Rays hope to ride 'swarm' offense into October
Skipper Maddon preaches patience at the plate and consistent contact
The Rays are on pace for their fifth 90-win season in the past six years. They trail the first-place Red Sox in the American League East standings by just a game, but the gap in payroll between the two clubs stands at nearly $100 million.
The manner in which the Rays' front office continues to meld together playoff teams with limited financial resources has been well documented.
The blueprint is not a secret: Build out from consistent homegrown starting pitching and find solid defensive players. Fill the holes with talent that may not have panned out elsewhere and hope manager Joe Maddon's "be yourself" clubhouse brings different results.
But Tampa Bay's success this season has come from more than pitching and defense. By several statistical measures, the Rays are having their best offensive season since they made the playoffs for the first time in 2008.
When it's at its best, Maddon refers to his offense as "the swarm." Within reason, each hitter in Maddon's lineup has just as good of a chance to spark a rally as the next. Look no further than the team having its best month in franchise history in July while Evan Longoria -- the closest thing Tampa Bay has to a star -- had the worst offensive month of his career, or unheralded catcher Jose Lobaton's two walk-off hits last week.
On the surface, the improvements from last season are plain to see, as the Rays have boosted their batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage from a year ago.
Here's a closer look at how the swarm has developed.
Missing the whiff
During the previous five seasons, the Rays had ranked in the top half of Major League teams in strikeout rate, coming in fourth last season at 21.7 percent. This year, Tampa Bay's strikeout rate sits at 18.7 percent, pushing them down to 20th.
Team management chose to part ways with its two biggest strikeout producers from 2012: Carlos Pena and B.J. Upton. The pair combined for 351 strikeouts last season, accounting for more than a quarter of the team's total (1,323). The Rays are on pace for 1,159 strikeouts this season, which would be their lowest total since 2006. But they have not totally rid themselves of the swing and miss. Longoria is on pace for the highest strikeout total of his career, and rookie Wil Myers is averaging one strikeout per game.
Maddon, though, will take the good with the bad when it comes to Myers.
"He strikes out a lot," Maddon said of Myers. "He has struck out a lot in the past. He knows that's a part of who he is and he needs to put the bat back on the rack and get ready for the next at-bat, because he can do some damage."
Take your base
One of Maddon's most oft-repeated thought-provoking idioms goes as follows:
"When you're walking, you're hitting," Maddon said. "I'm not saying to look for walks. The point is to not expand your strike zone."
Maddon has preached the turn of phrase to several of his slumping hitters this season, including Longoria, who struck out 37 times in July but now has 11 extra-base hits in his past 14 games. Before Longoria began to heat back up, he drew two crucial walks in an extra-innings win over the Giants.
Tampa Bay's walk rate of nine percent is the fourth-best total in the Major Leagues, not necessarily news as the club has ranked in the top five in every year since 2008, but the number of pitches the Rays see allows the hits to flow and the "conga line" (another Maddon-ism) to move back to the top of the order.
"Everyone looks for these mechanical fixes when it comes to hitting, but the most important thing you could teach is probably strike-zone discipline," Maddon said.
Designated hitter Luke Scott has heeded Maddon's advice. Scott's walk rate was a career-worst 6.1 percent last season. This year, Scott is walking in 10.6 percent of all plate appearances. Maddon and Scott often discuss the need for Scott, an avid hunter, to be selectively aggressive at the plate, to let the prey come to him.
"It's my hunter's approach," Scott said. "I look in a certain zone for a pitch, and if it's there, I take it and let it happen as it may."
Yes, the Rays are walking more and striking out less, but they are plus-56 in run differential, and the runs are not scoring themselves.
First, Tampa Bay is making contact at a higher clip. The Rays are putting the ball in play in 68 percent of all plate appearances, their highest mark since 2006.
Tampa Bay has not cracked the Majors' top 20 in overall contact rate since the team was known as the Devil Rays. The Rays ranked next to last in the Majors last season, but they've moved up to No. 12 this year. James Loney, an offseason free-agent addition, and Sam Fuld rank in the AL's top 20 (with a minimum of 100 plate appearances) in overall contact.
When Tampa Bay players do put bat to ball, it is falling in for hits more often. The Rays' percentage of balls in play that turn into hits is at 30, the team's highest rate since 2009.
As some teams begin to move to power-heavy lineups in which strikeouts are more prevalent, the Rays have gone against the grain yet again and focused their attention on contact, no matter the kind.
"We have to move the baseball," Maddon said. "The swarm comes when you move the baseball. When you're up there flailing, the swarm goes away. The reason I thought we could be very swarming at the beginning of the season is we were always moving the baseball."
Maddon was right, but he is not a fortune teller, and there is surely no way of knowing if the Rays have another deep postseason run in them. If they do, they have the swarm to thank.