The Rays’ Defensive Mastery Is Back

By Robbie Knopf

It seems funny that the day I write this, Carlos Pena and Jose Molina collide on a foul popup to let it drop in for an error on Pena. But that was just an aberration. The bigger aberration, though, was the beginning of the season for the Rays defense. Don’t look now, but they’re just about as good as ever.

Defensive efficiency is the percentage of balls put into play that are converted into outs. According to Baseball Prospectus, the Rays’ defensive efficiency has been .723, 7th-highest in baseball. And that’s despite the fact that the Rays gave everybody else a head start by making so many errors early in the season. Looking at Fangraphs‘ UZR, the Rays rank 13th in baseball at 4.2, which is impressive considering how bad they started. But the cool thing about UZR is that it’s divided into components: Arm Rating, Range Rating, Double Play Rating and Error Rating. The Rays rank 6th in Arm, 10th in DP, 11th in Range, and tied for last in Error Rating. Now it all makes sense- the Rays have been pretty good all year, but the errors have bogged them down. Despite that, the Rays have still been at least an average defensive team all season, and since the run of errors has stopped, they have been markedly above-average.

You can even go back to the basics. Remember when we were hearing so much about how the Rays were leading the majors in errors and then how they were second only to the Orioles? Now, they’re down to 5th. Remember how their fielding percentage was so bad? Now, they’re 20th. The Rays (along with the Orioles) were lightyears back of everyone else. Now, they’re making their move up the ladder. By the end of the season, they’ll be even better.

Bottom line is that what’s done is done. The Rays can’t worry about how bad they were defensively in the past. Even their overall defensive numbers are worthless because no matter how well they play defensively, they’ll still be in the bottom half of the league in several categories. But the Rays have shown that they are capable of returning the rest of the season to the elite defensive ballclub we know that they are. Moving forward, there will be lapses, as we saw today. The Rays certainly won’t play perfectly. But we won’t hear much about the defense either. It will be business as usual with the Rays defense making it look easy.