ST. PETERSBURG — Look at the Rays lineup, and tell me what you see.
Two power hitters, a little bit of speed, a lot of walks and a gazillion strikeouts. Hard to argue, right? The Rays have four guys hovering at or below a .200 batting average, and two other hitters who are an 0-for-10 streak away from flirting with the Mendoza Line.
And now consider this:
The Rays began the weekend third in the American League in run scoring and — while the rest of baseball is squawking about the historically low offensive numbers — Tampa Bay is one of a handful of teams scoring at a greater pace than in 2020. And that team had the best record in the AL.
So how do the Rays do it?
I mean, I watch them, I appreciate them, I just don’t always get them. Yandy Diaz is the most muscle-bound singles hitter the world has ever known, Kevin Kiermaier has career-low offensive numbers, and don’t even get me started on Brandon Lowe.
Going into the Texas series, the Rays were hitting .229 as a team and yet scoring 4.95 runs per game. I’m not saying that’s crazy, but the last team to hit below .230 and score that many runs in a season was the Brooklyn Atlantics. In 1874.
So, again, how do the Rays do it?
It’s a combination of things, some expertly intended and some a little more fortuitous. For instance, the Rays have always placed a high value on hitters who know how to draw a base-on-balls. And so, while Tampa Bay’s batting average is near the bottom of the barrel, they lead the league in walks by a healthy margin. And that means they’ve had more baserunners than any AL team other than the Astros.
The Rays are also willing to sacrifice contact for power. And so you have Tampa Bay on pace to shatter the MLB record for strikeouts in a season by more than 100, but you also have Austin Meadows, Mike Zunino, and maybe even Lowe, capable of hitting 30 homers this season.
The result is, while the Rays have a lot of unsightly batting averages and an infuriatingly high rate of strikeouts, they are also a walk and a home run away from taking a 2-0 lead.
Don’t laugh, that happens more than you think. And it’s part of the fortuitous thing I was talking about.
When it comes to home runs, the Rays have done more with less than any other team in the AL. Toronto, Minnesota, Oakland and Boston had all hit as many, or more, home runs than Tampa Bay going into Friday night’s games. And yet the Rays have scored more runs via the homer than any of those teams. How? By hitting 39 of their home runs with runners on base and only 31 solo shots. Minnesota, by comparison, had 27 homers with runners on base and 50 solo shots. Toronto also had 50 solo shots. Oakland had 47.
That means there’s probably been a bit of good fortune involved in Tampa Bay’s current offensive output. Even though the Rays have had slightly fewer baserunners than last season, they’re scoring significantly more runs per homer (1.75) than they did in 2020 (1.41).
“We walk a lot, which helps. We do strike out a lot which, at times, can negate (the walks),” manager Kevin Cash said. “I think the timeliness of things right now are going in our favor. We talked about it during the first month of the season when we weren’t getting it done with guys in scoring position. Now we are doing that, and then some.”
It’s probably safe to assume the Rays will not keep scoring the way they have the past month. Since May 2, Tampa Bay has averaged 5.8 runs per game, which is almost two full runs higher than the first 28 games of the season.
And yet, you look at the lineup and still see room to grow. Randy Arozarena has been solid, but he hasn’t had a hot streak. Lowe, Kiermaier, Diaz and Mike Brosseau have all performed below their career numbers. Ji-Man Choi only has 58 plate appearances, most of which coincided with the recent hot streak. Other than Zunino and Francisco Mejia, there’s really no one in the lineup overperforming based on expectations.
“In the end, the biggest reason our offense works is we have talented hitters. They are committed to their strengths, and when they get their pitches, they are making the most of it,” Cash said. “And it seems like right now there are 6-7 guys a night who are contributing. When you have that much length in your lineup, good things can happen.”
Of course, there’s a couple of other reasons for optimism going forward. You might have heard of Vidal Brujan and Wander Franco at Triple-A Durham, but that’s another story for another day.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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