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February 8, 2002

What God Left Out

Misplaced Optimism in Tampa Bay

by Keith Scherer

You might have read this winter that the Tampa Bay Devil Rays are about to get better. Don't believe it.

The D-Rays have finished last in the American League East in all four years of their existence. They have never lost fewer than 92 games, and last year they finally made it all the way to 100 losses.

The stats show that the D-Rays earned every one of those 100 defeats. Between Opening Day and the All-Star break, the Rays played 88 games and allowed eight runs or more 31 times. They got blown out (lost by a margin of five or more runs) 35 times last season, more than any major-league team other than the Pirates. The Rays finished last in the American League in runs scored and next-to-last in runs allowed. They were 13th in AL in OPS, 28th in the majors. They drew fewer walks that any AL team except the Royals, and only Red Sox batters struck out more. The Rays were last in fielding percentage and first in errors. They couldn't throw or catch: they were 13th in the AL in both throwing and fielding errors.

On the last day of the season, after the Rays had lost their 100th game, manager Hal McRae said to the assembled media, "We don't know we lost 100 games, you guys do." Mind over matter. With some organizations you just never can tell if it's denial, ignorance, or spin.

The Devil Rays spent the offseason acting and talking as if they really believed they were resurgent, though. They made only negligible moves, dropping Jose Guillen and re-signing Chris Gomez for one year. Impressed by what he saw last year, GM Chuck LaMar has been talking about signing some of his players to long-term contracts, thus locking up the "building blocks" of the franchise. He's talking principally about Brent Abernathy, Toby Hall, Nick Bierbrodt, and Joe Kennedy. He seems to be echoing Pope John Paul II: there really is hope in the young.

All of the happy talk about the Rays' future springs from their performance in the second half of last season, when they went 35-39. In December, LaMar said that "we know the last three or four months of a major-league season, especially for a team that's out of it as we were at the end of the year, can be a little misleading." While LaMar meant that the overall record was misleading, and that the second half performance was indicative of the team's ability, what he actually said is true: too much has been made of the Rays' second half.

To give the Devils their due, they did get better as the season progressed. Their winning percentage was .307 in the first half, .473 in the second half. Before the All-Star break, they scored 3.91 runs per game; that improved to 4.43 runs per game afterward. They dropped their runs allowed from 6.25 per game down to 4.45, one of the best in-season improvements over the last ten American League seasons. Their pitchers got bombed only half as often: they gave up eight or more runs only 14 times in their last 74 games, and the Devil Rays closed out the season by going 12-7 after the September 11 hiatus. One can be forgiven for thinking genuine improvement is being made.

The team that closed the season was substantially different from the one that McRae inherited when he took Larry Rothschild's job on April 18, with only Greg Vaughn and Ben Grieve surviving the purge. In September, young players like Abernathy, Hall, and Jason Tyner were playing every day. The younger lineup did a little better:

             AVG  OBP  SLG
Pre-Break   .253/.316/.386
Post-Break  .264/.324/.389

You can see that the gains in OBP and SLG were attributable to the boost in batting average. The Rays were last in the AL in home runs in both halves of the season. The real improvement was in their efficiency, as they scored a half a run per game more in the second half.

Gomez, picked up after he was released by the Padres in June, had something of a career year, slugging .513 in 58 games for the Devil Rays. He can't be expected to do that again. Grieve has been regressing ever since his rookie season. Aubrey Huff bottomed out in August and was sent to the minors. Vaughn is in his sunset years. The youngsters they have in the lineup now were not all that promising as minor leaguers. They didn't post .400 OBPs or steal a thousand bases or hit with terrific power. They weren't star prospects. They were the kind of guys you'd expect to make the majors as utility players. There isn't one player in this group with even a single category skill worth a slot on your fantasy team. They are not building blocks. I'm not sure this lineup is even any better than what the D-Rays have started in any of their previous disasters.

The Rays did genuinely improve their run prevention during last season. The team ERA dropped from 5.63 to 4.12 from one half to the next. Kennedy vaulted from Single-A and held his own, while Paul Wilson was every bit as good in the second half as he had been in 2000.

By now you are probably familiar with Voros McCracken's theory about hits allowed. Keith Woolner has succinctly summarized the theory: When you remove defense-independent outcomes such as strikeouts, home runs, and walks from the batters a pitcher faces, the resulting batting average on balls in play is not greatly affected by the pitcher himself.

In the second half of last year, the D-Rays lowered their batting average allowed from .286 to .257. Did the pitchers cause this, or was it a combination of luck and better defense?

The Rays boosted their strikeout rate by nearly one per game, from 6.0 to 6.8, keeping one more ball out of play, which by itself could account for the drop in batting average. When you factor in the improved defense, we can see that Rays earned the drop in batting average. It wasn't luck.

There were still troubling indicators. The Rays remained perilously bad in two key categories, walks and home runs:

		  Home Runs Allowed          Walks Allowed
Pre-Break     102 (tenth in the AL)   308 (11th in the AL)
Post-Break     105 (last in the AL)   261 (12th in the AL)

Relative to the league, they were actually worse in both categories in spite of their substantial improvement in runs allowed. While some credit must go the pitchers for raising the strikeout rate, the Rays' improvement in run prevention was probably due mostly to the improved defense: fewer unearned runs, and their contribution to a better job in turning balls in play into outs. So while the run prevention improved, the pitching didn't have as much to do with it as it would appear at first look.

The Devil Rays' hitters are at the bottom of the AL in drawing walks and hitting homers, and their pitchers are also among the league's worst in those categories. If the over/under on Devil Rays' losses is 90, bet the over. As long as they have that Quadruple-A lineup, the pitching will have to carry the team toward .500, and in spite of the gains the staff made last year there is still a long way to go before even mediocrity is achieved.

McRae and LaMar get paid to accentuate the positive. For the first time, they're fielding a lineup of mostly homegrown talent, and for the first time, McRae begins the season as manager, with an entire winter and spring to implement his methods. He has brought in Jackie Brown as the new pitching coach and Milt May to instruct the hitters.

May comes over from the Pirates. He was the hitting coordinator for their minor-league system. The Rays' hitters need nothing so much as to improve their on-base percentage. They also strike out too much and can't hit for power. Last June, I wrote this about the Pirates' hitters:

"What the Pirates' batters can't do is draw walks, control the strike zone, or hit for power. Pittsburgh is like Tampa Bay in that the organization favors tools over skills. The Pirates' Triple-A affiliate, the Nashville Sounds, is last in the Pacific Coast League in runs scored, last in home runs, second from last in walks, among the league leaders in strikeouts, and near the bottom in OBP and SLG. Keep in mind that there are 16 teams in the PCL. At Altoona (Eastern League), the hitters are third from the bottom in runs scored, tied for second from last in walks, and they lead the league in strikeouts."

This is a holistic overhaul. Shortly after that column ran last summer, Pirates GM Cam Bonifay was, coincidentally, fired. The Devil Rays have hired him to be the director of player personnel, head up the scouting department, and be LaMar's special assistant.

The hirings of May and Bonifay were the most significant of the Rays' off-season maneuvers. They reinforce all that is Devil Rays baseball. Like LaMar, Bonifay favors tools over skills. Both men look for speed in hitters and velocity in pitchers. You can teach Tommy Herr to switch-hit; you can't teach Paul Konerko to run a 4.4/40. The scouting philosophy in a nutshell is this:

You can't put in what God left out.

Since their inception, the Devil Rays have been drafting athletes over baseball players, and we have been giving them hell for it in every edition of our book. They draft multi-sport high-school stars. They draft agile basketball players, fast quarterbacks, and lithe sprinters. All the while, the A's and Astros are scavenging all the hitters and pitchers. The Rays have yet to develop one of these athletes into a real player.

The Rays have blown their draft picks in two other ways. They have lost several high picks by signing bad, old free agents, and they have drafted too many high-school pitchers. It is well-established that high-school pitchers are a significant draft risk. In his New Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James notes that

"Perhaps the most phenomenal fact of life in baseball today is that major league teams continue to use first-round picks for high school pitchers."

How far has James's influence reached into the draft room? This year, eight high-school pitchers were chosen in the first round. The good news for the Devil Rays is that they took a college pitcher with their pick. While the Rays have used too many high picks on high-school pitchers, they have only once burned a first-rounder on one.

In 1996, the D-Rays spent their third and fourth picks on high-school pitchers, then steered pretty well clear of the breed. In 1997, they used their first pick, and four of their first six, on high-school pitchers. In 1998, they didn't take one until the tenth round. In 1999, they regressed, taking five with their first 11 picks. The 2000 draft was a write-off, as the Rays had lost their second-, third-, and fourth-round picks in the wake of the free-agent signing binge. Last summer, they used their first four picks on college pitchers. There's your reason to believe.

The second half of last season was false spring for the Devil Rays. There are only modest indicators that they're starting to figure things out. They have regenerated themselves at the major league level, shedding years and payroll. They seem to be drafting with a little more sense, and not treating their picks as if they are a renewable resource. There are still those who believe Josh Hamilton will put last season and his injuries behind him and fulfill the potential that earned him his ranking as Baseball America's top prospect.

Then there's the disquieting reality that the organization hired May and Bonifay. The Pirates are the only organization worse than the Devil Rays, so why hire the man who oversaw the Pirates' demise? Why hire the instructor that coordinated what was arguably the worst hitting performance in the minors last year? You wouldn't say those are results-oriented resumes.

It is not my purpose here to state that LaMar is stupid. However, his public utterances and the Devil Rays' off-season moves don't give much hope that this is the right group of people to make a winner out of this pathetic franchise before it is forced to move or die.

Keith Scherer is an attorney with the Department of the Judge Advocate General, United States Air Force. He is currently assigned to Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, where he lives with his wife and son. You can contact him at kjsbaseball@aol.com.

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