they rank first — highest — in strikeout rate. When you put all those numbers together, it’s the Rays at No. 1, and it’s the Rays at No. 1 by a relative mile.

The Rays have more than three percentage points on the Brewers. They have more than seven percentage points on the league average. And they have more than twelve percentage points on the Red Sox. This isn’t me trying to pass judgment — having a high TTO% isn’t necessarily good or bad. It depends on a variety of factors, and the Rays don’t have baseball’s best lineup. They just have maybe baseball’s most extreme lineup. It’s certainly the most extreme in this regard.

As things stand, the Rays have what would be easily the highest team strikeout rate in history. They have what would be easily the lowest team contact rate since 2002, which is as far back as our data stretches. And the Rays have what would be easily the highest three-true-outcome rate in history. No one’s ever gotten to 40%. No lineup has ever been experienced quite like this one.

Now, for the sake of putting the Rays in context, we have to remember that the league-wide TTO% has been rising. To take that into account, I went all the way back to 1918 and calculated, for every offense, a TTO% z-score, based on standard deviations from each individual year’s average. By that measure, here are the 10 most extreme TTO-happy offenses.

Top 10 TTO Teams Since 1918
Team Year TTO% lg TTO% Z-Score
Tigers 1994 34.5% 27.5% 4.17
Tigers 1991 32.9% 26.0% 3.25
Tigers 1993 31.7% 26.0% 3.18
Yankees 1920 21.5% 15.5% 2.87
Diamondbacks 2010 37.2% 29.5% 2.83
Reds 2005 33.8% 27.3% 2.78
Yankees 1926 22.1% 16.1% 2.75
Yankees 1927 22.7% 16.0% 2.73
Brewers 2001 34.1% 28.7% 2.73
Rays 2017 40.7% 33.4% 2.67
TTO = Three True Outcomes; TTO% = BB% + K% + HR%.

The Rays aren’t at No. 1, and they aren’t going to get to No. 1, because No. 1 is completely insane. In what was a strike-shortened season, the 1994 Tigers put up a TTO% that was more than four standard deviations higher than the average. You see other area Tigers teams in second and third. Clearly, that was no coincidence. Glance now at the bottom of the table. There are this year’s Rays, in 10th place. The total sample here is 2,194 individual team-seasons. The Rays can officially be considered historically extreme, pending the season’s remaining three-fourths. Maybe they’ll regress closer toward all the means. Or maybe they won’t, because they don’t care. It’s 2017. Embrace the at-bats without balls put in play.

The single-most TTO hitter to this point isn’t a Ray; it’s Miguel Sano, at 61%. The guy in second place isn’t a Ray; it’s Joey Gallo, at 60%. The guy in third place is a Ray. Let’s get into that real quick. The league-average TTO% is 33.4%. Here are all 11 Rays hitters who’ve come to the plate at least 50 times.

Rays With 50+ PA

Dickerson comes in just under the average. Longoria comes in just over the average. And then everyone else has been further north. Technically, if you draw a strict line, 10 of these 11 hitters have higher-than-average TTO rates. I’m not sure why it wouldn’t continue to be a similar-looking lineup moving forward. At some point Matt Duffy might arrive and settle things down, but he’s only one guy, and he’s had trouble getting healthy. Plus, who knows! Maybe he’ll appear and be totally different!

It’s easy to mentally associate a high TTO with players who are slow and plodding. To the Rays’ credit, they have a good overall defense, and they currently rank second among all lineups in baserunning value. This isn’t a one-dimensional assortment of players. It’s just a high-strikeout group of players, that also knows how to draw a walk and knock the ball out of the yard. In a sense, the Rays are already standing where baseball’s probably headed. It’s up to you to decide how to feel about that.

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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6 years ago

In other news, Ricky Weeks Jr. still manages to somehow find a way onto a MLB roster.

6 years ago
Reply to  Doorknob11

Weeks is one of the best arguments against the savvy of the Rays’ front office. What on earth were they thinking?

6 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Well he did crush lefties to the tune of 1.010 OPS last year which they needed this year. Unfortunately he isn’t doing it again.

6 years ago
Reply to  ksammons

My guess is that his .176/.349/.294 slash won’t hold…unless he is actually a 44% K kind of guy haha

6 years ago
Reply to  ksammons

He had 67 PAs last year against lefties! And the year before that he was unplayable. And he’s the short side of the platoon. And he’s basically a DH at this point in their career, although he seems to be functioning okay at first in his limited run there. And they’re loaded with infielders they can shift around. And they have guys in AAA who could have gotten a shot. I’ve read a bunch of people now saying that they needed a righty platoon guy but I still don’t really get it. Maybe that’s on me.

Deacon Drakemember
6 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Low risk… low reward? The funny thing is, he has only been replacement bad, not terrible bad.

6 years ago
Reply to  Doorknob11

For his career, Weeks is .259/.381/.452 against lefties.

Even if you exclude the seasons pre-2012 when he was a good-great player, he has still been nearly as good against lefties.

He’s not a bad platoon player.