Tonight, on a very special episode of Series Previews...
I'm writing this on July 29th, so for the purposes of this article, "a month ago" refers to June 29th. You will not be reading this on July 29th, unless I screw up and post it early, so you are still expected to use your imaginations.
A month ago, the Rays began the day in fourth place, seven games behind the Red Sox in the AL East. They had a good team, no one has ever really questioned that. They had a good team the year before, too, when their 90-72 record was good for a non-Wild Card third in the division.
See, "good" doesn't really get you too far in the AL East. They were 41-39 in the best division in baseball, and seemed destined for another heavily-praised but fruitless "good" season.
Some things have changed since then.
What the Stats Say (According to Fangraphs):
||Too Close to Call!
Over the last 30 days, Tampa has gone 22-4. Following the victory over the Red Sox on Monday, they officially have the best record in the AL. They have the third-best wRC+, the best ERA, and the second-best FIP over the past 30 days as well. Give my apologies to the Dodgers,* but the Rays have been the best team in baseball for the last month.
Again, the offense is actually the most surprising aspect of this to me, as a casual observer of the AL. The narrative around the Rays, insofar as the Rays get a national narrative beyond "look at this plucky little team that occasionally annoys the Yankees and Red Sox," is that they win with pitching and defense and Joe Maddon.
While it's not totally true (no Rays team has had a below-average wRC+ since 2006), it sticks. And it is true that this is probably the best Rays offense relative to the league in a while.
What it all amounts to is that, in the last month, the Rays have upgraded their profile from that of a pretty good team to that of one of the two or three best teams in baseball this year.
*Actually, don't give my apologies to the Dodgers. Those guys are the worst.
1. Adam Eaton, LF
2. AJ Pollock, CF
3. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
4. Aaron Hill, 2B
5. Martin Prado, 3B
6. Gerardo Parra, RF
7. Cody Ross, DH
8.Miguel Montero, C
9. Didi Gregorius, SS
Tampa Bay Rays
1. Desmond Jennings, CF
2. Ben Zobrist, 2B
3. Evan Longoria, 3B
4. Wil Myers, LF
5. Luke Scott, DH
6. Matt Joyce, RF
7. Yunel Escobar, SS
8. James Loney, 1B
9. Jose Molina, C
Let me tell you the story of a rookie outfielder turned phenom. He arrived on the team via circumstances that raised eyebrows around the major leagues last year, and he didn't arrive on the team until June. But once he arrived, he not only filled a need by hitting right away, but he breathed life into a struggling team that has turned its season around since his arrival.
What? No, not that outfielder. What are you, ESPN? Wil Myers went to Tampa as one of the main pieces in the most recent Trade That Broke The Internet. It was not pretty for the Royals when it happened, and it has not gotten prettier over time. Wil Myers is 22, has a .891 OPS and was named the top prospect in baseball just last year. He still might not be good, but I don't think I'd take that bet anymore.
Meanwhile, Evan Longoria is just putting another solidly above-average season at Third. He has an OPS+ of 139 that pairs nicely with his career OPS+ of 137. He's no longer in the conversation for the best Third Baseman in the game, because that conversation currently starts and stops with Miguel Cabrera. Longoria will just have to settle for being in the conversation for the second-best Third Baseman in the game.
Even outside of the stars, it's a pretty balanced lineup. Ben Zobrist is still the best player you aren't paying attention to, so shame on you for that. Matt Joyce is fine as a rotating RF/DH, and James Loney has finally extended the approach he has against the Diamondbacks (namely, hitting the ball hard to all fields) to every other major league team. It was a bold move, but it seems to be paying dividends for him so far, as he has an OPS of .838.
I mean, Yunel Escobar hasn't hit all that well since the middle of last year when he found out that it wasn't 1959 and people don't really like homophobic slurs anymore, which is probably a coincidence but it wouldn't be coincidence in a karmic world. And Joses Molina and Lobaton form a thoroughly uninspiring offensive platoon (combined OPS: .653) at Catcher. But really, there's not much to complain about here.
Tuesday: Ian Kennedy (3-7, 5.22) vs. Roberto Hernandez (5-11, 4.92)
Insightful Commentary: Kennedy's last start didn't look like a disaster from the stat line, but he was a dubious error away from giving up six ER in five innings. Cahill is almost back, and that means that one of Delgado and IPK is going down. Of those two, which do you have more confidence in to post a lower ERA the rest of the way? And which do you think will be a bigger part of the team's future? If your answer to both questions was Delgado (as mine was) then I don't see how Kennedy sticks around after Cahill returns.
If you're trying to figure out who the hell Roberto Hernandez is, it's because he used to be Fausto Carmona, which is a much more interesting name. After the Indians gave up on their weirdly inconsistent right-hander, the Rays scooped him up, hoping that he might eat a few innings before their impressive stable of prospects was ready. He hasn't been good, exactly, and he's the weak point of a great rotation, but his strikeouts are up and his walks are down, which is why he's still around this late into the season.
Wednesday: Wade Miley (7-8, 3.86) vs. Jeremy Hellickson (10-3, 4.48)
Insightful Commentary: Miley going 7.2 innings and allowing just one run after getting nailed in the leg with a baseball was one of the more impressive things I've seen from a Diamondback pitcher this year, except for Corbin's entire season. Miley's been outplaying his peripherals a bit since the start of July, and I expect that will even out somewhat. But he's so much better than where he was in May that it hardly matters at this point.
For his first two years as a starter, Hellickson's ERA was noticeably better than his ERA. As always happens when a young starter does this, two camps break out: the SABR folks on one side and a weird coalition of talking heads who believe in grit and gumption and fans of the team who would otherwise know better. Sometimes the second group triumphs (Matt Cain- 2006-2012) but more often than not the young starter ends up having a season like Hellickson's 2013. His strikeouts have jumped up and his walks have dropped, so his FIP has dropped accordingly. So of course he gets rewarded with his worst ERA of his career thanks to a low Strand Rate. Baseball, man.
Two Pressing Questions (for a two game series):
What are the Rays doing at the Trade Deadline? In a move that cuts like a knife through the hearts of our resident rosterbators, the Rays went out and got Jesse Crain, who was pretty clearly the best non-closer on the market before he got injured. The Rays had to part with a hot young prospect named Future Considerations, so this could be a really big blow for them. Or not. We'll see, I guess. #analysis.
Kelly Johnson? Kelly Johnson! He's been rotating with Zobrist at Second and, more surprisingly, with Myers and Joyce in the corner OF spots. He's doing pretty well here, too, with an OPS+ of 119 overall.
You aren't reading this, Kelly Johnson, but if you are, thanks for making the most frustrating season I've ever watched slightly less terrible, thanks for this thread, thanks for netting us Aaron Hill and John McDonald to boot, and thanks for looking weirdly similar to Stephen Drew during the most confusing infield transfers possible.
Rays Blog: DRays Bay
(All numbers via Fangraphs or Baseball-Reference unless otherwise indicated.)