The Mets head down to Tampa Bay for some more interleague action and that means it's time for another edition of Amazin' Avenue's Five For Five series preview. The Rays currently lead the American League East by a half game over the Yankees with a 35-25 record and are fresh off of a sweep of the Miami Marlins. To get a little more insight on the Rays, I sent some questions over to Steve Slowinski, manager of SB Nation's Rays blog DRaysBay and he was gracious enough to answer them for us.
AA: The Rays still find themselves in first place in the AL East, even after losing star 3rd baseman Evan Longoria in late April. What has kept the team afloat in his absence and who has picked up the slack?
DRB: The same thing the team does every year: good pitching and defense. The Rays' offense has been very inconsistent without Longoria, going for stretches of games without being able to muster up much offense, and it's been all but impotent against left-handed pitchers of late. With Longoria and Desmond Jennings out and the Rays best power threats -- Matt Joyce, Carlos Pena, and Luke Scott -- neutralized, left-handed pitchers have been the bane of the Rays existence of late. Thankfully, right-handed pitchers are a lot more prevalent than those darn southpaws.
Jennings is back now so the Rays' offense is coming around some, but still, there's no way they'd be in this position without some superb pitching. The Rays have the fifth best ERA and the 13th best FIP in the majors, and their defense has allowed them to outperform their peripherals yet again. David Price has been pitching like a true ace; Jeremy Hellickson is dramatically outperforming his FIP yet again; James Shields has taken his game to a new level (even if his ERA doesn't show it yet); and Matt Moore is finally beginning to warm up and pitch to the level we saw last September. And that's not even mentioning that whole Fernando Rodney guy...
AA: Fernando Rodney is having an awesome season as the Rays' closer, a year after Kyle Farnsworth pulled a similar trick. What kind of black magic is Andrew Friedman using on his relievers and where can Sandy Alderson find it? In all seriousness, is there something that the team is doing to help these pitchers or is this just a case of picking up the right guy at the right time?
DRB: After all the Rays success stories with relief pitchers, you'd think we'd be able to find a common thread by now...but I'll be damned if I can see one. The best I can tell you is that the Rays target relief pitchers with high upside, dominant "stuff". They don't care that much about control issues, but focus more on if a player has dominant pitches and a plus-plus scouting report. Or in other words: Fernando Rodney, Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit, etc.
And once the Rays acquire these pitchers, they do help them make some minor adjustments that will allow them to use their pitches better. Fernando Rodney moved to the opposite side of the rubber this year, and it seems to be helping his pitch location. I also wouldn't be surprised if the Rays have some special tricks up their sleeve to help pitchers regain a bit of control.
But honestly, I'm beginning to think their success at teaching wild pitchers control stems from something a bit more elusive than that: trust and philosophy. This isn't something I can prove, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Rays go up these wild relievers and give them the following pep talk:
"You've got a f***ing amazing defense behind you and your pitches are f***ing amazing, so don't you dare walk a hitter you #%U&)#(@. For every hitter you walk, a kitten dies. A KITTEN DIES! I'd sooner you threw the %#*U(@ ball down the center of the goddamn f***ing plate and let them hit the ball.
Remember: A KITTEN WILL DIE. And you'll have to watch."
That's the best I've got.
AA: For the second year in a row, Jeremy Hellickson is out-pitching his peripherals by quite a large margin. Since you've been able to watch him throw for some time now, what has kept his BABIP so low and do you think what he's doing is sustainable over the course of time?
DRB: Considering Hellickson has a 2.65 ERA right now and a 4.74 FIP, no, I do not think his success is sustainable. Heck, even Matt Cain only has a career ERA-FIP difference of .34. If Hellickson's success were sustainable, he'd be breaking DIPs theory in a way that Cain can only dream about. He'd be turning sabermetrics into a flaming wreck, watching our statues to Voros McCracken and Bill James crumble and burn while apathetically staring into the distance.
That said, I do think that Hellickson will be one of those pitchers that's able to consistently maintain an ERA that's lower than his FIP would suggest. Like Matt Cain and Jered Weaver -- who has a career .33 ERA-FIP difference, by the way -- Hellickson is an extreme flyball pitcher. These type of pitchers (or at least, the good ones) tend to be very good at two things: keeping those flyballs in the yard at a rate lower than league-average, and in inducing a large number of infield pop-ups. Infield flys are about the surest out you can get outside a strikeout, so getting a large number of those will allow Hellickson to keep his ERA lower than his FIP (which doesn't know about this whole pop-up thing).
So I whole-heartedly expect Hellickson to regress at some point this season; I just don't expect him to regress as much as a quick glance at his peripherals would make you think. Also, he's slowly improving his strikeout and walk rates over time, so it's entirely possible that he becomes an even better pitcher as the season progresses and his luck begins to even out.
AA: Considering how popular defensive shifts have become around baseball and that the Rays were sort of the shifting pioneers, how would you rate the effectiveness of the team's shifting? Is the Rays' efficiency on defense a strict by-product of shifts or do you think it's based more on the talent of the players on the team?
DRB: I know I mentioned the Rays' defense above as a reason that the team has been so successful this year, but truth be told, they've been really sloppy this season. Longoria started off the year by making a ton of errors from third, and the team as a whole has been stuck in an error-rut over the last couple of weeks. They've been forced to play subpar defenders due to their injuries woes, and the results have definitely been noticeable. If you look at their team UZR, the Rays rank around the middle of the pack in the majors at +3 runs saved -- just barely above average, and well worse than they normally produce.
BUT, if you look at team DRS -- another defensive statistic, which includes the effects of shifts (unlike UZR) -- the Rays rank #3 in baseball with +31 runs saved. I know that defensive statistics are far from perfect, but I think that dramatic difference sums up the Rays' defensive situation really well. They've played mediocre defense so far this season, but they've still managed to be well above average defensively due to the front office's research on shifts. The Rays now carry little cheat sheets in their pocket, and you'll see players referencing them between and during at bats, moving this way and that. And so far, it seems to be paying off huge.
AA: The Rays continue to win, all while developing a deep pipeline of young and exciting homegrown talent but attendance is still lagging near the bottom of the pack. What do you think the future holds for the organization over the long-term and do you think that future is in the Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg area?
DRB: First of all, let's get one thing straight: the Rays won't be moving from the Tampa/St. Pete area. They just won't be. Not only would it be a bad financial decision in the long run -- just look at the population growth projections for Florida; it's insane! -- but they can't move even if they wanted to. The Rays are locked into a long-term lease at the Trop and the mayor of St. Pete won't let the Rays negotiate with any other city about a new stadium; he's taking a hard-line stance and is refusing to be intimidated by MLB. So yeah, for better or worse, the Rays are stuck.
The only real hope in this situation is that St. Pete's mayor eventually relents and allows the Rays to move across the water to Tampa, where the Buccaneers and Lightning have both had much more success in drawing fans. Of course, he's only going to let the Rays move away if he can be sure to get a good deal back for St. Pete, so the negotiating certainly isn't going to be pleasant. Or easy. Or all that quick to accomplish. It's going to take time, but over the last half year, there have been some slightly positive signs -- signs that Mayor Foster might actually be willing to discuss a deal.
So in other words, there's hope. I wouldn't go so far as to say there's light at the end of the tunnel yet; this journey has only just begun. And will the Rays be able to successfully walk the razor's edge between success and failure all the way until a new stadium is negotiated and completed? I have an incredible amount of faith in this front office, but that's asking one heck of a lot. All I can say is, we'll see.
Big thanks again go out to Steve Slowinski of DRaysBay for the taking the time to thoroughly answer these questions for us.
The Mets and Rays open up their series at Tropicana Field tonight at 7:10 PM with Chris Young on the hill up against righty Alex Cobb. Game two is also at 7:10 and this one features what looks to be an excellent pitchers duel, as R.A. Dickey takes on David Price. And in Thursday's 1:10 PM matinee, Johan Santana gets the start and he'll face off against Jeremy Hellickson.