Baseball is awash with statistical analysis. Everything from WAR to WHIP defines how players perform on the field. I’m a bit old fashioned when it comes to statistics. I grew up with Earned Run Averages, Batting Averages and my favorite statistic, Runs Batted In, After all, if you don’t score more runs than the other team, you lose the game. That fact was a major problem for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2014.
Last season, the Rays were last in the American League in runs batted in with 586. That’s 147 behind the league leading Detroit Tigers with 731. Obviously the pitcher-friendly Tropicana Field had something to do with that, but the ballpark can’t be the Rays’ excuse for everything. How do the Rays improve those numbers?
Even I write an RBI piece, I understand RBIs come with their limitations. They are context-driven–hitters get them based on not just their ability to deliver with runners on base, but the quality of their team’s lineup and specifically the hitters in front of them.
But here’s the thing: the Rays can’t be satisfied simply saying “we have a bad lineup” and moving on. If the Rays’ hitters live up to expectations, they will make this team’s offense better, something that will manifest itself in more runs scored and RBIs.
Take Evan Longoria for instance. His top RBI year was 2009, when he drove in 113. In 2010, though, the Rays scored one less run yet his RBIs decreased by 9. From 2013 to 2014, meanwhile, Longoria’s RBIs went up from 88 to 91 even though the Rays scored 88 less runs. Longoria went on an “RBI tear” in the second half, and while the Rays would have preferred a general offensive tear, that still means something.
Specifically in regards to Longoria, though, he can clearly get back to 100 RBI no matter what the rest of this team does. In 2014, he hit to just a .253/.320/.404 line (107 OPS+), the worst triple-slash of his career. If he can get 91 RBI despite that, he could be primed to approach his career-high if he can simply have a typical Longoria year.
Then, once Longoria gets going, everything else could fall into place. Here’s a look at each batting order spot, who hit there primarily in 2014, and who is set to hit there primarily next season.
(Yunel Escobar actually started the most games and 6th, 7th, and 8th for the Rays, so I plugged in a couple of second-place finishers for two of the spots.)
Evan Longoria is set to remain at cleanup, giving the Rays a formidable middle-of-the-order presence to begin from. After that, there are some clear opportunities for improvement. In the leadoff spot, David DeJesus is a trade candidate, but his ability to hit leadoff is a good reason to keep him. He should easily be able to match Jennings’ 36 RBIs from last season.
We know that Zobrist is a better hitter than Cabrera, but there is hope that Cabrera can break out and Zobrist’s RBI total–just 52 from last season–is certainly within reach. At third and fifth, meanwhile, Loney may stay the same, but Jaso has a much better platoon player than Joyce the last three years. If the Rays can keep him healthy, there is no question that Jaso can top Joyce’s 52 RBIs.
Down to sixth, we can debate Wil Myers‘ future, but his 2014 was a disaster that Jennings could definitely improve on. If DeJesus is dealt, on the other hand, Jennings would move back to leadoff and it would be Steven Souza attempting to fulfill the promise the Rays see in him. Myers managed just 36 RBI despite spending most of his time batting 2nd, 4th, 5th, and 6th, and Souza has the ability to do much better than that.
In the seven-hole, Escobar versus Franklin defensively is an interesting discussion, but at the plate, there is no question who is better. Escobar is decent, but Franklin has always had the ability to be special. His 96 OPS+ in 2013 was enough to send him back to Triple-A for most of 2014, but Escobar hasn’t been better than that since 2011. Escobar’s 39 RBIs should be easy for Franklin to surpass.
I don’t even think we need to have a discussion about 8th. Rene Rivera is no sure thing at the plate, but having him as their primary catcher instead of Jose Molina will be a huge boon to the Rays’ offense. Molina managed just 10 RBI in 247 plate appearances last season, a horrifying rate the Rays hopefully won’t see for a long time.
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And now we are back to Kiermaier, who is unlikely to repeat his production from when he was first called up, but the Rays won’t mind too much. After all, your ninth-place hitter is not the guy you rely on the most for RBIs and Kiermaier will certainly make his presence felt defensively. Kiermaier has to prove definitively that he can hit big league pitching in the long-term, but his minimum standard will not be difficult for him to attain given his glove.
Throughout this piece, you saw me struggling to stick to the perspective of RBIs, but looking at the Tampa Bay Rays’ offense from an RBI perspective makes 2015 look a little brighter. Even the RBIs of best hitter they lost–Zobrist–will not be difficult for them to make up next season, and they are set for improvements elsewhere. The Rays need to drive in more runs next season to have a chance at contention, and they have the ability to get there.