An ounce of run prevention is worth a ton of wins.
Though their players don’t make a lot of Benjamins by MLB standards, that’s been the key to another amazing season for the underpaid and unappreciated Tampa Bay Rays, who in New York for a huge three-game series against the Yankees that begins Monday night.
It’s not just that the Rays pitching staff is among the best in the American League. Bettors should now that it’s off the charts in a few key categories:
- Tampa Bay has allowed the fewest home runs of AL staffs by a mile. And, that’s been true all season. We’re in a “juiced ball” era (more about aerodynamics than injections) which has gopher balls clearing the fence at a record pace. The Rays have figured out how to keep opponents in the park. Few others have.
- Tampa Bay, along with Houston, is allowing a miniscule batting average compared to the rest of the league. So, it’s not just home runs. Opponents aren’t making meaningful contact very often. When they do, the balls are gobbled up by excellent fielders.
- Tampa Bay’s starting pitchers have an ERA about a run lower than any other team in the league…and about two runs lower than league average. Many critics have blasted the franchise for its use of “openers” in the rotation. That strategy may now be an evolutionary tick that’s going to revolutionize the game. (Note that the Rays' bullpen is among the best in the league even though those guys throw more innings in relief of openers. This strategy doesn’t “kill the bullpen” as some pundits predicted.)
Though it’s not off the charts as in those categories listed above, Tampa Bay is also among the league leaders in fewest walks allowed.
It all combines for a team ERA that’s hovered near 3.00 all season -- in a league that features designated hitters -- in a high home-run environment. Opponents have trouble getting on base, then have trouble driving runners home with the long ball. Basically a “defense wins championships” approach where “defense” starts in the pitcher’s hand.
Old-school bettors used to focusing mostly on starting pitchers must adjust to thinking about the impact of “full staffs” when handicapping Rays’ games.
Can this team actually win a championship? It’s performance against other top contenders through the regular season will tell bettors a lot about that. Shutting down powerful offenses under the playoff spotlight may not come so easy. For now, Tampa Bay is 2-4 vs. the Yankees, 1-3 vs. Minnesota, 1-1 vs. the Los Angeles Dodgers, and 3-1 vs. Houston in big-series testers. That’s just a 7-9 record.
Worth noting that Tampa Bay has won five of its last six vs. defending World Champion Boston. The jury’s still out on whether or not that means much during the Red Sox extended hangover.
Even if you don’t bet any sides or totals in this Rays-Yankees series, pay close attention to the personnel matchup. These teams are likely to be battling for first place in the AL East all season long.