The Tampa Bay Rays have the best record in baseball. Even the most optimistic projections for the Rays didn’t see this kind of performance coming. Nate Silver‘s PECOTA projections had them at 88-74, third in the AL East behind the usual suspects. Instead, the Rays have ridden a nearly unprecedented turnaround in run prevention to a 51-32 mark, a 2½-game lead over the Red Sox, and 7½ over the Yankees.

Coming into this season, I saw the Rays as an improving team, but was less optimistic about their immediate future than most of my BP colleagues. My idea was that, having allowed 944 runs last season, there was little chance the Rays could lop off enough runs off of that mark in one season to justify the number of wins being projected. I had them allowing 850 runs, and even if you consider that I wildly overprojected the league offensive level, that’s way off. In the 162-game era, just two teams have ever allowed 250 fewer runs from one year to the next, just 15 have ever allowed 200 fewer. The Rays are on pace to allow 648 runs, 296 fewer than they did in ’07. That would the second-highest mark in the 162-game era, behind only the 1997 Tigers.

Could we have seen this coming? Clearly the Rays’ improvement on defense was planned, and was evident even in the second half of last season. However, anyone who could see a team that had the worst defense on record becoming one of the best defensive teams in baseball is a better man-or machine-than I. BP’s William Burke did some digging and found that the Rays’ first-half total of 324 runs allowed was a rare feat among teams that had allowed 900 runs in the previous season:

Year Team         RA81
1997 Orioles       297
2001 Cubs          321
2008 Rays          324
1988 Indians       369
2000 Mariners      370

Those list-leading Orioles have something in common with these Rays. That team added a defensive shortstop to the mix, signing Mike Bordick and moving Cal Ripken to third base in an effort to improve the defense. They also replaced Bobby Bonilla in the outfield with B.J. Surhoff, a move that helped the defense. Finally, they saw a dramatic decrease in home runs allowed, from 209 (ninth in AL) in ’96 to 164 (third in AL) in ’97.

Most of those elements are in place for Tampa today. Trading for Jason Bartlett created a significant defensive upgrade at shortstop. The presence of Evan Longoria caused the team to move Akinori Iwamura to second base; Longoria has been about as good as Iwamura was at third, and Iwamura has been much better than the second basemen the Rays used last year. The Rays’ outfield defense has been improved by last year’s decision to make B.J. Upton a center fielder, and while right field has been a mix of journeymen and the team’s weak spot on defense, it’s not hurting them much.

Consider the Rays’ opponent batting stats through 81 games. A year ago, 17.5 percent of PAs against the Rays resulted in a single. That figure is down to 14.2 percent this year. The Rays are allowing doubles and triples about as often (5.1 percent in both years). While the pitching staff is striking out more batters, the biggest difference is what happens when a ball is put in play: the Rays defense is turning between one and two singles a game into outs, which sounds like a small thing, but it has a huge effect on run scoring. Their home-run rate has fallen through the floor as well: from 3.3 to 2.3 percent of PAs. That is, as mentioned, in part a league thing, but it’s also a pitching staff that’s harder to drive something against.

When you turn singles into outs and cut your home-run rate by a third, you jump from a terrible run-prevention team to a very good one. That kind of leap has rarely occurred over one offseason-hence my skepticism earlier this year-but it’s not unprecedented. The Rays have gotten improved pitching as well, including a better strikeout rate, but the real driver here is the defense.

Can this continue in the second half? It’s interesting to note that while we assume that players who are having unusually good or bad seasons will return to their level, we don’t apply that same principle to teams. The fact is, we don’t know if team defense regresses within a season, or for that matter, whether individual player defense does. The safe bet is that the Rays won’t be quite as good defensively in the second half, but the only point I have in support of that is the concept that extreme performances are unlikely to be sustained. We don’t know what the true talent level of the Rays’ defense is, because we don’t model that very well. It’s possible that the Rays could play even better defense in the second half-more Carlos Pena, or a randomly healthy Rocco Baldelli in left field, or Longoria learning and improving with experience.

What we can say, without a doubt, is that this isn’t a fluke. The 2008 Rays have a good offense, a good pitching staff and a very good defense. Their third-order record is actually better than their real mark, thanks to one of the toughest schedules in the game. Their underlying fundamentals show them to be a real contender in the AL, and while they could yet finish behind both the Yankees and the Red Sox, it won’t be because they’re over their heads. This is the first year of a new era.

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