Live from SkyDome

Yeah, I know it isn’t called SkyDome anymore. But that was such a cool name, we shouldn’t let it die.

As many of you know, we here at The Ray Area have a Toronto bureau to bring you all baseball news from the frozen north, eh. Local stat analyst Chris Glover is a Toronto resident and always takes the opportunity to cross-country ski over to SkyDome when the Rays are in town.

He has offered to add a new element to the Rays-Jays experience this year by live Tweeting all three games.

So come by, check him out, send him your questions and he will send back all things Toronto. We know he’ll be busy. After all, he’ll have to send 3 Canadian tweets for every 2 American tweets because of the exchange rate.

UPDATE: Chris has a new Twitter handle. @Chris_RayArea

(P.S. Sorry about the Dudley Doright picture Chris, I just couldn’t resist).

Pitch Perfect

It can be tough to find new angles to talk about for any team in the off season, with the proposition getting harder when you root for one whose bigger moves include acquiring Jeff Keppinger and selling Russ Canzler. Luckily, the good folks at Brooks Baseball have added a treasure trove of new information revolving around the PitchFX tool used to track individual pitches. The tool allows us to review not only the movement, velocity and location of every pitch thrown, but also the outcome of each of those pitches. Using that data we can better understand our pitchers, predict future success or decline, or in this case, try and decide who has the best single pitch on the Rays rotation.

I was struggling with how to quantify what exactly constitutes a great pitch, and then the great Carson Cistulli posted this over at Fangraphs, which essentially aims to do a similar exercise for the best fastballs in the league. I’m going down a similar road of looking at a pitch’s outcome, it’s value per FanGraphs and how important it is within a pitcher’s repertoire to try and gain an overall ‘value’. In no particular order, the below pitches stood out for one reason or another:

James Shields’ changeup

”You think it’s a fastball, and then it’s gone”, Bobby Abreu on James Shields’ changeup.

This was the main reason I started looking at the information: to understand just how good Shields’ changeup is. I had the pleasure of watching Shields in person a couple of times last season (in Miami and Toronto) and each time he twirled an absolute gem, giving him a combined line of 18IP, 10H, ER, 25K, 2BB. Against Toronto it was Shields’ curveball that caused Bautista to put a hole in his own dugout wall, but over the course of those two contests it was the changeup which did the most damage.

Despite going to his changeup early and often (27% of all pitches thrown), Shields was able to generate swinging strikes an impressive 37% of the time. His use of the changeup has trended upwards over the past few seasons but he’s been able to maintain, and even improve, its effectiveness thanks to solid mechanics which have kept the vertical movement and velocity at steady rates since 2008.

By tracking the change in run expectancy before and after a single pitch, FanGraphs are able to generate a value for each pitch, which shows how many runs a player saved with a specific pitch type. Shields’ changeup scores highly by this metric (highest of all pitches in this post) with 17.7 runs saved, not quite up alongside Kershaw’s slider (22.9) or Verlander’s fastball (25.5) but very close to Halladay’s famed cutter (19.5). Indeed, only Hamels (29.3) and Hernandez (21.4) saved more runs with their changeup in 2011. Shields has developed his curveball over the past couple of seasons to the point where it’s almost as effective as his changeup, but you can be sure he’ll be leaning on his trusty change piece again this season as he aims to prove his 2011 line is more indicative of his true talent than 2010.

David Price’s fastball

Few players have leant on their fastball more than Price over the past three seasons, who threw it in one form or another 73% of the time. Indeed, if there is one criticism of Price is that he sometimes become over reliant on his heater, but he can move it around the zone well, which can sometimes be all he needs on a given night.

There’s a distinct joy to watching a pitcher simply blow opponents away and with a two seamer and a four seamer pushing 98mph, Price is as good as they come when he has his stuff working. Price threw 64% of his fastballs for strikes in 2011, generating 22% swinging strikes. Price’s two seamer ranked 11th by FanGraphs’ pitch value /100 measure, behind a list of solid pitchers who would all love to have Price’s secondary stuff.

Much like Shields, it’s the development of the rest of Price’s repertoire which will likely propel him to the next level, but it’s good to know that on any given night his staple pitch can often be all he needs.

Jeremy Hellickson’s changeup

By FanGraphs’ count, no qualifying pitcher threw their changeup more than Hellickson in 2011, accounting for 32% of all his pitches. Still, major league hitters didn’t show many signs of catching up with Hellickson’s off speed stuff as the season went on, with swing and misses holding steady (33%) while fewer and fewer balls were hit well (the line drive rate declined all year, while the GB/FB rate continued to rise).

Albert Lyu highlighted Hellickson’s changeup as one of the best three in 2011, alongside Cole Hamels and Felix Hernandez, and ahead of the aforementioned Shields and the likes of Justin Verlander and Tim Lincecum. In terms of pure value delivered (wCH), the data backs up this claim with the changeup saving 17 runs, good for fourth place in the majors.

There’s been plenty of talk during the off season about whether Hellickson’s rookie success is replicable, largely revolving around whether he can continue to induce such a high rate of weak contact, or if he is getting ‘lucky’ with the outcome of balls hit in play last season. That’s another story for another day, suffice to say that Hellickson’s changeup could be one of the contributory factors as to why he may be able to sustainably induce weak contact, and may not face the kind of regression many are forecasting.

Joel Peralta’s fastball

Peralta probably isn’t the first name you’d expect to see on this list but his fastball success last season was undeniable. FanGraphs suggest Peralta saved around 14 runs with his fastball, fourth among relievers behind Jose Valverde, Jason Motte and David Robertson. On a per-pitch basis, he trailed only the great Mariano Rivera, who rarely uses his fastball these days.

Peralta is able to generate good movement on his heater (-4.68 horizontal and -11.07 vertical), while pounding the zone (68% strikes), which compensates for the lack of raw power in the pitch (average 91mph). Presumably the pitch becomes more effective if his opponent still has his bat on his shoulder, though the opinion of the umpires seem to disagree on the legality of the quick-pitch.

Matt Moore’s curveball and changeup

“David [Price] has good other stuff, but that one pitch Matt has is one of the better ones I’ve seen in the major leagues already, that left-handed change-up”, Joe Maddon on Moore’s changeup

As he progressed through the minors it was Moore’s slurve (he calls it a curveball but others categorise it was a slider) that won the most plaudits. Steve Carter at ‘Scouting the Sally’ described it as “’disgusting’ in the most endearing of ways” while Ben Badler, reporting on last season’s future’s game, defined the pitch as “knee buckling” and “already one of the best breaking balls at any level of baseball”. In his brief 2011 major league cameo, Moore threw 54 curveballs, inducing 41% swings, 55% of which whiffed.

Maddon’s recent comment about Moore’s change piece is particularly encouraging given that this wasn’t seen as a particular strength just a couple of seasons ago. During his brief cameo last season, Moore’s changeup featured substantial movement and induced swinging strikes an absurd 63% of the time. Indeed, he generated twice as many swinging misses as Wade Davis did with his changeup, despite Davis throwing four times as many.

It goes without saying that everything we take from Moore’s 2011 campaign needs to be tempered with a small sample size warning, but that doesn’t mean we can’t at least dream on 2012. If his changeup continues to develop to give him another weapon in his arsenal against righties, he could well enjoy the top couple of entries on this list next year.

Are there any other pitches we’ve missed here? Anything that you specifically look for on a nightly basis?

 

Closing to Open: What Game 162 tells us about 2012

[If you’ve been reading this site for any amount of time, you already know how talented Chris is. But, this post deserves a little introduction anyway only because it’s premise is so creative. I didn’t edit a word — even his British tendency to spell “defense” with a “c.” I generally dislike season previews because, we’re all just guessing, but this thing is just awesome. –Mark]

By Chris Glover

Sometimes a single season, game or even at-bat can serve as a microcosm for a wider reaching trend. The selection of a defensively skilled player over a lumbering slugger might signal a shift in a franchise’s priorities or a single plate appearance where a player looks composed and then clueless before belting the ball into the cheap seats might serve perfectly as a summary of his inconsistent career to date. For the Rays in 2011, their microcosm was Game 162. Every time you re-watch the game, or even just the highlights, you will notice an out that was so close to a hit, a walk that was so close to a strike out, or, of course, a hit that was so close to a foul ball (okay you probably noticed those two the first time round). It’s through that lens that we will review 2011 while raising, and hopefully answering, some questions about this team in 2012.

David Price goes 4 IP, 6 H, 2 BB, 5 ER on 97 pitches

(or, who is the ace of this staff?)

Whatever happened in this game, it goes without saying that the success of the rotation is going to be the major driving force behind the Rays’ success in 2012. It’s amazing to think that Price may not be the best pitcher on the Rays staff, perhaps even as soon as this season. For what it’s worth, I’d suggest Price is still a little underrated and too much attention was paid to his 12-13 record last year – a measure which has little correlation to how well an individual player actually pitched. Price’s expected fielding independent pitching (xFIP) (which is more predictive than ERA, which still relies on the quality of a pitcher’s supporting defence and a large slice of luck) was 3.32, better than Tim Lincecum (3.36), CJ Wilson (3.41), Ian Kennedy (3.50) and Jered Weaver (3.80) all of whom received top-six finishes in their respective Cy Young voting.

Price improved from 2010 in almost all (controllable) areas of his game, striking out more batters, walking less and generating more ground balls. It was really his inability to strand baserunners and batting average on balls in play (BABIP) which hurt him along the perception of him being a true ‘ace’. Those two measures are generally thought to be outside of a pitcher’s control and improved luck will likely see Price take the ‘next step’ so many are waiting for.

The odd game like this from Price shouldn’t detract from another excellent season and another step on the way to becoming recognised as one of the top handful of pitchers in the league. What’s even more exciting, of course, are his partners in crime with Shields, Moore and Hellickson forming a potentially elite trio of their own. Some are expecting regression from Shields and particularly Hellickson, but there is a decent case to me made for each player being able to replicate last season’s success.

Shields actually decreased his strikeout rate and walked more batters in 2011 than 2010, with a lot of his success being due to an improved ground ball rate and some better luck with runners in scoring position and with his supporting defence. In truth, his pure ability probably lies somewhere between 2010 and 2011, but with an increasingly effective curveball being used to compliment his dominant changeup, we can be fairly confident that he should fall more towards last season than his poor 2010 campaign.

As for Hellickson, this time last year he was still ranked ahead of Matt Moore among Rays’ prospects and didn’t disappoint in his rookie season, coming in with a sub-3.0 ERA on his way to rookie of the year honours. Many are predicting some regression from Hellboy thanks to an unsustainably high strand rate (82%) and low BABIP (.223) but there is reason to believe that there are counteracting factors which should soften this blow, chiefly a likely improvement in his strikeout rate, which at 5.6 K/9 was well below the 9+ rate he had shown in the minors. ZiPS forecasts Hellickson to have a 3.6 ERA and an ERA+ of 112, which would rank him as a number two starter on 20 different teams.

Oh right, and then there’s this guy Matt Moore, uber-prospect, playoff winner and possible wizard. Some are already predicting him to be the pick of this talented bunch, a prospect that should terrify all in the AL East. Moore’s prospects deserve a post of their own, suffice to say we should all be very excited.

We can’t say that we won’t see pitching lines like Price’s in game 162 again in 2012, but it’s pretty safe to suggest they will be few, and far between. Luckily for us, on that historic night in September the Rays had enough to get over Price’s shaky outing, starting with a couple of typically well timed hits in the eighth.

James Shields warming up in the bullpen

(or, who’s heading there this season?)

With the game slipping away, we caught a glimpse of Shield warming up in the ‘pen, presumably to give him the 2/3 innings he needed to reach 250. While we won’t be seeing Shields in the bullpen anytime soon, it’s looking all but certain that two from Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis and Alex Cobb are headed there or down to Durham.

Davis has been vocal this offseason about not wanting to pitch in relief, and there’s nothing wrong with his attitude in that regard – he should want to stay in the rotation – while Niemann has been more diplomatic. The forecast models all pretty much have Niemann and Cobb pegged as 4.0 ERA guys, while they are less decided on Davis, with predictions ranging between 4.0 and 4.8.

Davis, whose changeup and curveball were both lit up over the past couple of seasons, may be more suited to the bullpen, where he could potentially crank-up his fastball to the mid-nineties and get back to the power pitcher he was when he cracked top prospect lists just a couple of years ago. Niemann has tended to struggle during the third and fourth time through the order though, so he too may well be suited for a long relief role. That would leave the inexperienced but impressive Cobb who will likely get a long look this March.

There are factors at work outside of just on field talent here, with Davis locked into a team friendly deal until 2017 (including team options) while Niemann will be subject to the potentially expensive arbitration process for the next couple of seasons. Niemann is however out of options, surely locking him in to a role in the majors in one form or another. It would be surprising if this race is decided just on the results of this month’s games, but it does appear to be a genuinely open competition and one which is only just beginning. Whatever the decision for opening day though, it’s likely all three of these guys will get starts this year due to injury, loss of form or scheduling.

8th inning: Damon blooper, Zobrist double, Kotchman hit by pitch, Fuld walks

(or, can the new arrivals replace the departed players’ production)

Has the start to an inning ever better reflected a team’s offense? An ugly blooper from Damon just crept past Eduardo Nunez’ glove before Zobrist lined the first pitch for a double, Kotchman took one on the hands to load the bases and Fuld held his nerve to walk in the first run on six close pitches. Damon, Kotchman and Fuld accounted for a total of six wins above replacement (per FanGraphs) last season and replacing that production was, and possibly still is, a major question heading into the new year.

Luke Scott and old friend Carlos Pena are the men charged with the task of replacing the departed Damon and Kotchman, and on paper, they look well placed to do that and more. While we can’t quantify Damon’s off-the-field impact, his work at the plate was uninspiring and Scott won’t have to do much to match, or exceed Damon’s production. The Rays’ got a combined .321 wOBA from the DH for the season, good for an 11th place ranking for the season and the 16 HRs from the position is hardly anything to get excited by.

Scott struggled himself throughout 2011 until being shut down in July but was still able to post an isolated power mark of .182, which would still have ranked 6th on the Rays in 2011. A return to his career average rate of .230 would have trailed only Longoria (.251) last season. ZiPS forecasts Scott for a .245 / .325 / .447 slash line with 16 HRs in just 378 appearances, not too dissimilar from Upton’s 2011 (.243 / .331 / .429 23 HRs) minus the speed (and of course defensive ability). Scott’s lack of extreme platoon splits (.339 wOBA vs L and .366 vs R) suggests he will get plenty of opportunities to get to the plate and his floor should be around Damon’s 2011 campaign providing he can stay healthy, with good power upside.

While the Damon to Scott could be argued to be a potential lateral move, the change at first must be viewed as an upgrade for even the most pessimistic of Pena forecasters. While Kotchman’s 2011 will be tough to replace, it would be a huge stretch to suggest Casey was the man to do it when you consider the luck he had in blooping and bleeding his way to a .306 average (his .335 BABIP was 12th among all players with 500 PAs). Pena needs no introduction in these parts, though some caution must be noted about expecting a return of his 2007 vintage form. We can however reasonably expect something close to his 2008-09 production with perhaps a slight decline in power from the 30-35 to the 26-30 range to pair with a lot of whiffs, a lot of walks and a solid glove. There is some concern about Pena moving back to the offensively stingy Trop at his age, but the majority of his home runs last year would have cleared the fences in most parks, and it’s not like Pena is leaving a hitter’s paradise. Scott, Pena and a full season of Jennings might not generate too much attention around the league, but given what they are replacing they look like a great combination of high floor players with a good amount of upside.

8th inning: BJ Upton just misses out on a grand slam

(or, how will Upton do in what is probably his last season as a Ray?)

If the start of the 8th inning summed up what went right with the Rays in 2011, it might also sum up the fortunes of BJ Upton over his whole career. With the Yankees reeling and the bases loaded, Upton came to the plate to face Luis Ayala, who started him off with a slider middle and in which, well, didn’t slide. Upton didn’t quite get a hold of it, and with a “I was this close” gesture that summed up his career to some in Tampa, he showed how close he was to blowing the game wide open.

In this lowly blogger’s humble opinion, that viewpoint is a touch unfair, but understandable given Upton’s alternation between flashes of sheer brilliance and frustratingly wild swings. However, since Upton became a regular first teamer in 2007, only 11 American Leaguers have amassed more wins above replacement (per FanGraphs) and the list of those players behind BJ includes perennial All-Stars and perhaps higher rated players like Carl Crawford, Josh Hamilton and Mark Teixeira.

The ‘contract year theory’ is one that is still up for debate and I don’t think we’re going to be swayed too much by the ‘best shape of his life’ stories from spring training, but there is always that lingering possibility that this is the year Upton ‘puts it all together’. Most projection systems have him settling in around the .250 / .340 / .430 vicinity, also believing that his 20+ HR power is for real. With his abundant talent you could suggest that he still has a chance to far eclipse these marks, but then there’s always the chance that he’ll just fall short once again. If nothing else he will be fun/maddening/exciting/frustrating to watch.

“There it is, long drive, deep to left . . . gone”

(or, how good can Longoria really be?)

When the team absolutely needed a big hit, there’s few players you would have wanted to step to the plate other than Evan Longoria, but just how good can he be? Despite battling through oblique and foot injuries for the whole season, Longoria still managed to put together a good season, finishing with a .244 / .355 / .495 line along with 31 HRs and a .251 isolated power mark. Given his struggles with injury and bad luck with hits dropping in (.239 BABIP last season), there’s no reason to think he won’t drag that average back to right around his career .275 rate while 30 HRs looks like the floor rather than the ceiling for Longoria’s impressive power.

There’s still a feeling that there’s more to come from Longoria despite the fact that he ranks behind only Albert Pujols in wins above replacement (per FanGraphs) since entering the majors in 2008. Admittedly, a lot of that value is derived from the unproven defensive statistics which make up that measure, but in Longoria’s case I don’t think there’s much of a gap between the stats and the eyeball test – he is one of, if not the, best defenders at the hot corner.

With a line-up that looks as dangerous as any the Rays have ever enjoyed, combined with a (hopefully) healthier season, there’s no reason Longoria can’t improve on his 6th placed MVP vote from 2010, and deliver his best season yet.

“Line shot down the left field line”

(or, do we need another excuse to watch this?)

There’s no real lesson or question here. Just that baseball is back and it promises to be another great season for the Rays.

Comment of the Week: Time to get Excited

Chris Glover swoops in and grabs a COW honor with his Jessie Spano impression. After Travis broke the news of Carlos Pena’s return, Chris wrote:

Travis, this comment just got me fired up for baseball again. With the mild distraction of football about to end I was wondering how I would pass the time here in Toronto as the snow gets deeper, but you saved me! Time to start getting pumped for next season!

Why Jessie Spano? Because, like Chris, I’m so excited, I’m so excited, I’m so…..scared. (Chris, do they have Saved by the Bell in England or Canada? Do you get the reference?)

I am ecstatic to have Pena back. My wife and kids think he’s great so, his return means we have 162 games locked into the family calendar. Also, he is just a fun guy to root for and he has the potential to dramatically improve our offense.

But, Pena’s return also freaks me out. We know he’s going to fan at an incredible rate. We know he probably won’t face lefties. And we know we don’t have an obvious platoon partner for him.

So, yeah. Pena’s return is a mixed blessing. But, in the final analysis, if this is going to be our year, I’d want Pena in the clubhouse when it happens.

 

Moore money, less problems*

*Is there any limit to the number of bad puns Moore’s name allows us to use? (The asterik is Chris’s. I accept his question as a challenge for 2012. -Mark)

Using a graphic that seems very much at home here at The Ray Area, Steve Slowinksi suggests that Matt Moore just got Friedman’d. He goes on to suggest that Moore’s contract may already be one of the best in the game, and could even challenge the one Friedman gave to his most famous ‘victim’: Evan Longoria.

In truth, this contract is probably a win for both sides. Of course, one side will likely end up ‘winning’ in terms of dollars – if Moore is great the Rays win, if his arm explodes then he ‘wins’ – but when you factor in the financial security Moore has achieved, you can see the benefit for both sides (just ask Brett Anderson who has missed significant time after signing a comparatively early deal in his MLB career).

Here is how the contract breaks down (courtesy of Marc Topkin, SP Times):

2012

1,000,000

2013

1,000,000

2014

1,000,000

2015

3,000,000

2016

5,000,000

2017

7,000,000 (club option)

2018

9,500,000 (club option)

2019

10,000,000 (club option)

If Moore becomes what we (and more importantly the experts) think he can be and stays healthy, the Rays are obviously going to do very well. Just how well will depend on a number of factors but we can get a rough idea using the below assumptions:

  • Looking at the free agent deals handed out over the years, and the value those players deliver, we can get the average ‘cost’ of a win each year acquired through free agency. This is explained much better than I ever could here but in short the projected cost of a marginal win for 2012 is ~$5.0m.
  • We can then assume that the cost of wins over the life of Moore’s contract will increase with inflation. Based on historical data this is generally set at 5%.
  • Years 4, 5 and 6 of Moore’s deal likely would have been arbitration years and thus he would have been paid depending on his production to that point. Sky Kalkman at DRaysBay posted a helpful spreadsheet, which explains how to set these projections (roughly 40%, 60% and 80% of the players production in the prior year is a good starting point).

We can put all that data together to get an idea of how much will be saved (or lost) in dollar terms over the life of Moore’s contract depending on who he becomes. The below table shows the approximate value (in dollars) saved or lost if Moore starts his career with the same stats (and hence wins above replacement) as the listed player. Where a player hasn’t yet played 8 years in the majors, Bill James’ projections have been used to complete the picture.

Comparative Player

Money saved / lost ($M)

Justin Verlander

121

Felix Hernandez

110

Tim Lincecum

98

Jered Weaver

94

Josh Beckett

90

Matt Cain

72

James Shields

63

Gavin Floyd

53

Edwin Jackson

50

Scott Baker

36

Paul Maholm

20

Mike Pelfrey

5

Mark Prior

(1)

Daisuke Matsuzaka

(1)

Scott Kazmir

(6)

Andrew Miller

(7)

Brett Anderson

(8)

The graphical version, which shows how much value Moore would deliver if he had the same stats as the above players, compared to his actual contract cost can be found here.

If Moore becomes an elite, every year Cy Young candidate, this contract will have saved the Rays tens of millions of dollars, which could approach triple digits if he becomes one of the league’s best. Consider, for example, the ~$19m Tim Lincecum is projected to get this year (his third arbitration year). Moore would only cost $7m at the comparative point in his career (2017) by which time that same $19m would be worth closer to $25.

Let’s not get ahead ourselves yet though and proclaim Moore as the next Lincecum, Felix Hernandez or even James Shields. What if he becomes just a good number two/three starter? The contract would still represent huge savings for the Rays, as shown by the Edwin Jackson/Scott Baker/Paul Maholm comps. The only way this blows up is if Moore fades quickly before years four and five of the contract, when the Rays are committed to pay him $8m, and he would have received much less going through arbitration (this is your Dice-K and Kazmir group above). That, or his arm falls off and his career is cut short (the Brett Anderson comparison above assumes he never comes back from his recent Tommy John surgery).

It’s sometimes hard to analyze some of the Rays’ moves these past few years without sounding like a 14 year old reviewing the latest Twilight offering. At times Friedman and his staff just seem to get things so obviously right where others don’t; it’s hard to not get carried away with the praise. But it’s tough to see the downside of this deal, especially given Moore’s effortless motion (which should lower the chance of catastrophic injury) and apparent lack of character red flags (so he won’t go all Antoine Walker on us). One question mark is the timing (as Mark mentioned earlier in the week) and you’d be surprised if there weren’t further moves in the future which help explain the fact that the deal does seem to lower the leverage the front office have regarding potentially moving Davis or Niemann. Perhaps another deal is already in advanced stages. Or, perhaps we’re talking about moving a player whose value will likely be less impacted by Moore’s contract. With his price starting to ramp up in 2012 (though only to a very manageable $7m) you can’t help but wonder if Shields could also be in conversations given his sky-high value at the moment (my tin foil hat is slightly smaller than Mark’s though still does the job nicely).

Individual moves don’t happen in a vacuum and any future analysis of this deal will likely get tied into what else happens this off-season and beyond. But as a stand alone contract it’s hard to argue with the process employed by the front office and once again Friedman is the poster-boy for us and the majority of the country’s media.

A Day to be Remembered

One of the really cool things about last night is the way everyone seems to have a cool story about where they were or what they were doing when it all went down. It’s almost like the baseball equivalent of the JFK Assassination (does that make Robert Andino Lee Harvey Oswlad, Evan Longoria Jack Ruby, and Dan Johnson the second gunman on the grassy knoll?).

I thought it’d be fun to collect stories about where you were when the tide turned. Here are the stories of The Ray Area. Add your stories in the comments.

Me?

I missed all 7 Yankee runs because I was at an open house hosted by my 3-year-old’s pre-school. After the open-house ended, I headed to a local bar with the Mrs. and some friends to have one beer and watch the game. Boy, what a depressing place. At some point, I stopped watching the Rays altogether and just focused on the Orioles. We finally went home and I was sitting on my couch trying desperately to focus on a Motion I was editing that needs to be filed today. I was watching the game but, decided it was too sad to watch our boys flame out so, I was flipping back and forth with some show I couldn’t care less about. Then the walk, then the next walk, then the first bomb. Finally, the Mrs. joined me and we watched the rest. I threw the Motion I was editing around the room three times, once into a ceiling fan. Needless to say, my marked up copy was looking rough this morning.

Brendan Gleason:

Last nightʼs game was indicative of the Rays season. Never any quit, regardless of the situation. Whether down 7 runs in the final innings of a game, or down 9 games in the final month of the season, these guys show more heart than the Wizard couldʼve ever given to the Tin Man.

I got to a bar on the 3rd street promenade around 5:15. Living in California is generally cool for sports. I like Monday night Football being done by 9pm. I love waking up on Saturdays and waiting no time to watch College Football. But I do sacrifice early innings of baseball games that start at 7pm Eastern, so it was already the top of the 4th when I met up with some other Raysʼs fans living out here to watch the game. It was actually right before Teixiera hit his second home run off Price to make it 6-0.

Before I thank Longoria for the 3-run jack in the 8th and the walk-off, I have some other thank-yous to make.
Thank you Tampa Bay Bullpen…8 innings of 3 hit baseball, with the only run coming in the 5th on an Andruw Jones rare air. Thank you Buck Showalter…you got your team ready and wanted to win what couldʼve been a meaningless game to the Orioles organization. Thank you Waitress at the bar…sure you only brought me 5 wings at a time for All you can eat Wings, but you kept bringing them without judging me. Thank you Jonathan Papelbon…now you can do your stupid stare into the mirror all off-season and think, “why did i throw fastballs down the middle of the plate to every batter”? Thank you Dan Johnson…your .108 average was not at all in your mind when you took the pitch over the wall. Thank you 3 guys playing pool rooting for the red sox…you left during the rain delay when the sox were up and the rays were down and made me like you less. Thank you Joe Maddon…I heard Dick Vitale say that if Maddon doesnʼt win Manager of the Year, they should stop giving out the award. I agree. Thanks for everything Joe.

And now for the thank you of the night. This one goes to Evan. i know it was a team effort, but thank you Longo for the 30th and 31st home runs of the year. Iʼll never forget where I was for a lot of events in my life, and Evan Longoriaʼs double down the line that cleared the fence on the fly is one of those moments. He was on deck when we learned the Sox had lost, and he reached in to his inner superstar and made a decision to end the game and send his team into the playoffs.

Thank you all for the season…and thank you for extending it. I look forward to seeing what this group of scrappy, young, Major-League-Baseball-poor ballplayers.

Chris Glover:

Bless me baseball Gods for I have sinned. I lost faith. I questioned The Process. As Pedroia’s home run cleared the left field fence and the NESN announcer proclaimed that the second baseman was “willing his team to the post season” I could not have slumped further in my chair. By that point I’d all but surrendered hope for the Rays who had fallen behind 6-0 just moments before. Denial, anger and bargaining had all flown by in a matter of minutes and now depression was threatening to give way to acceptance. We made it close just to lose like this? To lose with errors from our MVP infielder and a miserable performance from our All Star ace? The next hour and half were bordering on sadistic as Rays batters came to the plate and were sat down again by a mixed group of relievers including the much maligned pair of Phil Hughes and AJ Burnett. Baltimore were doing their best to keep the Sox in check but the end was nigh for another year.

As Damon stepped to the plate in the 8th, the win percentage for the Rays was 0.3% (echoing the odds of making the playoffs back in August). Forgive me baseball Gods, but to my earthly mind, that rounded down to zero. His single barely registered; just another man to be left on base. Then came Zobrist’s double and Kotchman’s walk. Still not much, but I did flip the sound back to the Rays from the Sox game. Fuld and Rodriguez put the Rays on the board but with Jennings and Upton going down, the brief rally (and the season) seemed to be over.

I believe in stats. I love stats. For once, I ignored them. The stats said hope was lost, and even with Longoria’s blast, the chances of winning were still slim, but suddenly, we had life. What had started a few minutes earlier as a quiet single and a couple of walks had snowballed into a comeback and you just knew the Sox were watching in their locker room: frustrated and increasingly nervous. They were just taking to the field as Dan Johnson worked his magic and, though it was far from clear at the time, momentum would be the Rays’ for good.

The ten minute span from the time Papelbon came on to close out the game to the moment Longoria’s line drive crept over the left field wall, serves as a microcosm for the Rays season. All seemed lost on so many occasions but whether by skill, luck or blind persistence the team kept going and those few minutes will become entrenched in baseball folklore, sure to be told (and embellished by those who left the stadium or turned off the TV early) for years to come. Even the shot itself made us wait for a couple more glorious seconds; unsure if the ball would drop in, drift foul or deliver the most unlikely victory. I know there are at least a couple of residents in Toronto who were unknowingly impacted, as a yell of disbelief, relief and joy exploded at around midnight last night. I hadn’t dared to think about the impact of a play-in game, the playoffs or anything beyond the next at bat, but suddenly everything was released in those few moments.

“I normally like to try and attempt to say what I’m thinking, but I don’t even know what I’m thinking right now”. Maddon was speechless. I was speechless. We were all speechless (or just yelling/tweeting/emailing/texting nonsense). At one point I was just sat with my hands on my head, mouth ajar, staring at the reactions online and on TV, trying to process what just happened. The importance of those moments in baseball history is still to be determined, but what is certain is that they will not be forgotten by anyone who lived them.

I tried in vein to write something on the games in the immediate aftermath, but everything just sounded too cheesy and more at home in Orlando than St Pete’s. But there will be enough time for people to be down on the fans for not buying tickets or management for not calling players up sooner, so for now, let’s just enjoy being part of history, oh, and promise not to doubt the team, The Process, or the baseball Gods again.

Shields’ Sword

Jose Molina appears to be what we would generally describe as intelligent. He’s made a living as a good defensive catcher who understands how to call a game and presumably does his homework on opposing players. It was surprising therefore to see him badly exposed on Friday night when, in the bottom of the 7th with 2 outs and a man on first, he started to run (presumably as part of a hit and run situation rather than a simple steal) and was easily cut down by James Shields to end the inning.

The first thing that strikes you about the play is how amusing it is to see Molina attempt to sprint and then jog, with no real distinction between the two speeds; in the same way we can’t perceive glaciers or tectonic plates shifting. Watching athletes like Des Jennings run is awe inspiring but there’s also something strangely satisfying about watching a big dude try and rumble around the bases (the same phenomenon applies in football too of course). The second, and more pertinent point here though, is just how devastatingly good Shields has been in dealing with base runners this year.

Since 1970, only one pitcher (Kenny Rogers, 2002) has managed to go over 200 innings without allowing a single stolen base. Shields is currently tied for second on the list with 13 other players, having allowed the single bag to Eric Hosmer a couple of weeks ago. Looking closer at the list, we see two things jump out. One, players rarely even bothered to try and steal on this group (the ‘speedy’ Molina aside). Carlos Zambrano (2005) had the most attempts against him on the list with 10 while Rogers and Roy Oswalt had only one and two attempts during their noted seasons. So far in 2011, Shields has encountered six foolhardy runners, all of whom have been returned to the dugout with the exception of the aforementioned Hosmer.

What really separates Shields this year though has been his ability to pickoff runners, an action he is more directly responsible for than catching runners stealing, which is heavily reliant, of course, on a good throw and defensive positioning. Of the previously mentioned list of players to surrender a single SB or less, only one (Chris Capuano, 2006) added more than 5 successful pickoffs for the season; Shields is already at 10. Historically, those 10 pickoffs would rank Shields in 34th place all time, well behind the likes of Jerry Garvin (1977, 23) and the great Steve Carlton (1977, 19) and 6th overall in the last 10 years. However, when you factor in Shields’ elite OBP allowed (.276) which is better than everyone ranked ahead of him on this list (and hence fewer baserunners to pickoff), along with his ranking on the aforementioned SB allowed list, we can start to draw the conclusion that Shields is having one of the best seasons in recent history in terms of controlling the running game.

MLB.com ran a feature back in May illustrating Shields’ early success in restricting the running game with Shields himself adding:

“It’s really hard to [counter his move.] I can see them over there. I can see what they’re doing over there. And I can see them taking steps. I can see everything.”

When we look back at Shields’ career, it is probable that we will see both 2010 and 2011 as outliers, with his actual ability lying somewhere in the middle. That said, if he can continue to use his move to first with such devastating results, he will be able to either keep men out of scoring position or off the bases altogether; an added bonus for a player with the tendency to give up his share of long balls. Just another way in which Shields is a lot of fun to watch, particularly from the Sky Dome Rodgers Centre outfield seats.

[A hat tip to our own Brian Anderson, who currently ranks 11th all time in pickoffs, despite pitching just 1,500 innings, less than a third of the all-time leader, Steve Carlton]

The [diminishing] path to October

If you’re gonna be a homer, you may as well be open about it. The Rays could be down by four heading into the bottom of the 9th and it would only take a quick Matt Joyce single to get many of us calculating how the team can win the team. Granted that such optimism can often lead to disappointment, but sometimes, or so the legend goes, everything works our perfectly (cue the 7,873rdtime I’ve watched that clip).

Chris working out the long odds on his window…

It’s that optimism which leads us to frantically try and work our how the Rays can win the AL wildcard. The odds aren’t good (just 2% according to Cool Standings) but hey, they’re better than the odds of winning that Royals game heading into the 9th. To get there though, we need

Assumption #1 – beat the leaders

Being in the AL East sucks sometimes. The Rays’ 65 wins would put them atop the Central and in the race out West. Instead they find themselves 10 games back of Boston. However, being in the East means the Yankees and Sox have to see the Rays plenty more times this year, which is the only way you are ever going to pull back such a large deficit. (A more learned writer might point to a proverb about adversity being the same as opportunity but most of my sayings come from movies or crappy TV shows so I’ll pass).

[When I read this I immediately thought of this. If you’re looking for writers that go to Shakespeare – ‘once more into the breach dear friends’ – you may need to submit some work or go elsewhere. – Mark]

Last year the Rays were 11-7 and 10-8 against the Sox and Yanks respectively. They’re in a hole right now (3-5 and 6-7) but if they were to replicate those records then that’s a big chunk of the deficit cut. So let’s assume they can go a combined 13-4 over the remaining games to equal last year’s 21 wins. It’s a tough ask but at least we’re not in sweep territory yet.

Assumption #2 – one of the best teams has to run away with the division

Both these teams are good but one of them needs to slip up a bit if the miracle comeback is going to happen. Given the way the season series has gone so far, we’ll have to lean towards this being the Yankees. So far the Sox lead the series 10-2 with 6 games remaining. We’ll extrapolate that winning percentage and finish the season with Boston winning 5 of the last 6.

Assumption #3 –Boston and New York continue play at the same level they have all year (excluding assumption 1 and 2)

It goes without saying that if both the Yankees and Red Sox get hot, this race is over. It’s also not that helpful to forecast what might happen if the Yankees go 20-25 from here on in. It isn’t unreasonable however to suggest that Boston and New York continue their current winning rates (Boston .624, New York .610) excluding the games already mentioned.

The Outcome

Taking these assumptions into account gets us to the below:

Boston

W

L

Total

Current

73

44

117

Versus TB (#1)

2

8

10

Versus NYY (#2)

5

1

6

Other (#3)

18

11

29

Final record

98

64

162

 

New York

W

L

Total

Current

72

46

118

Versus TB (#1)

2

5

7

Versus BOS (#2)

1

5

6

Other (#3)

19

12

31

Final record

94

68

162

 

Tampa Bay

W

L

Total

Current

64

55

119

Versus NYY (#1)

5

2

7

Versus BOS (#2)

8

2

10

Other (#3)

18

8

26

Final record

95

67

162

To get those ‘other’ wins would take a record of 18-8 or .692. The Rays record over the past couple of weeks? 9-4, or, you guessed it .692. [Chris wrote this before yesterday’s split doubleheader and I didn’t have the heart to update the serendipitous math. -Mark]

As a final note, Cool Standings show that 25 teams have made the playoffs having had a 2.0% chance of doing so at some point in the year. Seven of these teams went on to win the World Series. Now that is getting ahead of ourselves.

AL East Stars

All-Star Gazing

It seems obligatory for any sports site or blog to post an article criticising the current year All-Star rosters, citing Scott Rolen’s lack of offense, Josh Hamilton’s lack of playing time or Derek Jeter’s lack of a pulse in the field. We are not going to go there however. Instead, we’ve made a new set of rosters to complain about. Six All-Star teams, one from each division in baseball, for you to review, critique, dismiss or simply ignore (I’m being realistic here). Given that we’re all more familiar with the AL East it is here the focus will remain, but the makeup of the other teams does make for some interesting reading.

AL East

1. CF: Jacoby Ellsbury – Incredibly, given the attention some members of his team get, one can argue that Ellsbury is actually a little underrated so far this year. His batting line (.316/.377/.490) isn’t too far from the premium offensive players at his position, all the while playing the best centre field outside of Pittsburgh. FanGraphs currently have him 5th among all position players in WAR and there really are no gaps in his game right now (he’s even added some unexpected power). Without his play, the disappointment of Carl Crawford would be bigger news in Boston.

2. LF: Curtis Granderson – Admittedly he isn’t really a left fielder but he dabbled over there in Detroit and it would be harsh to exclude him or Ellsbury from this team. The ramifications of the series of trades which saw Edwin Jackson move from Tampa to Detroit to Arizona continue to have an impact on the game and while the acquisition of a player like Granderson make the Yankees look like sure fire winners, the play of Phil Coke, Austin Jackson and Ian Kennedy may suggest otherwise. Either way, the Yankees aren’t complaining as Granderson continues to establish himself as one of the best handful of players in the league. With one year left on his deal and a club option in 2013, it will be interesting to see if the Yankees throw a new contract at him, saddling themselves with another thirty-something year old (fading?) star.

3. RF: Jose Bautista – Living in Toronto I’ve had the pleasure of watching the majority of Bautista’s at-bats this season and it’s been truly enjoyable. Pitcher after pitcher have challenged him and fastball after fastball have been dispatched somewhere into Lake Ontario. I tend to peg myself as a bit of a contrarian, rebelling against public opinion whenever it gets too high or low on somebody. With Bautista however, the public don’t really seem to be caught up to just how good this season is for him. FanGraphs’ ‘value’ stat have his value at the break at $29.9m. His 5-year, $65 million contract was roundly dismissed as a massive overpayment, yet a big second half could almost see him repay the total contract in it’s first year. If his move to third is permanent (which isn’t likely given the progress of Brett Lawrie in Las Vegas), Longoria and Youkilis will struggle to make this team again next year.

4. 1B: Adrian Gonzalez – Four of the top nine first baseman (by WAR) call the AL East home (sorry Derrek Lee that’s not you) and while success for someone like Casey Kotchman was obvious, the crafty acquisition of an unknown Adrian Gonzalez from the Padres looks like an inspired move by Epstein and co. (Rick Sutcliffe actually suggested few people had heard of Gonzalez before he came over to Boston despite him ranking third among all first baseman in WAR since 2008). In what might develop as a trend here, good luck goes to the Yankees paying Teixeira $23m a year until 2016.

5. 2B: Ben Zobrist – An extremely deep position in the East sees the three best second basemen over the last year and half in the AL competing for a single spot. This season is starting to look like a familiar tale though Cano’s inferior defensive play means he will miss out from this team. Reading ESPN, I was fairly certain there was an advanced metric called ‘grit’ in which Pedroia excelled but FanGraphs appear to be quiet on this issue. I can only assume it’s something like:

GRIT = WAR x % jersey covered in dirt + Games played with injury + Exaggerated chest bumps / Player height

In truth, Pedroia’s wOBA (.376) is a touch ahead of Cano and Zobrist while he has flashed good power (.158 ISO and 11 HR) and speed (16 of 19 stealing) for the year. At some point we will have to collectively accept that he isn’t ‘scrappy’ but until then we can at least recognise that he is very, very good. However, this is the Ray Area, not Fire Brand of the AL so in a coin toss Zobrist gets the nod. He isn’t quite on the torrid pace of 2009 but excluding Bautista’s heroics he would be a legitimate (though unfortunately unrealistic) candidate for first half MVP honours and this team like any other, can use his flexibility.

6. 3B: Alex Rodriguez – As unlikely as it may seem, Rodriguez may actually be a bit underrated at this point in the season, occasionally thrown into the same bucket as the likes of Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada as big market players gaining too many votes from uneducated fans. However, if you throw Bautista into the mix at third, the East has four of the top five home run hitters, two of the top four defensive players and three of the top four in WAR, with Rodriguez coming out behind only Bautista in WAR. Rodriguez is probably on the downside of his career and he has benefited from Longoria’s injury and Youkilis’ struggles in the field in winning this nomination but he remains a top tier player who is still one of the best at manning the hot corner in the AL. As with Teixeira though, the prospect of paying him $21m in 2016 would terrify anyone but the Yankees brass.

7. DH: David Ortiz – He fights like a sumo wrestler and I have literally no idea what he is ever saying, but the production with the bat is there again this year with no possible explanation for a 35 year old’s bat speed suddenly improving (joke, joke, please don’t post angry comments).

8. SS: Yunel Escobar – Considering the attention paid to shortstops, there is a surprising lack of depth with the East. The Sox and Rays have both struggled to settle on a regular player at short, and in both cases the supposedly superior offensive player (Jed Lowrie/Reid Brignac) has been forced to split time with a less heralded, defensively sound and consistent player (Marco Scutaro/Elliot Johnson). JJ Hardy has been a pleasant surprise for the O’s, recounting his Brewers day when he registered back-to-back 4+ WAR seasons, adding power to his consistent career OBP. He’s generally been a good defender in his career though the defensive metrics suggest he is below average this year (we’ll leave the debate on the virtues of defensive stats until another day though). The Yankees trot out an unheralded no-name player who barely gets a mention in the press these days, despite having the rare honor of contributing negatively in hitting and defensive runs above replacement yet still earning an All Star birth. That leaves Escobar, though I would not go so far as to say he wins his place in the team by default. He’s shown an ability to increase his power numbers (9 HR in 368 AB compared to 4 in 567 in 2010) without sacrificing his on base ability and keeping his K% at a decent level. Worryingly, the Blue Jays front office seem to have got this extension right too, suggesting a fourth major player is emerging in the ever crowded AL East.

9. C: Matt Wieters – Possibly the weakest position in the East sees just a single player top 2.0 wins above replacement and no player has managed to hit for both power and average with any kind of consistency. The Rays, Red Sox and Blue Jays have all taken a two-headed monster approach with one supposedly offensive player (Jaso, Saltamacchia and Arencibia) paired with a defensive sound veteran (Shoppach, Varitek and Molina). In truth though, no one from this group has distanced themselves as anything significantly more than average and while Martin is enjoying a rejuvenation of sorts, Wieters defense and solid bat make him the choice here.

How good could they be?

The total team WAR would be 37.3, which even if you only stretch to it 60 for the year would give the team a pretty good shot at hitting 110 wins. Six of the players are the best at their respective position and players like Pedroia, Gardner or Youkilis would get into most other divisional All Star teams with ease.

It isn’t a huge stretch to suggest the AL East has a lot of talent given the resources of the Yankees and Red Sox but the fact that this team’s rotation would include Sabathia (1st in WAR), Shields (6th) Price (7th) and Beckett (10th) along with a handful of the game’s better relievers only emphasises the monumental task of trying to bring home the pennant in the East. Going into the All Star break, the top 7 players in the AL in terms of WAR all ply their trade in the East, and that list doesn’t even include the likes of Robinson Cano or Evan Longoria.

The Challengers

With the East lineup settled, could any of the below teams could beat them in a game/series/season?

AL Central

CF: Melky Cabrera

SS: Jhonny Peralta

1B: Miguel Cabrera

DH: Paul Konerko

C: Alex Avila

LF: Alex Gordon

RF: Brennan Boesch

2B: Gordon Beckham

3B: Jack Hannahan

Total WAR: 22.6

The weakest of the lineups created sees Alex Gordon lead them in WAR and no one exceeds 3.5 wins at the break. Only Avila and Peralta would have a chance to crack the East’s lineup as the great Miguel Cabrera is overmatched by Adrian Gonzalez. The rotation wouldn’t look too great after Justin Verlander either, suggesting the talent in this division is somewhat lacking right now. Players like Asdrubal Cabrera, Carlos Santana and Erik Hosmer could quickly change that notion in the near future.

AL West

DH: Ian Kinsler

SS: Elvis Andrus

3B: Adrian Beltre

LF: Josh Hamilton

2B: Howie Kendrick

1B: Michael Young

RF: Torii Hunter

C: Mike Napoli

CF: Peter Bourjos

Total WAR: 22.7

Disadvantaged by only having four teams, the West is basically the Rangers plus Kendrick and a few above average pieces. The team would likely be very useful in the field and with arguably the best rotation around (Pineda would not make the team) it would be a tough team to compete with.

NL East

SS: Jose Reyes

CF: Shane Victorino

1B: Gaby Sanchez

RF: Carlos Beltran

C: Brian McCann

DH: Mike Stanton

LF: Michael Morse

2B: Danny Espinosa

3B: Daniel Murphy

Total WAR: 28.2

Led by the best pitching staff (basically Philly starters and the Atlanta bullpen) the team wouldn’t need to score too many runs which is probably a good thing considering the bottom half of the order. On reputation alone you can make the team look better (Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jason Heyward to name a few) but the reality is that those players have not delivered this year and so the NL East looks a little short of run producers right now.

NL Central

2B: Rickie Weeks

LF: Ryan Braun

CF: Andrew McCutchen

DH: Prince Fielder

1B: Joey Votto

3B: Albert Pujols

RF: Lance Berkman

C: Ramon Hernandez

SS: Clint Barmes

Total WAR: 30.4

A terrific lineup sees Pujols forced to third base and into the 6 hole, as he is only the third best first baseman in the division this year. The top two thirds of the lineup is astonishing and makes this the only lineup close to contending with the AL East. The team defence looks to be lacking somewhat with only McCutchen and Barmes excelling with the glove but with 24 HR Berkman hitting 7th, they could probably play bare hand and win a lot of games. The team is let down a bit by their pitching staff (led by the solid but not spectacular Jaime Garcia), none of whom would crack the AL East’s starting rotation.

NL West

RF: Justin Upton

SS: Troy Tulowitzki

CF: Matt Kemp

LF: Carlos Gonzalez

DH: Andre Ethier

23B: Pablo Sandoval

B: Kelly Johnson

1B: Todd Helton

C: Miguel Montero

Total WAR: 25.2

The lineup is a bit top heavy but it’s some top half and slightly better seasons from Tulowitzki, Gonzalez and Ethier could see this lineup challenging the NL East and Central for the silver medal. Their Giants-plus-Kershaw rotation would also be fairly interesting to watch but ultimately could probably not overcome a lack of star power outside of Matt Kemp and Tulo. Upton’s appearance would give BJ something to watch, given his current lack of hope in cracking his own lineup.

Hopefully this killed a bit of your time before the real baseball starts up again and hopefully it was half as enjoyable for you to read as it was to write.

The forgotten drafts: 2008 and 2009

With the rule 4 amateur draft underway once again, it seemed like as good a time as any to kill a couple of hours over at The Baseball Cube’s draft research tool. While looking over the past few years of data, I was struck by something that may be well known, but wasn’t evident to me: the Rays haven’t had a single player drafted after 2007 reach the majors (David Price, Matt Moore and Stephen Vogt were the last players to do so, drafted in 2007).

The list of players drafted between 2008-2011 who are already in the majors has now reached 143, though admittedly a sizeable portion of the list has only enjoyed a cup of coffee as a September callup or injury replacement thus far in their careers. Still, every other major league team has had at least one player from the last four drafts make it to the show, led by the Detroit Tigers with 10 such callups (how much legit major league talent the group will have outside of Alex Avila and Jacob Turner is however debatable). The highly rated Blue Jays front office have set the standard in the AL East, with seven players reaching the bigs already, though again, how many of these outside of Drew Hutchison will turn into anything more than utility/bullpen types is questionable.

When looking at these lists you must consider opportunity, as you are going to see more callups from teams with weaker squads or those who suffer an inordinate amount of injuries. For example, you wouldn’t want to hold the lack of a callup in previous years of an Alex Cobb or Jesus Montero – who were blocked by quality players ahead of them – against a front office.

With the Rays though, I’m not sure that is the case. Looking at Rays Prospects top 30, you find just four players drafted in 2008 or 2009: Tim Beckham (9th), Tyler Bortnick (27th), Jeff Malm (29th) and Luke Bailey (30th). Given the multitude of injuries over the past few weeks, Beckham may well have found his way to St Pete’s if not for his untimely suspension but even with a possible uptick in power and improved defense, it’s fairly evident he has an uphill struggle just to avoid the dubious honor of being one of a handful of first overall picks to never make an MLB roster (alongside former Ray Matt Bush, of course).

2009 was not a good draft and the Rays may well have done well to pick someone who ultimately didn’t sign (LeVon Washington, picked 30th, is currently in the Indians organization but doesn’t generally figure too high in their own prospect charts) until they used the pick on Justin O’Connor who is yet to impress so far. You can cherry pick names like Jason Kipnis (63rd), Will Myers (91st) or Brandon Belt (147th) who were available with the Rays on the clock, but only Myers was a serious option for the Rays at 30, and he brought strong signability issues, eventually costing the Royals $2m to lock him up (the Rays apparently refused to go over the recommended slot of $1.1m for Washington).

The class of 2008 has provided big league quality already with the likes of Eric Hosmer (3rd), Buster Posey (5th) and Brett Lawrie (16th) all already well on the way to ranking among the top-10 of their position. Posey, of course, is the name which is generally brought up when critiquing the Beckham pick, and not totally unfairly, given that many outlets had Posey as the man to take heading into draft day.

This should not be construed as a major criticism of the front office, but more a reminder of just how hard the draft process is, and the pressure a front office is under when a lack of hits in the amateur market means significant minutes for players discarded by other teams, with resources to go out and grab a Roy Oswalt simply not available. As much as we all bristle whenever anyone questions the team’s ability to compete long term, we can see that misses in the draft, even if few and far between, can quickly leave a hole in the team’s production line. With the front office constantly walking a tight rope, you can at least understand the perception that the Rays cannot continue to succeed without a larger payroll (though I personally maintain that this overly simplistic viewpoint is misleading and success can be had for less money, it’s just harder to maintain, as shown here).

The good news, of course, is that the Rays have been as, if not more, successful in acquiring talent from other teams’ farms with Hak Ju-Lee, Chris Archer, Brandon Guyer and Alex Torres all ranking in FanGraphs’ top-15 Rays rankings having arrived in the Matt Garza and Scott Kazmir deals respectively. Throw in some decent talent from the 2010 class along with 2011’s historic class (in terms of quality depth, at a minimum) and you can probably suggest the Rays have avoided any lasting impacts from these two potential off years.

Whether the comparatively expensive Pena and Scott signings this year were a symptom or the cure for these rare misses is arguable but with the depth and quality of farm talent looking more promising in a couple of years, they should hopefully be enough to fill a rare void in the Friedman production line. With Upton likely gone this year and Shields starting to get pricey ($9m in 2013), the Rays can’t afford for too many more big swings and misses if they are to continue this unlikely run of success.

2012, Round 1 Selection: Richie Shaffer (3B, Clemson)

It was a quiet night for the Rays front office after running the show last year, as the Rays held just a single pick (25th), which they used on Richie Shaffer, third baseman (for now) out of Clemson. The best links on Shafer and immediate reactions are below:

“While there are holes to his swing, his bat is his best tool. He has plus power and can hit the ball out to all fields. He’s played both infield corners, showing off a plus arm from third, but his range might be better suited for first. He’s not a bad athlete and his power bat and arm might profile well for right field. Shaffer is always going to have some swing and miss to his game. But his ability to be a power-hitting run producer will make many teams interested in living with the strikeouts.” MLB.com

“He’s one of those guys who has a chance to get here relatively quickly. We never move guys too quickly, but on a relative scale pretty quickly.” Andrew Friedman

“He’s one of the guys we thought in this Draft that stood out, that brings real power and power now,” R.J. Harrison

“Some scouting directors thought he was [the] biggest impact college bat” Jim Callis, Baseball America

“Shaffer moved up as much as any college bat this season, showing improved defense and a patient approach at the plate. He makes good contact and has above-average power and, if he stays at the hot corner, could be a David Freese-style addition for the Rays . . . could hit the majors by the end of 2014.” Jason Churchill, ESPN