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Tampa Bay Rays: Brandon Guyer’s Breakout and Its Complications

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Brandon Guyer is turning into one of the Tampa Bay Rays’ best hitters–there really isn’t any reason to dispute that at this point. On the year, Guyer has a .288/.361/.407 line (118 OPS+) with 8 doubles, 2 homers, 13 RBI, and even 5 stolen bases in 6 attempts across 44 games and 134 plate appearances. Guyer was expected to be primarily a platoon player against left-handed pitching, but his .773 OPS against lefties is just barely ahead of his .761 mark versus righties. He is hitting everyone, running well, and playing great defense in all three outfield spots.

Guyer’s success gives the Rays an excellent problem: too many talented outfielders. Guyer joins a group that includes Kevin Kiermaier, Steven Souza Jr., David DeJesus, and even the upstart Joey Butler. What will the Rays do when Desmond Jennings and John Jaso return? Could they possibly reduce Guyer’s playing time given how well he has been performing? Before we even get to that question, however, Rays fans have a more pressing matter on their minds.

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We know about Kiermaier’s centerfield defense, Souza’s power, DeJesus’ mastery of right-handed pitching, and Butler’s feel-good hot streak. However, Guyer is out-hitting Kiermaier by miles and Butler’s 27-2 strikeout to walk ratio doesn’t inspire confidence. Guyer is the Rays’ best candidate to lead off–even against right-handed pitching–yet he keeps sitting against righties. He has played in all 15 of the Rays’ contests against lefties, but 11 starts out of the Rays’ 38 games versus right-handers seems far too low. What is the team thinking?

Our knee-jerk reaction has to be that the Rays don’t think that Guyer’s success versus same-side pitchers can last. However, his performance against righties comes in 61 plate appearances, just under his 73 against lefties, and it isn’t as though he was incompetent against righties in the past. Guyer hit to a .243/.311/.345 line against righties last season, which was good for an 89 sOPS+, just 11% below-average. Guyer’s numbers versus right-handers have certainly improved this season, but it isn’t as though this is coming from nowhere.

Logan Forsythe entered the season with an even worse track record than Guyer against left-handed pitching. With that in mind, if the Rays are benching Guyer against righties despite his strong recent numbers, shouldn’t the logic hold that they should be sitting Forsythe? (Obviously not.) Think about it for a moment, and there is no conceivable explanation from Guyer’s numbers alone that warrants him playing less than once every three games against right-handed pitching. It’s as though he could be experiencing a Forsythe-esque breakout but isn’t getting the chance.

Instead, the answer stems from Guyer’s track record in another regard, his health. Just in recent years, Guyer underwent left shoulder surgery in 2012, fractured his middle finger in 2013, and fractured his thumb last season. Guyer is currently on pace to appear in 134 games and make 410 plate appearances. Those totals don’t seem very high, but he has never appeared in that many games in a season, even counting Winter Ball, and hasn’t made that many plate appearances since 2011.

We think about bench players receiving scattered starts because they are only good against pitchers from one side, but there are more factors for the Rays to consider with Guyer. Though they are still playing him based on matchups, just as important to them is the belief that Guyer will end up on the DL again if he plays too often. It isn’t his ability holding him back, but his durability. Even if Guyer’s numbers scream starting outfielder, his injury problems make him much better suited for a limited role.

The Tampa Bay Rays face a quandary with Brandon Guyer. Is it worth the health risk to see if he can become an above-average regular in the major leagues? Given their alternatives in the outfield, the Rays clearly think that the answer to that question is “no.” Unless Guyer somehow changes their minds, he may always be that player who is playing excellently off the bench but never receives as much playing time as fans would expect.

Next: Tampa Bay Rays MiLB Recap: A Good Day for Justin O’Conner

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