The World Baseball Classic captivated millions on a global scale again in 2023, sparking conversation surrounding the game's superstars— Angels' Shohei Ohtani, Phillies' Trea Turner, Mets' Francisco Lindor—yet it was Tampa Bay Rays superstar Randy Arozarena who left folks talking. Dawning a mask inspired by CMLL's Mistico, shagging balls in the outfield in a pair of cowboy boots, as well as introducing the homerun sombrero and the 2021 Rays popcorn ritual to a national audience, Arozarena was ready to be the tournament highlight, having already been established as one of the games most exhilarating big game players.
Yet, it wasn't just his aesthetic choices that captured adoration from the baseball faithful. Arozarena's play was amongst the finest of the tournament: he hit .450 with seven extra-base hits, more walks than strikeouts and nine RBI in his eight games for Team Mexico. His speed both with the bat and with his legs may have left crowds dazzled, but the defense created the Rays calling card of the upcoming season. The arm cross, not a new thing for Randy, took baseball by storm after robbing a homerun and standing in front of the camera with his arms crossed, stoic and poised.
Arozarena stated that these poses aren't for the fans, who he's seen in deep discussion with in the outfield during pitching changes on the regular, but for the players. He believes that baseball is meant to be fun and that the pose gives a good picture so that the players and teams have memories when it's all over. Team Mexico first baseman Isaac Paredes said during the tournament that "Those spectacular moments are meant for [Randy]. He's become my favorite player."
Luckily for Paredes, he teams with Arozarena in the States as well and the Tampa Bay Rays live for those moments and the photographs that come with them. Randy is one of many—Yandy Diaz's smile that brights a room more than his orange cleats, blue-haired Harold Ramirez's too-sweet styled hand gesture, and of course, Brandon Lowe's dog tags— that provide an atmosphere of constant personality. This is the Rays Way: Willy Adames, Ji-Man Choi, Brett Phillips are all players who have recently been fan-favorites in St. Petersburg and all had more fun than an opposition's counterpart, and while they've all departed the franchise, this string of postseason berths stem from club culture.
All the while, Tropicana Field does its best to give its own charm despite the inherent flaws of the stadium and the Rays problematic attendance records. The John Williams-Jaws composition blares throughout the dome in three ball counts as the Rays smell blood in the water. It's a tradition started by this crop of talent while playing in Durham for the Rays Triple-A club during Shark Week. Furthermore, the Rays iconic homerun horn, a remixed version of Metallica's "Wherever I May Roam," Raymond's antics and the stingray tank out in enter cultivate an enthralling environment for fans.
The mentality in baseball is next-man-up, and traditionally, it's supposed to be infectious. During the 9-0 run, that's what the Rays have done better than anybody in a long time. Yet, that's been the one perpetual sentiment in the clubhouse despite the somewhat egregious amount of roster turnover that the team operates with. The players have bought in, and the results are becoming evident.
The Rays highlight a fun day at the ballpark and it's translated to the field with a core of switch-hitting dynamo Wander Franco, starting pitchers Shane McClanahan, Zach Eflin and Jeffrey Springs, as well as the aforementioned Diaz expected to be in Tampa longer than previous cores. Yet, they may also end up being the main pieces of the best team in club history.
The Rays became the first team in two decades to go 9-0 to start the season. Not only did they win, they dominated. It's been as stress-free as possible for the Rays to start the 2023 season. Only one team since the 1800s has won at least eight consecutive games by at least four or more runs other than the Rays at any point in a season, and it was a 1933 Yankee team that featured nine Hall of Famers (Gehrig, Dickey, Pennock, Ruth, Gomez, Lazerri, Ruffing, Combes, Sewell). Granted, the Rays played the Tigers, Nationals and Athletics to start the year and as of right now, none of which are expected to do much this season.
Yandy isn't Lou Gehrig at first. Despite his postseason prowess only being matched by the Babe, Arozarena isn't Ruth in the corner of the outfield. Franco isn't quite Tony Lazerri status within the game yet, though some Wander if he can get there at some point. The Rays don't need them to be the iconic players the Bronx Bombers had eighty years ago, especially in a game where Iron Horses are a relic to be admired in Cooperstown. The Rays have their way that the Rays have perfected and used dating back to the days where Joe Maddon led the club, and have gotten them down to a science. The rule changes only work in their favor.
As the argument develops that they haven't played anybody as their three opponents have started a paltry 7-21 on the season, if you exclude the games against the Rays the clubs are 7-12. Not good by any stretch, but heading into the week the reigning league-champions Astros and Phillies have combined for a 7-12 record. Of course, it's expected that both of those teams will average better than the three the Rays have played, so it isn't quite an apples-to-oranges comparison. The teams that are there at the end of the year above the pack beat teams that they're supposed to be better than, especially in a sport with so many variables at play that anybody can defeat another team on any given day. The Tigers, for example, immediately took two out of three from the defending World Champions after being swept by the Rays.
It doesn't matter which pitching you play. Arozarena hit a homerun off of Oakland's backup catcher in Saturday's game and still arm-crossed over home plate after, so clearly he'd agree with the notion. As the league rules change, the antiquated rules of baseball that weren't written have finally taken a backseat to the written law of the land. MLB places postseason tie-breakers and seeding on run differential with the expanded playoffs, which should only encourage players to 'statpad.' If the league is incentivizing outscoring your opponents at an astronomical pace, teams should do everything to put up a crooked number, regardless of controversial unwritten rules that say to layoff the proverbial gas pedal.
The crooked number by the offense conflated with a 1.89 ERA from the pitching staff has led the Rays to a +57 run differential through the season's first three series. That is the third highest run differential through a teams first nine games in baseball history, and the only team in the top five that played their games after 1884. For reference, the last time a team started as well as the Rays in baseball catchers weren't yet allowed to wear chest protectors, the hit-by-pitch did not result in first base and pitching mounds did not yet exist. In fact, when pitching mounds were introduced in 1893, Bob Gibson was still 38 years away from being born. Gibson's dominance in 1968 is the reason that the pitcher's mound is at its current height. That's how much has changed in the game since a team has started as well as the Tampa Bay Rays have in 2023.
The offense has 24 homeruns through the first nine games, the most in baseball. The pitching surrendered only 18 runs through the first nine, less than the total of homeruns the team has hit. But unlike previous years where the pitching had to keep them in it for the homerun ball, whereas this year the Rays are using the new rule changes to a significantly higher team on-base percentage.
The Rays posted a .379 team on-base clip through the firs three series, best in baseball, and 70 points higher than their 2022 team on-base percentage. The Rays are more patient at the plate with 38 walks through nine games, or an average of over four per game as a team. In 2022, the team barely averaged three per game. Their batting average is up as a unit by 50 points. Some of that may be due to the departures of players such as Choi and centerfield stalwart Kevin Kiermaier, who didn't exactly provide the most promise in that department.
But a lot of it is also due to the new defensive alignment rules. Jose Siri, for example, is hitting .318 to start the season. The shift to the pull side being eliminated for a pull hitter explores the idea that the average will raise. An eighty point increase over his career average isn't to be expected over the course of a full season, nor is it for any of the many players in the lineup, but it will likely increase the average for not just Siri, but players such as both of the clubs Lowe's, Arozarena, Margot, among others.
The other rule change, bigger bases, benefits the Rays more than probably anybody else. The Rays are the fastest team in baseball, with Franco, Siri and Arozarena all ranking in the top percentile for sprint speed. Not to mention, contact oriented players such as Harold Ramirez that aren't slow are benefited by the rule change. The Rays have ample infield hits, and for an athletic team, making the first base bag closer to the plate turns bang-bang outs into infield hits. Arozarena has bunted for a base hit multiple times this season already. Once the team is on, the Rays like to use the athleticism to steal bases, which is also suddenly easier.
The Rays haven't all hit. Josh Fleming was hit hard in his outing against Washington. Fleming, who's struggled in back-to-back campaigns since his stellar COVID-shortened season, didn't mix his pitch selection well while also not located. The Rays opted to start an opener in the first game against Boston to fill Fleming's turn in the rotation. While the Rays are the originators of the strategy, their success on the mound is the only reason they're comfortable doing it this early when it isn't a necessity.
McClanahan followed up a scintillating six-shutout-inning Opening Day performance with another six innings in Washington. Zach Eflin went six against Oakland despite not having his best stuff. Springs pitched seven shutout for the second consecutive outing on Saturday, while Rasmussen followed with seven shutout on Sunday. In the Springs outing, Kevin Kelly stretched out for multiple innings. To say that a majority of the bullpen, which nothing new can be written about at this point, is rested is an understatement.
The bullpen was expected to be the Rays biggest strength, and it hasn't been bad. With some of the games top relievers completely rested early, it allows Kevin Cash more flexibility that wasn't provided in previous seasons. As the season builds and pitch count restrictions get smaller and smaller, the starters may be stretched out to go even longer. If the Rays can get more than an average of just four to five innings out of their starting pitching per game, then the bullpen is that much more lethal. The opener strategy being employed this early in the season isn't a copout for a poor fifth man, either, as team ace Tyler Glasnow will presumably be back soon, Major League veteran Yonny Chirinos could be featured in the rotation at a moments notice and top pitching prospect Taj Bradley could see Major League time as well.
A 162-0 pace? Laughably unrealistic. Wander Franco, Brandon Lowe, Josh Lowe, Randy Arozarena and Jose Siri all maintaining an OPS above 1.000? Something that doesn't seem remotely probable. A team hitting more homeruns than allowing runs defensively? As Gorilla Mosoon would say, highly unlikely.
But what this team can sustain? Success. The team has been in the postseason every year since 2019 in baseball's hardest division, with teams that people can't explain the success of. It doesn't matter if one can encapsulate the success, all that matters is that they understand that the Rays are exceptionally at exceeding their ceiling. The Rays are legitimate, and this start will only help them when the slumps hit.
Even when the slumps hit, the next-man-up mentality by the Rays is a fun style in both the pitching and the hitting. The personality is more infectious than any other team in baseball. They play hard, but they make the game look easy. Is this the best Rays team ever? It remains to be seen, but the chemistry is there and they've had the right start.