Where Has the Rays’ Speed Gone?

By Robbie Knopf

The Rays are 5-6. They aren’t playing as well as they have the potential to be playing early in the season. They have a 5.90 team ERA, which sounds a lot more like the Devil Rays teams who went nowhere than the team with arguably the best rotation in baseball. But even more alarming is the Rays’ complete lack of speed. Thus far, the Rays have swiped just 2 bases, tied for 28th in baseball. Both bases were stolen by Desmond Jennings. And they’ve been caught 3 times, tied for 6 in baseball. The Rays are tied for 26th in baseball in stolen base attempts. What is going on?

Has this happened to the Rays before? It certainly didn’t happen in 2011, when the Rays went 13 of 16 in stolen bases in their first 11 stolen bases, with Sam Fuld stealing 6 of those bases. In 2010, they were 14 of 18 in their first 11 games, catching fire after starting the season 1 for 4. In 2009, the Rays were an incredible 17 of 18 in their first 11 games, starting off the year 12 for 12. In 2008, they started off more slowly but were still 12 of 18. So the Rays have never had a winning record while getting off to this slow of a start on the basepaths. But horrific pitching and terrible defense have nothing to do with stealing bases, so let’s go back earlier.

In 2007, the Rays went for 11 of 20 in steals in their first 11 games. In 2006, Joe Maddon’s first year as Rays manager, we finally find a somewhat similar situation: the Rays started the season just 3 of 9 in stolen bases. That season, the Rays finished 3rd in the AL and 4th in the majors in stolen bases. Sometimes it takes some time for basestealers to get going, and the Rays could easily compensate for their slow start by getting hot on the basepaths in the near future.

Another factor is that the Rays are getting quite a few men on base. Their team OBP is .339, 4th in the AL, and because of that they haven’t been as dependent on stolen bases to score runs. In addition, watching the Rays we have seen them running, but they’ve been doing a lot more hit-and-runs, which has led to them achieving a 46% extra-base taken rate (meaning going 1st to 3rd on a single or 1st to home on a double) compared to the 40% lead average. The Rays have been running well, but their speed has manifested itself more running the bases than stealing the bases.

And finally, we know that right now B.J. Upton and Sam Fuld are out, and Desmond Jennings is having trouble getting on base (.306 OBP), and those are certainly factors in the Rays’ decreased steal count. Once Jennings gets going, Upton comes back, and the non-blazing speed guys like Ben Zobrist, Matt Joyce, Sean Rodriguez, and Evan Longoria get a feel for reading pitchers, the Rays look like they’ll be fine. Keep in mind that Zobrist didn’t steal a base until the Rays’ 11th game in 2011, Joyce until their 8th game, Rodriguez until the 19th game and Longoria until the 37th game (because of his oblique injury) before combining for 46 stolen bases, just 3 short of the Detroit Tigers’ team total in 2011. It’s alarming that the Rays have so few stolen bases at this point, but look for that to change before long.