To appreciate the Rays, let’s begin with this: What do they know that others don’t? That’s a question every team should be asking itself with Tampa Bay on a 95-win pace despite baseball’s lowest payroll.
Never mind the money part of it. That’s yesterday’s news. The Rays don’t pay much attention to it and don’t think the rest of us should either. They’ve done this kind of thing enough that we shouldn’t even be surprised anymore.
The Rays won’t come right out and say it, but they pride themselves on this. That is, in seeing potential in players others may not. On player evaluations that are just a bit better than many of their competitors. Same goes for roster construction, scouting reports, new ideas, etc.
The Rays have been at the forefront of baseball’s information age since owner Stuart Sternberg assumed control of the franchise in Oct. 2005 and went to work transforming one of the sport’s least successful teams into one of its most successful.
This season, the Rays are led by a pitching staff with the American League’s best ERA (3.53) and an offense that is ninth in runs.
In reshaping the team the past two seasons, Tampa Bay focused on hitters with consistently high exit velocity and pitchers who throw hard. Simple, huh?
Offensively, the Rays have six hitters in baseball’s top 17 percent in making hard contact. (Unfortunately, two of those -- All-Star second baseman Brandon Lowe and designated hitter Yandy Díaz -- may miss the remainder of the regular season with injuries.)
As for the pitchers, the Rays’ 94.1-mph fastball velocity is baseball’s fifth-highest, and Tampa Bay has seven of baseball’s top 50 pitchers in terms of xwOBA, a number that combines quality of contact with walks and strikeouts.
Here’s a capsule look at how the Rays have quietly constructed one of baseball’s best teams with a series of under-the-radar acquisitions:
Statistics through Friday
1-2-3. Austin Meadows (OF), Tyler Glasnow (RHP), Shane Baz (RHP)
In 2018, the Rays got a huge haul for pitcher Chris Archer, their biggest star and highest-paid player. Meadows (.879 OPS, 23 home runs) has been one of their most consistent offensive producers, and Glasnow (6-1, 1.86 ERA) was their best starter until getting hurt in May. He still hopes to return in September. Baz, 20, is No. 94 on MLB Pipeline’s list of Top 100 Prospects.
4. Tommy Pham, OF
Pham’s elite exit velocity convinced the Rays to send three prospects to the Cardinals for a 30-year-old at the 2018 Trade Deadline. He has 26 home runs, 30 doubles, 21 stolen bases and eight triples in 156 games since joining Tampa Bay. This season, his 3.0 fWAR is tops among the Rays’ position players.
5. Avisaíl García, OF
Garcia was a low-cost, low-risk $3.5-million offseason free-agent pickup who has 17 home runs, 19 doubles and a .786 OPS. He has been sidelined since Aug. 13 with a right oblique strain.
6. Díaz, 1B/OF
Díaz had hit one home run in 299 plate appearances in two seasons with the Indians. But his exit velocity was elite, and the Rays believed mechanical adjustments could provide some of the power every team is seeking. Acquired on Dec. 13, 2018, in a three-team deal, Diaz had 14 homers and 20 doubles in 78 games before suffering a hairline fracture of his left foot.
7. Charlie Morton, RHP
The Rays signed Morton to a contract potentially worth $45 million over three seasons on Dec. 21, 2018, even though he was 35 years old and had physical problems through the years. He’s 13-5 with a 2.87 ERA and is in the mix for the AL Cy Young Award.
8. Nick Anderson, RHP
Anderson had a 3.92 ERA in 45 appearances for the Marlins this season. The Rays acquired him at the Trade Deadline believing they could utilize his elite spin rate to get even more. In 10 appearances, he has allowed four baserunners with no walks, no runs and 18 strikeouts in 9 2/3 innings. He has added some stability to a Tampa Bay bullpen that has been shaky at times.
9. Emilio Pagán, RHP
Pagan arrived in a three-team, seven-player deal on Dec. 21, 2018, after a pair of solid, but not spectacular seasons with the Mariners and A’s. The Rays have helped harness his blazing fastball/slider combination, and his .217 xwOBA is tops among all Major Leaguers.
10. Ryan Yarbrough, LHP
The 27-year-old has been a valuable swingman since arriving in a trade that sent veteran Drew Smyly to the Mariners. Yarbrough has a 0.869 WHIP in 22 appearances this season.
11. Blake Snell, LHP
The Rays have produced a slew of homegrown talent, including Snell, the 2018 AL Cy Young Award winner and Lowe, who was the 87th player taken in the 2015 Draft.
Tampa Bay’s top baseball executives, Erik Neander and Chaim Bloom, operate with so much energy and creativity that they’ve become one of the gold standards for every other team.
In Kevin Cash, the Rays have a manager that checks every box. He’s smart, funny, cynical and thoroughly prepared. He also is able to balance the avalanche of information coming from his front office while building trust and strong relationships with his players.
Tampa Bay’s Major League staff includes such titles as process and analytics coach, mental skills coach and lead sports dietician, baseball information science.
The Rays say it’s all about putting their players -- and their team -- in the best position to succeed. They overcame a 34-40 start to win 90 games in 2018 and have built on that this season.
Tampa Bay appears to be in a three-team fight with the Indians and A’s for the two AL Wild Card berths. To play the Wild Card Game against Oakland, the franchise that introduced baseball to its information age, might be appropriate.
Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.