The first line of my 2020 MLB Betting Guide preview for the Tampa Bay Rays read this: “Innovation and aggression can level the playing field in any sport.”
The Tampa Bay Rays are at the forefront of virtually every movement in Major League Baseball. Their ability to evaluate talent and interpret the types of edges that small-market teams need in order to consistently compete is second to none. It led to an appearance in the World Series. Sixty games or not, there is no asterisk on what the Rays were able to achieve. Not when you beat the New York Yankees, Houston Astros, and go right at the Los Angeles Dodgers in the process.
My most bullish position in 2020 was on the Rays. I liked them as a World Series future at 30/1. I liked them to slay the mighty dragon and best the Yankees for the AL East in the +650 range. I liked them to fly over 90.5 wins. As it turned out, they did topple Goliath and would have been a great World Series “David” to hedge. Of course the shortened season and the pandemic skewed the futures market and rendered my season-long picks before the 2020 season null and void.
A lot of people won’t remember what the Rays did to get there. How their innovative and different style of managing the game produced a 40-20 record. How that same style led to a 96-66 record in 2019 and the best record in the AL East by 3rd Order Win%. All that people will remember is that Kevin Cash pulled Blake Snell in Game 6 at a critical juncture, Nick Anderson gave up two doubles and threw a wild pitch, and a discussion on analytics and how the game isn’t played on a spreadsheet became a bull-in-a-china-shop narrative as a result of it all.
Unfortunately, my position is much lighter on Tampa Bay this time around. I’ll speak more about the offseason transactions shortly, but I was a believer and a supporter of the Blake Snell trade and not because of Game 6 reaction or the subsequent backlash faced by Cash and the Rays organization. Teams hold on to assets too long. They don’t trade when the market value is high. They trade when the market value is depressed, whether that comes as a result of less leverage from a contract situation or because a player’s performance has fallen off.
Teams in Tampa Bay’s situation need to be proactive instead of reactive. With the Toronto Blue Jays spending spree, the Rays payroll is yet again dwarfed in comparison to three other division foes and Baltimore has spent money before. They have to get creative. They have to sell at a high point from time to time.
The problem is that Snell departs at the same time Charlie Morton signed with Atlanta. Oft-injured Tyler Glasnow now fronts a reconfigured rotation with additional high-risk hurlers in Michael Wacha and Trevor Richards. Prospects Brent Honeywell and Brendan McKay join three Tommy John surgery guys in Yonny Chirinos, Jalen Beeks, and Colin Poche on the injured list.
That puts a lot of burden on the offense and will force the bullpen to be almost perfect. However, if any team can do it, it is the Rays, who deserve all of the benefits of all of the doubts on an annual basis.
2021 Over/Under Season Win Total Odds
Odds To Win AL East
|Team||Odds To Win|
|New York Yankees||-200|
|Tampa Bay Rays||+350|
|Toronto Blue Jays||+350|
|Boston Red Sox||+2000|
|BaseRuns Run Differential||+51 (4.95/4.10)||+160 (4.90/3.91)|
|3rd Order Win%||34.3-25.7||99.2-62.8|
|Record in One-Run Games||14-5||23-16|
Additions: Collin McHugh, Rich Hill, Louis Head, Brian Moran, Stetson Allie, Joey Krehbiel, Hunter Strickland, Chris Archer, Adrian De Horta, Yacksel Rios, Michael Wacha, Joseph Odom, Chris Ellis, David Hess, Evan Edwards, Jeffrey Springs, Chris Mazza, Dillon Paulson, Francisco Mejia, Blake Hunt, Luis Patino, Cole Wilcox, Heriberto Hernandez, Osleivis Basabe, Alexander Ovalles
Losses: Edgar Garcia, Hunter Renfroe, Brian O’Grady, Chaz Roe, Oliver Drake, Aaron Loup, Charlie Morton, Ronaldo Hernandez, Nick Sogard, John Curtiss, Aaron Slegers, Jose Alvarado, Blake Snell, Nate Lowe, Jake Guenther, Michael Perez
Every offseason on the Gulf Coast is an interesting one. I’m amazed that teams still trade with the Tampa Bay Rays given how well the trades usually work out for them, but it keeps happening every winter. Blake Snell was the biggest name to be on the move, as he was sent to San Diego for Francisco Mejia, Blake Hunt, Luis Patino, and Cole Wilcox. Patino is the upside guy of the four, as a 21-year-old that regularly hits triple digits. The Padres used him primarily as a reliever last season. We’ll have to see how the Rays use him, but he’s likely to start the season in Triple-A.
This is what the Rays have to do. Many said that the Snell deal was financially motivated. To a degree, it might have been, but the Rays have to be creative and aggressive. Snell has had elbow and shoulder concerns. If they felt like those were going to get bigger, it made sense for them to move on. The Padres seem to have a very high risk tolerance for injuries. The Rays can’t afford to have one.
Chris Archer has found his way back home after the Rays traded him to the Pirates a few seasons ago in a heist that featured Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow. Michael Wacha is a one-year gamble for the Rays in hopes of finding some useful rotation innings, which are in demand with Snell in San Diego and Charlie Morton in Atlanta.
The Rays are also rebuilding the bullpen on the fly. They traded Ryne Stanek last season and Jose Alvarado this winter. Chaz Roe, Oliver Drake, and Aaron Loup went to free agency as the Rays overhauled the pen in an 18-month stretch. Diego Castillo is the only homegrown talent in the projected pen.
Tampa went out right as Spring Training was getting ready to start and took chances on Rich Hill and Collin McHugh and I’m nerding out about both. I’m sure I’m not alone.
|Batting Average (BA)||.238 (21st)||.254 (12th)|
|On-Base Percentage (OBP)||.328 (11th)||.325 (13th)|
|Slugging Percentage (SLG)||.425 (15th)||.431 (15th)|
|Weighted On-Base Avg (wOBA)||.325 (13th)||.321 (13th)|
|Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+)||110 (8th)||102 (9th)|
|Batting Avg on Balls In Play (BABIP)||.300 (11th)||.306 (7th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||26.9% (29th)||23.8% (21st)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||10.7% (4th)||8.6% (15th)|
My fascination with the Rays runs deep. Something of great interest to me is how they are like a chameleon offensively. Tropicana Field is not a good hitter’s park. The climate-controlled conditions suffocate fly balls. It is the only pitcher’s park in the AL East. The Rays typically win low-scoring games at home, but find ways to be pretty good offensively on the road.
What usually winds up happening is that the 81 games at home lower their statistics for things like batting average and slugging percentage, giving off the illusion that they are just a pedestrian, run-of-the-mill offense. However, wRC+, which is both park-adjusted and league-adjusted, puts Tropicana Field in the proper context. The fact that the Rays have been a top-10 offense in baseball each of the last two seasons in wRC+ is proof that what the Rays have done has worked well.
Every MLB season is different nowadays. The baseball has played differently each of the last few seasons and there always seems to be some new fad. From 2015-19, the Rays did not concern themselves with drawing walks. They wanted to put as many balls in play as possible. Then they started to focus more on guys that hit the ball really hard. Last season, almost as an experiment to prove that strikeouts are not really any worse than any other kind of out, the Rays had their highest K% in franchise history, but posted a franchise-leading 110 wRC+.
Now, if you want to throw an asterisk on that because it was a 60-game season, be my guest. The Rays also walked at the highest rate in franchise history at 10.7%, mere hundredths of a decimal point better than 2010. Three of the top eight offensive seasons in franchise history have come the last three seasons using wRC+ as the criteria.
Back in 2018, Tampa Bay did it by putting a ton of balls in play and by hitting against the shift. They had the league’s highest Oppo% at 28% in an era when it was all about increased launch angles and looking to do damage with pulled contact. Last season, the Rays had their second-highest Pull% in franchise history at 44.3% and led all of baseball in that department.
Along with the increase in Pull%, the Rays had their best HR/FB% in franchise history at 16.5%. Interestingly, that mark was only 11th out of the 30 teams, but the Rays were seventh in HR/FB% on the road. They pulled 46.3% of pitches per FanGraphs in road games. That was 1.5% higher than any other team in baseball. They were 13th in Pull% at home.
It is worth noting that the Rays had a strikeout or a walk in 39.8% of their plate appearances at home. That number fell to 35.6% on the road. Perhaps that is more of a game-by-game betting angle than a season win total consideration, but, again, it speaks to how this offense has different goals at home against the road. They are more aggressive on the road and more passive at home.
Like I said, the Rays try to play to their park factor and win low-scoring games at home. On the road, if all hell breaks loose, they have the offense to compete. To me, this is an underappreciated group because the complete body of work never really stands out in a dramatic way, but this offense can play whatever role it needs to play. It is the Swiss army knife of lineups.
Another reason why this group doesn’t get much love is that it lacks star power. It looked like Austin Meadows was on the path to stardom in 2019 with a .291/.364/.558 slash, a .380 wOBA, and a 143 wRC+, but he followed up that stellar season with a .205/.296/.371 with a .292 wOBA and an 87 wRC+ in the shortened 2020 season. He did get a little bit of a late start to the season and never really got into a groove before missing the last little bit of the regular season.
Maybe Randy Arazorena is the star in waiting after a .281/.382/.641 slash in 76 regular season plate appearances and an absurd playoff run with a .377/.442/.831 slash in 86 PA. He hit 10 home runs in 20 postseason games.
Other than those two, this is just a collection of dudes in which nobody really sucks. It’s a crude way of saying it, but a lot of teams run guys out there that aren’t very good. Every player at every position for the Rays contributes in some way. The ones that can’t hit are good fielders, like Manny Margot and Kevin Kiermaier.
As far as a 2021 projection, I would expect the Rays offense to keep doing what it has been doing. It may be more front and center now because the rotation looks weaker, so more may be asked of the offense, especially at home. But, this is a blueprint that has worked. The Rays simply don’t have many below average position players and still utilize platoons as well as any team in baseball.
The walk rate will regress because the league-wide walk rate will regress. If the strikeout rate does not regress in concert, then I would be a little more pessimistic about the offensive upside of the Rays. For now, I’d expect an offense that has done precisely what it has achieved over the last couple of seasons and I love how they are willing to be flexible based on the location of the game. It is some next-level thinking.
|Earned Run Average (ERA)||3.56 (3rd)||3.67 (3rd)|
|Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)||3.94 (7th)||3.65 (1st)|
|Adj. Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP)||3.94 (3rd)||3.89 (3rd)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||25.0% (7th)||26.6% (2nd)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||7.6% (3rd)||7.4% (3rd)|
|Left On Base Percentage (LOB%)||77.2% (2nd)||73.8% (11th)|
It is my belief that what has happened to the Rays pitching staff will be overvalued in the betting markets for this season. Remember all of the criticism that Kevin Cash received for pulling Blake Snell in Game 6? The Rays got 40 starts from Tyler Glasnow, Blake Snell, Ryan Yarbrough, and Charlie Morton. If we extend that further, they got five starts from Josh Fleming, four starts from Trevor Richards, and three starts from Yonny Chirinos.
This was not a team that used the opener nearly as much as we had seen in the past. Going off of those numbers, 52 of the 60 games were started by guys that are starting pitchers primarily. Yet the Rays were 26th in innings by starting pitchers last season.
Like I talked about on the offensive side of the spectrum, this is an organization that strives to find advantages in areas that others overlook or simply don’t care to see. That was the whole mindset behind the opener. Get through the top of the order once so a starter only has to roll it over twice while you get five or six innings out of them.
The third time through the order penalty is not a new thing. It has been a commonly-held belief backed by statistical evidence that a pitcher turning the lineup over a third time is a bad thing. In 2019, batters hit .245/.311/.419 the first time through against a starter, .261/.324/.452 the second time through, and .269/.330/.474 the third time through.
As specialization has increased and teams have broken the mold of what is considered “normal” in baseball, we’ve seen pitchers face a batter in the third time through split far less often. During the 2019 season, the Rays had a starting pitcher face a hitter for the third time just 517 times out of the 23,544 in baseball. Only the Angels had fewer, but their starting pitchers also weren’t very good. The ironic thing is that hitters the third time through batted just .231/.280/.399 in those plate appearances.
Last season, the Rays were 25th with 157, though they did utilize the opener far less often than they had the previous year. In the small sample, hitters actually performed above league average with a .264/.333/.450 slash compared to the .253/.320/.433 league-wide.
So, yeah, Blake Snell and Charlie Morton are gone, but the Rays are hardly looking for miracles from the starting staff. So long as Tyler Glasnow, Chris Archer, Ryan Yarbrough, Michael Wacha, Rich Hill, and Josh Fleming can get them through five innings, they’ll turn it over to the bullpen, especially with MLB now running a 26-man roster in light of the three-batter minimum.
Are the losses of Snell and Morton impactful? Of course, but I don’t think they’ll be viewed in the proper context because they are big names. The replacements are not. However, the Rays would rather have it in the hands of their bullpen in the middle innings and this setup allows them to do exactly that.
Some natural regression without those two is indeed possible, so I wouldn’t quite expect the Rays to be in the top five in ERA or maybe even FIP and xFIP this season, but they should still be a top-10 unit. This was a bullpen that was tops in fWAR, third in ERA, fourth in FIP, third in xFIP, and even did it while ranking 20th in K%. The Rays are really focused on throwing out different arm slots and looks at hitters while limiting hard contact against. Again, just another way in which Tampa Bay is different.
I’m actually giddy about Collin McHugh and his slider and curveball spin rates in the bullpen. The Rays have also reunited with Chaz Roe and his Frisbee slider. They’ve got a ridiculous variety of arm slots, stuff, and ways to maximize the relief corps. I love this pitching staff so much when there are basically two or three household names for most people.
Positives & Negatives
I love Kevin Cash. I know a lot of people criticized him like crazy for what happened in the World Series with Blake Snell. It was a philosophy and a thought process that has carried the Rays to a lot of success in recent years. The mistake wasn’t pulling Snell, it was going to Nick Anderson, who looked gassed well before that key sixth inning.
The Rays are so smart and scheme so well. There is complete buy-in from top to bottom for the most part, Snell’s comments aside. This is a team that has found competitive edges at the margins offensively and especially defensively, where the Rays are year in and year out one of the best teams in any defensive metric. As teams increased their launch angles and hit more fly balls, the Rays targeted a guy like Manny Margot to be better prepared for that style of batted ball.
They just figure things out. I trust them implicitly with every move they decide to make. The smart organizations consistently win and exceed expectations with the help of analytics. Those that haven’t embraced enough of the data that is out there continue to struggle. The Rays are at the forefront of most trends, even as they’ve experienced a huge brain drain losing guys like Andrew Friedman and Chaim Bloom. That kind of staying power commands respect.
Tampa Bay Rays Pick & Prediction: Over 85.5
Over the last few seasons, bullpens have gotten a lot more respect in the betting community, particularly with these types of futures or season-long props. Everybody knows that pitchers don’t work as deep into games anymore and the best bullpens have a huge advantage. The Rays have one of the best bullpens in baseball again this season and that should give bettors a high degree of confidence in their ability to win.
Last season’s win percentage with a lead after five innings was 79.7%. With a lead after six innings, it was 82.9%. The Rays were at 87.5% and 92.9%, respectively. When they scored five or more runs in a game, they lost once in 26 games.
Back in 2019, the Rays were 83.1% with a lead after five and 91.4% with a lead after six. The league averages were 80.4% and 84%, respectively.
So that’s really the question for this team. How many leads will they have to work with after five innings with guys like Wacha, Archer, and Hill in the rotation?
The answer? Enough. I like the Rays over 85.5 wins this season. I actually went into the introduction not sure how much I liked this team, but what they do is absolutely brilliant in all facets of the game. This is a great defensive team, which will help a pitching staff that is surely going to drop in the strikeout department without Snell and Morton.
The offense is a chameleon based on the ballpark and a really good one. And that bullpen! Total nerd alert!
This is a bet for me. This is one of my strongest win total opinions in the AL East. The line is too short because of the well-publicized playoff exit and the Snell and Morton losses. Starting pitchers are less important than ever before and this bullpen is ridiculously fun and talented and will finish off a lot of games.
Spoiler alert here, but the Rays line is also depressed because of the presence of the Toronto Blue Jays, one of the league’s biggest buzz teams. Tampa Bay will be better than Toronto.
Rays over 85.5 is on the list of bets.