Five things we think we know about why Rays have best record in majors

Pitching is a big part, but so is hitting the ball hard, having fun, and putting Austin Meadows in the lineup.
The play of Austin Meadows, shown here with Ji-Man Choi, is among the reasons for the Rays success. [CANADIAN PRESS]
The play of Austin Meadows, shown here with Ji-Man Choi, is among the reasons for the Rays success. [CANADIAN PRESS]
Published April 15
Updated April 15

ST. PETERSBURG — Ask around the Rays clubhouse about what they learned about themselves over the first 2 ½ weeks of play, and you get some pretty obvious and, to be fair, honest answers.

“That we’re pretty good,’’ Tuesday starter Tyler Glasnow said. “That’s probably the No. 1 thing.’’

A majors-leading 12-4 record validates that premise. As does a 2.44 ERA that is the best of the 30 teams, an accompanying plus-38 run differential that (through Sunday) also ranked No. 1 and a top-five .990 fielding percentage.

But, with just under 10 percent of the schedule completed (think halftime of the second Bucs game of a season), what have we really learned?

Here’s five things we think we know:

1. Austin Meadows looks like a star, and a steal

Austin Meadows has looked very much like the five-tool impact player he’s been projected as. [MONICA HERNDON  |   Times]
Austin Meadows has looked very much like the five-tool impact player he’s been projected as. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]

Acquired with Glasnow (and touted pitching prospect Shane Baz) from the Pirates for Chris Archer, Meadows has looked very much like the five-tool impact player he’s been projected as. (Also, to the steal part, he’s only 23 and is under control for six seasons.)

Told before spring training he’d be on the roster and often in the lineup, Meadows has been relaxed, prepared and, even after a 1-for-10 start, confident. Oh yeah, also quite productive, evidenced by Monday’s news he was named AL Player of the Week.

He hit .452 with five homers and 15 RBIs over an 11-game stretch, has driven in runs in six straight games, ranks among AL leaders in a half-dozen categories, including second with a 1.170 OPS. He has shown patience and power (like 500-level-in-Toronto power) at the plate, speed on the bases and improvement in the outfield.

“I don’t know what his ceiling is, because everything comes so easy,’’ hitting coach Chad Mottola said.

It should be pointed out that Meadows similarly went off when first called up last May by the Pirates, hitting .439 with four homers and a 1.282 OPS over 11 games, before cooling enough to be sent down, and eventually traded.

2. They make an impressive pitch

Blake Snell, pictured, Charlie Morton and Tyler Glasnow are a combined 7-1, 1.72 with 82 strikeouts in 62-2/3 innings. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times]
Blake Snell, pictured, Charlie Morton and Tyler Glasnow are a combined 7-1, 1.72 with 82 strikeouts in 62-2/3 innings. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

Any success the Rays have is always going to be built on pitching, and that is very much the case this year.

Even if the foundation is a bit avant-garde with three starters and two opener slots in a normal five-game stretch. And, seemingly more so this year than last, a plan to be more flexible, and thus less forthcoming, with who will follow the opener — keeping opponents from building their lineup knowing a specific lefty or righty will work the bulk of the innings by trying one of each available.

The majors-leading 2.44 ERA is a good overall indicator, but there’s been some key inside-the-numbers stuff.

For example, in eight of the 14 games, Rays pitchers have allowed one or no runs, and in 10 two or less, putting the team in good position to win. They’ve provided the chance for early leads, allowing only two runs — two! — in the first and second innings combined. And traditional starters Blake Snell, Charlie Morton and Glasnow are a combined 7-1, 1.72 with 82 strikeouts in 62 2/3 innings.

Most impressive to pitching coach Kyle Snyder? “Controlling the count,’’ he said. “Making pitches deep in the count where you just really limit the free passes, and really executing well in power two-strike counts.’’

3. They hit the ball really hard

Tommy Pham ranks second among AL hitters with 26 hard-hard hit balls. [Times (2019)]
Tommy Pham ranks second among AL hitters with 26 hard-hard hit balls. [Times (2019)]

It wasn’t coincidence that they’ve recently acquired several players known for hitting the ball very hard, such as Yandy Diaz, Avisail Garcia, Tommy Pham and Mike Zunino.

That seems planned, and we know how the Rays get when they feel there is a market inefficiency to exploit. How it pays off in terms of hits and ultimately runs is a longer-term equation, and not totally in their control given defensive positioning, but it seems a valid premise.

“That’s kind of the goal, you want to hit the ball as hard as possible as much as you can,’’ manager Kevin Cash said.

In the small sample size so far, they are among the majors’ best at doing it.

The Rays rank third in both the number of hard hit balls (172) — those with an exit velocity of 95 mph and up, per Statcast data available on baseballsavant.com — and in the percentage of balls put in play (42.3) that are hit hard.

Pham ranks second among AL hitters with 26 hard-hit balls, and in the top 30 overall (54.2), along with Kevin Kiermaier (54.1), in percentage hit hard. Garcia — who hit three balls Friday at 114 mph or better — is seventh in average exit velocity at 94.7 mph. Zunino has the hardest-hit ball by a Ray, third in the majors, at 116.1.

4. No closer has been no problem

Though Kevin Cash refuses to name Jose Alvarado the closer, he’s clearly been the top choice when available. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]
Though Kevin Cash refuses to name Jose Alvarado the closer, he’s clearly been the top choice when available. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]

With Craig Kimbrel still a free agent, and reportedly dropping his price to the three-year, $40 million-$50 million range, there will continue to be speculation, besides tweets from prominent Rays fan Dick Vitale, that he should be pursued.

But so far, the Rays have gotten pretty good late-inning relief, converting seven of eight saves.

Though Cash refuses to name Jose Alvarado the closer, he’s clearly been the top choice when available, though he also has pitched three times in the eighth when things were hot then. And Diego Castillo has proved to be a pretty good wing man, picking up his first career save.

There’s been some tense moments, such as Alvarado facing ex-mate Evan Longoria with a chance to tie the Giants home opener and getting him to fly out, and what they haven’t done yet is close a game in Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium.

Snyder is confident they can handle it: “We have the personnel. We have the stuff. The guys have belief in themselves, and belief is something we don’t fully understand the power of. And they have the heart rate for it as well.’’

5. They have fun at work

Rays first base coach Ozzie Timmons, left, and shortstop Willy Adames enjoy a laugh during a game against the Rockies earlier this season. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times]
Rays first base coach Ozzie Timmons, left, and shortstop Willy Adames enjoy a laugh during a game against the Rockies earlier this season. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

Probably the most common theme in discussion about the Rays’ success is how well they get along, how good the chemistry is in the clubhouse, how much unselfishness and buy-in and brotherhood there is.

“We value that so much,’’ Cash said. “Most managers and staffs will tell you the more the players, the organization, everybody involved can build an atmosphere where players enjoy coming to the ballpark and being around each other, the better chance for success. It’s a long season and they’re around each other all the time; you might as well like the people you’re working with.’’

Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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