Over the past decade, one of the hallmarks for the Tampa Bay Rays has been their ability to steal bases. Since 2003, the Rays have finished no worse than sixth in all of baseball in stolen bases, and have typically been in the top ten in success rate. Last year, the addition of Jose Molina helped to hold the opposition’s running game in check, but the Rays had typically been around league average before.
Despite the players who have passed through the team, from Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton to Desmond Jennings in the present, the running game has been an important part of the Rays offense. As a team that has had issues finding true middle of the order bats aside from the first three years of Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria, the Rays have generally needed to manufacture runs in order to score. With such prime examples as Crawford’s six stolen base game against the Red Sox, the Rays typically sought to put pressure on the opposition and try to cause the other team to make mistakes.
And now, the tables appear to have turned. This season, the Rays are tied for 18th in the league in stolen bases with 21, and are 23rd in success rate at 66%. Meanwhile, the opposition has run on the Rays third most in baseball, being successful 39 times while being caught in only seven attempts. That success rate in in the bottom third of the league. While the Rays may not have had much success in throwing out opposing base stealers last year or the year before, they still managed to hold the running game down. Since 2008, the Rays have been in the top half of the league in terms of having the fewest steals attempted by the opposition, ranking in the top ten three of those five years.
What has changed from the previous years to this year? Offensively, even without the same success rate on the basepaths, the Rays have still managed to score 222 runs as of Tuesday night, the seventh highest total in the league. They have had timely hitting, and great early performances from the likes of Kelly Johnson and James Loney. As of this point, that lack of success in the running game has not truly affected their offense, but it would still be nice to see it start to get going once again.
On the pitching side, James Shields and Wade Davis are both gone, but that may not have as much of an impact. Shields has not been great at holding down the opposition, but Davis has had a 37% success rate in throwing out base stealers while he has been on the mound. Opponents also have not attempted to steal much against Davis, with only 15 stolen base attempts in the past two plus years. Yet, given that Davis spent one of those years in the bullpen, that likely is not the difference.
Then we get to the other difference – that Jose Lobaton has been in what has essentially been a 50-50 split in playing time with Jose Molina. Heading into last night’s game, Molina had five more plate appearances and played 15 more innings than Lobaton on the season. While Molina has provided his typical level of offense (not much), he has been able to throw out 22% of opposing base stealers, which is just under league average. Lobaton, meanwhile, has been utterly abysmal in that regard, throwing out just one base runner in 19 attempts.
Although Lobaton is hitting better than Molina, is the difference enough to make up for Lobaton’s problems in throwing out opposing base stealers? It is a moot point as Molina is dealing with an injury, but this is something the Rays may need to assess once he becomes healthy again. Is it more important to possibly get another out for the pitcher, or to have a slightly better bat in the lineup?
For the time being, the Rays are finding out what it was like to face them over the past few years as teams are running fairly rampant upon their catchers. However, short of playing Molina two out of every three games, there may not be much that the Rays can do to fix this issue.