How are Rays better? Let’s count the ways

by Gary Shelton on July 21, 2017 · 2 comments

in general, Tampa Bay Rays

Morrison was frustrated with the strike zone./CARMEN MANDATO

Morrison's own turnaround helped that of the Rays./CARMEN MANDATO

Friday, 4 a.m.

This year, they are in the middle of the race. Last year, they were dead in the water.

This year, they have a pulse. Last year, they were two steps beyond Last Rites.

This year, they matter. Last year, they were just another team finishing out a forgettable season.

Yes, things are different for the Tampa Bay Rays, all right. After a remarkable turnaround,  the Rays are an athletic, enjoyable team to watch. Last year, they were

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Corey Dickerson has been a much better hitter./TRAVIS PENDERGRASS

Corey Dickerson has been a much better hitter./TRAVIS PENDERGRASS

the Chicago White Sox. They were the San Francisco Giants. All the juice was gone from the 0range. Attendance was bad then, too, but hey, you could understand, right? There was nothing much to see.

This year, the Rays are worth staying up late to watch. This year, you can imagine a race in which they contend for the division lead, or at least a wild card. This year, it is easy to imagine fans from across the country shaking their heads and asking “Where did those guys come from?”

Where, indeed? That's the question, isn't it. Going into tonight's game, the Rays are a full 13 games better than they were after 96 games of a year ago. At this point in the season last year, the Rays were 18 1/2 games back, and they were playing .438 baseball. This year, they're three back and playing at a .531 pace.

And so what changed?

Except, you know, everything.

The speed has changed. The power has changed. The starting pitching has changed.

Also, the money has changed.

This time a year ago, the Rays were last in the league in spending cash at just over $71 million. They still aren't the Red Sox, but that's been greatly improved. The

Souza has twice the homers of year ago../JEFFREY S. KING

Souza has twice the homers of year ago../JEFFREY S. KING

Rays are now 27th in the league, spending just short of $90 million total, according to Spotrac.com. (Their spending on the 25-man roster is also 27th at $55,477,956).  According to baseball reference, the Rays are at $77 million in payroll. With the way the Rays pinch nickels, that can go a long way toward augmenting one's team.

Where has the improvement come from? It's come on the other side of the fence. The Rays had hit 124 home runs this time last year. This year, they've hit 139. And of the 15 extra homers, 11 of them have come with men on base. In all, the Rays have scored 63 more runs.

The extra success has come in close games. This year, the Rays have won 12 one-run games. Last year, at this point, they had won seven.

The improvement has come on the mound. This year, Rays' starters have an ERA of 3.93. Last year, it was 4.33. Even the bullpen, as leaky as it has been for much of the year, is better. The ERA is 4.40 compared to 4.54.

Five more wins have come in extra innings. Five more have come when the team was behind after eight innings.

A lot of the improvement has come through turnaround seasons. The Rays have a quartet of players who have improved dramatically. Corey Dickerson's average is 69 points higher than it was this time last year. Logan Morrison has 16 more homers and 30 more RBI (plus 26 more points on his average). Steven Souza Jr. has 10 more homers, 28 more RBI and another 29 points on his average. Tim Beckham has 46 more points on his average.

On the mound, Chris Archer has 13 quality starts; he had nine at the point last year. Alex Cobb has 10 quality starts; he was hurt and had none last  year. Jacob Faria has seven quality starts; he was in the minors last year.

Alex Colome has 28 saves; he had 21 this time last year.

The Rays have five more wins against the AL East this year. They also have five more against the AL Central. They have one more against the AL West, and they have four fewer losses against the National League.

The Rays are faring better against the calendar, too. They had 17 wins this May; only 11 last year. They have nine wins so far in July; after 97 games last year, they had won only five times in July.

They've won 14 more games against right-handed pitchers. They've won 14 more when outhitting the opposition. They've won six more come-from-behind victories.

The current Rays pass the eye test, too. Adeiny Hechavarria is a slicker-fielding shortstop than the Rays had a year ago. Mallex Smith, with his 13 steals, is more of a threat on the base paths. (Kevin Kiermaier's six stolen bases led last year's team at this point.)

In other words, this season's success hasn't been a fluke. The play has been better, and the lineup is strong, and the confidence has been higher.

Oh, the Red Sox and Yankees still have the money in their favor and, with it, the odds. Still, these Rays have earned themselves a chance. They've stayed in the race.

Now that they're here, three games back with 66 to play, why not just go ahead and win it?

Beckman has become a key Ray./CARMEN MANDATO

Beckman has become a key Ray./CARMEN MANDATO

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Bill MYERS July 21, 2017 at 10:14 am

I confess I was one of those fans that signed off on the Rays this time last year! This year looks way more interesting. This is a great time for us sports fans and you writers! Baseball playoffs on the horizon, NFL around the corner and the NHL and NBA warming up. All that and the Bucs on Hard Knocks as a bonus! Wow!

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Gary Shelton July 21, 2017 at 10:38 am

Tampa Bay had quite the run in the early 00s. Maybe it’s that time again.

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