PORT CHARLOTTE — The secret to success for the Rays has not been much of a secret at all. Tampa Bay puts more emphasis on preventing runs from scoring than any team in the American League, and it really isn’t close.
It’s pitching, it’s defense, it’s a mindset. For each of the past 13 seasons, the Rays have been better than the American League average when it comes to runs allowed per game. That’s from the days of Scott Kazmir and James Shields to David Price and Alex Cobb to Blake Snell and Charlie Morton. It’s a remarkable stretch of consistency that no other team in the AL has been able to match.
Of course, the caveat is that all of that run prevention tends to come at the expense of the offense. Whenever in doubt at catcher or shortstop or centerfield, the Rays have typically leaned toward the better defensive player, no questions asked.
Which brings us to today, and an intriguing notion:
Is it possible Tampa Bay’s run-scoring will outperform its run prevention in 2021?
For the first time since 2010, the Rays were a better-than-average team when it came to scoring runs in the American League last season. And now that entire lineup is returning nearly intact, along with having Randy Arozarena for a full season and the likelihood that Austin Meadows bounces back after battling COVID-19 complications for much of 2020.
Meanwhile, Snell and Morton are gone and the pitching rotation has more age, health, performance and experience questions than typically found in Tampa Bay.
So, again, will offense finally play a larger role than defense?
“You have to separate the two,” manager Kevin Cash said. “We’re going to do everything possible to prevent runs. That’s consistent. The focus in spring training is defense, getting these guys working together in the infield, getting the guys in the outfield communicating, (coach Paul Hoover) staying on catchers about game planning. We definitely don’t want to see the run-prevention angle change at all.
“We’ll welcome more offense. We’ll take all the offense we can get. But we think we’re really good at preventing runs, and we want to stay that way.”
Fair enough. After all, the defense is still stellar. You can make a case for Kevin Kiermaier as the top centerfielder in the game, and Willy Adames, Joey Wendle, Manuel Margot and Mike Zunino are all top-notch defensive players in their own way.
And while the rotation might have something to prove early in the season, the Rays have plenty of high-end arms in the minor league camp to protect against injuries or slippage.
But the Rays also go into the season with, arguably, their best lineup of hitters in more than a decade. A team that has long relied on platoons to provide offense, the Rays could have five or more players (Arozarena, Meadows, Adames, Brandon Lowe and Ji-Man Choi) approaching 500 plate appearances each.
“We’ve had so many guys who were interchangeable, and we’ve always found a way to get them in the lineup,” said hitting coach Chad Mottola. “Mike Brosseau could hit two homers and then not play again for three days. But now we’re actually asking, ‘How are we going to get these guys in the lineup?’ They all deserve to be in the lineup. In years past, it wasn’t always that way. It was more like, ‘How are we going to fill these holes?’ Now Cash and I are having these conversations about how we’re going to get all these guys in.”
The Rays are not going to be confused with the Yankees. Or the Blue Jays, for that matter. Both of their AL East rivals have power potential up and down the lineup. Tampa Bay, meanwhile, has only three players (Meadows, Zunino and Adames) who have ever hit 20 or more homers in a major league season.
Still, the disparity is not as stark as it might have been in years past.
“I think that’s the special thing about this team, each day there seems to be a new hero,” Meadows said. “I think that’s what makes the team special. We’re all healthy, we have a ton of potential. I have a feeling it’s going to be a special year offensively.”
Nowhere to run
Tampa Bay has been on an incredible run when it comes to preventing runs. For each of the past 10 years, the Rays have allowed fewer runs per game than the American League average. Conversely, the only time the Rays have scored more runs than the AL average in the past decade was last season.
2020: 4.58 (AL average per game); 4.82 (Rays runs scored); 3.82 (Rays runs allowed)
2019: 4.88; 4.75; 4.05
2018: 4.53; 4.42; 3.99
2017: 4.71; 4.28; 4.35
2016: 4.52; 4.15; 4.40
2015: 4.39; 3.98; 3.96
2014: 4.18; 3.78; 3.86
2013: 4.33; 4.29; 3.96
2012: 4.45; 4.30; 3.56
2011: 4.46; 4.36; 3.79
Note: Numbers in bold are above league average.