Pitching and Defense Drive Rays' Success

The Tampa Bay Rays have been on the winning side of most of their games lately—15 of their last 22, to be exact. The reason for the Rays' success is fairly simple, though: pitching and defense, again proving the old adage—good pitching beats good hitting—true.

The Tampa Bay Rays have been on the winning side of most of their games lately—15 of their last 22, to be exact.

The reason for the Rays' success is fairly simple, though: pitching and defense, again proving the old adage—good pitching beats good hitting—true.

James Shields, fresh off a dominant one-hit complete game performance against the Los Angeles Angels on Friday, is emerging as one of the top young starting pitchers in the American League. The only starter in baseball with two shutouts so far in 2008, he has posted a 4-2 record and a 3.14 ERA in eight starts. Equally impressive, Shields has struck out 39 while only walking 12, scattering 47 hits in 51.2 innings pitched.

Andy Sonnanstine was the fastest pitcher to win five games for the Rays in franchise history. Though he struggled on Sunday, allowing five runs in five innings, Sonnanstine is proving his worth in the rotation, consistently working deep into games.

Edwin Jackson has been consistently inconsistent for much of his career. Jackson has electric stuff—the reason why there are several scouts nearly every time that he takes the mound—but has never put it all together over a full season. After two excellent outings in his first two starts, he regressed a bit, struggling with his command as his ERA skyrocketed over his next four outings. Jackson, however, pitched eight beautiful innings in Toronto on Thursday, leaving the game with a chance for his third victory. No one knows which Jackson will show up in his next start, but perhaps he is finally turning the corner.

Matt Garza and Jason Hammel, recently demoted to the bullpen, have had their high points as well, as the rotation has held its own in the absence of ace left-hander Scott Kazmir.

The bullpen, though, has been the key for this team. More than any other facet of the game, the Rays' stellar relief pitching to this point is why the Rays trail the Boston Red Sox by 1.5 games in the American League East. From Shawn Camp to Brian Stokes, there have been far too many mediocre relief pitchers to don a Tampa Bay uniform since the franchise's inception in 1998.

This year, however, manager can Joe Maddon can run out real major league relievers when there is a lead to be held, not Durham Bulls disguised in green and blue. Through Sunday, in fact, Tampa Bay has one of the majors' lowest bullpen ERA (3.17), and Rays' relievers have held hitters to the second lowest batting average against, trailing only the Oakland Athletics. Quite a change from 2007, one might say.

It all starts at the top with new closer Troy Percival, who has been a tremendous influence on the rest of the Rays' young pitchers. Percival quickly established himself as the leader of the group in spring training, and, in addition to his presence in the clubhouse, his pitching has not been too shabby, either. Through Sunday, he is seventh in the American League with eight saves, in only nine chances. Until his first blown save last week in Toronto, Percival—leading Tampa Bay relievers with a .050 WHIP and 8.34 K per nine innings—had not allowed an earned run in 12 innings of work, mostly the result of his 13/1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Then there is Dan Wheeler, who always seems to work his way out of jams unscathed. Wheeler has posted strong stats—0.85 WHIP and 1.35 ERA—as well.

J.P. Howell has been effective in a long relief role, too.

With Kazmir healthy and back in the starting rotation, the pitching is only going to improve, and Garza is too talented not to make more of an impact in the second half.

The Rays' infield defense has been another area of strength for this team. Entering Sunday, the infield corps had made the fewest errors—eight—in the American League.

Baseball Prospectus predicted that the Rays' defense "to be 10 runs above the average this year, an 82-run improvement," a statistic featured in Nate Silver's (at one time, controversial) article in Sports Illustrated projecting the Rays to increase its win total by 22.

As usual, the guys at BP appear to be dead on.

Akinori Iwamura has made the transition to second base with ease, and has the shown the ability to turn the double play like a seasoned veteran at the position.

Jason Bartlett is a capable defender, and has more range than any shortstop to wear a Rays' uniform in some time. Though he has had his struggles this spring, he, along with B.J. Upton in center field, provides the Tampa Bay pitching staff with strong defense up the middle.

Brendan Harris is a nice player, and surprised a lot of people with his performance at the plate in '07. But Harris' presence at shortstop cost the Rays' pitching staff a great deal. Running Josh Wilson out there on a routine basis did not help matters, either.

Evan Longoria, by all accounts, is an above-average defender at the big-league level, also. Carlos Pena is underrated with his glove, too.

Tampa Bay's offense, however, has been a cause for concern.

As of Sunday, in fact, the Rays are 16th in the majors with 171 runs scored as a team. With the dynamic youth, speed, and even power, offense was expected to be an area of strength for this squad, according to some pundits at least.

Though there have been injuries (Cliff Floyd especially), who would have predicted Eric Hinske to be one of the Rays' most effective offensive players through the first week in May? Hinske, at this point, is the only Ray to appear in more than 30 games with a plus-.900 OPS.

Crawford has scored more runs than any player in the American League, but there is clearly room for him to improve upon a .318 on-base percentage and .720 OPS. And, from where I am standing, he will.

Pena, coming off a 2007 campaign in which he set the Rays' single-season record with 46 home runs, received his Silver Slugger Award on Sunday. To add another silver bat to his trophy case, however, he is going to have rebound from his early season struggles. Though he is among league leaders with eight homers, he is striking out an alarming rate (45 strikeouts in 129 at-bats) and is not getting on base enough (16 walks). For a player who trailed only Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz in OPS in '07, Pena's line of .209, .313, .403 through the first six weeks is obviously less than stellar. While relying on the same level of production from last season is perhaps a stretch, expect him to catch fire at some point this summer, stringing together a streak of homers. The key with him, though, is patience. When Pena is at his best, he is selective at the plate, and is not afraid to take his base via the good old-fashioned walk. He needs to do so to bring up that discouraging on-base percentage, which is hovering around the Mendoza line.

Upton is leading the team with 25 RBIs and a .387 OBP, though he has only hit three home runs. He will continue to hit, and the power should come eventually.

Iwamura (.317 OBP) has struggled out of the leadoff spot, which has not helped matters. He did, however, prove that he can get on base with efficiency in his first season in America as a rookie in '07. He should add more value at the plate as the season progresses. Many other hitters have also struggled, including Bartlett (.277 OBP) and recently acquired Gabe Gross (.319 OBP).

The bats will come around, however, and this team should inch up the team runs category over the next few months.

Which is why I think the Rays' success is no fluke. If there pitching and defense can hold up, and the bats continue to awaken from the dead—much like in Sunday's finale against the Angels, where the Rays scored eight runs—then this team, perhaps, will be in the thick of the Wild Card race at the All-Star break (they are currently first), if not September.

Shields said it best, when discussing the Rays' lineup with the St Petersburg Times last week. When the offense comes around, "look out."

To contact Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.

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