Explaining Tampa Bay Rays’ Improved Batting With RISP


On Tuesday, June 10, the Rays were 15 games out of first-place in the AL East at 24-42. Since then, however, the Rays have steadily climbed to a much-more respectable 47-53 record (16-6 in their last 22 games) and are only 7.5 games out of first in the AL East as of today. The difference? Hitting with runners in scoring position.

Whatever the real faults, it was certainly trendy to blame the offense. Yours truly heard quite a few fans (and even some radio personalities) calling for Derek Shelton’s head. This demand was supported by the paltry 2.97 R/G the Rays were scoring over their first 66 games. Over the course of their recuperation, with Shelton remaining as the hitting-coach, the Rays have begun scoring at a higher clip: 5.13 R/G in their past 15 games. Has something demonstrably changed in the Rays’ approach? Ben Zobrist has been lighting up the scoreboard recently (.950 OPS in 50 ABs in July), but the Rays started reversing their fortune around in the middle of June. Kevin Kiermaier had an OPS of .956 in 98 ABs in June, and he is certainly emerging as an important part of the Rays’ future. But, of course, “Outlaw” can’t be responsible for a team-wide improvement. So what’s behind the recent upsurge in Rays batting?

Here are the Rays offensive stats for first half of 2014 season, as compared to rest of AL-East:

– 4th in R/G at 3.89 (leader, Toronto, at 4.49)

– 3rd in XBH/G at 2.70 (leader, Toronto, at 3.05)

– 4th in HR/G at .79 (two tied for lead at 1.21)

– 2nd in PA/G at 38.5 (leader, Boston, at 38.6)

– Fewest SO/G at 6.99 (highest, Boston, at 8.09)

– 2nd in BB/G at 3.48 (leader, Boston, at 3.61)

– 4th BA in the AL East at .251 (leader, Baltimore, at .265) – but this is a misleading stat. The Rays have the same first half batting-average as the Oakland Athletics, who have the best record in baseball. In addition, the Rays, at 4th in the division, are about the same distance from last-place Boston as second place Toronto. If we’re inclined to being generous, we could say that the Rays are in the second tier in terms of batting-average in the three-tiered East.

– 2nd in GIDP/G at .84 (leader, Boston, at .96)

– 1st in OBP at .325

So according to this picture, the Rays are a team that does not strike out while taking a good amount of walks and getting a lot of plate appearances. They ground into too many double plays, and are not hitting frequently for extra bases. This suggests that one of the explanations for a lack of scoring is a lack of hitting with RISP, since no one in the AL East gets on base more often. I picked a ten-game losing streak (running from 5/26 to 6/11) and compared it against ten-games that the Rays recently won (going 9-2 from 6/28 to 7/8 with the only losses against Max Scherzer and James Shields, and their first post-All-Star break game against the Minnesota Twins on 7/18.

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During wins there is a predictable hike in runs, plate-appearances, hits, walks, extra-base hits, and a predictable drop in strikeouts, and GIDP. These stats do raise a few questions: there is a rise in Starter-Pitches/G in wins, but is 3 extra pitches noteworthy? How could 1.5 more XBH/G lead to more than double the Runs/G? Is it just because the Rays have 4 more hits per game? Perhaps its their more disciplined approach at the plate: one less strikeout, and one more walk. But 3 fewer Called-Strikes/G in losses seems insignificant as do the 3 extra pitches from starters in recent wins. They’re grounding into half-as-many double-plays in the wins, but that also seems insufficient to account for the quite dramatic increase in Runs/G (+3.2).

Unless the pitching facing the Rays recently has dropped immensely in quality (and it hasn’t), the easiest explanation seems to be the much-improved performance with RISP (accounting also for more hits per game). Looking further into opportunities with RISP, the Rays have had a much more aggressive approach in wins than in losses. In the successful span, the .281 BA with RISP, the Rays are not taking nearly as many strikes as they are when they go .108 with RISP.

In the 4 games when the Rays went 1-32 with RISP (5/27, 6/1, 6/2, and 6/4, BA with RISP = .031), the Rays had 36 Plate-Appearances with RISP, they took 28 called strikes. In one game in the middle of their 10-game losing streak, on June 1, in 10 plate-appearances with RISP, the Rays had 10 called strikes.

In 4 games when the Rays went 15-37 (.405) with RISP, meanwhile, the Rays had 43 Plate-Appearances with RISP and they took 21 total called strikes. They had 7 more plate appearances, saw 7 fewer strikes, and hit .370 points higher. When there are RISP, Rays batters are successful when they are aggressive. On an very successful day (6/29) emblematic of their recent approach with RISP, the Rays went 5-for-13 with RISP; they had 15 PAs with RISP and saw 5 total called-strikes (with the ever-stoic James Loney accounting for 3 of those called-strikes). That’s one strike taken for every three plate-appearances with RISP! Patience has decidedly not been a virtue for the Rays with RISP.

It’s true that you need to be able to hit (or walk, or just not GIDP) in order to have success with runners in scoring positions, but, if the first-half stats are any indication, the Rays will get on base. They currently sit at 7th overall in the Majors (4th in the AL) in OBP at .325. So, the recent rise in the Rays’ offensive production seems best explained by the improvement in BA with RISP, and their improvement is explained by being more impatient at the plate with RISP. Of course, this does not mean that they aren’t seeing as many strikes (they’re taking 3 more overall per game); it does mean that the Rays are jumping on hittable pitches early in high-pressure situations. And so I should qualify their “aggressiveness” by adding that they’re also being disciplined–they aren’t swinging at everything, but they aren’t taking strikes either. Maybe this represents a change in hitting philosophy, or perhaps it’s just a symptom of Rays hitters gaining more confidence recently. Either way, if it’s confidence or coaching, the Tampa Bay Rays’ postseason hopes are obviously tied very closely to their ability to get clutch hits.