The Tampa Bay Rays Have the Best Rotation in Baseball
Stop me if this sounds familiar. There is a high-strikeout pitcher with phenomenal control dismissing opposing batters with ease right now for the Tampa Bay Rays.
This could have described David Price just a few years ago. Price was the 2012 Cy Young Award winner, and he finished second for the same honor only two years before. Having one guy of the same mold and abilities as Price would be enough to make most franchises blush.
The Rays may have four of them now.
It's early in the season, but based on what we've seen this year, it is not a leap at all to say that the Rays have four legitimate aces on their staff with Chris Archer, Drew Smyly, Matt Moore, and Jake Odorizzi. Because of that, you could make a legitimate case that the Rays -- less than two years after dealing Price -- have the best rotation in all of baseball.
Let's go through some early-season numbers to show just how disgusting their staff has been thus far before comparing them to some of the game's other top options. After that, it should be clear that this is a team that has not only excelled early but that also has the sustainability to do it the whole season.
Strikeouts -- Lots of Strikeouts
We can all agree that strikeouts are good, right? Certainly, it helps having some dream-killer like center fielder Kevin Kiermaier roaming the outfield, but it's hard for your opponents to get on base when they don't put the ball in play. Well, the Rays notch that third strike with disgusting regularity.
The table below compares the team's top four arms through their first three starts to the league average for starting pitchers during the 2016 season. Average isn't a word we should be associating with the Rays any time soon.
|Starter||Strikeout Rate||Walk Rate||Swinging-Strike Rate||Contact Rate|
That smell now trickling throughout the room is that of your face melting. These mamma jammas be ill.
The Rays' fourth-best starter is still better than average in all four categories. In fact, the only spot for any starter where they aren't above average is Archer's walk rate. That's straight silliness.
The quick comeback to this is that the numbers are largely irrelevant due to a small sample size. That's completely true, and we should hold off a bit before saying the numbers will stick over the entire season. Still, their swinging-strike rates and contact rates lend more legitimacy to the sample.
With the strikeout rates and walk rates, we're operating off of samples hovering around 75 plate appearances. However, swinging-strike rates and contact rates look at every swing a batter has taken this year and every strike the pitcher has thrown. Those sample sizes are going to pile up and normalize much more quickly than others, and the Rays still obliterated the league-average marks in both. This isn't just the product of early-season numbers; these dudes are throwing straight fire, and their opponents can't even touch it.
Based on this, we can easily conclude that the Rays have a great rotation. But that doesn't necessarily prove they're the best rotation. When you're competing with teams such as the Cleveland Indians and New York Mets, that's going to take more than showing they're simply above average. Even when we put these teams head-to-head, though, the Rays still look utterly dominant.
In order to declare one rotation the best in the league, we want to make sure we're excluding things such as defense and park factor. This means ERA is out for obvious reasons, so we'll instead turn to skill-interactive ERA (SIERA) and other stats that largely omit those factors.
When we do this, one team keeps jumping to the top of the leaderboards, and that's these same Tampa Bay Rays.
The table below shows how the top rotations in terms of SIERA measure up to each other in several different categories. The numbers in the table show the ranking of each team, with a ranking of "1st" meaning the team had the most desirable mark in that category, whether that be the highest mark or the lowest.
|Team||SIERA||Strikeout Rate||Walk Rate||Swinging-Strike Rate||Contact Rate|
|Tampa Bay Rays||1st||1st||2nd||2nd||1st|
|New York Mets||4th||5th||5th||3rd||5th|
|New York Yankees||5th||11th||3rd||5th||7th|
Before we get to the Rays, hot dang, the Phillies are putting in work. Good to see those allegations of tanking from the winter are holding so much water now.
In each of these categories, the Rays are either first or second. These aren't just random stats, either. As mentioned before, both swinging-strike rate and contact rate will normalize quickly to help predict sustainability, and SIERA, strikeout rate, and walk rate are the three measures that are best able to take defense and park factor out of the equation. These numbers are legit, and they heavily favor the Rays.
The two columns on the far right indicate that both the Mets and Indians should see their numbers improve as the season goes along, potentially allowing them to compete with the Rays. But even in those two spots, the Rays were either first or second. No matter how you want to spin this, it's clear the Rays hold an edge right now.
The Mets should also benefit from a healthy Jacob deGrom, and the Rays' numbers will come down a bit when they are forced to use number-five starter Erasmo Ramirez more often. When those circumstances are in place, this will be a fun conversation to revisit as the two clubs should be tight with the Indians. However, if you need to win a playoff series right now, which rotation would you rather have? The numbers say the Rays should be your choice.
Yes, it's early in the season, but the returns are indicating that these new, healthy Rays are here to stay.
Both Smyly and Moore entered the season as question marks after limited action due to injuries last year, but they have been making batters look silly in 2016. Adding them into the already-solid core of Archer and Odorizzi was enough to make this team much more than an also-ran in the discussion for the best rotation in baseball.
Whether we use backwards-looking stats or ones that quickly stabilize in order to predict future performance, the Rays consistently find themselves near the top of the leaderboards. They certainly have stiff competition for the throne, but that will only make the race more fun to follow throughout the season.
Dealing away a former Cy Young winner isn't usually something teams bounce back from quickly. But less than two years removed from the trade that sent David Price out of town, the Rays are dominant yet again. With a top four as stout as this, the Rays could be a few offensive pieces away from making some serious noise in one of the league's toughest and most tightly-contested divisions.
Even if they can't do that, we do know one thing: these young hurlers are going to give their opponents nightmares that don't figure to end soon.