Where Has the Rays Running Game Gone?

By David Hill

Over the past few years, when one has thought of the Rays offense, one of the first things that comes to mind is how they had typically run rampant on the basepaths. Over the past five years, they have been one of the top teams in baseball in terms of the stolen base. As their offense has generally been devoid of power bats aside from Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena, the stolen base had been a key to their success.

This year, the Rays rank in the bottom third of the league in steals, and have only attempted to steal 33 times, tied for twentieth in the league. On a team with players like Desmond Jennings, Ben Zobrist and Sam Fuld, it seems as though the Rays would look to run a bit more than they have.What would be keeping the Rays from running as much as they have in the past?

One of the biggest differences is the absence of B.J. Upton. Upton, combined with Carl Crawford or Jennings, provided the Rays with an enviable amount of speed atop the lineup. From 2007 through 2012, Upton averaged just over 47 stolen base attempts per season, with a 76.9% success rate. Right now, the Rays simply do not have another player on the roster who can provide the same amount of speed in their starting lineup.

Another factor in the decline of the running game has been Jennings’ performance thus far. He has ten of the Rays stolen base attempts, but he only has a .291 on base percentage. In order for him to be able to get back as one of the more prolific stolen base threats in the American League, Jennings needs to have the opportunity to steal bases. If he is not getting on base, then he simply will not have the chance to run.

"“He just needs to get back out there, get that on-base percentage back up there,” Joe Maddon said. “Accept his walks. Early in the year and during Spring Training, his strike zone was in good order when he was out there a lot. And that’s when you see him go. That’s always been the case. All the good basestealers that I’ve had, when they’ve struggled, then they get out there sporadically, [they’re] not as clean on the basestealing. He needs to just get out there more.”"

If Jennings is able to get his sense of the zone back where it had been at the start of the year, then he may be able to get back to causing havoc on the basepaths, distracting the pitcher while the likes of Evan Longoria and Zobrist are at the plate. As good as the Rays offense has been this season, it would likely be even better if Jennings can get himself going. The added speed dimension, and the threat of the stolen base, could only help.

Desmond Jennings started the season off well, carrying over a very productive Spring Training into the regular season. If he can get out of his slump soon, and get back to his form earlier in the season, then the Rays offense may truly take off.