Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays playing strong defense at start of season

BOSTON — The pitching, neither starting nor relieving, hasn't been as dominant as it should be. And the early indications from the offense, last in the league in runs, homers and on-base plus slugging percentage, are not promising.

But what the Rays have done well the first couple of weeks of the season is catch the ball. Routine plays, dazzling plays, momentum-changing plays, SportsCenter-worthy plays, all kinds of plays.

"The thing that's been fun to watch," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said, "is our defense."

Ace glovework has been a major component of the Rays' five-year run of success, though it dropped off noticeably last season, primarily due to the shuffling/scrambling the Rays did with third baseman Evan Longoria injured and out for more than half the season.

But with Longoria back and putting on a show that suggests a third Gold Glove is possible, and shortstop Yunel Escobar and first baseman James Loney joining Ben Zobrist, Sam Fuld and the others, order seems to have been restored. The Rays didn't make an error until their seventh game, and they have only two total in posting a 4-5 record.

One part of the Rays' success is having players who are very good at making plays.

"When you're in the dugout and look out at the field and you look at your defense and feel it's quality at every spot, that's really a nice feeling," manager Joe Maddon said.

Another element is where they have put the players on the field, whether it's nontraditional positioning, extensive shifting or aggressive set plays, such as throwing to second more on bunt plays.

The Rays have gotten even more creative this season with what Longoria referred to as their "new positioning system."

As complicated and awkward as it may look at times, with each of the four infielders anywhere from a few steps away from his usual spot to significant shifts, the premise remains simple.

"All we're trying to do," Longoria said, "is put ourselves in the most optimal position to field a ground ball or a line drive based off of what the guy at the plate has done."

Longoria admitted it takes a leap — or least a few steps — of faith by the players, and even more so the pitchers, because there are frustrating moments when a ball is hit where a traditionally positioned fielder would have been.

"You find yourself at times kind of dropping your head for a second, saying that ground ball would have been caught if he was standing there," Longoria said, "but we've got to buy into it."

Plus, the Rays coaches, thanks to the computer guys in the front office, have plenty of data that supports their system.

"They have all the numbers, and that's what they're great about, is backing up the positioning with the numbers," Longoria said. "And it's a plus number, not an equal number. It kind of goes off of runs saved. That's what it boils down to: Are we taking away runs by our defensive positioning? Last year, even though last year was a down defensive year for us, we still saved runs. So if we can have a good defensive year, we're going to save a lot more runs."

Indeed, the Rays have ranked among the American League's top four the past four seasons, according to Baseball Info Solutions' metric for defensive runs saved, with a high of 72 in 2011 and 32 last season (despite ranking near the bottom with a .981 fielding percentage and 114 errors).

Maddon loves the highlight plays and suggests they can carry over to boost the offense. But more important, he posits, is making the plays that should be made, because not doing so not only gives the other team extra opportunities, it makes their pitchers throw more pitches and in theory taxes the bullpen further as well.

"We're doing all these little things defensively," Maddon said. "We're always trying to cut that run off."

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]

 
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