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Tampa Bay Rays: Difficulty Vs. Righty Pitchers Brought Season Down

By Robbie Knopf
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With 13 games left to play, the Tampa Bay Rays sit at 72-77, just the fourth-best record in the AL East. As it turns out, they will end up not too far away from what experts predicted pending a blistering finish. Of course, the way that they arrived at that record was not what people expected–as we remember, they once led the AL East with a 40-30 record. Marc Topkin discussed what came apart from there, citing a failure to win close games, injuries, bullpen issues, and the Kevin Jepsen trade as factors to blame.

Topkin’s piece was a good one, but I would like to add one additional factor: the Rays’ issues against right-handed pitchers. A statistic that has often been quoted is how well the Rays have done against lefty starters–entering tonight, their record is 26-19. On the flip-side, though, they are just 46-58 (.442) against righty starters, and we can only imagine how well their season would be going if they were only  six games below .500 against such pitchers. Why have the Rays struggled so much against righties? At the end of the day, it comes down to two players, Evan Longoria and Logan Forsythe.

Entering the season, it was easy to think that the Rays would do better against right-handed pitching. After all, James Loney, Kevin Kiermaier, and John Jaso (not to mention Jaso’s replacement, David DeJesus) were all weak against left-handed batters and their replacements were worse players. How would the Rays possibly be a better team with Tim Beckham, Brandon Guyer, and either Joey Butler or Jake Elmore in the game instead of that trio? However, that turned out to be the wrong way to look at the problem.

Evan Longoria and Logan Forsythe have both been playing every day, seeing time no matter who has been on the mound for the opposition. They have been the team’s two best hitters most of the season, posting the highest OPS and OPS+ scores among hitters with a minimum of 200 plate appearances. Despite that fact, they have been superstars against left-handed pitching while being just alright against righties.

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Longoria has a modest platoon split for his career, managing an .800 OPS against righties compared to .923 against lefties, but the gap has never been as wide as it has been this season. Longoria has actually returned to his previous form against lefties, hitting to a .346/.405/.571 line that comes with some BAbip caveats but features much better power and plate discipline than we have seen from him on the whole. Versus righties, he slips to just a .243/.305/.386 triple-slash, almost identical to his .247/.301/.389 line against them from 2014. To go on a one-sentence tangent about Longoria’s future, it is nice that he hasn’t gotten any worse against righties and the hope is that his rebound against lefties will show itself against pitches from both sides next year.

Forsythe, meanwhile, has always had pronounced difficulties with right-handed pitchers, managing just a .638 OPS against them compared to .826 versus lefties. The key to his 2015 breakthrough has been to become respectable against them for the first time since 2011 in the minor leagues, managing a .278/.356/.381 line. He hasn’t managed much power and may be benefitting from some BAbip luck as well, but his plate discipline against them has been vastly improved and even the modest pop has been a big step in the right direction.

Against lefties, on the other hand, Forsythe has fallen short of his gaudy 2012 numbers but that is no slight to how good he has been. He has managed a .296/.371/.612 line and hit 3 more homers versus lefties than righties despite making 238 less plate appearances against them. His batting average trails Longoria by a good margin, but his insane power surge actually helps him edge out Longoria in OPS. It is great that Forsythe is hitting righties now, but he will always be best against southpaws and has certainly demonstrated that season.

Overall, it has been extremely dramatic for the Tampa Bay Rays’ lineup to watch Longoria and Forsythe go from incredible against lefties to good but not great against righties. John Jaso is the only player on the team with a .750 OPS against righties minimum 85 plate appearances, and it is extremely difficult to score runs and subsequently win games when that is the case. If the Rays are going to go anywhere next season, Longoria better keep moving towards his previous form versus right-handers, and any continued improvement from Forsythe would be much appreciated as well.

Next: Tampa Bay Rays: Which MiLB Position Players Had the Best Years?

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