Yesterday, I examined the record-setting improvement that the Rays‘ bullpen made from 2007 to 2008, and the role that turnaround played in helping the team vault from 66-win doormats with one of the all-time worst bullpens, to AL pennant winners with perhaps the majors’ best unit. As it turns out, that wasn’t the only historic turnaround this year’s Rays pulled off.

Back in mid-April, when PECOTA’s forecast for an 88-win season for the Rays still widely seen as outrageous, I dug deep to expose an underlying assumption of that projection which seemed even more outrageous. Namely, the Rays’ rise was predicated on a record-setting year-to-year improvement in Defensive Efficiency, the ability of their fielders to convert batted balls into outs. As with the bullpen, the 2007 Devil Rays’ defense had a claim as the worst in history via the lowest Defensive Efficiency since 1954, the earliest year of our database. Crunching the numbers, I concluded that PECOTA was predicting a 46-point improvement in Defensive Efficiency for these projected 88-win Rays, a jump that would rank as the second-greatest of all time. At the time, I was skeptical:

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.

Holiday bird-feasting is still about a month away, but it’s time for me to eat some crow here, since the Rays not only surpassed the 88 wins, but also the 46-point jump. As with the bullpen’s WXRL total and Fair Run Average, they set a record for the largest year-to-year improvement in our database, and they led the majors in that category as well. Nate Silver‘s roll continues.

Before delving into the numbers, it’s worth a clarification, however. Those Defensive Efficiency marks I used in the spring did not include Reached On Error totals in their calculations, a product of both a quirk in our sortable stats (since changed, along with adding the 1954-1958 seasons due to increased greatness on the part of Retrosheet) and the consequence of reverse-engineering team Defensive Efficiency marks from individual pitcher BABIPs. The figures here do include Reached on Error totals via the proper formula: 1 – ((H + ROEHR) / (PABB – SO – HBPHR)). Here’s the leaderboard, with years linked to the 1981 and 1994 strikes excluded:

Year  Team       DefEff  Prev   Diff
2008  Rays        .710   .656   .054
1980  Athletics   .728   .680   .048
1991  Braves      .714   .679   .035
1988  Brewers     .716   .683   .033
1971  Giants      .721   .689   .032
1978  White Sox   .714   .682   .032
2008  Marlins     .693   .661   .031
1955  Cubs        .735   .705   .030
1997  Tigers      .700   .671   .029
2001  Mariners    .727   .699   .028
1988  Reds        .726   .698   .028
1971  Astros      .715   .688   .027
1991  Angels      .708   .680   .027
1965  Pirates     .716   .688   .027
1985  Yankees     .711   .683   .027
1998  Yankees     .712   .685   .027
1992  Brewers     .725   .698   .027
1985  Giants      .707   .680   .027
1998  Red Sox     .703   .677   .026
2001  Twins       .700   .674   .026
1997  Astros      .693   .668   .026
2000  Mariners    .699   .673   .026
1968  Indians     .741   .715   .026
1978  Braves      .706   .680   .026

The Rays beat the record with six points to spare, and if you want a basis for comparison to that original 46-point assumption, consider that the 1 – BABIP version would tack on another seven points of Defensive Efficiency. The moves of third baseman Akinori Iwamura to second and of B.J. Upton from second to center field, plus the addition of Jason Bartlett at shortstop and Evan Longoria at third, made a huge difference for the Rays, one that made their bullpen turnaround possible.

With the first pitch of the World Series mere hours away-damn, I get goosebumps just typing that-I’ll save the in-depth history lesson on defensive improvements (including the PADE perspective) for another day, and instead offer some notes on the series. If these seem topically slanted towards the Rays, that’s because I’ve already gone exhaustively in-depth regarding the Phillies in the service of my previews for the Division and League Championship Series, not to mention several articles covering the latter battle. The Phils steamrolled the two teams I was rooting for, and they have my healthy and abiding respect for it, but the notes on my clipboard pertain more to the AL team about whom I haven’t written some 10,000 words this month.

The Rays have the deeper team.

Elsewhere on the site last night, Joe Sheehan and I performed a little thought experiment, pooling the Rays and Phillies rosters and choosing up sides, school-yard style, based simply on who we’d want to play for us over the next two weeks.

From our vantage point-and admittedly, we’re playing in the same analytical sandbox-the two teams are relatively even in frontline talent, but after that, the Rays’ edge in depth becomes clear. The first 21 picks featured 11 Rays and 10 Phillies, but 13 of the next 19 picks were Rays, and the last 10 picks were all Phillies. In general, Tampa Bay players were chosen ahead of their Philadelphia counterparts, with Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, Brad Lidge, and Ryan Madson rating as the exceptions-powerful exceptions, granted, but exceptions nonetheless. In our consensus, the lower portions of Philadelphia’s lineup, bench, and bullpen simply don’t match up to those of the Rays.

I suspect that the biggest quibble most Phillies fans will have with our evaluation regards the relative merits of first basemen Ryan Howard and Carlos Peña. Despite his monster counting stats (48 homers, 146 RBI), Howard finished with just 5.4 WARP3 this year, Peña with 9.1. Peña’s .314 EQA outdoes Howard’s .293 thanks to a 38-point edge in OBP and an adjustment for park and league, and he’s got about a three-win advantage with the leather according to Clay Davenport‘s fielding numbers (-17 for Howard, +11 for Peña). To widen that comparison of relative defensie skills, the Fielding Bible’s Plus/Minus numbers have Peña at +14, good for fifth among first basemen, and Howard at +1, ranked 12th. Howard is a fearsome hitter, but as the Dodgers showed in the NLCS, he can be tamed with a steady diet of sliders, and having three lefties to throw at him in high-leverage situations (J.P. Howell, David Price, and Trever Miller, not necessarily in that order) will almost certainly be a factor in this series.

Having said all of that, it’s important to remember that in a short series depth doesn’t come into play as often as it does over the course of the season. Neither of these lineups has more than a couple of moving parts-platoons at third base for the Phillies and right field for the Rays, plus the DH spots-and by and large the series will be decided by the front 15 of each club. Where it matters most is in the rotations. Hamels is clearly the best starting pitcher in the series, but he’ll be limited to two starts on a 1-5 schedule instead of three on a 1-4-7 schedule, and after him, the Rays’ Scott Kazmir, James Shields, and Matt Garza all have solid cases for why they’re the series’ second-best starter. A potential Game Seven matchup lines up as ALCS MVP Garza against Jamie Moyer, who has totaled less than six innings in his two post-season starts. Advantage, Tampa Bay.

The Rays’ hitting is better than most people think.

There’s a popular misconception that the Rays aren’t a great-hitting team, one borne of the fact that they finished just ninth in the AL in runs per game, fourth in on-base percentage, and eighth in slugging percentage. They had some injuries which affected those rankings-Evan Longoria’s wrist, Carl Crawford‘s hamstring, B.J. Upton’s shoulder-but as the ALCS showed, all of those players appear to be in working order right now, to say the least. That trio alone combined for 26 hits, eight home runs, and 23 RBI in the seven-game series, and Carlos Peña and Willy Aybar added another 15 hits, five homers, and 12 RBI between them. These guys have some punch.

What the regular-season numbers ignore is the fact that the Rays play in a very pitcher-friendly park. According to the five-year park factors on our Equivalent Average page, Tropicana Field has the fourth-toughest park for offense in the league, behind Seattle, Oakland, and Minnesota, depressing scoring by about three percent. Equivalent Average adjusts for that, and the Rays’ .265 EqA actually ranks third in the AL behind only Texas and Boston:

Team    ParkFactor  EqA    EqR   Runs
Rangers     1018   .278   857.9   901
Red Sox     1049   .270   787.5   845
Rays         972   .265   766.4   774
Twins        961   .264   755.4   829
Tigers      1029   .264   758.1   821
Yankees     1019   .262   731.9   789
Indians     1009   .261   733.9   805
Orioles     1023   .259   716.5   782
White Sox   1039   .259   720.6   811
Angels      1016   .254   678.2   765
Blue Jays    990   .253   672.8   714
Mariners     953   .250   662.7   671
Royals      1013   .246   629.4   691
Athletics    957   .244   619.5   646

Speaking of adjusting for offensive context and clearing up misconceptions, it’s worth noting that Citizens Bank Park isn’t exactly Coors Field East; its 1006 Park Factor means that scoring is inflated there by less than one percent. Once you adjust for that, the Phillies’ .267 EqA ranks fourth in the league behind the Cardinals, Mets, and Cubs. They certainly have more raw power than the Rays, but this isn’t a mismatch.

The Rays struggle against lefties.

You may have noticed on our front page that Clay Davenport‘s Postseason Odds favor the Phillies by about a 52-48 margin. That’s because his simulations incorporate the handedness of the starting pitchers. With Hamels and Moyer starting two or (more likely) three games in this series, the Rays’ relative weakness against lefties comes to the fore.

The Rays went just 25-24 (.510) against southpaw starters this year, compared to 72-41 (.637) against righties (team-by team records are here). By comparison, the Phillies went 32-22 (.593) against lefties, 60-48 (.556) against righties. Tampa Bay hit just .246/.330/.396 against lefties, ranking 12th in the league in OPS against southpaws and no better than 11th in any of the triple-slash categories. The Phillies hit .257/.337/.464 against lefties, good for fourth in the league in OPS, with the top slugging percentage in the league in that category. That the Rays only have one lefty starter (Kazmir) limits their exposure a bit, but any path to victory likely includes two of his starts, and the split bears watching.

We don’t know what to expect from the Rays’ bullpen.

As remarkable as the turnaround by the Rays’ relief corps was this year, Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler struggled in the latter portion of the ALCS. After allowing one run and two hits in 4 2/3 innings over the first two games-with Wheeler’s 48-pitch, 3 1/3-inning effort in Game Two qualifying as downright heroic-they yielded seven runs and eight hits over their last 3 1/3 frames, with both pitchers taking their lumps and Balfour out of the Game Seven equation altogether. Their tanks are running low.

David Price’s “October Surprise” in closing out Game Seven despite his relative lack of major league experience has many wondering if there’s a new pecking order in the Rays’ bullpen. That’s not at all clear yet; in the absence of a designated closer, it’s a safer bet that manager Joe Maddon will maintain a certain tactical fluidity with regards to roles, using matchups and needs-not just handedness, but also the ability to generate grounders and potential double plays-to guide his choice of relievers in any given inning. If Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are up to start the ninth, we may well see Price reprise his closing role, but Maddon may also call his number earlier and save the more experienced J.P. Howell for such a matchup.

On that note, one pitcher whose number Maddon could have stood to call more often in the LCS was Edwin Jackson. Frozen out of the starting rotation, Jackson was limited to garbage time in Games Three and Four, closing out lopsided wins. Yes, control is not his strong suit (3.8 BB/9, 1.4 K/BB ratio) and he’s generally a fly-baller; his 39.5 percent ground-ball rate ranked ahead of only Kazmir among the Rays’ starting five. However, he led the team in double-play support by a wide margin (outdoing even Chad Bradford‘s combined numbers), and ranked fifteenth in the league in that category. His double-play rate more than doubled from 9.0 percent in 2007 to 19.5 percent in 2008, but that shouldn’t be dismissed as a fluke; looking over his 2007 game log, his plummeting ERA over the last third of the season coincided with an increased frequency in double plays. That’s how he outpitches his shaky peripherals, and it’s a skill that might serve the Rays well, particularly if one of their starters is forced to make an early mid-inning exit.

As for the Phillies’ bullpen, let’s not forget that as a unit it ranked a very close second in the majors in WXRL, and it’s the one area where the team’s week-long rest may be its biggest advantage. Lidge is somewhat notorious for being confined to ninth-inning duties, though Charlie Manuel did bring him in early in the pivotal Game Four against the Dodgers in the LCS. Madson can pitch two innings at a time, has been dominant at times thanks to his fastball-changeup combo, and has allowed just seven hits, one walk, and one run in nine post-season innings. J.C. Romero may have a tougher row to hoe given Maddon’s predilection for alternating lefty and righty hitters, but if he does nothing more than face Peña in a key fifth- or sixth-inning situation on those non-Hamels nights, Manuel can still follow Joe Torre‘s famous Rivera-Wetteland recipe for shortening ballgames by getting the better part of three frames out of his top two relievers. And that ain’t hay.

I still think the balance of this series favors the Rays (put me down for “Rays in six” if you must have something to throw darts or rotten tomatoes at), but having underestimated the Phillies before, I won’t at all be shocked if they pull this one off. Absent the familiar casts of recent years, this should be a very entertaining World Series, one that makes household names of a fresh set of deserving players on both teams. If you’re a fan of the game rather than simply a partisan of either team, you’ve got to love that.