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If the Rays don’t start hitting the long ball, they could be long gone

John Romano | Tampa Bay’s offense has taken the biggest year-to-year tumble in the majors and the main reason is a dramatic decrease in home runs.
Those no-doubt, bat-flip home runs have been harder to come by for the Rays and Randy Arozarena in 2022. Tampa Bay is on pace to hit 146 homers after hitting 222 last season.
Those no-doubt, bat-flip home runs have been harder to come by for the Rays and Randy Arozarena in 2022. Tampa Bay is on pace to hit 146 homers after hitting 222 last season. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Aug. 13|Updated Aug. 13

ST. PETERSBURG — By now, we know a low batting average is not necessarily an offense killer. The Rays had a .243 team batting average last season and still were second in the American League in scoring.

And poor baserunning, while incredibly frustrating, does not doom a team, either. The Rays led the league in caught stealing last year, and it didn’t keep them from a franchise scoring record.

But failing to hit your share of dingers?

Well, that’s how a team can tumble far enough in the standings to suddenly wonder whether October baseball is still in its future.

The Rays have hit fewer home runs than any team in the American League East, and it isn’t particularly close. Going into Saturday’s games, the Rays were averaging 0.90 home runs a game. How bad is that? They were in danger of being lapped by the Yankees, who had been hitting 1.69 per game.

Now, the problem is easily identifiable. Brandon Lowe and Mike Zunino are the top power hitters in the lineup, and both have missed significant time with injuries. After combining to hit 72 home runs last season, they had 13 homers between them going into the weekend.

Throw in Austin Meadows — who hit 27 homers and was traded to Detroit, where he has yet to hit a home run — and that’s a significant downgrade in long balls.

Brandon Lowe reacts after he strikes out against the Blue Jays on Aug. 2.
Brandon Lowe reacts after he strikes out against the Blue Jays on Aug. 2. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

That type of falloff would hurt any team, but it’s particularly devastating for Tampa Bay. The Rays are not afraid to prioritize power over contact, so they often have lineups with high home run, strikeout and walk ratios, but lower batting averages.

They’ve survived in the past with multiple players hitting around the Mendoza line, but it doesn’t work when those low averages are not offset by 30-homer seasons.

“The way we’re built, we’re going to have some swing-and-miss, but we’ll take that with the home runs,” manager Kevin Cash said. “Right now, we’re not getting the benefit of the power and we’re still seeing the strikeouts.”

And that helps explain how Tampa Bay has gone from scoring 5.29 runs a game in 2021 to 4.07 in 2022 entering Saturday, the biggest year-to-year drop in the majors.

“There was a comfort last year knowing, from the seventh inning on in a close game, that we always had that threat,” said hitting coach Chad Mottola. “We had guys who were already in scoring position when they stepped in the (batter’s) box. Losing that instant production has changed our personality, for sure.

“So that’s kind of where we’re at right now with a lot of new additions trying to blend that new personality. The injuries we’ve had are real. It’s nothing we can spend a lot of energy worrying about. We’re just having to work with a new identity.”

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The problem is that the home-run hitters are not the only players who have missed time. While the Rays are not necessarily designed to be a station-to-station team, the offense has grown even more troublesome with Wander Franco, Manuel Margot and Harold Ramirez on the injured list.

Margot and Ramirez were the only .300 hitters in the lineup, and Franco has the lowest strikeout rate on the team. So even manufacturing runs has been a chore in recent weeks. It’s hard to transform into a small-ball, hit-and-run team when you have a lot of hitters with a penchant for striking out.

Tampa Bay scored three runs or fewer in 13 of its last 18 games going into Saturday, which translated into a 6-12 record.

Harold Ramirez watches  a solo home run against the Marlins on May 24.
Harold Ramirez watches a solo home run against the Marlins on May 24. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Now, Ramirez has been a revelation since being acquired near the end of spring training, and Isaac Paredes — who came over in the Meadows deal — has added surprising thump with 14 homers.

But the Rays haven’t had anything close to a breakout season to balance the missing production from Zunino and the other injured hitters. Ji-Man Choi has a nice on-base percentage, but his .392 slugging percentage is the worst of his career. Randy Arozarena’s home-run rate has dipped a little, and Josh Lowe did not take advantage of being handed the rightfield job on opening day.

It’s true that power numbers are down throughout the majors in 2022, but Tampa Bay’s drop has far outpaced the league average.

“Trying to force things has definitely created some mistakes, both in expanding the strike zone in the box and trying to make things happen with our baserunning,” Mottola said. “We feel like we had more quality at-bats last year, even on top of the power numbers.

“So it’s an adjustment we have to make, and the fact is we don’t have much time left to make that adjustment. But we’re going to have to, and that’s the reality.”

When he drove a pitch over the leftfield wall against the Orioles on Friday night, Arozarena tied Paredes for the team lead in homers with 14. It put him on a pace to hit 20 for the season.

How disappointing is that when Lowe hit 39, Zunino hit 33 and Meadows hit 27 last season? Here’s one way of looking at it:

The last time Tampa Bay’s leading home-run hitter had 20 or less in a full season was in 1998, when Fred McGriff hit 19 for the expansion Devil Rays.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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