The Rays will Raise the Division Crown
A preseason article by Baseball Prospectus in Sports Illustrated grabbed fans’ attention rather forcefully. In it, the writer revealed PECOTA, the program BP uses to calculate records of all 30 teams in the preseason, projected 88 wins for the Tampa Bay Rays. That was heavy stuff for a franchise that had never won more than 70.
The Rays have been nothing short of astounding this season, playing .590 ball (which paces out to 95-67 record over an entire season) through Tuesday. They lead the Boston Red Sox, who lead the Wild Card race, by one game. The New York Yankees are lurking only 3.5 games behind Tampa Bay.
Expect the Rays to maintain their division lead. They were too well built to come apart in August and September. General manager Andrew Friedman drastically his defense by way of several moves. Defensive wizard Evan Longoria has been called up to man the hot corner, which sent sure-handed Akinori Iwamura to second base to replace the below-average glove of BJ Upton. Friedman also acquired Jason Bartlett to man shortstop, which he does with much aplomb.
All of these moves increased their defensive efficiency, which is a measure of a defense’s ability to turn balls into play into outs. Defense rarely goes into a slump, since it is based upon reaction time, instinct, and speed. Its improvement, along with the addition of future No. 2 starter Matt Garza (8-5, 3.68), has improved a pitching staff that was beyond bad last season. And as the cliché goes, “Pitching and defense wins championships.”
Let’s take a gander at the Red Sox. David Ortiz is expected to return sometime this week or next week. That will be an improvement to the team’s fortunes, but not as much as you think. Boston will slide Manny Ramirez back into left field, which paralyzes their outfield defense, to vacate the DH spot for Ortiz. This reduces its defensive efficiency, but should be a net boon to the team.
One last thing in favor of the Rays: an offense that hasn’t clicked yet. About the only player hitting over his head is Dioner Navarro. Considering their talents, Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, and Upton are primed for big second halves.
The baseball world has a fever, and the only prescription is more cowbell.
So who’s got the goods? Aside from the fact that the Boston Red Sox are just statistically better than the Tampa Bay Rays, there is one aspect that will make all the difference and push Boston over the top as the second half of the season unfolds: experience.
To give you an idea, the Red Sox return 21 players from last year’s World Series winning team. If you want to go a little deeper than that, they still have 6 players that were a part of the 2004 Championship team. The Rays have just 4 players who have been on a World Series team; the majority of their players have never even been to the playoffs. I don’t care who you are, when the post-season starts, the pressure level goes up about 100% and having experience makes a huge difference.
So, what about their remaining schedules? Boston has the overall edge in this category. Of their remaining 59 games, 34 are at home where they have a 36-11 record; Tampa has 62 games left with only 25 of them at home; more games and less at home. Boston will play 34 teams with records above .500 and Tampa faces 35, pretty close. Head to head they face each other 6 more times, split evenly home and away.
Additionally, you must take into account these games are during the last weeks of the regular season. The fans at Fenway, as with the team, ratchet things up a notch as the season comes to a close. Additionally, as great as attendance has been this year for the Rays at “The Trop”, when they host Boston, the Florida branch of the Red Sox nation shows up in force. It evens things out and takes away from that much needed home field advantage. This is not my opinion either; take a look at the number of Boston jerseys in the stands.
Lastly, with every game and addition to the D.L., it becomes clearer that the Yankees will not win the A.L. East. But I can guarantee that Old George is telling his sons “I can barely stomach losing to the Red Sox, but I will be damned if I am going to finish behind the Rays!” The Yanks might not have enough gas to take over first, but I am certain they will cause the Rays problems as the season ends.
In every season of every sport, it seems there is always a “Cinderella” team that makes it deep into the playoffs. The Rays may very well be the “Cinderella” of the ’08 Postseason, but the only way “she” is making it to the “ball” is via the Wildcard. “Old Cindy” will not be wearing the American League East Crown this year.