Explaining the Rays’ Defensive Struggles


The Tampa Bay Rays: your American League leaders in errors. Who would have ever thought that we’d say that? But more importantly, what’s going on here?

The Rays’ defense is not up to the same caliber that it has been every year since 2008. Errors and fielding percentage are not the best measure of defensive ability, but no matter what, errors kill. The Rays are messing up far too many routine plays and it’s killing them. That is especially evident when looking at the Rays’ team UZR.

UZR, ultimate zone rating, is a measure of defensive ability with 0.0 being average. There are four parts of it: Error Rating, which has to do with the prevalence of errors on routine plays, Range Rating, which is the ability to get to balls hit farther away from the fielders’ positioning, Double Play Rating, which is the ability to turn double plays, and Arm Rating, which has to do with outfield assists. UZR is a relatively volatile stat- ratings, especially for individual players, can fluctuate from year to year, but the Rays’ team UZR is nevertheless very interesting. The Rays’ team UZR is -2.7, definitely below average, but note that their mark is 20th in baseball, markedly better than their fielding percentage ranking of 29th. Their error ranking is 28th in baseball, right in the range where we would expect it. Another thing that is expected if you have been watching the Rays this season is that their Double Play Rating should be low because they’ve had a ton of trouble turning double plays (especially in this game). That is indeed the case, as the Rays’ double play rating comes in at -0.8, 21st in baseball. We haven’t seen anything, special or not, from the Rays in terms of outfield assists, so their Arm Rating should be right around average. That assumption right as well as the Rays’ arm rating is an even 0.0, 17th in baseball. But the big question is Range Rating. We’ve seen the Rays make some ridiculous plays (especially Sean Rodriguez and Elliot Johnson), but how are they overall? As it turned out, Range Rating is the Rays’ only above-average component in their UZR and it’s significantly above-average, coming in at 3.7, the 9th-best mark in baseball. The Rays are moving fine and getting to a done of balls that average defenders would not, but they have faltered in terms of committing errors on routine plays and failing to turn double plays.

But something strange is going on: according to Baseball Prospectus, the Rays rank a solid 15th in the baseball in defensive efficiency, which is percentage of balls in play. What the heck is that supposed to mean? How in the world do the Rays rank 16th in baseball in defensive efficiency if they’re 28th in errors committed and 29th in fielding percentage? Better yet, in terms of park-adjusted defense efficiency, the Rays come in a 0.63, which means a bit above-average. It is absolutely remarkable that the Rays rank that high in those stats considering all their errors. There has to be something else going on here.

How have the Rays made so many errors? How about the most opportunities? In 2011, Rays pitchers posted a 42.1% groundball rate, the second-lowest rate in baseball. Groundballs are exponentially more likely to turn into errors than flyballs. We see that all the time- it is absolutely shocking when an infielder drops a pop-up or an outfielder drops a catchable flyball while errors on grounders are just a part of the game. If you want some numbers, there were 1513 errors made on groundballs in 2011, 2.6% of all groundballs. On flyballs and line drives, there were just 167 errors made, just 0.23% of the total. Since the Rays allowed so many flyballs in 2011, it helped them avoid a ton of errors. But in 2012, the Rays flyball tendencies has shifted. The Rays groundball rate thus far in 2012 is 46.8%, the 9th best mark in all of baseball. That’s a ton more opportunities for errors. And combining that with the Rays’ injuries has crippled their defense.

Sean Rodriguez has made some nice plays at third base. But he’s not entirely consistent and he’s certainly not a player with multi-Gold Glove ability at third base. Will Rhymes is no Ben Zobrist at second base. And Zobrist is a nice defensive outfielder, but no Desmond Jennings (Matt Joyce is also in left field instead of right field). The Rays are losing significantly defensively at a bunch of different positions because of their injuries. And combining that with the Rays’ newfound groundball tendencies, that has led to ton of errors.

The ridiculous amount of errors that the Rays have made isn’t as bad as it seems. The Rays are still showing fine range defensively and they are only making so many errors for two reasons: 1) injuries, a problem that will be corrected when these guys come back, and 2) an absolutely positive trend, the Rays’ pitchers much-improved ability to force groundballs. It has not been fun to watch the Rays make all these errors, and it has cost them a couple of games. But it’s all going to work out in the end.