Could the Tampa Bay Rays Be a Surprise Team in 2015?

After going 77-85 in 2014, Tampa Bay has the potential to be a sleeper team this season.

The Tampa Bay Rays went 77-85 last year, lost their best pitcher midway through the season, and parted ways with their highly-regarded manager after it.

You’d be excused for having low expectations for the franchise in 2015, but could there be some reason for optimism?

Let’s take a look at the numbers.

While the Rays tied for the 12th-worst record in baseball last year, they were probably not the Majors' 12th-worst team.

You are probably expecting me to talk about Tampa Bay's run differential and Pythagorean record now, but they don’t tell a much different story here.

The Rays had a minus-13 run differential, which translates to a 79-83 Pythagorean record (tied for 16th in the Majors). This is just a two-win improvement over their actual record.

If we look a bit deeper though, there is evidence the Rays’ record undersold their true talent.

A Deeper Look

Since we can use run differential to calculate an expected win-loss record, we can also use underlying stats to derive an expected run differential, and that is what FanGraphs strives to do using its BaseRuns metric. Doing so strips away the sequencing luck involved in scoring runs to give us a more accurate picture of a team’s true performance.

The Rays ranked 12th in the Majors in BaseRuns last season, with an implied record of 83-79.

It’s not great, but it is six wins better than their actual record. It also makes sense, given the Rays tied for 11th in the Majors in both hitting (in terms of wRC+) and pitching (in terms of FIP-).

Third-order winning percentage at Baseball Prospectus, which also uses underlying stats in addition to a strength of schedule adjustment to calculate an expected record, paints an even rosier picture.

Here, the Rays ranked 10th in baseball with an 86.4-75.6 record, and only the A’s underperformed their third-order winning percentage by a wider margin.

Factoring out sequencing makes Tampa Bay look better, and no team would rather you ignore sequencing more than the 2014 Rays.

Clutch Problems

The club was the baseball equivalent of what the internet thought of LeBron James in June 2011, becoming a joke in clutch situations.

Tampa Bay ranked 14th in the majors in OPS+ (96), yet dropped into a tie for 24th with an OPS+ of 91 with runners in scoring position.

In high-leverage situations, its OPS+ dropped to 85 (27th in MLB) and in late-and-close situations, the Rays posted a Major League worst OPS+ of 74.

Overall, the Rays were one of the least clutch teams in baseball last season. Tampa Bay’s offense ranked 26th in win probability added last season, despite coming in 17th in context-neutral WPA, according to FanGraphs.

The gap can be attributed to “clutch” performance, and only the Blue Jays had a more negative gap in overall WPA and context-neutral WPA.

The Rays pitching staff ranked 25th in clutch score, with its bullpen ranking 27th and starting rotation ranking 19th.

The good news for Tampa Bay is that, while clutch performance is obviously very important to a team’s success, it is not consistent over time, as Richard Cramer, Jeff Sullivan, and countless others have written.

We should expect Tampa Bay’s performance in key situations to regress to its overall level of performance in the future.

Roster Changes

That said, while the 2014 Rays may have had the true talent of an 86-win squad, the team will have a different look in 2015 thanks to a number of roster changes, so we’ll have to take a closer look before drawing any conclusions about the coming season.

David Price is gone, as are Ben Zobrist, Wil Myers, and Ryan Hanigan, to name a few.

Price, who was dealt at the trade deadline for Nick Franklin, and Zobrist, who was traded to Oakland in the offseason, combined to produce 40.4 fWAR for the Rays since 2011, begging the question as to whether their loss will offset any positive regression.

Despite the loss of Price, Tampa Bay’s starting rotation remains solid, if unspectacular, led by the trio Alex Cobb, Chris Archer and Drew Smyly. Cobb posted a 79 ERA-, 90 FIP-, and 2.7 fWAR in 166.1 innings last season, and Archer led the team in innings pitched last season (194.2) and was second behind Price in fWAR (3.1).

Smyly, who was acquired in the Price deal, produced 2.3 fWAR in 153 innings split between Detroit and Tampa Bay, with an ERA- of 84 and FIP- of 99.

The picture is murkier in terms of the Tampa Bay position players, though the team still has Evan Longoria, who has been the club’s second most valuable player after Zobrist during the last four seasons. The third baseman’s production dropped in 2014, however, with a .253/.320/.404 slash line marking a significant decline from his .271/.351/.494 career marks.

In 700 plate appearances, he set career lows in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, walk rate (8.1%), isolated power (.151) and wRC+ (107). Defensive metrics suggest Longoria’s fielding took a step back last year as well, as he also set career lows in UZR/150 and DRS, per FanGraphs. Put it all together, and Longoria produced 3.4 fWAR, marking only the second time in his career he was worth less than 5.5 fWAR in a season.

While 3.4 WAR is nothing to sneeze at, we should probably assume Longoria returns to his old self in 2015. The projection models expect as much, with Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA model forecasting 4.7 WARP and a .261/.344/.453 line, while Steamer projects 5.3 WAR and .256/.332/.445.

Steamer and PECOTA both expect Desmond Jennings (3.3 fWAR in 2014) to be the Rays’ next most valuable position player. (Steamer projects 2.8 WAR and PECOTA has him at 3.2 WARP in 2015.)

Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and first basemen James Loney both have more than 4,000 big league plate appearances to their names, but the rest of the Rays lineup is filled with relative unknowns (Cabrera is projected produce between 1.5 and 1.8 WAR, while Steamer has Loney at 1.4 WAR and PECOTA has him at 0.2 WARP).

Steamer sees outfielder Kevin Kiermaier (2.3) as the only other Rays position player to surpass 2.0 WAR, while also forecasting catcher Rene Rivera at 1.9 WAR. Kiermaier did well as a rookie last season, producing 3.8 fWAR and posting a 119 wRC+ in 364 at-bats. Aside from his glove (Kiermaier finished eighth in the majors in UZR), his ability to hit for power was his greatest asset, posting a .450 slugging percentage and .187 isolated power.

Rivera, who was acquired from San Diego in the Myers and Hannigan deal, coupled his typically strong defense with a career year at the plate in 2014, posting a 114 wRC+ in 329 plate appearances en route to a 3.0 fWAR season. Seeing as Rivera had a slash line of only .206/.241/.290 in 344 previous plate appearances scattered between 2004 and 2013, some offensive regression is probably in order for the 31-year-old.

In addition to Kiermaier, Jennings, and Longoria, PECOTA projects Franklin (2.3) and outfielder Steven Souza (3.0) to be above-average players in 2015.

Franklin struggled last season in 90 plate appearances split between Seattle and Tampa Bay, with a .160/.222/.247 slash line (34 wRC+). The Rays are hoping he can at least return to his rookie form, during which he displayed solid offense for a middle infielder (.225/.303/.382, 93 wRC+) in 412 plate appearances and good defense*, producing a season worth 1.9 rWAR and 2.5 WARP (*UZR was less thrilled by his glove, so he was only worth 0.5 WAR according to FanGraphs).

Souza comes into this season with a grand total of 26 plate appearances under his belt yet is projected to produce 3.0 WARP. Steamer is less bullish on the 25-year-old but still forecasts a healthy 1.7 WAR.

The rookie is a microcosm of sorts for the Rays: an inexperienced team with upside but also a wide range of outcomes and no guarantee of success, a point RJ Anderson of Baseball Prospectus also made earlier this week.

2015 Projections

PECOTA likely projects the best possible outcome, forecasting the Rays to win 86 games and grab the American League’s second wild card.

The projections at FanGraphs and here at numberFire are a bit more modest. The former has Tampa Bay going 83-79, in a tie with the Yankees for third place in the AL East. We also have the Rays finishing 83-79, and have them as the 12th best team in the Majors and second to Boston in the division.

2015 could go a number of different ways for the Rays, but we can probably expect it to be better than last season at least.