Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Sports

Rays 2017: Better-financed teams have negated the Rays' advantages by getting smarter

The Rays liked things better in the old days. Back when they were the oddballs, the ones other teams would look askance at, wondering what the computer geeks in the front office who had never played the game and the quirky manager in the funny glasses were doing to their pastime.

"Like when we started to implement shifting," that manager, Joe Maddon, said recently. "At that time we were considered like the outliers with that in a way. We were made fun of. Why would you do something like that. As it turns out, everybody ended up doing it."

The Rays can say that again.

And again. And again. And again.

Like the extensive defensive shifting, many of the creative and unorthodox ways the Rays positioned themselves as innovators and risk-takers — long-term contracts, training regimens, sabermetric research, roster maximization — to compete with better-financed foes have become commonplace.

Not only has the spread of their tactics erased what edges the Rays had, their search for the next inefficiency to exploit, convention to challenge, has become exponentially more difficult.

"We always have to work really hard to continue to find advantages," senior vice president Chaim Bloom said. "There's a lot of things that underlie our success, but one of those is being able to take advantage of the little edges that we can find. And big ones, too."

There are significant reasons that task has become more arduous. And legitimate questions whether there are still true advantages left to be found.

One issue is the homogenization of intelligence across the game. As the big-market boys got tired of getting outsmarted and started putting their ample resources to better use, they, too, hired more sophisticated, educated and forward-thinking executives. They, too, expanded their use of analytics and other front-office driven programs.

That's where the edges have been eliminated because everybody is pretty smart now and everybody is working from the same sheet of music," said Maddon, who saw from both sides managing the small-market Rays and now the large-market Cubs. "So it's hard to find an edge or come up with a different new thought because everybody is thinking the same way right now.

"A lot of it is business school, a lot of it is higher education, it's a different method of approaching the game sabermetrically and numerically.

"Pretty much it's gone to a universal church. There were different denominations back in the day. Now it's pretty much one church."

Another is how quick teams have become to copy, how they went from mocking the Rays to imitating-as-flattery to flat-out thievery.

"There was nonbelief in what we did, like the shifting," principal owner Stuart Sternberg said. "New York, especially at the time, it was like, why are they doing it? So if they weren't believing it, great, right? There were things that we did that had a long shelf life. But then we had some things that were just emulated a year later. Six months later. Now it's like a month-and-a-half later and we're seeing other teams trying to do it."

And then there is the matter of the shrinking globe as teams seem to have tried, if not exhausted, just about every option on the field and run through every scenario a couple million times on their computers.

"I think the next frontiers are not going to be Alaska, they're going to be more like Delaware," Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said. "Small pockets of improvement, smaller areas where one can gain an edge."

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