ST. PETERSBURG — In the beginning, there were home runs. Lots and lots of home runs.
The Rays were crushing the ball with such force and regularity during the first few weeks of the season, their default mode was a casual 360-foot trot from home plate and back again. They won 12-2. And 14-5. And back-to-back games of 11-0.
But as the schedule has gotten tougher and the games have grown closer, opponents have discovered another maddening quality in the Rays lineup:
These guys can fly.
The Rays have been stealing bases at a pace unseen in Major League Baseball in decades. After a relatively pedestrian 18 steals in their first 27 games, the Rays have turned on the jets. They nearly tripled their rate with 48 stolen bases in the next 26 games going into the weekend.
That put them on a pace to steal 202 bases, which would be the highest total in MLB in 30 years.
“With the new rules, everyone’s awareness of the steal is heightened, everything’s magnified,” said first base coach and run game coordinator Chris Prieto. “Guys are paying a little more attention to the details now. They’re pushing their primary leads and getting extended as big as possible.
“And, you know, we have really good athletes. The instincts are there, and these guys can run.”
This isn’t necessarily a shock. While baseball has historically valued big boppers and 200-inning pitchers, the Rays have consistently looked for production in the margins. They favored guys with good defense. Versatility. Athleticism. Speed.
And that meant baseball’s rule changes for 2023 leaned right into Tampa Bay’s strengths. Give this lineup slightly bigger bases with a limited number of pickoffs for pitchers, and this is what you get.
Wander Franco with 18 steals. Taylor Walls with 13. Josh Lowe with 10. Even the Bunyanesque Luke Raley has six steals in seven attempts.
“Stolen base (philosophy) is one thing that has teetered back and forth throughout my time as a manager,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “This year, we’ve opened it up. This is the best team speed we’ve had. I know in the past they had (Carl) Crawford, B.J. (Upton) and those guys, and I think we’re similar to that. We took the approach coming out of spring: Let’s see. Let’s see how it looks in a month.
“We weren’t running that much in the first month, but games have gotten tighter, and the guys are going. And they’re doing an incredible job.”
What is fascinating is this group has also embraced the more nerdy aspects of base-stealing. At the start of every new series, Prieto has the video team put together a scouting report of opposing pitchers. On a monitor in the batting cage, hitters can study the pickoff move, the pace, the slide step, and all the other tendencies of pitchers they are likely to face.
For instance, the Rays seemed to discover an exploitable quirk in Toronto starter Alek Manoah a few days ago. He liked to hold the ball until there were just 2-3 seconds remaining on the pitch clock. And if he was going to attempt a pickoff, it was usually much earlier in the pitch-clock sequence.
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So the Rays appeared to be watching the clock as much as Manoah and were able to time their breaks off the bag. They stole five bases in the first three innings against him.
That, more than anything, is what has pleased management. The Rays were aggressive on the bases last season but not necessarily productive. Their stolen base rate of 71.9% lagged behind the league average of 75.4. This season, they are at 80.4% while attempting more steals than any other team.
And they don’t just run haphazardly. They time their moves and put the skids on whenever they don’t feel like they have gotten a good jump. All of those false starts you see at first base are not necessarily decoys or mind games, they are a form of self-editing.
“We’re at a point where we’re looking to steal every single pitch,” said Walls, who has been successful on 17 consecutive steals going back to last season. “It’s not a question of, ‘OK, this is a good time to go.’ We’re ready to go on every pitch. And if it turns out, the pitcher delivered in a relatively quick time, we’ll shut it down after a step or two. If he’s slow, and we get a jump, we just keep going.”
A healthy number of players in the lineup are trusted to use their judgment on stolen base attempts: Franco. Randy Arozarena. Walls, J-Lowe, Raley, Manuel Margot. Jose Siri.
Depending on the game situation, they might occasionally get the red light from the dugout. Otherwise, it’s a mano-a-mano matchup with the pitcher.
“Even without the rule changes, we’ve got speed on this team,” said Josh Lowe, who has an 87.5% success rate to start his career. “We’re picking good counts to run on, good pitches to run on. We’ve done our homework on guys that you can — and can’t — steal on. Whether that means the pitcher is slow to home or the catcher doesn’t have the best arm.
“We’ve just done a really good job of putting it all together, and you’re seeing the results.”
Speed, favorable rules, greater attention to detail and a perpetual green light.
The Rays have it all in 2023, and they’re running wild.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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