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July 2, 2008

Lies, Damned Lies

Flipping the Switch

by Nate Silver

It is rare in baseball to talk about team cohesion. In contrast to the other major sports, there are relatively few interactions between players on the same club. The pitcher stands out there on the mound all by himself and throws the ball; the hitter stands there in the batters' box all by himself and hopes to hit it. There is no baseball equivalent of John Stockton passing to Karl Malone, or Peyton Manning to Reggie Wayne.

However, there is such a thing as a baseball team that is less than the sum of its parts. This is a team that would be constructed less with an eye toward winning in the near-term, and more with an eye toward stockpiling talent for the future. There are a couple ways to identify such a team. They probably have an excess of players at some positions, and a deficit at others. They probably do poorly at staffing a couple of the little luxuries that good teams get right-having a decent bullpen, for instance (nobody has much need for a closer if there are few wins to close out), or playing good defense (the effects of which are hard to quantify, and therefore, easy to give short shrift).

Until this season, the Tampa Bay Rays had been such a team, the baseball equivalent of the LA Clippers. Consider a couple of the categories I just mentioned. In 2007, the Rays were an awful defensive team, perhaps the worst defensive team in baseball history. We've tracked each team's Defensive Efficiency Rating (DER) for each season since 1959; this is simply the frequency with which teams make outs on balls hit into play. The 2007 Tampa Bay Devil Rays had the lowest DER in our entire database, making outs on just 66.2 percent of balls hit into play. There's little reason to wonder why. For large parts of the season, they had a left fielder (Delmon Young) playing center, a center fielder (B.J. Upton) playing second base, and a second baseman (Brendan Harris) playing shortstop.

The bullpen? Last season, Tampa Bay relievers combined for an unsightly 6.16 ERA, which was also among the worst figures in baseball history. Having a bullpen that bad usually makes teams do crazy things, like deciding to pay $9 million for Eric Gagne, or trading Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe for Heathcliff Slocumb. But the Rays just stood there and let their relievers take one for their team's future.

Team balance? The Devil Rays had five players who had a legitimate argument for making the All-Star team last year: Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, Carlos Pena, Scott Kazmir, and James Shields. But they also had 28 distinct players who produced a negative VORP, collectively costing the Rays 157.9 runs below replacement level. Merely replacing those guys with passable alternatives-never mind league-average players-would have made a huge difference.

Put differently, the Rays had an awful lot of room to make additions by subtraction. The difficult part about baseball is supposed to be locking up blue-chip assets like Upton and Kazmir at below-market rates. The Rays had done plenty of that, but they hadn't really bothered to sweat the small stuff-to dump some of their dead weight, to make sure they had guys who were up to the job defensively, or to tend to their bullpen.

Until this winter, that is, because that's when the Rays decided to transform themselves from a sort of hedge fund for undervalued assets into a real, functional baseball club. The linchpin move behind that transition was trading Delmon Young for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett. It is rare in baseball for a rebuilding team to give up the best young player in a deal but the Rays were prepared to do just that. While Young has struggled this year, back in November he looked to most observers-including in all likelihood the Rays themselves-to be the best player in the deal. Even so, the Rays knew that if they were going to turn things around, they needed another ready-now arm, and they knew that acquiring a veteran would be prohibitively expensive. So they made a calculated risk and traded for Garza. They also knew that they were getting Bartlett in the deal, who whether or not he hit anything (and he hasn't hit much this year) would provide them with a major defensive upgrade at shortstop, a position where the Rays' defenders were a combined 25 runs below league average last year according to our Prospectus Fielding Runs metric.

The Rays also decided to sign Troy Percival to an $8 million contract, their largest free agent deal since the Fred McGriff/Wade Boggs era. Percival has not been especially outstanding this year, probably only the third or fourth best reliever on his club. However, signing him took some pressure off of their young arms, and demoted everyone else on the depth chart down a notch, such that some of the truly flammable arms at the back end of the bullpen would no longer have to play for them. As moves go, that's proving to be truly valuable.

PECOTA added all of this up, coupled it with the fact that the Rays' talent core was young and still on the upswing, and concluded that the club was liable to win somewhere between 88 and 90 ballgames. Not even the Rays themselves were entirely convinced by this forecast. The team executives I spoke with this winter expected-or hoped-to go .500 this year, perhaps making a serious run at the playoffs in 2009. But a quick run through their offseason checklist reveals that sometimes the best-laid plans go even better than expected:

  • Team Defense: The Rays have gone from having one of the worst defenses in baseball history to one of the best in the league. In fact, their Defensive Efficiency Rating of .720 ranks second in baseball, just a couple ticks behind the Oakland A's. This degree of improvement is literally without precedent. The Rays have improved their DER by 58 points this year, which is the largest year-over-year improvement that we've ever tracked:
    
                        DER
                  Current Previous
    Rk Team  Year   Year    Year    Change
     1  TBA  2008   .720    .662     .058
     2  OAK  1980   .739    .690     .049
     3  TEX  1981   .734    .688     .046
     4  ATL  1991   .727    .688     .039
     5  DET  1981   .748    .714     .034
     6  SDN  1982   .739    .705     .034
     7  MIL  1988   .727    .693     .034
     8  SFN  1971   .735    .703     .032
     9  FLO  2008   .701    .669     .032
    10  CLE  1968   .754    .724     .030
    

  • The Bullpen: The defensive gain has produced all sorts of subsidiary improvements too. By making it easier for their pitchers to record outs, the Rays have reduced the amount of churn in their bullpen. Instead of requiring 3.0 relief pitchers to pitch per game, as they did last season, the Rays have cut that number to 2.6, and been able to concentrate those innings among their better arms. Partly as a result of this, the Rays have cut their bullpen ERA nearly in half. Instead of the 6.16 ERA their relievers gave them a year ago, this year their mark is 3.18 ERA. The key has been the realization that you don't need a lot of flamethrowers if you have guys behind you that can catch the ball. Rays' relievers rank just seventh in the American League with 7.65 strikeouts per nine innings, but their .212 batting average allowed is the best in baseball. Percival-and Dan Wheeler, who was acquired late last year for Ty Wigginton-have been important parts of that, but the defense has made everyone look better.
  • Addition by Subtraction: In contrast to last year, the Rays have just six players who have compiled a negative VORP in any amount of playing time, and all but Jason Bartlett have played sparingly. The combined negative VORP accumulated by those Rays has been just 12.8 this year, as opposed to their 157.9 figure from a year ago.

Is the Rays' success likely to continue in the second half? Odds are that it is. Certainly, they have had a couple of breakout performances-Dioner Navarro or Edwin Jackson or Evan Longoria for example-but even these have come from young and talented players, to whom such things are supposed to happen occasionally. The Rays have actually had a couple of players who have underachieved, but Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford are both good bets to improve their numbers in the second half.

The whole point is that the improvements the Rays have made are structural. Yes, it is a lot of fun when you are a team like the White Sox, and you have guys like Carlos Quentin and John Danks who break out when nobody is quite expecting it. But when that happens, you also have to hope those guys aren't first-half flukes. The Rays do not really have parallel concerns.

The handful of transactions the Rays made this winter were not by any means overly complicated; in retrospect, they almost seem obvious. But they were moves made by a team that had the self-confidence to look in the mirror and like what it saw. The Rays put aside the fact that they had never won more than 70 games in a season and recognized that, on a talent-for-talent basis, they had a 40-man roster that was the envy of many clubs in baseball. They recognized that guys like Evan Longoria would be ready to start contributing immediately, and that it was not too soon to start competing.

These things are tougher than you might think, as honest self-assessment is elusive to many teams in baseball. The more commonly-seen problem is for a team to overrate the amount of talent that it has, and either compromise its future for a team that needs a lot of help rather than a little (take this year's Mariners), or fail to improve on a roster that is due to regress to the mean (this year's Rockies). There are also teams that take too long to flip the switch and make a run at competing, but the Rays turned things on at just the right time.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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Related Content:  Tampa Bay Rays,  Rays,  The Who

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