Saturday, September 27, 2008

Playoffs Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

Eight notes and observations on each of the eight playoff teams ... today, the Devil Rays.

1. 30 more for the under-30

With 96 wins this morning, the Rays have improved on last year's 66-96 record by an amazing 30 games. Only two other teams have gained 30 wins in a 162-game schedule: the 1999 Diamondbacks, who rode Randy Johnson to a playoff spot in their second year; and the 1993 Giants, who had some guy named Bonds hit 46 homers, steal 26 bases, and win his second-straight MVP.

The big, big difference between this team and those two is the age. The Bay Rays have an average age of 27 for hitters, 27.5 for pitchers. (Second-lowest in the league, incidentally.) The Giants were a full year older and the D-Backs were over 30 on average. Nobody in the Rays' rotation was born before December 1981.

2. Shield yourself

James Shields, ladies and gentlemen. Pitchers who strike out four batters for every walk don't come along every day, nor do those who throw a power changeup that nobody can tell from his fastball. Shields has started to cut that heater, but the money pitch is the change, especially with two strikes.

3. I cannot emphasize this enough

I'm sure several teams would love to have five starters pitch as well as the Rays' youngsters did this year, but what must be remembered and beaten into everyone's heads is that the defensive improvement Tampa Bay made turns good pitchers into great ones (and Scott Kazmir into a superhuman). This year, the Rays are turning 71% of all balls in play (non-homers, basically) into outs. That's the best in the AL. Last year, it was a dismal 66%, which wasn't even close to the second-worst team. 5% doesn't seem like much to you? That's at least an extra out every game and baseball is legendary for games turning on one play. They replaced Brendan Harris, Jorge Cantu, and Elijah Dukes, three vile defenders at three hugely important defensive positions, with guys who know which hand the glove goes on.

Also, they stopped humouring Jonny Gomes, who couldn't catch the ball if you handed it to him.

4. Manager of the year, obviously

Joe Maddon has been a favourite for a while and he's finally getting some recognition. Go here and look at all the part-time players with OPS+ over 100 and fewer than 400 AB: those are all the hitters that Maddon has used in such a way as to maximize their skills. Don't take my word for it, though. Maddon found a way to make Eric Hinske useful. Eric. Hinske.

And the thing about five young pitchers: find me another manager who takes five guys who, aside from Kazmir, are still learning which clubs to hit while on the road in Kansas City and gets 30 starts out of each of them (as Maddon will once the playoffs are over).

5. Yet another teenager 22-year-old who puts you to shame

Do we also have the rookie of the year on this team? Evan Longoria is hitting cleanup for a division winner and slugging .538 and receiving champagne from his near-namesake. And he's 10 days away from his 23rd birthday. Longoria was drafted third overall in 2006. So how many millions did you get when you were 21?

6. Some relief

It's probably a function of their defence, but whatever: linking to this article about the Rays' bullpen's being the top in the game allows me to mention the name Grant Balfour, easily the best ballplayer name since Willie Weakgroundertothird. J.P. Howell is also this year's Hideki Okajima except he pitches more.

7. You know, Pinball Clemons is from Dunedin...

The problem with success out of nowhere, with only 10 years in the league, is that nobody can throw out the first pitch in Game 1 without seeming like a joke of a choice. Victor Zambrano is a brilliant suggestion, given that the Mets were dumb enough to make one of the worst trades ever, but I prefer "the one that got Steve Irwin."

8. The Rays Index stands at...

9.4 out of 10. 8 represents "will be in playoff contention all season" so I guess they're being realistic, eh?

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