Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Lessons From the Tampa Bay Rays

In The Athletic Monday, Jayson Stark had a piece on the unusual success of the Tampa Bay Rays this season. The Rays manage to field a remarkably competitive team year in and year out, despite having a budget that makes Fred Wilpon look like a profligate spender in comparison. Most people who follow baseball fairly closely are aware of the way Tampa Bay operates. Despite incredible budget constraints they manage to compete most years. Since 2008, they have managed to finish with a winning record 9 times out of 13 seasons. Two of the years they fell short they went 80-82. Their only awful season in the stretch was 2016 when they finished last in the AL East with a 68-94 record.

As much as it pains me to write this, let's contrast with the Mets in that same period. They had the reverse results, posting a winning record in only 4 of those seasons. They lost more than 90 games twice and lost 88 games another 2 times. There never was much of a coherent strategy during these years. When Alderson was hired in October 2010, he was given the task of trying to rebuild the Mets while still trying to win enough games to keep revenues up. That neither of those two objectives were fully realized wasn't surprising. As Mr. Miyagi explained to Daniel in The Karate Kid, the middle course rarely works out well:

The Rays have succeeded much more than the Mets have because they had a plan that they adhered to relentlessly. They had very smart people running the club, and those people were trusted to do their job without interference. They have difficult personnel decisions to make every year, and they can't allow sentiment to cloud their judgment. It must be hard to root for the team, watching players that you come to like to depart due to budget constraints, but it sure must be great to know that they'll find another way to compete next season.

Still, the breathless excitement that characterizes the coverage of the success the Rays have enjoyed this season, despite running the third-lowest payroll in MLB, glosses over the fact that enjoying playoff success isn't something that generally happens to the Rays. They've only made the playoffs in 6 of those 13 seasons discussed earlier. They went 5 years from 2014 to 2019 without making the postseason at all. Even when they do, they generally don't get far. They made it all the way to the Series in 2008 before getting crushed by the Phillies. They lost in the Division Series every other time until these playoffs.

I'm not trying to be the Grinch here. It's just that I think you have to be careful when you look at a team like Tampa in making too many assumptions based on an unusual event. The same thing happened when the Royals beat the Mets in the 2015 World Series. The "Royals way" was trumpeted as the new lesson in building a successful club. But Kansas City hasn't made it back to the playoffs since. They haven't even had a winning record in the ensuing five seasons. Nobody talks about the "Royals way" any longer. If things don't go perfectly for the Rays next season, the same thing is likely to happen to them. Many people who cover sports have the mentality of teenagers, always moving on to the next big thing.

The thing is, there definitely is a lot to learn from the success of the Rays this season and the Royals' win five years ago. To me, the number one takeaway that these two teams had in common was an emphasis on defense. A constant over recent seasons is that offensive production is generally valued over defense. Fans love offense. Offensive counting stats are still the most accessible and understandable for even casual fans. Also, high strikeout totals mean fewer balls put in play to be fielded. While fielding gems often makes highlights, a fielder consistently and flawlessly making basic plays just doesn't attract very much attention.

Under Omar Minaya, Sandy Alderson, and Brodie Van Wagenen, the Mets have emphasized offensive production over putting the best defensive team on the field for years. I'm not a total purist when it comes to defense, though my introduction to baseball came during an era when the vast majority of teams had the opposite priority. Games were so much lower scoring that you couldn't afford to give away outs. Particularly in the infield, teams often started glove-only players who could barely hit their weight. The bottom of most batting orders was a virtual wasteland of low-average, low-power automatic outs. I'm not looking to go back to that sort of baseball.

However, what we've seen from the Mets in recent years has been prioritizing offense to an extreme. When Andrés Giménez started at shortstop, he gave the Mets a plus defender at a premium position. Michael Conforto was very solid in RF. Almost everyone else in the field was a less-than-optimal performer. Even Jeff McNeill, a pretty good second baseman, spent most of the season playing third base and LF. He struggled a bit at third and is an okay LF. The real problem with the outfield defense, however, happens when the Mets start Dominic Smith or J. D. Davis in left and Brandon Nimmo in center. You can hide a below-average fielder in left when you have a really good centerfielder that can pick up some of the slack. When you have a below-average centerfielder playing next to a bad LF, however, you have a lot of balls that should have been outs become doubles. That's a problem.

Pete Alonso is a hard worker and says he's committed to becoming a very good first baseman. That certainly is commendable, but the fact is that he's a below-average defender at the position now. Robinson Cano was once a Gold Glove-caliber defender at second, but age has diminished his range to the point where he is now a bit below average there, and often replaced late in games for a better defender. J.D. Davis had some moments at 3B, but will never be confused for the second coming of Brooks Robinson. Wilson Ramos was awful behind the plate this year, and Robinson Chirinos wasn't any better.

The problem with sacrificing so much on defense is the pressure that it puts on your pitchers. As exhilarating as it is for a pitcher to see a defender make a great defensive play behind him, it deflates a pitcher when a clearly playable ball falls in for a hit, goes over an outfielder's head, or dribbles past a slow-footed infielder. When a clear double play ball is only converted into a single out, innings are prolonged and pitcher ERAs go up. When all of those things happen fairly often, pitchers lose confidence in their defense and can change the way they pitch to compensate. Pitching in the major leagues successfully is hard enough, trying to do it with a bad defense behind you is just that much tougher.

I'm not advocating for the Mets to field a team of light-hitting glovemen, but they need to start paying attention to that facet of run prevention again. Giménez needs to be the starting shortstop next year unless he absolutely falls down offensively. If they can't sign J.T. Realmuto, the Mets still need to find a strong defensive catcher somewhere else. A true defensive centerfielder has to play the majority of games in the outfield in 2021. As I wrote about a few weeks ago, the Mets should explore any possibility of trading Robinson Cano, even if it makes the Kelenic trade look even worse than it already does, and play McNeill at second base, his best position. That team would be strong up the middle, and they could get by playing a lesser defender at LF and 1B. Even if Cano stays and plays a good amount at second, they'd still be much better with plus defenders at the other three up the middle positions.

Run prevention is a priority for these Rays, as it was for the 2015 Royals. While I believe that run prevention is the most important lesson the Mets could learn from those two small market teams, there are other lessons, too. Even if Steve Cohen allows the Mets to be run like a large market team, the Mets shouldn't spend money stupidly. There's a reason former Rays front office guys Chaim Bloom and Andrew Friedman run the large market Red Sox and Dodgers, respectively. Teams with large payrolls want to use their resources wisely, too. Finding value for some of your roster allows for more money to be spent in other areas. I wrote a few days ago about how excited I am by the likelihood that Cohen will beef up the Mets' scouting and development and analytics departments to help the club make smarter choices. Combining some small market innovation with large market resources has helped the Dodgers rise to the top of the National League.

One other thing that the Royals did well in 2015 was avoiding striking out as much as most of baseball does these days. That's not really talked about much anymore, but I do think there is value, long-term, in bucking the trend of even good hitters accepting high strikeout totals as a part of their game. I wrote last month about how much I would love to see more hitters utilize a better two-strike approach. There's nothing that lets pitchers off the hook more than hitters striking out with men on base. Trying to at least advance runners with an out is something we don't see much of anymore. Putting the ball in play puts pressure on the defense. Striking out allows the opposing pitcher and defense to relax.

I understand that the way the baseball flies out of parks these days encourages most hitters to employ an aggressive uppercut swing. Even young hitters come into pro ball with that style ingrained into their approach from a young age. Still, when the Royals were at their best, one of the things that made them so hard to beat was that their lineup was so much harder to strike out. I'm surprised we haven't seen any teams try to take advantage of that approach in recent years. 

Okay, I'm out for today. I'll be posting here all during the offseason, please come back and check us out again soon. Until then, please stay safe, be well and take care.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos

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