The Rays’ Rotation Has Already Improved

It was barely a month ago that we ran our annual positional power rankings series. Perceptions of players and teams ought not to change too much after just a few weeks of baseball, but the neat thing about having projections is around is that they update themselves every night. Never by much, but they’re constantly re-evaluating to reflect whatever’s happened by the appropriate amount. In this sense, they’re like an overreaction guide, holding your hand through the early goings of a season and letting you know just how much to make of Player X’s early-season struggles/successes. Like, for example, if you’re wondering whether to freak out about Rich Hill, you look to see how much the projections have changed since the start of the year, and you listen to the projections when they tell you that it’s perfectly OK to freak out.

And just as the projections can be used as a guide to gauge how much early-season performances mean for players, they can do the same for teams. Team projections are just a composite of a bunch of player projections, after all. And while no one individual has improved their projection nearly as much as Hill, something stuck out to me while doing the research for that post:

Most-Improved Pitcher Projections, Preseason to Now
Name Team Pre_ERA Pre_FIP Pre_E/F RoS_ERA RoS_FIP RoS_E/F E/F_DIF
Rich Hill Athletics 4.17 4.18 4.18 3.77 3.75 3.76 -0.42
Jhoulys Chacin Braves 4.23 4.21 4.22 3.91 3.89 3.90 -0.32
Noah Syndergaard Mets 3.12 3.02 3.07 2.89 2.73 2.81 -0.26
Matt Moore Rays 4.11 4.25 4.18 3.89 3.98 3.94 -0.25
Drew Smyly Rays 3.47 3.70 3.59 3.28 3.50 3.39 -0.20
Taijuan Walker Mariners 4.05 3.98 4.02 3.88 3.77 3.83 -0.19
Vincent Velasquez Phillies 3.71 3.68 3.70 3.54 3.49 3.52 -0.18
Jaime Garcia Cardinals 3.40 3.44 3.42 3.25 3.24 3.25 -0.18
Blake Snell Rays 4.11 4.24 4.18 3.96 4.06 4.01 -0.17
Jerad Eickhoff Phillies 4.38 4.37 4.38 4.20 4.22 4.21 -0.17
SOURCE: ZiPS+Steamer projections
-Minimum 100 projected innings pitched

In the interest of full disclosure, the Rays don’t possess the most improved rotation, overall. That’d be the Phillies, by a sizable amount. I’ve written about the Phillies and their ubiquitous curveball usage, but frankly, while it’s fun that they’ve seemingly accelerated their rebuild with an already-good rotation, it still doesn’t really matter, in the scope of 2016, that the Phillies have the most improved rotation. But for the Rays, who have the second-most improved rotation with another gap separating them from third, it does matter, because the Rays aim to compete.

When we ran the positional power rankings, we split the starting pitching rankings into two halves. The Rays made the cut for the first half, but just barely. Just over a month ago, the forecast had the Rays’ rotation ranked 15th, with a projected group WAR of +13.0. Now, the Rays are ranked eighth, with a forecast that would put the group around +15 WAR over a full season. It only took 21 games for the projections to give the Rays’ rotation an extra two wins in the future, based on what they’d seen.

Matt Moore has improved his rest-of-season projection as much as Noah Syndergaard. Moore’s seemingly healthy for the first time in years, and everything he’s throwing looks like what his 23-year-old self was throwing four years ago when he was considered the future ace of the Rays. He’s picked up two full ticks on his fastball and is back to touching 96, something he hadn’t done since 2012. The only lefty starters throwing harder than Moore this season are Steven Matz and Moore’s teammate, Blake Snell. He’s got the shape of his curveball back to what it was in his rookie year, and it’s got the third-highest whiff rate of any curve in the league this season. Since rejoining the Rays’ rotation last September, he’s walked just 6.1% of batters faced over an 11-start stretch. Before that, he’d never walked fewer than 8.5% of his batters faced over any 11-start stretch. Moore’s biggest issue was always his command, and he’s currently pitching with the best command of his life. The next-biggest issue was the velo, and that’s back, too.

Drew Smyly’s projections have gone from “solid mid-rotation starter” to “borderline ace.” Right now,
Smyly’s rest-of-season ERA+FIP mix is 3.39, and Chris Archer’s is 3.31. No one would argue that Archer isn’t the ace of the Rays’ staff, but on a per-inning basis, the projections just might. Jeff Sullivan just wrote earlier this week how Smyly has adjusted to using the classic elevated Rays fastball and how it’s turned him into a strikeout machine. Speaking of Rays’ fastballs, Snell is the hardest-throwing lefty starter in the game (minimum 50 fastballs) with an extreme fastball of his own, and he’s on that table of improved projections up there, too! He’s back in the minors for now, but he’ll be up in the bigs for good before too long.

For what it’s worth, Jake Odorizzi has improved his projection, too, but only by a quarter as much as Snell, a fifth as much as Smyly, or a sixth as much as Moore. The only Rays starter with a worse rest-of-season projection than the one with which he started is Archer, and he’s still the best and most surefire pitcher in this already improved rotation.

That being said, there’s a caveat to all this, and it’s paradoxical in nature. There’s a reason this Rays rotation has seen its projections improve so dramatically. Two, in fact. For starters, they’ve just been really good. They’re second in strikeout rate, fourth in xFIP, sixth in FIP, and eighth in ERA. But more than that is the history of the players involved. Scan that table again, and see if you notice anything all 10 pitchers have in common. Answer: they’re all either young, or have extensive injury histories. Whatever the case, all 10 of those pitchers from the table have significantly less recent data than your average major leaguer for the projections to use. Projections know what to think about veteran starters, so they’re less inclined to budge when something out of the ordinary occurs. With injured guys like Moore, Hill, or Jaime Garcia, and young guys like Snell, Jerad Eickhoff and Vincent Velasquez, the projections aren’t as sure what to think, and so they’re more easily swayed as the season unfolds. Put in more simple terms: the error bars are higher. And so just as easily as a handful of great starts from Moore, Smyly and Snell have swung the projections so dramatically in their favor, a handful of terrible starts could do the same in the other direction.

But those terrible starts haven’t yet happened, and all we’ve seen is good. It’s not like anyone’s ever doubted the talent. Snell’s a top prospect, and the only thing holding back Moore and Smyly has been their health. But Snell’s not a prospect anymore — he’s a part of the present — and Moore and Smyly’s health issues are in the rearview mirror, for now. We’re just 21 games into the season, and the outlook on the Rays rotation has already changed. And not in the direction you’d think, knowing Chris Archer still has a 5.47 ERA.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

newest oldest most voted
utahbones
Member
utahbones

You have to wonder if Snell sticks as the 5th starter when the Rays need one or do they get Erasmo Ramirez back into the rotation? Not that he’s a slouch either. This is one of those good problems to have.