Rays surprisingly an offensive juggernaut

Club known for pitching and defense creates second-highest scoring lineup

October 10th, 2021

BOSTON -- This was a challenging season, physically, for Rays first-base coach Ozzie Timmons.

You see, Timmons started a routine back in 2018. For every run Tampa Bay scored, he would do 10 pushups in the dugout. He’s stuck to it, a man of his word motivated by some Rays pitchers and strength coach Trung Cao. But Tampa Bay’s lineup made him work -- or work out, at least -- more than ever this season.

Long known as a team built on pitching and defense, a run-prevention machine, the Rays stormed into this postseason with not only the highest-scoring lineup in franchise history, but one of the most productive offensive units in baseball this year. The Rays finished the regular season with a 109 wRC+ as a team, tied for third in the Majors with the White Sox behind two other teams known for raking and slugging: the Astros (116) and Blue Jays (112).

Tampa Bay scored five runs in its American League Division Series-opening victory over Boston, then six in a losing effort in Game 2 on Friday. During the regular season, the Rays ranked second in the Majors with 857 runs scored, trailing only the Astros (863). You do the math -- that’s 8,570 pushups for Timmons between April 1 and Oct. 3.

“You know what? It's great,” Timmons said, smiling. “The only tough part is when they want to drop an eight or nine spot on me, and I have to do 80 or 90. The one time we dropped a 10 spot on the Yankees, that was tough. I had to raise the white flag on that one, but I did finish them by the end of the game. I got 70 straight, then I was out.”

If the Rays are going to get past the Red Sox in the ALDS and advance through October, they’ll have to keep Timmons busy. They still do a lot of things they’ve become known for: Aggressively deploying a deep bullpen, relying on young arms, utilizing their entire roster, smartly shifting their defenders and catching most everything hit to them. But these Rays can hit a little, too.

Here are six reasons they developed into an imposing offensive club.

1. Their hitters were healthy

Aside from Ji-Man Choi, who dealt with some knee and leg issues, the Rays' primary hitters stayed on the field most of the season. And keep in mind, their main hitters are pretty good.

Brandon Lowe hit 39 homers and drove in 99 runs during his first complete season. Randy Arozarena, in his first full season, had 20 homers, 20 stolen bases and a 131 OPS+. Yandy Díaz, who’d never played more than 79 games in a season, posted a .353 on-base percentage and quietly finished fourth on the team with 64 RBIs in 134 games.

Austin Meadows, set back by COVID-19 and injuries last season, accumulated 591 plate appearances and used them to great effect with 27 homers and 106 RBIs, the club’s first triple-digit RBI season since Evan Longoria in 2010.

“I always say in our postgame celebrations: Death, taxes and Austin Meadows with runners in scoring position,” veteran center fielder Kevin Kiermaier said. “You can count on him.”

2. They’ve had time to work

It feels like a long time ago, but the Rays actually started slowly. At the end of play on May 12, they were slashing .217/.298/.361 as a team while averaging only 4.1 runs per game. Since then, they’ve slashed .250/.328/.449 while averaging 5.7 runs per game. Lowe got better as the season went along. Arozarena took a step forward in the second half. So did Kiermaier.

It wasn’t exactly by design, but it was understood as part of the plan. Hitting coach Chad Mottola has often said last year’s shortened schedule required “Band-Aids” for hitters -- short-term solutions to long-term problems -- because of the abbreviated season and limited amount of time to work in the cage due to COVID-19 protocols. This year, they sought sustainable changes to hold up for the long haul.

“I think it was a little bit of a hangover coming into this year and going, 'OK, we don't need Band-Aids. We need long-term stuff,’” Mottola said. “At the beginning of the year, there was no real concern on my end, because I knew last year we just didn't have that depth that you need to get through a full schedule. … So when we started real slow, it was somewhat planned. Of course you don't want to struggle, but it was, 'Let's build something for the long term rather than just put the Band-Aid on like we had to do last year.'”

3. They made big midseason additions, young and old

On June 22, 20-year-old shortstop Wander Franco doubled and homered in his highly anticipated big-league debut. He had a few up-and-down weeks then took off after the All-Star break, looking every bit like a two-time consensus No. 1 prospect. Overall, the switch-hitting rookie slashed .288/347/.463 in 70 games, including a historic 43-game on-base streak.

A month later, they pulled off a trade for arguably the most accomplished player they’ve ever acquired: 41-year-old DH Nelson Cruz. He may not have performed up to his usual standard, slashing .226/.283/.442, but he had 13 homers and several big moments, deepened the lineup and set an excellent example for younger Rays like Arozarena and Franco.

4. They match up well

The Rays used 158 lineup constructions for a reason. They use platoons all over the field to create better matchups against opposing starting pitchers, pairing up a right-handed corner infielder like Díaz with lefty-hitting infielders like Choi and Joey Wendle. Switch-hitting catcher Francisco Mejía allowed starter Mike Zunino to take more days off, keeping Zunino fresh enough to launch 33 homers. Their five-man outfield rotation -- Kiermaier, Arozarena, Meadows, Manuel Margot and Brett Phillips -- gave manager Kevin Cash a ton of flexibility.

And while they struggled mightily against lefties in the early going, those numbers significantly improved with the additions of Franco, Cruz and Jordan Luplow, not to mention the uptick in performance from Arozarena and Lowe. It showed in Games 1 and 2 of this series, as the Rays chased Red Sox lefties Eduardo Rodriguez and Chris Sale early in each contest.

5. Timing is everything

The Rays ranked 14th in the Majors in batting average, 11th in on-base percentage and eighth in slugging percentage. They struck out more than anyone but the Cubs and Marlins. So, how were they so efficient with the offense they did create? Consider:

• Nobody fared better in the final three innings than the Rays’ lineup. Tampa Bay scored 285 runs in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings this season, 35 more than the second-best Dodgers and 48 more than the second-ranking AL team (Houston).

• The Rays were tied for second in the Majors with 109 home runs with men on base, behind the Giants (113) and even with the Blue Jays.

• Tampa Bay led the Majors with 61 homers when batting with runners in scoring position and finished second to the Astros (602) with 573 RBIs in those situations.

6. Their baserunning is underrated

Look, not everything can be as flashy as Arozarena’s straight steal of home in Game 1. But that was indicative of a team that hustles all over the basepaths, finishing fifth in FanGraphs’ catch-all baserunning metric this season.

According to Baseball Reference, the Rays also led the Majors in “extra bases taken percentage,” the percentage of times the runner advanced more than one base on a single or more than two bases on a double, when possible. They also led MLB in “run scoring percentage,” the percentage of times a baserunner eventually scores a run, at 36 percent.

“We're really fortunate. These guys pride themselves on finding a way to get the extra 90 feet,” Cash said. “Not at any point this year could you question anybody's effort getting down the line.”