PORT CHARLOTTE — There are various statistics, metrics and comparative parabolic equations that can be used to quantify the Rays' defensive decline last season.
Shortstop Jason Bartlett kept track on a much simpler scale.
"In '08, it seems like there was a play from our game on SportsCenter every night," he said. "Something winning a game or saving a game."
The Rays didn't make as many highlights last season, nor as many plays. By whatever measure, albeit one as simple as errors (they made 98 compared to 90 the year before) or as sophisticated as Baseball Prospectus' defensive efficiency ratings (they went from first in the majors at .710 to eighth at .696), it was evident they weren't showing their glove as often as in their 2008 championship season.
And it's very clear that if they are going to catch the Yankees and Red Sox this season, they are going to have to do a better job of catching the ball, as well as throwing it, turning double plays with it, etc.
"If you look across the field, there were areas that we just let things get away from us on defense a little bit," manager Joe Maddon said. "The big thing I'm talking about are just the plays that we didn't make that we normally did make, the double plays that we did not turn, the balls that we just didn't get to that we were getting to the year before. …
"There's no way for me to actually sit down and actually give you examples, except that it just felt that way."
There were some things they could have done better.
First baseman Carlos Peña, who made only two errors in his 2008 Gold Glove season, ballooned to 10. Bartlett went from 16 to 20 and, according to infield coach Tom Foley, was "dinged up" and slowed down a bit as the season wore on. They had a shuffle at second base after Akinori Iwamura's knee injury, with Ben Zobrist and Willy Aybar sharing time.
All might have been contributing factors, but the Rays say there is no obvious explanation for the dropoff. Foley said the preparation, game-day routines and effort were just as good in '08.
Maddon, though, has at least suggested otherwise with his spring mantra about the need to return to doing the "little things" better. "That's the thing that's really going to help us win those really close games," he said Saturday. Plus, he plans a return to regular in-season fundamental work sessions.
There also were at the least some concerns, if not actual issues, over positioning, raised a month or so into the season by pitchers who felt the infielders were shifting too much and on too many hitters, and some adjustments were made.
Maddon also now wonders if he applied too much pressure by publicly challenging all position players to win Gold Gloves (only third baseman Evan Longoria did). "I thought that was a safe goal," he said.
Peña said, in his case, that was part of it, leading to mistakes of aggressiveness. "It would be almost non-human to not want another one," he said. "I think I tried too hard instead of just playing."
There also were some things they couldn't do anything about.
No matter how good the players, how detailed the scouting reports, how smart the positioning, there's only so much the fielders can control. Such as whether the batter hits a ball they can catch.
For example, the Rays actually did slightly better in 2009 than 2008 in converting ground balls and fly balls into outs.
Where they dropped off a bit was on line drives, which are more often a product of the pitcher, and obviously harder to defend.
The Rays allowed more line drives last year — 22.2 percent of the balls put in play, up nearly 2 percent from '08, and more than 2 percent above the MLB average — and didn't catch as many.
The year before they were, literally, more often in the right spot at the right time — be it expert positioning or happenstance or both — converting an impressive 31 percent of line drives into outs, 3 percent above league average. Last year, they dropped under league average at 27.4 percent.
Their drop in double plays converted, from fifth best in the majors in 2008 to 27th, can similarly be a product of how balls were hit rather than how they fielded them.
"There are a lot of random events that occur over the course of a season, but we're very confident that we have the personnel to be above average all across the field," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "We feel strongly that our defense will be a team strength this season."
There's also a theory among the fielders that they simply didn't have as many opportunities last season to make the spectacular momentum-changing play.
"And when we did, we just didn't capitalize on them," Bartlett said. "It's not from lack of effort or lack of will, it just didn't happen."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]