Rays Tales: Picking the first-half MVP for ‘the most interesting team in baseball’

Tampa Bay Rays first baseman C.J. Cron (44) is showered with a cooler while giving an interview after the Rays 4-2 win over the Detroit Tigers Wednesday, July 11, 2018 in St. Petersburg. CHRIS URSO   |   Times
Tampa Bay Rays first baseman C.J. Cron (44) is showered with a cooler while giving an interview after the Rays 4-2 win over the Detroit Tigers Wednesday, July 11, 2018 in St. Petersburg. CHRIS URSO | Times
Published July 14
Updated July 14

MINNEAPOLIS — We'll start with some free advice for the Rays marketing folks: Find a way to play off those old Dos Equis beer commercials and pitch this squad as the "most interesting team in baseball."

Between the innovative, odd and still-hard-to-explain pitching plan; streaky record; roster reconstruction and ongoing renovations; personalities, back stories and hair styles of key players; hair-graying number of close games; youth, athleticism and exuberance of the roster; and, oh yeah, a winning record going into the All-Star break, name me a more intriguing group. Here's a look back at some of the highs and lows:

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Most Valuable Player

Reflective of the team's success to this point, there is no simple answer. You could say LHP Blake Snell, who has been the best individual performer (and, for those into WAR, ranks highest by far at 4.2) and the one constant in the ever-evolving rotation.

You could say All-Star C Wilson Ramos, who has been the biggest threat in the lineup, leads the team in RBIs (51), OPS (.829) and batting average with runners in scoring position (.355), and has lent a hand to the pitchers.

You could say INF/OF Daniel Robertson, whose combination of consistently high quality at-bats (team-best .386 on-base percentage), stunningly slick defense and positional versatility is invaluable. But this has been an odd season so it results in an odd choice, which is the pitching staff overall. How in the world is this group doing this well? Seriously. They've been using just three, and sometimes two, traditional starters. Guys who are relievers as starters — or, in the proper lexicon, openers — and guys who are starters as relievers. Roles have become amorphic, and somewhat abolished.

redit pitching coach Kyle Snyder for keeping it all straight, manager Kevin Cash for getting the team to buy in, the front office for having the chutzpah to do what they've spent years talking about. But to have the sixth best ERA overall in the majors (through Thursday), and the lowest since implementing the opener plan on May 19, is a remarkable group effort.

2. Robertson

3. Ramos

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Most pleasant surprise

In what was otherwise a dramatically busy offseason, the Rays' biggest moves at the winter meetings were acquiring fringe middle infielders on three consecutive days. Ryan Schimpf didn't make it out of spring training. Micah Johnson has been at Triple-A Durham all year with a sub.-200 average. And Joey Wendle has been one of the top rookies in the American League. He's hit (.273), run, and played second, third, short and, now, leftfield — all well. There's a couple of infielders in New York and a two-way star in Anaheim that will keep Wendle from getting Rookie of the Year votes, but he's turned out to be a keeper.

2. Ryne Stanek. He'd shown the stuff to be successful, but seemed to lack confidence, even earlier this season. But since sliding into the opener role in late May and cutting loose with his 98-mph fastball from pitch one, he's become a dominant force in early and late innings.

3. Matt Duffy. He was a pretty good player before the Rays traded for him in August 2016, but no one was sure what he'd be like after missing all of 2017 with injury. His .309 average, eighth in the AL going into the weekend, and sturdy glove provided the answer.

Runners-up: LHP Ryan Yarbrough, RHP Sergio Romo, 1B/DH C.J. Cron

Biggest disappointment

If you would have told me in March this was going to be a choice between their best pitcher and their best position player, I would have told you this was a terribly bad season. But, alas, the Rays are doing surprisingly well, and opening day starter RHP Chris Archer and lineup catalyst CF Kevin Kiermaier have thus far had little to do with it.

Archer got off to a rough start (2-3, 5.64 in nine games), then started pitching better (1-1, 1.14 in four), then got hurt and missed five weeks, then made a messy return. Kiermaier got off to an even worse start (.163 average, .483 OPS in 12 games), then got hurt and missed two-plus months, then came back, maybe too soon, and did even worse (.127, .456 in 14 games) before warming in the last week, hitting .171 overall.

The bigger disappointment? That's tough, but I'd have to say Archer based on how badly the Rays needed him early in the season given the injuries and other issues in the rotation.

2. Kiermaier

3. Carlos Gomez. The hustle and energy helps, but they were expecting more than a .206 average, .619 OPS, two errors and other misplays, eight outs on the bases.

For openers

The Rays seemed to be going outside the box when Cash mentioned in spring training they wouldn't have a fifth starter but would use regularly scheduled bullpen days. They went a bit further when Nathan Eovaldi got hurt right before opening day and they went with three starters and two bullpen days in five.

And in mid-May, well, they pretty much blew up the box, torched convention and turned the baseball world upside down, using a reliever as an "opener" — to get the first three-six outs — then bringing in a converted starter to work the bulk of the innings, or a series of multi-inning relievers based on the game situation. They've done it 19 times so far, and while they are 9-10 in those games (opened by Romo, Stanek, Jonny Venters and Hunter Wood), the concept — to allow the second pitcher to come in facing the bottom part of the order, and potentially stay in longer as the lineup flips around — seems to be working.

The Rays have a 3.26 ERA in those games, the pitchers following the opener 3.08. Bigger picture, since debuting the opener May 19, the Rays have the lowest ERA in the majors at 2.81.

Pitching in

Through May 18             Since May 19

Stat (MLB rank)               Stat (MLB rank)

ERA           4.43 (22)            2.81 (1)

WHIP        1.26 (9)              1.10 (1)

Opp Avg.  .241 (11)            .208 (1)

Opp OBP  .310 (9)               .280 (1)

Starter ERA 4.32 (17)          2.90 (1)

Reliever ERA 4.57 (26)        2.74  (2)

Oddities

• Romo has pitched in innings 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11 this season. Surely there is a third inning for him.

• Robertson has started at all nine spots in the batting order and five positions.

• Grab a large asterisk, but Stanek, as the opener, set major-league records with eight straight scoreless starts (better than Zack Greinke, Orel Hershiser and Don Drysdale) and four hitless starts (better than, among others, Sandy Koufax).

• Three position players have pitched (Johnny Field, Robertson, Jesus Sucre), two pitchers have pinch-run (Eovaldi, Wood) and one pitcher has played first base for a batter (Jose Alvarado).

• Forty-three different players have been used overall; 27 have pitched, including a team season-record tying 14 as starters.

• Rays pitchers had no shutouts in the first 51 games and eight in the next 42.

• Venters in April threw his first big-league pitch since Oct. 5, 2012 and in May got his first save since August 2011.

Let’s go streaking

More than anything else, the Rays have been streaky. Up and down. In their first 92 games, they have had eight streaks of at least five straight Ws or Ls. That includes two eight-game losing streaks and an eight-game winning streak.

Close shaves

Cash has never been more right than when he said they'd play a lot of close games. How close? How about 40.9 percent decided by one run? (The MLB average is 27.6, and that would be even lower if you took the Rays out of it.) That's a majors-most 38 one-run games, and though they lost a majors-high 21, they are getting better, winning seven of the last nine. Still, that's nearly half their losses by one run. Also, six 1-0 games (3-3), most of all teams.

Rays rumblings

The Astros, as expected, have reportedly shown interest in Ramos, while the Nats, who are already on him, are now also eyeing Eovaldi. … Senior VP Chaim Bloom's name has come up in media reports as a potential candidate for the Mets GM job. …. Better hair for openers, Stanek or Wood? … One selfish takeaway from the Rays stadium reveal — the press box, as in some other new stadiums, would move up the third-base line rather than behind home plate. … Also, of note, asked about the financial benefits of a new stadium, principal owner Stuart Sternberg said, "it's not so much about the value of the franchise because I don't plan on selling it."

Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Rays

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