The Tampa Bay Rays have come to be known as that scrappy small market club that, despite a seemingly insurmountable financial disadvantage, manages to compete in a difficult American League East. A major part of that has to do with their pitching, which is dramatically helped by the defense behind them.
Since 2008, when the Rays first emerged as a contender, defense has been a hallmark of the franchise. That year, the Rays ranked 4th in the American League in fielding percentage at .985. This helped them to the second best ERA in the league, helping to propel a team that ranked ninth in runs scored and had the second worst batting average to the World Series.
In 2009, the Rays offense improved slightly, yet was offset by the team’s ERA increasing from 3.82 to 4.33. This was accentuated by the Rays difficulties that year fielding the ball. Although their fielding percentage only fell to .983, that was bad enough to rank ninth in the league. It is difficult to win when giving away outs, but it is even more so when a small market club. Not surprisingly, the Rays missed the playoffs that year.
However, in 2010 and 2011, the Rays found the winning formula once more. In 2010, the Rays were third in fielding percentage at .986, which helped the team ERA decrease to 3.78, second best in the league. Last year, the Rays defense was even better, as they were the best fielding club in the league with a .988 fielding percentage. This helped the Rays pitchers, as their ERA dropped further, coming in at 3.58, again second best in the league.
Going into this season, the Rays appeared to have upgraded their defense even more. Casey Kotchman, an underrated defensive first baseman, was replaced with former Gold Glove winner Carlos Pena. Jose Molina was brought in specifically for his defensive ability. The Rays had seemingly embraced the run prevention philosophy to the fullest, and appeared poised to ride their pitching staff and glovework to another postseason run.
Yet, the results have not been what the Rays have hoped. Going into today, the Rays are last in the American League in fielding percentage. Somehow, the pitching staff is managing to get out of these jams, as they rank third in ERA at 3.57, and sixth in overall runs allowed. For now, the Rays have managed to parlay an ability to draw walks and get on base along with the staff holding opponents to a .240 batting average into a 26-18 record.
This is three games better than what would be expected. The Rays Pythagorean record is only 23-21, in large part due to the defensive issues. When Evan Longoria and Desmond Jennings return, that should help the defense, perhaps even more than it will help the offense.
However, the Rays simply cannot continue to kick the ball around the field and expect to be legitimate contenders. These mistakes are uncharacteristic during the seasons that the Rays have contended, and may end up costing them in the end.