ST. PETERSBURG -- The most recent team to lead the Majors in home runs and stolen bases included a 36-year-old Jackie Robinson and a 24-year-old Don Zimmer. There’s still plenty of season left, of course, but the 2023 Rays have a chance to accomplish the same feat as those 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers.
The Rays entered Tuesday with 101 homers, 11 more than the Braves and Dodgers. Tampa Bay has also racked up 73 steals, 15 more than the second-ranked Pirates and 20 more than any other American League team. For what it’s worth, the last team to lead the AL in home runs and stolen bases was Cleveland in 1995.
The home runs have been surprising, although they haven’t been lapping the field this month quite like they did in April. The Rays hit 14 more homers in March/April than any other team, but they’re fifth in the Majors this month. But they didn’t necessarily run wild on the bases in April, either, primarily because they were hitting so many home runs and winning games by such large margins that there was less of a need to do so.
They’ve certainly turned on the green light this month, though. The Rays stole 25 bases during the just-completed 10-game homestand and a whopping 48 from May 1-29, double the total of any other club during that stretch.
Yes, this team can slug like few others. Yes, they can run as well as anybody else, too.
“We knew he had a lot of team speed,” said first-base coach Chris Prieto, who serves as the Rays’ baserunning coach. “There's a lot of guys that have the green light, have the opportunity to steal, and it's been fun to watch them pick their spots, not force the issue at times and shut it down when they need to.
“Obviously [we’re] really pleased. Really good athletes, good instincts. They're prepared. They ask questions. But for the most part, I sit back and watch them be really good athletes, and it's been fun.”
The Rays knew they could potentially wreak havoc on the basepaths this year. Back in Spring Training, manager Kevin Cash said Tampa Bay had its fastest group of position players since he was brought on board. He occasionally referenced the old Rays clubs that featured burners like Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton.
But did anyone see this level of thievery coming?
“Every game is a little bit different. Sometimes, you have the opportunity to steal bases; other times, you don’t,” Randy Arozarena said last week through interpreter Manny Navarro. “With the type of game that we play, with the defense and the power and hitting, it's very beneficial for us to be able to steal bases and have that advantage to ultimately score more.”
The Rays have an MLB-leading seven different players with at least five steals. Taylor Walls is 14-for-14. Josh Lowe has 12. Luke Raley has seven. Arozarena and Manuel Margot have six. Jose Siri has five. And Wander Franco leads the way with 19, his highest total in any professional season, proof of his health, instincts and what Prieto called a “fearless” approach on the basepaths.
“That is probably one thing that I wasn't totally prepared for -- that [Franco] was going to be such a base-stealing threat. But he's, for the most part, made a lot of good decisions,” Cash said recently. “He gets really good jumps, and the speed speaks for itself.”
This year’s rules changes have played a part, of course. Baserunners are at an advantage with the pitch timer, limits on disengagements and slightly bigger bases. But the Rays have also committed to the idea of becoming a better baserunning team after making an MLB-high 73 outs on the basepaths while being caught stealing 37 times last season.
The Rays study information about themselves, like their leads and first steps. They break down opposing pitchers, from their times to the plate to pickoff moves and other tendencies, for example. There’s a noticeable attention to detail that often leads to results, like when they had two seven-steal games and a five-steal performance in a 12-game span from May 17-28.
“I think they're asking questions amongst each other. I think they're noticing things, seeing things. We run video so they can look at video,” Prieto said. “But all that said, it's, it goes back to the players that we have -- the dynamic players that we have.”