Rays winning in '19 with new kind of 'opener'

New year, new unexpected formula for success for creative Rays

May 15th, 2019

Last year, the Rays turned the baseball world on its ear by popularizing "the opener" -- the concept of using a pitcher (often a reliever) with a platoon advantage, specifically to handle the first few batters of a game. While it caused something of a stir at first, they went on to surprise just about everyone by winning 90 games, putting the opener on the map and Tampa Bay in position to take another step in 2019.

So far, so good. The Rays have started 25-15, landing them in first place in an American League East that features the powerhouse Yankees and reigning champion Red Sox, two teams that constantly steal headlines from Tampa Bay, even when the Rays are higher in the standings.

Let's give some well-earned love to the Rays, then. While they might not seem to be doing anything quite as groundbreaking this year as the opener strategy was in 2018, Tampa Bay has found a similarly creative, if not outright new and controversial, strategy. And once again, it has to do with the first inning -- only this time, on the other side of the ball.

Yes, the Rays have the best leadoff hitters in baseball. That's "hitters," as in plural.

Is there some secret behind this strategy?

"To be honest," manager Kevin Cash said in reference to the leadoff spot, "what we talk about is getting really good hitters more at-bats. We're not asking anyone to do anything different, take extra pitches, don't swing at first pitches."

Put simply, the Rays' brain trust is ensuring that hot hitters are placed at the top of the lineup in order to maximize their opportunities to produce.

Speaking of that production, let's look at some key statistics to (ahem) lead off this breakdown. First, Tampa Bay's leadoff batters rank atop the leaderboards in several major categories, in some cases by a lot.

Rays' leadoff hitters' overall performance (MLB rank)
AVG: .353 BA (1st) -- ahead of the Astros at .320
OBP: .421 OBP (1st) -- ahead of the Astros at .400
SLG: .694 (1st) -- ahead of the Astros at .651
Hits: 60 (1st) -- ahead of the Astros at 55
Total Bases: 118 (1st) -- ahead of the Astros at 112

In addition, the Rays' first hitters have totaled 14 homers, third most behind only the Astros and Dodgers, and 34 runs scored, behind only the Astros and Dodgers and tied with the Royals for the third-best mark in the Majors.

Now, those numbers account for what the No. 1 hitters have done in all of their plate appearances in a game while batting out of the top spot.

Getting a little more granular, let's highlight what the Rays' leadoff hitters have been doing specifically in the first plate appearance of a game in the first inning. Hint: It has been even more impressive.

Rays' leadoff hitters' performance in first plate appearance (MLB rank)
AVG: .457 BA (1st) -- ahead of the Rangers at .400
OBP: .525 OBP (1st) -- ahead of the Rangers at .462
SLG: 1.000 (1st) -- ahead of the Astros at .684
Hits: 16 (1st) -- ahead of the Brewers and Rangers at 14
HR: 5 (T-1st) -- tied with the Astros at 5
Total Bases: 35 (1st) -- ahead of the Astros at 26

No wonder, then, that the Rays have outscored opponents by a whopping 32-14 in the first frame over their 40 games so far. That 18-point run differential in the inning is baseball's best. (The Twins are second in first-inning run differential, at plus-14.)

Think getting a lead -- especially right out of the gate -- is important? You bet. The Rays have scored in the first inning in 21 out of their 40 games, and they are 16-4 in games when they've held a lead entering the second inning. That's an 80 percent winning percentage -- well above the MLB-wide mark of 70.1 percent (195-83) when counting the other 29 teams and omitting the Rays from the equation.

What makes all of this still more intriguing -- and rare -- is that unlike, say, the Astros and the red-hot George Springer or the Rangers and Rockies and their leadoff constants, Shin-Soo Choo and Charlie Blackmon, the Rays regularly have deployed three different hitters in the No. 1 spot.

That's right, depending on whether the opposing starter is a right- or left-hander, Tampa Bay has taken to opening its offense with lefty swingers and Brandon Lowe or righty hitter -- and all three have experienced resounding success in the role, too.

Rays' top three leadoff hitters, by most plate appearances in that spot
Austin Meadows (LHB): 82 PA (.370/.439/.753, 11 R, 7 HR, 18 RBIs, 8 BB, 16 Ks)
Yandy Diaz (RHB): 57 PA (.333/.404/.667, 11 R, 4 HR, 8 RBIs, 6 BB, 9 Ks)
Brandon Lowe (LHB): 45 PA (.350/.422/.525, 10 R, 1 HR, 5 RBIs, 4 BB, 12 Ks)

"Ever since Spring Training, I've gotten really comfortable hitting leadoff," Meadows said. "It's kind of new to me, but being able to be aggressive up there is a lot of fun. You get to set the tone, especially on the road."

Another fun nugget: Each of these three players is in his first full season with Tampa Bay. A former elite prospect, Meadows was acquired from the Pirates last July, along with right-handers Tyler Glasnow and Shane Baz, in the Chris Archer trade. Diaz came over from the Indians at the end of the Winter Meetings last December as part of the three-team deal that also involved the Mariners.

As for Lowe, who helped cover leadoff duties against righties when Meadows hit the injured list with a right thumb sprain in late April, the rookie emerged as a top prospect during a breakout 2018 at Double- and Triple-A that ended with him getting called up to The Show.

The conventional wisdom that a team should have the same player written atop the lineup card day in and day out -- a common approach throughout most of the sport's history -- has become less and less stringent in recent years, as has the expectation of what said leadoff hitter should look like (picture: small and/or slight) and play like (think: speedy and/or scrappy).

But the Rays, unsurprisingly, are putting their own spin on both of those ideas, not only by using multiple leadoff hitters but also by having the likes of the muscle-bound Diaz (listed at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds and the owner of a below-average 26.4 feet-per-second sprint speed) and the not-especially-fast Lowe (with a 27.8 average sprint speed, barely above the 27.0 MLB average) contribute out of the top spot. As for Meadows, his 28.4 average sprint speed is the highest among the trio, but he's also the biggest of the bunch at 6-foot-3, 220 pounds.

If the Rays continue to play this well, with Meadows, Diaz and Lowe leading the charge, it will be the second season in a row that Tampa Bay has made waves with an "opener."

Juan Toribio contributed reporting to this story.