In their 11th season of play, after a decade of never winning 71 games, of never finishing above .500, and never coming close to contention in any year, the Tampa Bay Rays clinched a playoff spot yesterday with a 7-2 win over the Twins. The win was their 92nd of the season, 22 more than they’d ever won before. With a week left in the regular season, the Rays, though nominally battling the Red Sox for the AL East title, can work on setting their post-season rotation, rest their battered lineup, and prepare for the first Division Series in their history.

I don’t get to brag about this. While Nate Silver’s PECOTA projection system famously saw this coming, pegging the Rays to go 88-74, I distanced myself from its optimism and called for an improvement to 77-85. At the time, I felt I was being pretty generous to a team that had won 66 games in 2007, had made few major acquisitions, and was playing in a division with the Yankees, Red Sox, and Blue Jays. What primarily drove the prediction, however, was this idea: the Rays allowed 944 runs in 2007, and there seemed to be a limit as to how many fewer runs a team could allow from one year to the next. It didn’t seem reasonable that the Rays could lop off enough runs in one season to go from one of the worst teams in baseball to one of the best.

In May, I examined the concept further.

Well, now it’s May 1, and the Rays are on pace to allow 654 runs. Some of that is a league-wide downturn in offense, but more of it is defense. In 2007 the Rays had the worst Defensive Efficiency in the 49 years in our database, but they now have the third-best defense in baseball by that metric this time around. That points to a concerted effort to upgrade the defense, to make personnel decisions based on getting more outs on balls in play. That’s paid off in allowing nearly two runs a game less in 2008.

Just to allow 744 runs, the Rays would have to lop 200 runs off of their 2007 mark. Jason Paré looked it up and found just 15 teams that have allowed 200 fewer runs from one season to the next since 1959:

Team     Years      RA    RA2   Diff.
DET    1996-97    1103    790    313
SDN    1997-98     891    635    256
SDN    1977-78     833    598    235
CHN    1962-63     806    578    228
CLE    1971-72     747    519    228
HOU    1970-71     763    536    227
CLE    1987-88     957    731    226
CHA    1970-71     822    597    225
BAL    1996-97     903    681    222
OAK    1979-80     860    642    218
CLE    2004-05     857    642    215
SDN    1970-71     788    582    206
CHN    2000-01     904    701    203
MIL    1987-88     817    616    201
HOU    1967-68     678    477    201

The point is that a team improves by 200 runs on defense about once every three or four years, which is why I remain skeptical about the Rays’ ability to do so.

The Rays have allowed 628 runs with nine games to play. They won’t set the record for one-year improvement, but they should manage to finish second to the 1997 Tigers. That’s an amazing feat.

One reader, R.R., has consistently objected to this analysis of the Rays:

I don’t see how it matters whether it is unusual for teams to lop 200-plus runs off their runs allowed from one year to the next. That fact might simply be because teams do not ordinarily turn over personnel that drastically, or that the focus tends to be on changing offense rather than defense, or perhaps some other factors.

It seems to me that the proper approach is to compare the run-prevention sources of the Rays in 2008 to those of 2007. Is Bartlett significantly better than the group that played shortstop last year? Is Iwamura an upgrade over last year’s second basemen or Longoria an upgrade over Iwamura at third? Has Upton improved in center field and is Gross a better outfielder than Young?

And similarly, is the rotation and the bullpen significantly better? If the answers to most of those questions is yes, what difference does it make if there is little history for such a dramatic turnaround? It seems to me that is relying on a somewhat irrelevant factoid, almost like a superstition rather than analysis.

To his credit, R.R. made this point a number of times throughout the season. My argument is that the list above represents what we might call the range of reasonable outcomes. We don’t predict teams to win 122 games, or pitchers to have 0.88 ERAs, or batters to hit 81 home runs. When predicting the future, we are largely bound by what has happened in the past, and by the range of reasonable outcomes. Perhaps it was reasonable to project the Rays to allow just 660 or so runs this year, and to have the second-biggest improvement since Eisenhower was in office, but that’s not a prediction I felt comfortable making. It didn’t seem reasonable.

What the Rays have done this year is historic, and full credit should go to their management team, their field staff, and their players. Their Defensive Efficiency is the best in MLB, a year after that database-worst mark. The improvement has helped save more than 300 hits as opposed to last season: the Rays allowed 1,450 singles, doubles, and triples last year; that figure is 1,120 this year with a week to go. Rays pitchers haven’t hurt themselves quite as much either, lopping off about 70 walks and 40 homers this season. The missing hits, though, prevented by a defense that was better at nearly every position, is why the Rays will allow fewer than 670 runs, why they will win 95 or more games, and why we’re about to find out if the baseball fans of central Florida will show up for post-season games. There is no better story in baseball this season.

Thank you for reading

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If I may boast, before the season began, I thought the Rays would compete this year for the play-offs. No team had anywhere had close to such a great crop of young players coming along. Particularly, the promise of Longoria would improve the team offensively and defensively. The trade of Young & prospect for Garza, an upgrade of Bartlett from Harris, & prospect took from an area where they were nicely deep for two areas they glaring needed help. All that remained was a large improvement in their bullpen - and that can happen to almost any team any time (especially with such an improved defense and such a promising group of young pitchers on their way up).

Once in awhile teams do have gigantic leaps forward. I don\'t recall a team so poised to make such a large leap as these Rays.

- John B. Carter
Hey All-
The presents an opportunity to discuss an important element of having a comment feature.
Hotstatrat\'s comment is perfectly reasonable and appropriate. However, it is also clearly an attempt to get readers to go to his blog.
Is this ok? Is this something BP and its readers should curtail? I have no strong opinion either way. What say ye?
Folks, please don\'t post sig-style links in the comments. Seems to be a good way to get them rated lower and therefore unseen.

\"Perhaps it was reasonable to project the Rays to allow just 660 or so runs this year, and to have the second-biggest improvement since Eisenhower was in office, but that\'s not a prediction I felt comfortable making. It didn\'t seem reasonable.\"

But that\'s not the point, is it? Of course 660 wasn\'t reasonable; nobody projected 660. The question is whether PECOTA\'s 718 was reasonable, and I think the answer to that is pretty clearly \"yes\".
Thanks for the reference Joe. I still maintain that using historical precedent is only relevant if we consider the reasons for the pattern, not simply the fact of it. So the issue is not whether it has rarely happened that a team has improved its run prevention so dramatically but why it has rarely happened.
Enough already with the snide \"common knowledge\" platitudes about Rays\' attendance! The attendance is up over 30%--a lot of teams would be grateful for that, especially Florida with its 600 fans watching a game with a contending team in town and the home team still in the chase---the TV audience is up even more. Not bad for a team and organization that had done little to attract fans until last year. BTW tickets were scarce, if even available at all, for the weekend series with the Twins, who are not a major draw--though a fun team to watch. We\'ll be there for the postseason as well.

Doc Fisch
If your analysis indicated it only happens every 3-4 years, why did it not also point out that the last time it happened was 3 years ago? Wouldn\'t that indicate that we\'re just about due for it to happen again? If not ... doesn\'t it kind of indicate that it\'s not totally unlikely?