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10 Games in, are the Rays Contenders or Pretenders?

It’s no secret the Rays were everyone’s not so sneaky pick to go far in 2020 regardless of how many games were going to be played this year. But we are 1/6th of the way through the season and it’s not going as expected.

The offseason additions were welcomed with the perception of a well-rounded lineup with competent at-bats littered 1-9. With essentially the same pitching staff returning and promising young stars in Snell and Glasnow in good health, what could hold this team back?

Without diving into the statistics here’s what an ~average~ fan might say

  • Morton looks off/not as dominant
  • Snell is still on a short leash in terms of innings and pitch count
  • This lineup is missing Meadows BADLY
  • Alvarado’s return not going to plan
  • The new guys (Renfroe, Margot, Tsutsugo, and Martinez) at large haven’t found their stride
  • Banking on Zunino to bounce back proves to be a questionable move
  • The defense has been off, not costly but hasn’t been up to snuff for a team that relies on run prevention.

These may be knee-jerk reactions for such a small sample size especially for starting pitchers to have 2 turns through the rotation. But in 2020 where every game has three times the importance it does matter! Now there have been some pro’s so far as well:

  • Brandon Lowe looks to be worthy of his extension, proving to be a piece for the future
  • Yarbrough has been very effective and efficient
  • Jalen Beeks has been called upon a lot and answered with mostly good results
  • Joey Wendle looks to be more 2018 Wendle than 2019 Wendle
  • Adames in a pivotal 2nd full year is progressing at the plate
  • Nick Anderson, Oliver Drake, Diego Castillo, Pete Fairbanks, and Ryan Thompson are more than holding their own in the pen

I’m cautiously optimistic this isn’t a sign of what’s to come for the entirety of 2020, and the team as a whole will get back to an elite level of competition. But they sure are making it hard on themselves in the long run with the start they’ve had.

Sitting at 4-6 and 4th in the AL East following a hugely disappointing series in which the Orioles swept the Rays, Tampa could use this off day more than anyone. Losers of 5 in a row, this team could use a step back and evaluate what’s going wrong for them. Being 1/6th of the way through a regular season would be 27 games into the 162 slate. The .400 winning percentage in 27 games would be roughly 11 wins, making them 11-16. Call that a month’s worth of games for a “normal” season. Their worst month last season was June going 13-16 (.448 W%). In 2018, June got the worst of them again going 13-14 (.481 W%). Small sample size and all this would’ve been their worst month of baseball in the last 3 years when the team has been at its best under Kevin Cash.

Looking into advanced metrics here’s what we know so far in accordance with some of the general (negative) observations made above.

Morton looks off/not as dominate

  • Using baseball savant we can see that Charlie Morton has had some striking difference in his fastball to start 2020
    • AVG MPH:
      • 2019: 94.7
      • 2020: 92.2
    • WOBA
      • 2019: .296
      • 2020: .395
    • Whiff %
      • 2019: 28.9%
      • 2020: 22.2%
  • As for his Curveball, it’s less effective as well
    • XWOBA:
      • 2019: .202
      • 2020: .439

Blake Snell is on a short leash

  • He entered the season admittedly not stretched out and not ready for the full swing of the season, disappointingly so, but he’s also being hit harder than normal. Albeit with elite strikeout ability still.
Blake Snell is being hit around but the outs he does get mainly come via the strikeout

This lineup misses Meadows

It’s hard to statically quantify what exactly the difference in the lineup is with and without Austin Meadows’ important lefty bat. You could compare the numbers from the time he missed last year but with the roster turnover, those numbers wouldn’t be apt to the conversation. Tampa is hoping he can return from the COVID-19 injury list as soon as tomorrow.

Alvarado’s return not going to plan

All of the advanced metrics are down on Alvarado – despite the nasty repertoire, he’s being hit hard. His whiff percentage is down, put away percentage down, and expected slugging is up. Not to mention he’s having trouble finding the zone, setting up favorable counts for hitters. His barrel percentage went from 5% last year to 23%(!!!) this year. And perhaps my favorite is his meatball percentage and meatball swing percentage: 5.9% and 100% respectively. Hitters are all over him.

The new guys not finding their stride

I know it’s early but the big bats are, at large, not doing enough. Per Fangraphs WRC+ they’ve just been OK.

  • Jose Martinez: 125
  • Yoshi Tsutsugo: 87
  • Hunter Renfroe: 76
  • Manuel Margot: -6

They’ll have time to straighten things out, but for now, when they’ve been counted on to carry the offense, it hasn’t been going the Rays way.

Banking on Zunino’s bounceback

After an offseason decision to let Travis D’Arnoud walk, and keep Mike Zunino as the starting catcher the Rays are left wondering if that was the right move. Zunino underwent a stance change in order to have better plate coverage, which has worked to some degree. The issue is he still has issues with plate discipline. Too often is Zunino up to bat in a big spot and struggles to get the job done.

Team Defense

Tampa usually prides themselves on their defensive prowess – for years they went by under the mantra of pitching and defense. The name of the game is now run differentials, in which they take the approach of focusing on run prevention. They currently sit a differential of +2. But what stands out is Willy Adames’ 4 errors, Choi’s 3, Wendle’s 2. The infield is struggling, but the outfield is still getting the job done:

All in all, I hope this article gets chalked up to an early in the season overreaction, but it goes to show the importance of getting hot early to not dig an insurmountable hole to make the playoffs. The Rays have time to correct the early season mistakes, but they have to turn it around soon.

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