What Makes Tampa Bay Tick?

A lot of people pegged the Rays for at over 90 wins this season, but right now they’re 30-11 with a commanding five game lead over the Yankees in the AL East. So what makes the team the best in baseball right now?

They’re offense has done their share, scoring the second most runs in the game (to the Yankees) and their plus 97 run differential is 29 runs better than second place New York. They may not hit home runs (9th in the AL) or have the highest team batting average (7th in the AL) or have the best team OPS (7th in the AL). They even strike out more than any other AL team but Toronto. 

But led by manager Joe Maddon, they find creative ways to score runs and win games. They’re tied for the most stolen bases in the AL (with a 75 percent success rate), sacrifice the most times in the AL (they won a game on a suicide squeeze against Cleveland this week) and always manage to take an extra base (Ben Zobrist scored from second against the Yankees this week on a fly ball). They have a lot of extra base hits and play smart baseball with solid defense and their pitching has certainly helped this season.

They’re staff ERA, led by their great rotation of Shields, Garza, Price, Niemann and Davis is the best in the AL by nearly a point and they’re .228 batting average against is the best in the AL by 18 points. Their bullpen ERA is also very good and this team doesn’t seem to have a hole right now.

Cork Gaines, the owner of the excellent Rays blog RaysIndex, told SprungOnSports that the starting pitching is what makes this team go but credits all the parts of the team for their staggering success.

“The best? That’s starting pitching hands down.” Gaines said. “But the defense turns hits into outs and several players playing more than one position keeps the roster rested and fresh.”

The versatility of the Tampa Bay roster is someting that Maddon and GM Andrew Friedman did by design to keep the roster young and fresh and keep the bench healthy and active; something that cannot be said about the older, injury ravaged Yankees reserves. Ben Zobrist and Sean Rodriguez can play both 2B and the OF and cost a combined $843,600. Backups Reid Brignac, John Jaso and Gabe Kapler get into games often and spell some of their starters. Also, their speed on defense with Carl Crawford and BJ Upton getting to balls and Jason Bartlett playing great defense at short ensures that the team won’t give up any easy runs.

“I don’t even know if Joe Maddon envisioned this.” ESPN’s Jayson Stark told SprungOnSports. “You could see how talented they were this spring. But did I know that Wade Davis and David Price would be this good?”

Price and Davis, each 24, have been the biggest surprises in the team’s rotation with Price (the former top overall pick out of Vanderbilt) off to a 6-1, 1.81. 1.08 start (.197 BAA) and Davis off to a 4-3 starts with a 3.35 ERA. Jeff Niemann has been underratedly excellent this season and Matt Garza is off to a sizzling 5-1 start after winning just eight games last season.

“They may not have big names but the rotation is legit.” Gaines said. “Shields may be best of bunch and he was only one that wasnt a top prospect.”

And boy is Shields making a name for himself this year. The elder statesman of the rotation, at 28, is 5-1 with a 3.08 ERA and is taking the ball against the opposition’s best pitcher and is not only hanging tough but prevailing. And notice that  haven’t even discussed guys like offseason acquisition Rafael Soriano, Carlos Pena or Evan Longoria yet and there are still so many other reasons why the Tampa Bay Rays are the best team in baseball.

“Longoria has had very good numbers so far with his usual great D and he hasn’t even had a hot stretch yet.” Gaines said.

While the team isn’t likely to stay this good and break the all time single-season wins record, Tampa Bay has enough depth on offense and defense and in the rotation to stay among baseball’s elite, and their youthful and versatile bench will serve them well as the season goes on. So what makes the Tampa Bay Rays tick? Like most well-oiled machines, they’re a sum of all their well placed, well thought out parts. And when those parts come together and play as a whole, they’re fun to watch and sure as hell tough to beat.

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