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September 9, 2008

Prospectus Today

Rays Relevance

by Joe Sheehan

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Well, it's come to this. After a decade of futility, of never being in contention for .500, much less a division title or playoff spot, the Tampa Bay Rays are now experiencing something heretofore known only to franchises that have had some success: backlash. With their lead in the AL East-just roll that around in your mind for a little bit, here on the afternoon of September 9th-down to a half-game following Monday's loss to the Red Sox, there is a sense of panic among the media covering the team. I wouldn't say it's there among the fans, and I wouldn't put it on the players, but for want of a story, the story is now "the Rays are falling apart."

Let me try and calm the waters a bit. The Rays have dropped six of their seven September games…on the heels of a 21-7 August in which they mostly played without their third baseman and left fielder. Over any period of time that isn't "the last week," the Rays have been one of the best teams in baseball, and that they're in a virtual tie for first place with the best team in their league, one that has twice the run differential and five times the payroll, is something to celebrate, not bitch about. Declaring the Rays to be in some kind of trouble based on the past week flies in the face of everything we know about baseball. As I wrote yesterday, you simply cannot reach conclusions about players or teams based on seven games of play. This game is harder than that.

Unlike the Dodgers and Diamondbacks, though, the Rays have something else going for them that makes the panic even sillier: the Rays are basically in the postseason already, and playing solely for seeding. See, these aren't the standings that matter:

Rays       85  57   .599    -
Red Sox    85  58   .594   .5

These are:


                           Div    WC
Rays       85  57   .599   ---    ---
Red Sox    85  58   .594   ---     .5
White Sox  80  62   .563   ---     5
Twins      78  65   .545   2.5    7.5
Blue Jays  76  66   .535    4      9
Yankees    76  68   .528    5     10

Loosely speaking, the top three teams on that list will make the postseason, with the caveat that either the White Sox or the Twins have to make it even if there are three or four AL East teams in front of them. If the Red Sox catch the Rays-and remember, they have the better team and the more favorable schedule, so they should catch the Rays-that's not a problem. The Rays' lead isn't a half-game over the Red Sox; it's 7½ games over the Twins. A 7½-game lead with 20 to play isn't insurmountable, but it's close enough to be mistaken for it at the corner bar. That's why the chance the Rays don't make the postseason amounts to a rounding error-0.6 percent, or three chances out of 500.

Losing six out of seven games isn't that big a deal. On September 3, the Rays had a 100 percent chance to make the postseason. Now, it's 99.4 percent. Exhale, Rays fans.

Then again, the opinion that your playoff seeding doesn't matter much isn't shared by everyone:

I'll be looking for all the articles like last year telling the top two teams in the AL East that they don't have to bust their butt down the stretch because winning the division doesn't really matter.

That advice was fronted by a number of writers at Baseball Prospectus last year and unfortunately a number of Yankee management staff took it to heart.

So the Red Sox win the division and only beat the Indians because they get the chance to play the Indians after losing three games to them while the Yankees never did get that chance after doing the same.

HOME FIELD and the chance to play a seven-game series instead of five meant everything last year (and likely to mean even more this year given the Red Sox and Rays home records) so I look forward to you passing out the same stupid advice you did last year.
-T.B.

The best evidence I have at my disposal to counter this argument is the actions of the teams in position to determine their fate between a division title and a wild card. In all cases, from the degenerate-the 1996 NL West race-to the subtle-the 2007 Red Sox-teams have behaved as if the difference between being a division titlist and a wild card means very little to them. They have rested players, set up their rotations and prepared for the postseason. Teams have never gone all-out to gain home-field advantage in even one round of the postseason.

MLB can trumpet "This Time it Counts" until they're blue in the face, but home-field advantage in baseball doesn't mean what it does in the NFL (where it usually comes with a week off) or in the NBA, and it is not something to be pursued fervently. Even division titles have been devalued now that so much emphasis is placed on the postseason. Ask Marlins fans if they care that their team has never won home-field advantage; ask A's fans if what they remember about the 2000-03 seasons is winning it three times. The regular season and its rewards have been diminished in value by the post-1993 structure of MLB and the coverage of same; teams have acted accordingly.

So the people around the Rays can calm down. Losing six out of seven games in September is effectively meaningless for a team that is just working towards getting healthy for October. Whether the Rays finish first or second in the AL East will have a tiny impact on their chances of advancing next month. As we say over and over at Baseball Prospectus, when two good teams play a best-of-five or best-of-seven series, the differences between them are largely dwarfed by variance, making the result unpredictable. Whether you get an extra home game or not just doesn't matter very much in that setting.

As far as the Rays go, let's consider the context here. They're taking arguably the toughest road trip in MLB this year, a nine-games-in-10-days jaunt through Toronto, Boston, and the Bronx. The expectations should have been low coming in, and while no one likes to lose four in a row, or be shut out in consecutive games, there's no reason to panic. Good baseball teams beat other good baseball teams all the time, which is what we're seeing here. What's important isn't the last seven games, but the 7½-game lead on the playoff spot, the imminent return of Evan Longoria, and playing the next game as well as they possibly can.

The Rays can't control the coverage of their first relevant September, nor can they do anything about the overly shrill tones that have accompanied a minor dip in performance. All they can do is what they've done all year-keep the ball in the park, play defense, and have good at-bats. We'll still be watching this team a month from now.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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