I must confess that I am an old-school stats guy. When I started following baseball, there was no WAR or WHIP. Player statistics, usually printed in the Sunday paper, consisted of at-bats, runs, hits, home runs, runs batted in, and batting average. I always thought runs batted in, although not as glamorous as home runs and batting averages, was the most important statistic. If your team doesn’t drive in the most runs, it doesn’t win the ball game.
That takes us to the American League East and the Rays. Toronto is currently leading the East with New York running second. The Tampa Bay Rays are in a struggle to stay out of last place. A close examination reveals that a lack of middle-of-order hitters is a major reason why the Rays are at the bottom of the pack. We can debate the merits of RBI’s to evaluate hitters in general, but we can say is that within the context of the middle of a lineup, you have a serious issue if you don’t have multiple players accumulating solid RBI totals. The Rays have been unable to do that at all
The Blue Jays have three hitters, Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion, that have over 100 runs driven in. The Yankees are the only team in baseball that has five different players who have driven in 61 runs. Meanwhile, only Evan Longoria, Logan Forsythe and Asdrubal Cabrera have over 50 RBI on the Rays. Longoria leads the Rays with 71 RBI, a figure that would rank no better than fourth on any other team in the division.
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It is clear that to support a strong pitching staff, the Rays have to score more than 3.91 runs a game. How they do that is another question and certainly bringing in hitters with more power is one possible solution. They have at least hypothetical needs at left field, shortstop, catcher, and designated hitter, but Curt Casali may be their best bet at catcher and it’s unlikely that they can find any free agent better than Cabrera. Pending a blockbuster trade–one involving Nate Karns is a possibility–their only hope is to find a stout hitter to play DH and occasionally the outfield. Even doing that, though, would mean letting strong leadoff hitter John Jaso leave as a free agent.
Another point of weakness is a lack of formidable left-handed hitters with power. In the major leagues this season, 58.4% of home runs have come from right-handed batters and a similar 58.3% of RBI’s. On the Rays, however, an insane 72.6% of their homers have come from righty batters and 67.6% of their RBI’s. Jaso can lead off against righties, Cabrera is alright, and James Loney isn’t terrible, but there is simply no left-handed batter for the middle of the order. A presence of any kind would be a huge lift.
Looking at their own roster, the Rays must also work with Longoria and Steven Souza Jr. to make their power surface more consistency. Longoria is having a decent year, but as the leader of this team, he must get back to 30 home runs and 100 runs batted in if the Rays are to get back to the postseason. Souza, meanwhile, must stay healthy, cut down on his strikeouts and become more than a boom-or-bust hitter. A Rays team with a resurgent Longoria and a more mature Souza as bookends to a powerful left-handed cleanup hitter would be the ideal.
It is a tragedy for the Tampa Bay Rays to waste superior pitching year after year as the offense struggles. Management’s inability to draft and develop power hitters, especially those who hit from the left side, has been well documented. Furthermore, the Rays will never have the money to pay the nine figure salaries demanded by today’s sluggers. However, this is a bright management team and we have to believe that they will recognize the offensive issues that face this team and correct it for the 2016 season.