The final standings have been recorded for posterity, and the pretenders have been sent home for the winter. Baseball’s playoffs have joyously arrived for a dozen teams, and there is but one question that needs to be asked in Tampa Bay:
Can you win the World Series with a crappy offense?
The question is neither snarky, nor unfair. It’s a perfectly legitimate query for a preciously imperfect team. If you prefer a more positive spin, it could be posed this way:
How far can you get on pitching alone?
No matter which direction you approach the equation, the calculation is the same. The Rays will survive as long as their starters, relievers, openers, closers and bulk guys can carry them.
We’ve sort of known this for a while, but the past month has certainly reinforced it. When the Rays were struggling to score runs in the summer, we were told to be patient and wait for Wander Franco, Manuel Margot and Harold Ramirez to get healthy.
Well, they all got back in the lineup and the offense got worse. After averaging a fairly pedestrian 4.26 runs per game through August, the Rays scored only 3.51 runs per game in September/October.
Not to be a smart aleck, but scoring a lot of runs is kinda important. The top eight offensive teams in MLB all made the playoffs. Makes sense, right? You score a lot, you win a lot. Three other playoff teams were in the middle third of the majors in run scoring.
The Rays, on the other hand, were No. 21 in the league in getting runners across the plate. That’s the worst among the 12 postseason teams.
Which brings us back to the original point:
Is it possible to run the table in the postseason with an offense that isn’t up to snuff?
The answer, thankfully, is yes.
It’s a little rare, and it takes a special pitching staff, but it can be done. Of the 117 World Series champions in history, 11 of them were below league average in scoring.
You can probably make an educated guess at the type of teams that pulled it off. The 1995 Braves, for instance, with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. The 1969 Mets with Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman (and a young Nolan Ryan in the bullpen). The 1965 Dodgers with Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Claude Osteen. There are others, but you get the idea.
Shane McClanahan, Tyler Glasnow, Jeffrey Springs and Drew Rassmussen combined for a 2.59 ERA over 83 starts this season, which is exactly the kind of pitching a team would need to win a bunch of 3-2 or 4-3 games in the playoffs. Now, admittedly, Glasnow is in the early stages of his comeback from Tommy John surgery and McClanahan has not been as effective in the second half, but the potential is there.
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So what would the Rays need out of their lineup?
“We need some more contact,” manager Kevin Cash told reporters in Cleveland on Thursday. “When we struggled I think maybe our contact guys weren’t getting their hits and were starting to swing and miss a little bit.”
After a moment’s pause, Cash added:
“We need Randy to be Randy.”
Randy Arozarena was practically a one-man rally in the 2020 postseason, hitting .377 with 10 homers in 20 games as the Rays reached Game 6 of the World Series. He came back last season to hit .333 in the four-game division series loss to Boston.
Clearly, Arozarena, Franco, Ji-Man Choi and Yandy Diaz will be key to Tampa Bay’s fortunes, but Cash’s point about making contact cannot be overlooked.
The Guardians are a similar team with a strong pitching staff, a good defense and an underwhelming offense. But Cleveland does a much better job than the Rays at manufacturing runs.
The Guardians were the best team in the American League when it came to converting sacrifice bunts and they had nearly 20 more sacrifice flies than the Rays.
Cleveland had the AL’s lowest hard-hit rate when it came to exit velocity, but still scored more runs than Tampa Bay, and that’s likely because they struck out 270 times less. That means putting the ball in play, moving runners and forcing the defense to make plays.
Can the Rays pull that off? They have in the past.
The question is whether they can do it when pitching gets even tougher in October.
“I think if we hit really well collectively, it’s going to be very tough for any team to beat us,” Diaz told reporters via interpreter Manny Navarro. “That’s the plan.”
Staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow at @romano_tbtimes.
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