The Tampa Bay began 2015 with last year’s closer, Jake McGee, on the disabled list. Alex Cobb, scheduled to be the Opening Day starter, instead required Tommy John Surgery and Matt Moore was on the DL as he recovered from the same procedure. At one point or another Jake Odorizzi, Desmond Jennings, John Jaso, James Loney, Asdrubal Cabrera, Alex Colome, Steven Souza Jr., Tim Beckham, and Drew Smyly also missed significant playing time, with Jennings and Smyly joining Cobb among the players still on the DL. And that is only the most notable losses–don’t forget that others like Andrew Bellatti, Jeff Beliveau, and Nick Franklin have also missed time with injuries.
Despite all their problems, the Rays played well enough through the first half of the year to move into first place in the AL East. They were 10 games over .500 on June 20 with a 40-30 record. At that point the team went into a funk, and is now 50-51, 7.5 games out of first place in the AL East. This happened despite the fact that they are more talented now that Jaso, Odorizzi, Moore, Loney, and Souza have returned. How is it possible that the Rays’ talent level has improved yet they have played worse?
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Unfortunately for fans everywhere, ballplayers are not Strat-O-Matic cards. An actual player’s performance is not consistent from game to game. Outside of Jaso, who at this writing is hitting .320, the returned Rays have performed below expectations. Moore and Odorizzi have struggled to find the strike zone, with Moore especially delivering disastrous results. Loney is barely hitting over .200 since he returned, with his defense also falling below his normal standards. Statistics like that can’t make us terribly optimistic about what Cabrera, Smyly, and Jennings can give the Rays when they get back.
One thing that we forget is that time spent on the DL can erode some of the precision skills that help players compete at baseball’s highest level, especially in the short-term. Some things, like range in the field or fastball command, may not return for weeks or months while even simpler things like timing at the plate take many reps to come back. The Rays simply don’t have the time or depth to ease their injured players back in even if it would make them better off.
In addition, as the team’s struggles continue, we see players pressing in clutch situations and trying to make perfect pitches on the mound. Some part of the Rays’ struggles is just bad luck, but the longer they last, the greater the pressure that players put on themselves. If you go up to the plate saying “My team hasn’t been delivering with runners in scoring position–I really need to get a hit here,” hitting will be more difficult even if the people who say that there is nothing special about hitting in the clutch are correct.
As badly as things have gone in the last month, the Tampa Bay Rays are still only 3.5 games out of a Wild Card spot at this writing. If this team retains the promise that made it look like a division favorite earlier in the year, they are still very much in the race to make the postseason. The question, though, is whether the returning Rays can be counted on to approximate their prior results. No matter what they believed entering the season, Matt Silverman and Kevin Cash are reevaluating their roster as it stands now and deciding whether this team truly has a chance. With the trade deadline approaching, we will soon discover the results of their analysis.