Most everyone would agree that the Rays are not an intimidating team. Compared to past iterations of the Rays, especially last season's club, this season's roster looks somewhat underwhelming.
Sam Fuld may be a legend, but he's no Carl Crawford. Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta may be a welcome surprise, but they can't shake a stick at the 2010 versions of Joaquin Benoit and Rafael Soriano. And as wonderful as Casey Kotchman has been this year, what Rays fan wouldn't gladly swap him for a slick-fielding, 35-homer season from Carlos Peña?
Need more evidence? The Rays have five regulars in the lineup — Fuld, Reid Brignac, John Jaso, Kelly Shoppach and Elliot Johnson — with on-base percentages lower than .300. And the team's overall offense and pitching are both worse than last season.
While the Rays offense performed 5 percent better than the league average last season (.736 on-base plus slugging percentage), they come in just 1 percent below that this season (.712 OPS). Their pitching has seen a similar drop (based on defense-independent stats), falling from 5 percent above league average to 2 percent below this season.
And yet, the Rays entered Saturday with a .549 winning percentage, only 3½ games out of the AL wild card. Their record would be good enough to put them in first place in both the AL and NL Central, and heading into Saturday they were the fourth-best team in the AL.
So how is this possible? The answer is simple: defense.
It's no secret that the Rays have built their team around defense in recent years, exploiting the fact that good defensive players have been underpaid and undervalued. This season the Rays have taken their defensive focus to a new extreme. They not only have the best defense in the majors, they arguably have the best defensive team of the past 10 years.
That said, measuring defense is far from an exact science. We can measure a player's error rate easily enough — that's what fielding percentage covers — but that's only one part of the picture. You also need to take into account defensive range, as a fielder that can reach any ball hit within 20 feet of him is more valuable than a fielder that can only reach balls hit right at him.
There are two publicly available defensive stats that attempt to measure range: defensive runs saved (DRS) and ultimate zone rating (UZR). While DRS and UZR have different ways of reaching their answers (DRS uses video scouts; UZR relies on hit location data), they both attempt to quantify how many runs a player saved or gave up through their fielding range.
These values don't always match up, but they can give you a good picture of a player's defense when you take them as a whole. For example, Ben Zobrist is rated by both UZR and DRS as the best fielder on the Rays this season, accruing a plus-10 DRS and plus-7 UZR. In other words, these stats rate Zobrist as saving the Rays around 7-10 runs with his defense.
These same stats rate the Rays as having the best defense in the majors this season, coming in at plus-52 DRS and plus-26 UZR. When you put it in historical perspective, those numbers become even more impressive; the 2009 Mariners were the best defensive club since defensive stats started being recorded in 2002 (plus-85 UZR, plus-110 DRS), and the Rays are on pace to finish with defensive numbers similar to those.
The Rays also have been better than the 2009 Mariners at turning balls hit in play into outs. The Rays have a .265 batting average on balls hit in play against them, while the Mariners had a .272 batting average on balls in play, a difference of around 35 hits over the course of a season. Since 1994, there have only been two clubs better than the current Rays at turning hits into outs: the 2001 Mariners (.260 BABIP against) and the 1999 Reds (.262 BABIP against).
The Rays might not have a strong offensive club, but their defense has made them into one of the majors' best teams. Their pitching only rates around the middle of the pack in defense-independent stats such as strikeout and walk rate, but they have allowed 343 runs, ninth best in the majors. With a defense like this, who needs an offense?
Steve Slowinski is editor-in-chief of DRaysBay.com, a blog on the Rays that specializes in analysis and statistics.