The Tampa Bay Rays took a bold new step into their future this past weekend, promoting two highly-touted former first-round picks and watching both of them succeed in their debuts. On Saturday, they installed third baseman Evan Longoria into the lineup. The third overall pick of the 2006 draft as well as the #3 prospect on our Top 100 Prospect List, Longoria went 1-for-3 with an RBI in his first game, and delivered hits in his next two games as well, including a double and a homer against the Yankees on Monday. On Sunday, the Rays sent Jeff Niemann to the hill. The fourth overall pick of the 2004 draft has seen his star fall a bit due to shoulder troubles and unspectacular minor league performances, which combined to knock him out of our top 100 after a #25 showing in 2007, but he held the Orioles to one run in six innings while striking out five.

The Rays, in case you haven’t heard, are PECOTA’s darlings this season, forecast for 88 wins and a third-place finish in the AL East despite having never topped 70 wins in their first 10 seasons of existence. To be sure, they’ve got an enviable collection of young talent on the horizon, with six of top 40 prospects eventually slated to join youngsters like B.J. Upton and Scott Kazmir. The lineup, which on most days will feature only one player over 30 this season (slugger Carlos Peña, who doesn’t actually turn 30 until May 17), is projected to more or less equal last year’s franchise-best showing of 4.83 runs per game. The rotation, with the addition of Matt Garza behind the front tandem of Kazmir and James Shields, should no longer be a laughingstock, as youngsters such as Andy Sonnanstine, Edwin Jackson, and J.P. Howell figure to build on the occasionally solid peripherals and stretches of competence that they showed last year. The bullpen, which set the dubious records of the highest Fair Run Average and the lowest Adjusted Runs Prevented total since 1959, can’t help but improve with the full-season additions of the competent Troy Percival and Dan Wheeler.

Nonetheless, despite all of these good things, there are reasons to be skeptical about that Rays’ projection. Perhaps the biggest–beyond the fact that Kazmir has yet to throw a pitch this year, and Garza has been sidelined after just two starts–has to do with the quality of defense behind that staff. Last year’s Devil Rays allowed a major league-worst 944 runs thanks to one of the most inept defenses this side of the Bad News Bears. Their .662 Defensive Efficiency rate is the worst full-season rate in our database. (Note that this is the “1 – BABIP” version of Defensive Efficiency, which doesn’t include Reached on Error totals). Taking into account their pitcher-friendly park, they had a Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency of -5.64 last year, meaning they were nearly six percent worse than the league average at converting balls in play into outs.

Here’s how the Davenport Translations interpreted the defensive performances of the team’s regulars and overall at each position:

Pos Starter AdjG Rate RAA

C Dioner Navarro 108.5 95 -6
Team 95 -8

1B Carlos Pena 138.4 104 6
Team 105 7

2B Brendan Harris 45.8 77 -11
2B B.J. Upton 47.2 82 -8
2B Ty Wigginton 36.4 83 -6
Team 83 -27

3B Akinori Iwamura 118.2 89 -13
Team 88 -19
SS Brendan Harris 85.2 85 -13
Team 84 -27

LF Carl Crawford 134.5 92 -10
Team 92 -13

CF B.J. Upton 75.4 97 -3
Team 90 -16

RF Delmon Young 128.6 91 -11
Team 90 -16

Note that the fielding Rates and Runs Above Average figures are of the “Adjusted for All-Time” flavor. Cumulatively, the position players were an astounding 119 runs below average, about 15 runs to the bad apiece. Among the regulars, only Pena was above average, and every position save for catcher was in double-digit negatives, which in each case means that awful defense at those positions cost the team more than one win apiece. Harris and Upton “contributed” to the problem at multiple positions, though the latter’s move from second base to center field did stop a bit of the bleeding in the outfield.

The Rays have taken steps to improve their defense this season, particularly on the left side of the infield. Shortstop Jason Bartlett, acquired from the Twins in the Young/Garza deal, was 12 runs above average last year, while Longoria’s performance at the hot corner was six runs above average between Double-A and Triple-A. Couple that with some improvement from the developing youngsters and a bit of regression to the mean, and expectations for the defensive performance of the new lineup doesn’t look too bad, at least in PECOTA’s eyes:

Pos Starter RAA

C Navarro -2
1B Pena 3
2B Iwamura -6*
SS Bartlett 5
3B Longoria 11
LF Crawford 4
CF Upton -4
RF Haynes -3

The asterisk above is for the fact that Iwamura’s PECOTA is for third base, not second. The 29-year-old’s bat is a better match at the keystone than the hot corner, but it’s an open question as to whether he can slide two notches to the right on the defensive spectrum. I’m listing Nathan Haynes in right field because the Rays’ top three options on their depth chart are unlikely to see much time there; Rocco Baldelli has been sidelined by an extreme fatigue disorder, Cliff Floyd–never the most nimble defender in the best of times–is out four to six weeks with a meniscus tear in his knee, and Jonny Gomes is such a good defender that Nate Silver opted to forecast him at DH alone for fear of a core meltdown. Even if we take those two positions at face value, we can see considerable improvement over last year; this lineup forecasts to be eight runs above average.

A couple of months back, Nate noted that the Rays’ pitchers’ PECOTAs improved considerably–by 30 to 50 points of ERA–in the light of this sunny defensive forecast. Still, it’s worth questioning the fundamental assumption of how much the new alignment will improve its results on balls in play. To examine that, I took every team’s depth chart-derived pitching statistics and calculated their expected Batting Averages in Balls in Play using the formula (HHR)/(2.89 * IP + HHR – SO), which gets the individual pitchers within 1-2 points of their PECOTA BABIPs without the messy work of figuring out how many batters each pitcher is estimated to face per our depth charts, and centers the major league average at .2994, within a point of last year’s .3002. Again using Defensive Efficiency as 1 – BABIP, here are the 2008 figures as compared to the 2007 ones:

Team  2008   2007   change
NYN   .711   .707   .004
TBA   .708   .662   .046
SLN   .707   .700   .007
WAS   .706   .706   .000
LAN   .706   .691   .015
SFN   .706   .699   .007
CHN   .705   .712  -.007
OAK   .704   .698   .006
DET   .704   .699   .005
PHI   .703   .691   .012
CIN   .702   .682   .020
NYA   .702   .696   .006
SDN   .701   .706  -.005
ATL   .701   .703  -.002
ARI   .699   .700  -.001
BOS   .699   .712  -.013
MIL   .699   .684   .015
TOR   .699   .714  -.015
CLE   .699   .693   .006
SEA   .698   .678   .020
HOU   .697   .692   .005
CHA   .697   .689   .008
PIT   .696   .676   .020
MIN   .694   .694   .000
KCA   .694   .689   .005
TEX   .692   .691   .001
BAL   .692   .691   .001
FLO   .692   .669   .023
ANA   .691   .688   .003
COL   .691   .703  -.012

If you’re ready to call “bull(durham)” on this forecast, I can’t say I blame you, because the combination of PECOTA and our best estimates for playing time show the Rays vaulting from a historical worst to the majors’ second best. Meanwhile, the Red Sox and Rockies, the two teams who finished atop the PADE standings and were second and eighth, respectively, in the rankings for unadjusted Defensive Efficiency, are expected to decline to be about average (in Boston’s case) and the worst in the majors (in Colorado’s case). This despite the two teams turning over at most one lineup spot apiece, the Rockies trading in a freakishly good season from Kaz Matsui (+20 FRAA) for rookie Jayson Nix (forecast for +9 FRAA), the Sox going from a similarly freakish season from Coco Crisp (+29 FRAA) to a job share between Crisp and Jacoby Ellsbury (forecast for about +5 based on the division of playing time). Now sure, we should expect some regression to the mean at either extreme of the Defensive Efficiency rankings, but this is ridiculous.

Now, it’s worth remembering that PECOTA uses what Nate has termed a “weak DIPS,” meaning that each pitcher’s forecasted BABIP isn’t regressed all the way to the mean in the manner of a simpler system like Voros McCracken’s old warhorse. Without knowing the specifics, but as someone who’s dipped into that pond a few times, I do know that strikeout and ground-ball rates enter into the equation. Therefore, it’s worth noting that the Rays staff’s rate of 7.51 K/9 is just 0.06 off the forecasted major league high (by the Mets), and 0.36 ahead of the next AL team, the Red Sox. Given that last year’s Rays staff was at an AL-best 7.52 K/9, it’s doubtful that the strikeout rates are driving massive changes in the BABIP/DE forecast.

It’s also worth noting that the Rays’ 46-point jump in Defensive Efficiency would be tied for the second-largest year-over-year improvement of all time:

Rk  Year  Team     DE  Change
 1  1980   OAK   .739   .049
 *  1981   TEX   .734   .046
 2  1991   ATL   .727   .039
 3  1968   OAK   .742   .036
 *  1981   DET   .748   .034
 4  1988   MIL   .727   .034
 *  1982   SDN   .739   .034
 5  1971   SFN   .735   .032
 6  1968   CLE   .754   .030
 7  1972   MIN   .743   .029
 8  2001   SEA   .735   .029
 9  2007   BOS   .712   .029
10  1998   OAK   .696   .029

It’s fair to disqualify the 1981 Rangers and Tigers–and the 1982 Padres, for that matter–from this list on the basis of the season-altering strike of 1981, since Defensive Efficiency tends to take some time to stabilize. That Rangers team, in fact, was all over the map in the early 1980s, sandwiching that 1981 improvement with two of the biggest declines on record:

Rk  Year  Team     DE   Change
 1  1980   TEX   .688   -.038
 2  1969   CLE   .717   -.037
 *  1982   TEX   .698   -.036
 3  1996   BAL   .688   -.036
 4  1973   MIN   .709   -.034
 5  1999   TBA   .673   -.034
 6  2006   CLE   .686   -.034
 7  1973   CLE   .705   -.033
 *  1982   NYA   .700   -.032
 8  1975   ATL   .699   -.032
 9  2006   OAK   .694   -.031
10  1970   DET   .704   -.030

Steven Goldman could probably spin some great You Could Look It Up-type yarns from the two lists above, but in the interest of brevity we’ll limit ourselves to the driving tour, noting that historically drastic defensive improvements helped key the birth of the Braves‘ dynasty, the 116-win Mariners team of 2001, and last year’s Red Sox, while historic defensive collapses played their parts such disappointments as the regrettable “speed-and-defense” Yankees of 1982 and the 2006 Indians. (The 2006 A’s, however, didn’t come out the worse for wear.)

The take-home message here is that the magnitude of the defensive jump that stands as part of the foundation of this year’s Rays forecast is virtually unprecedented over the last half-century. The franchise has plenty of reasons for optimism, both for the 2008 season and in the years beyond, and if nothing else they should be a damn sight more appealing than the eyesores of yesteryear. But at the moment, the case for their sudden rise into contention appears to be overstated, and we’d be well served to temper our expectations.

Thank you for reading

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Fantastic! I didn\'t remember that you not only foresaw the spike in Tampa\'s wins, but that you even gave defense as one of the primary reasons! I\'m genuinely impressed.