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September 14, 2009

Prospectus Today

11 and Counting

by Joe Sheehan

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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.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  The Streak,  Rays

16 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Matt Kory

"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."

A better spot like New Jersey?

Sep 14, 2009 12:10 PM
rating: 0
 
ScottyB

NJ is a horrible place for a sports franchise (just ask the Nets or Devils). As someone who lived in northern NJ for many years, northern NJ is suburban NYC, and everyone's sports allegiance is to NYC. (The success of the NYC football stadium 7 miles away in Jersey is an anomoly, and only hosts 16 games a year).
Central Jersey does not have a population center that could carry a major league franchise, and southern Jersey is essentially suburban Philly.

Maybe NYC can handle another team (in Brooklyn, maybe or maybe Long Island). But the suburban fans are all in for NYC teams.

Sep 14, 2009 13:01 PM
rating: 0
 
Matt Kory

"NJ is a horrible place for a sports franchise (just ask the Nets or Devils)"

That was my point. I guess I could've said Portland, OR, maybe that would have come across better. The point: I don't think there's really anywhere they can move that will a) build them a stadium, and b) support the team better than Tampa has.

Sep 14, 2009 14:18 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

The reference is to a better location within that market.

Then again, I'm the guy who believes no city has some kind of divine right to a team, so if leaving has to happen, so be it.

Sep 14, 2009 16:09 PM
 
ElAngelo
(942)

I agree the team shouldn't be in Tampa--they've had 11 years to show they can support a team, and have failed miserably. Move the squad to NC, Oregon, or anywhere else, frankly.

Sep 14, 2009 13:20 PM
rating: 0
 
Richie

There was apparently a very ugly incident earlier in the year, where Percival immediately post-game screamed at a fan who had gone after a foul ball in the 2nd row of the stands, keeping Longoria from catching it. It became a reasonably-sized local news story. The clubhouse all backed him up on it, while I guess upper management pretended nothing had happened, nothing to see here folks so everybody just move along, OK? OK?

Did the attendance trend backtrack at all around that point? Did the Rays get less of a 'summer bump' than such franchises usually see?

Sep 14, 2009 12:22 PM
rating: 0
 
Aaron/YYZ

Joe, I have to think that part of Maddon's constant matchup playing is a result of a generally less effective bullpen this year that isn't capable of giving him multiple quality innings. If they're not getting guys out halfway through the inning, going for the platoon advantage is a worthwhile move. This certainly is not the entire reason but it may be part of it.

Sep 14, 2009 12:38 PM
rating: 1
 
thenamestsam

Agreed. I think looking as the bullpen usage as the cause rather than an effect of the individual pitchers struggles struck me as odd. Last year the pitchers were getting a lot of guys out, so it was easy to leave them out there. This year they've been giving up a lot of runs, and it takes a lot of patience to leave those guys out there to regress to the mean, patience that Maddon doesn't seem to have.

Sep 14, 2009 17:10 PM
rating: 1
 
sbnirish77
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The thought that the Rays had found some blueprint for success was always completely overblown in my eyes. Being God awful for your entire existence to capture a lot of high draft picks and hoping their development coincided with an overperfroming bullpen made for a nice story last year but will never be sustainable.

This year the bullpen blew up, we found out the starters were not as good as everyone told us they were, and the front office made some terrible misjudgements.

The point about the Rays never being able to build their brand coming off the success of last season is well made. Without doing so, the self-imposed financial limitations will doom the franchise and the Rays can climb back into the hole from which they emerged last year.

Sep 14, 2009 12:38 PM
rating: -5
 
awayish

where were these informed people describing what happened to the rays as a unique "plan to success?

Sep 15, 2009 04:12 AM
rating: 0
 
amazin_mess
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Remember, the Rays insisted on putting Andy Sonnanstine in the rotation to start the season. Then, after he sucked for weeks, they stayed with him. Stat heads love the guy, but Sonnanstine is just a terrible, terrible pitcher.

In my opinion, the Rays screwed themselves in April and May by trotting out an inferior rotation compared to what they had in stock.

Sep 14, 2009 13:06 PM
rating: -7
 
MFBabyFeets

I must've missed the stathead love affair with Sonnanstine. I think most statheads prefer pitchers that can strike hitters out and/or induce ground balls.

Sep 14, 2009 20:12 PM
rating: 2
 
MGL

I don't know about "love affair" but if you look on Fangraphs you will see that Chone, Marcel, and ZIPS had Sonnanstine's FIP projection (basically an indicator of the context-neutral expected performance of a pitcher) at around 4.00, which is very good. I am not sure of the scale of FIP (what a league average FIP is - probably around 4.30), but the same forecasters' FIP projection for James Shields was around .2 runs better and for Garza about the same. Pecota was a little worse, giving Sonny an eqERA projection of about .1 runs worse than average.

So basically, some of the "statheads" projected Sonny as anywhere from a little better than league average to slightly worse than league average, despite not being a high GB pitcher and despite having a lower than average K rate and a higher than average HR rate. That is because he was projected to have a fairly significant lower than average BB rate.

Anyway, Sonny has indeed pitched horribly this season and after watching him a few times this year, I wouldn't give a plug nickel for his services, for whatever that's worth.

A pitcher whose fastball averages 87 mph and is not a heavy ground ball pitcher is generally going to live on the edge...

Sep 15, 2009 04:32 AM
rating: 0
 
emanski

It takes an hour to get to Tropicana Field from the suburban sprawl of Tampa and your reward after that drive is uncomfortable, poorly angled seats in what looks and feels like a unusually large Sears, where you are surrounded by people who seem genuinely befuddled by the game of baseball. The 2+ million people of Greater Orlando are essentially shut out, and St. Pete has the dynamic energy of Youngstown. The location of that ballpark is just a tragic mistake.

That's not saying a ballpark on Bruce B. Downs or Dale Mabry would draw 40,000 a night because Tampa just doesn't feel like a MLB town, not to mention Tampa Bay is in a real real estate pickle. But a new retractable-roof ballpark farther east is almost certainly the only hope of long-term success.

Sep 14, 2009 20:42 PM
rating: 3
 
amazin_mess

The "love" for Sonnanstine I was refering to was mainly from Ron Shandler and his crew.

Sep 15, 2009 06:06 AM
rating: -1
 
mafrth77

A second AL team in the New York market might be the right idea. Baseball avidity in Tampa may never be high enough support a team

Sep 15, 2009 19:41 PM
rating: 0
 
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