ST. PETERSBURG — The story of the Rays season has been the pitching, right? Their adoption, implementation and successful execution of the opener strategy has been the hot topic. A half dozen teams have given it a try. The national media started to acknowledge, analyze and accept it.
But there is something else.
In dispatching the bulk of the veterans from last year's team, the Rays wanted to transition to a younger core.
And in doing so, they transformed their lineup into a less powerful, more efficient and slightly more productive unit.
The Rays are putting more balls in play, hitting for a higher average, getting on base and coming around more while lifting the ball in the air less often. All while going against the baseball-wide trend by hitting fewer home runs and striking out less.
While they are scoring just slightly more per game, they feel a lot better about the way they are doing it, with a more contact-oriented approach.
"Giving ourselves a chance,'' manager Kevin Cash. "Cutting down on strikeouts, all that means is you're putting the ball in play more. And the more times you put the ball in play you're giving yourself a chance.''
As MLB heads to an 11th straight year of increased strikeouts, the Rays aren't feeling the breeze.
They've gone the other direction, reducing their strikeout rate the most of any team, from 25 percent of all plate appearances to 22.5 through Friday. (Interestingly, another zig-when-they-zag team, the A's, had the second biggest drop, from 24.3 to 22).
And when the Rays put the ball in play, they are hitting it on the ground, or on a line, more often, creating more opportunities than launch-angling fly balls that often don't go out.
Also, they are working better at-bats — "scrappy" is a description you hear often around the clubhouse — and being more aggressive on the bases, already stealing more bases (100, third most in the AL) than in any season since 2012.
Blake Snell had little trouble in sending the Orioles to their majors-worst 100th loss of the season. #Rays #RaysUp @RaysBaseball #Orioles @TB_Times @snellzilla4 @Henderson_Joe https://t.co/vTJt4MVbev— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) September 8, 2018
Overall, the Rays have improved over last year by several basic measures:
* Batting average: Up from .245 to .257, fourth best in the AL.
* On-base percentage: Up from .317 to .330, second in the AL.
* Average with runners in scoring position: Up from .227 (worst in majors) to .250.
As well as by some more advanced metrics:
* BABIP (batting average on balls in play), reflecting hitting the ball harder and/or where the defenders aren't, is up from .296 to .316, best in the AL.
* Percentage of balls put in play that are line drives are up, from 20 to 22.5, third most in AL, as are ground balls, from 43.4 to 45.5, first in AL. Corresponding, their fly ball percentage is down, from 36.6 to 31.9, lowest
* Contact percentage (based on swings) is up, from a majors-worst 73.5 to 76.4.
That their runs per game are up only slightly, from 4.28 (14th in the AL) to 4.31 (10th), seems to be a residual of the dramatic dropoff in home runs.
Last year's team-record 228 worked out to 1.41 per game. Even after Friday's four-homer barrage, they are averaging 0.91, with 128 thus far. (Also, of note, they've won a majors-most 25 games without hitting a homer.)
Rays officials weren't sure what their offense would look like this season, but they knew it would be different. It had to be after ditching the players who hit 172 of those 228 homers — including Logan Morrison (38), Steven Souza Jr. (30), Corey Dickerson (27), Evan Longoria (20) — and were being paid for it. (C.J. Cron was the only true power bat brought in, though July 31 acquisition Tommy Pham has 20-plus potential.)
And that it would further evolve during the season as they further transitioned in parting ways with Brad Miller, Denard Span, Wilson Ramos and Adeiny Hechavarria, and dealt with injuries to others such as Kevin Kiermaier.
That allowed young players in house, such as Mallex Smith and Joey Wendle, to emerge, and room for new ones, such as projected cornerstones Willy Adames and Jake Bauers, and others more recently such as Brandon Lowe, Michael Perez, even Nick Ciuffo, to get started.
What they ended up with was a versatile, balanced group. Consider that Wendle has hit everywhere in the lineup but ninth, and it seemed slot appropriate on that day. There's no J.D. Martinez red alert type hitter, but no Jose Molina black hole either.
"The current roster we have, their strengths are putting the ball in play,'' said hitting coach Chad Mottola, who, with assistant Ozzie Timmons, deserves considerable credit. "With the youth of the team, whether through experience or age, that's what's gotten better as the year's progressed. They've been putting together longer at-bats. Eventually the doubles will start coming more often, and then that leads to homers.''
Ideally, the young Rays hitters would keep the same approach and with experience turn up the power, providing the additional homers they need, but not at the expense of more strikeouts, or more expense overall.
"Sure, the three-run homer is nice, but that costs a lot of money,'' Mottola said. "The way we do things, the way our makeup is, it's a lot easier to carry out when guys are scrappy players overall.''
Whether due to injury or inconsistency, the top 2017 Rays home run hitters haven't done as well this year:
Player, new team '17 '18
Logan Morrison, MIN 38 15
Steven Souza Jr., AZ 30 4
Corey Dickerson, PIT 27 11
Evan Longoria, SF 20 15
Kevin Kiermaier, TB 15 7
* Maybe the initial All-Star snub in a weird way helped LHP Blake Snell in raising his profile nationally. Or it's just his great pitching. But he's getting noticed plenty now. One AL manager started a recent conversation asking if Snell was currently the best pitcher in baseball, another how he couldn't be the Cy Young frontrunner.
* Seems encouraging the group backing the new Ybor City stadium told our Charlie Frago it has gotten "a tremendous response" from the business community thus far. But a bit concerning that in five months and with a deadline approaching has only "touched" 25 percent of the companies they plan to.
Among many scenarios in play are two potential celebrations at the Trop: the Indians clinching the AL Central this week, the Yankees a playoff spot during the Sept. 24-27 series. … Still don't get why the Rays are bumped off flagship 620-AM radio on Sundays for Bucs talk (not games). … MLB Network presented a three-player race for the AL Rookie of the Year award: Yankees INFs Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres, Angels DH/RHP Shohei Ohtani. No Joey Wendle. … Rays C Nick Ciuffo and ex-Rays/now-Jays RHP Taylor Guerrieri were close enough growing up in South Carolina that when Guerrieri got drafted he sold Ciuffo his truck. … Manager Kevin Cash's best response in telling a player he had the next game off? Now Red Sox INF Steve Pearce would text back "wrong number.'' … Ex-Rays/now Cubs manager Joe Maddon's baseball-themed art, produced by Tampa-based Jason Skeldon, will be displayed and sold at a Saturday show at Neimann Marcus in International Plaza (6-9 p.m.), proceeds to the Respect 90 Foundation. … Odds of the Rays winning the World Series dropped from 900-1 on Aug. 1, per the online Bovada site, to 100-1. … Special assistant Bobby Heck's name was among a dozen plus mentioned by the New York Post as potential candidates for the Mets' GM job. … Indians manager Terry Francona told MLB Network he is planning the next move in his pranks war with Cash, hinting he may target Cash's car.