Twenty years after 'Moneyball' revolution, Rays have perfected formula

Associated PressTampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Shane McClanahan delivers to the Boston Red Sox during Thursday's game.

On paper the Tampa Bay Rays seem like they should be a disaster. The team annually boasts one of the lowest payrolls in baseball and draws crowds to its cavernous dome of a stadium that more closely compare to a bottom-rung minor league club than a big league franchise.

Yet, in spite of all that, the Rays have still become one of baseball’s most successful teams.

Twenty years after the Oakland Athletics popularized the concept of “moneyball,” the Rays have perfected the art of making the most of limited resources to gain a leg up on the competition.

Despite its myriad of limitations, Tampa Bay has consistently held its own against much better equipped divisional rivals — particularly the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees — and this year the defending American League champions are enjoying their best season in franchise history.

Dominating the division

For the last couple of years the Rays have been on a roll, and right now the team is on the verge of reaching the playoffs for the third consecutive year.

Last year Tampa Bay went 40-20, good for a .667 winning percentage that would equate to a 108-win pace over a full 162-game slate. This year the Rays are on pace to finish 102-64, which would set a new franchise record for wins in a season.

By and large the Rays have done the most damage within the division, and as of Friday they had a 46-20 record against their AL East rivals, including a historically dominant 18-1 mark against the last-place Baltimore Orioles.

Tampa Bay has a winning record against the Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays as well, and by beating up on their biggest competition they’ve been able to build up a 6.5-game divisional lead after having previously trailed the Red Sox by 4.5 games in early July.

This hasn’t been a fluke either. Throughout this past decade the Rays have consistently held their own against their rivals, especially at home, even in years they’ve missed the playoffs.

According to Red Sox Nation Notes on Twitter, since 2013 the Rays have a winning record at home against all of their AL East competitors except the Red Sox, who are now 42-41 after splitting this past week's series.

Considering how sparse Tampa Bay’s home crowds typically are you wouldn’t think of Tropicana Field as an intimidating road environment, but the Rays have made it one of the toughest places to play in baseball.

Low investment, high reward

The Rays have done it despite carrying an estimated payroll of just $70 million, which ranks 26th in MLB. The team has just one player making more than $10 million annually, that being Kevin Kiermaier ($11.6 million), plus Nelson Cruz, who was acquired mid-year and is making $13 million, though the Rays are on the hook for less than half of that.

Rather than invest in high-end talent, the Rays have gotten significant production out of young and inexpensive players. The team’s three All-Stars, Joey Wendle, Mike Zunino and Andrew Kittredge, are making a combined $5 million this year. Another three — Brandon Lowe, Randy Arozarena and Austin Meadows — had combined to post 71 home runs and 8.1 Wins Above Replacement entering Thursday while making less than $3.7 million between them.

To put things into perspective, this year the Red Sox are paying $12.1 million to Dustin Pedroia, who hasn’t played in the big leagues since 2019 and officially retired this spring.

As a whole the Rays have been formidable across the board. Entering Thursday Tampa Bay led the league in runs scored and ranked second in RBI, fourth in walks and fifth in doubles as a team. The pitching staff had also combined for a 3.67 ERA, second best in the AL and fifth best in baseball, as well as a 1.176 WHIP, which ranks fourth in MLB. 

Tampa Bay’s pitching has dominated despite the team consistently cycling through arms all year. The Rays have used 37 different pitchers on the season, and the bullpen in particular has seen extensive turnover. Of the nine relief pitchers on Tampa Bay’s opening day roster, only three remain. Tampa even traded its closer at the deadline despite being a playoff contender and has since just gone with a closer by committee.

That approach, normally fraught with risk, has worked for the Rays, who have seen 12 different pitchers record a save this season. 

Tampa Bay sports one of the league’s top farm systems, which has allowed the team to produce a veritable conga line of elite big league talent. This year the Rays entered the season with the No. 1 ranked system in baseball according to Baseball America, and within a few months top prospects Wander Franco, Arozarena, Luis Patino and Shane McClanahan were all in the big leagues contributing to the playoff push.

By the time Baseball America published its mid-season update, the Rays had fallen all the way to... No. 7. Even with those four stars having graduated from prospect status, they had been replaced in the top 100 by a new batch of future stars coming up behind them.

Like them or hate them, the Rays aren’t going anywhere.

Email: mcerullo@northofboston.com. Twitter: @MacCerullo.

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