September 14, 2009
11 and Counting
They must have thought they'd left this kind of thing behind them. When the Tampa Bay Rays were taking the baseball world by storm a year ago, jumping from 66 wins to 97 and winning the AL East for the first time in their history, then taking out two of the last three World Champions on their way to the World Series, the idea of double-digit losing streaks must have been the furthest thing from their minds. With yesterday's doubleheader sweep, a pair of games in which they scored just one run, the Rays have now lost 11 in a row, and fallen to within one game of .500. They were officially eliminated from AL East contention, and now sit 12½ games behind the Red Sox in the wild-card race, effectively done there as well. Just as they did in the first 10 years of their existence, the Rays will once again play out the string as the season winds down.
This losing streak is the team's longest since 2007, when they also lost 11 in a row from late June into July. Seven current Rays lived through that, including James Shields, who threw a quality start in the second game of yesterday's doubleheader, as well as Carlos Peña, whose broken fingers now look like the final nails in the Rays' coffin. The Rays were already struggling when Peña got hit on the hand by a CC Sabathia pitch last Monday, but they have scored just eight runs in seven games (less an inning) since then. The team has actually gotten good starts, including a pair by Matt Garza, but hasn't done anything at the plate since Peña went down: a .168 average, strikeouts in more than 20 percent of the team's PA, and just four runs on anything but a homer. The loss of Peña coupled with the ongoing regression of Ben Zobrist (.194/.342/.226 during the streak, .255/.371/.402 since the All-Star break) and the fact that B.J. Upton, Dioner Navarro, and Pat Burrell effectively never showed up this year have combined to push the offense over the edge.
It isn't just the offense. The first part of the streak was marked by the failure of the Rays' bullpen, possibly due to Joe Maddon overworking his relievers. Maddon famously set a record two weeks ago against the Red Sox for the most pitching changes in a three-game series. Three Rays relievers have at least 60 appearances, and none of them are averaging even an inning per appearance. In fact, of the 14 Rays pitchers to appear primarily as relievers this season, a ridiculous 10 of them are averaging less than an inning per appearance, and just three of the others have made fewer than 10 appearances. Just one year after he appeared to reverse the trend of creeping LaRussaism by using his relievers for multiple innings, Maddon has found himself at the other end of the spectrum, routinely using three or more pitchers to get through an inning, with poor results. The Rays' pen had a 3.62 ERA in the first half, with 216 strikeouts and 89 unintentional walks allowed in 262 innings. That's not fantastic, but it's a big upgrade from the work since the All-Star break: and 4.62 ERA and a 102/52 K/BB ratio in 144 IP. Rays relievers as a group are averaging fewer than one inning per appearance, and at .918 IP/appearance, would be headed for the bottom ten all-time in that category. (This year's Cardinals have an even lower mark, .903 IP/appearance, and will likely post the second-lowest IP/appearance mark ever. Thanks to BP's Eric Seidman for that information.)
The overwork seems to have most affected the matchup guys, the ones who throw more pitches getting ready than they do in the games. Brian Shouse and Randy Choate have allowed 16 runs in 23 innings combined over 43 appearances. The league is hitting better than .400 against Chad Bradford in the second half. The team's best relievers, J.P. Howell (4.71 ERA) and Grant Balfour (5.21), have been increasingly ineffective. You can't directly draw a line from the usage patterns to the ERAs, but in watching the Rays play in the second half, it's clear that Maddon had shifted his tactics from what worked so well last year, and it's just as clear that his bullpen hasn't been nearly as good as it was then. He chased matchups, and in doing so, turned a strength into a weakness. Eighteen times in 19 games, from August 22 through September 9, Maddon made at least three pitching changes. That's simply too much.
This is something that you can fix by rethinking an approach, and I have complete confidence that Maddon, in conjunction with the front office in Tampa, will look back at what worked and didn't work this year and pull back on the reins and re-integrate the successful usage patterns from 2008 into next year's bullpen usage patterns. That problem is reparable. The bigger concern, and the more intractable one, is that the success of 2008 doesn't appear to have changed the Rays' relationship with the local market. They've sold more tickets, sure, but the bump isn't terribly significant, about eight percent more per game. The Rockies, to pick one example, gained 14 percent per game from a higher base after they lost the World Series in 2007. The White Sox picked up 26 percent more tickets sold per game, also operating from a higher base.
The simple answer is "the economy," and the Rays are certainly doing better than other teams in a tough season. But when the bump from the best season in franchise history is just about 2,000 tickets a game, and your games against the Red Sox and Yankees still feel a bit like road contests, you have to ask whether there's ever going to be enough of a base here to make the franchise work. I wrote last year about the structural problem, how the ballpark is set apart from the population center by a body of water with a limited amount of access. It's a terrible location, and to me, that's more important than the issue of the ballpark itself, which while not an HOK masterpiece is far from a dungeon. A good team should draw better and needs to draw better than the Rays have this year. The Rays are 20th in average attendance; every team below them is under .500 except for the Marlins, which have been a special case since 1998. If the upside at Tropicana Field is 25,000 a game, maybe this isn't a viable location for a ballpark, and the Rays' case for a new one in a better spot is valid.
This is a strange way to think of it, but falling out of a race in September would have been considered a triumph just one year ago. If the Rays had gone from 66 wins to .500 to the World Series, which might have been the progression you would have expected only 18 months ago, we'd be hailing the 72-71 team as having taken a big step forward. It didn't happen that way, but we should remember that this is the second-best season in franchise history, and just the second time the Rays have ever won 70 games. There is still a lot of talent at the major league level, the organization remains loaded with front-office and managerial talent, and it has a strong farm system. An 11-game losing streak hurts, but there are salves for that wound everywhere you turn. The on-field problems have on-field solutions; the off-field ones, the ones that don't show up in the standings, may not.