All-Knowing Sensei Jonah Keri wrote this yesterday as the Rays and Red Sox were headed to the bottom of the ninth tied 2-2. The Tampa side didn't need to have this game, but early-season sweeps against the Red Sox aren't exactly the way to build up confidence among the fan base. And after a Zobrist RBI single to tie the game, everything seemed to be going Tampa's way.
You know what happened next.
One Dustin Pedroia walk as an appetizer and a Mike Napoli RBI Double main course later, and the Rays left Boston with three more ticks in the loss column than when they first arrived.
It wasn't supposed to be this way, you know. I was making jokes earlier in the offseason about how the Yankees and Red Sox would be fourth and fifth in the AL East. Tampa returns much of its roster that won 90 games last season. And its 3-2 start didn't look that bad.
To be fair, we're exactly 7.4 percent of the way through the season; 4-8 is nothing to go crazy about. But is this start indicative of a larger trend? I decided to delve into the numbers to find out.
1. Hard-Hit Contact
The mark of a pitcher's effectiveness can often come from his line drive percentage (LD%). The stat, a somewhat arbitrary measure that gives a percentage of balls-in-play that are officially scored "line drives", is nonetheless a good measure of how well batters are seeing a certain pitcher.
And so far this season, opposing batters have had Superman-style bionic vision against Tampa Bay.
Take a look at Tampa's rotation so far this season, and you'll notice a disturbing across-the-board trend.
In case you can't tell, every single starting pitcher for the Rays has allowed a higher percentage of line drives this season than normal. And since line drives have a higher probability of being both base hits and extra-base hits... well, you can do the math. And it's not pretty for the Rays starters.
That looks to be the main reason for some absurdly high hits per nine averages among the rotation. Only Matt Moore (2.4 H/9) has allowed substantially fewer hits than average this early in the season, and Price, Hernandez, and Hellickson have all allowed more than one hit per inning.
The good news, though, is regression to the mean. We expect all of those line drive figures to slowly decrease from their current high marks as the season wears on.
2. Strikeouts in the Pen
For all of the line drives they've seen whizzing past their heads, at least they're missing bats as well. Cobb, Hernandez, and Moore are all averaging more strikeouts per nine innings than their career average. Price's 7.9 SO/9 is only slightly off his 8.3 career average. Jeremy Hellickson's sad 2.4 SO/9 is the only sad average of the rotation.
Too bad the same can't be said for the bullpen.
The relief corps, where you'd expect the fireballers and the three-out-pitching-whizzes, has looked like Brad Pitt with how few times they've struck out. In fact, only Brandon Gomes can make a case that he's missing more bats than normal.
Many of those players are within the margin of error away from their career average... well, except for Kyle Farnsworth, but that's kind of expected considering he was in the majors when Clinton was President. The problem is, though, that none of them are outperforming their average, and those small decreases add up when extended across the entire bullpen.
In not striking out as many players as normal, even as small decreases as the ones found here, the Rays are allowing slightly more balls into play. That, in turn, leads to more hits, which leads to bad, bad omens.
To be honest, this stat may scare me as a Rays fan even more than the first figure. Since these numbers are mostly within the margin of error with respect to each pitcher's previous K rate, it's possible that these numbers could be a season-long trend instead of regressing to some sort of mean. At this point, it's too early to tell.
3. Infield Pop-Ups
At this rate, the Rays should really be trying to get on base in any way humanly possible. Only two players, Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist, hold OBPs above .340. Only five Rays in total hold OBPs above .300. It's not a pretty sight.
Of course, it's hard to hold a high on-base percentage when you can't hit the ball out of the infield, especially through the air. This season, six different Rays have had over 20 percent of their fly balls stay on the infield. Only Longoria (6%) and Yunel Escobar (0%) have seen less than 10 percent of their fly balls stay on the infield. And while the league average sits at 14 percent, 16 percent of Tampa's total fly balls have stayed on the infield.
That number helps explain a host of other problems. Most notably, their inability to hit the ball out of the infield has resulted in less home runs (1.2 percent of plate appearances; league average at 2.7 percent) and less extra-base hits (5.0 percent of plate appearances; league average at 7.9 percent).
While these numbers will likely regress to the mean as the season wears on, it's still a slightly disturbing trend from a team that relied so much on extra-base power and finished 10th last season with 175 homeruns.