Despite what you might think from watching ESPN or MLB Network, the most interesting franchise in baseball is not the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, the L.A. Dodgers, or the Chicago Cubs. It’s a team that plays its home games in a dingy dome stadium in front of generously 5,000-10,000 people per night, has one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, and was accused by almost everyone of “tanking” for a high draft pick just a couple months ago.
Despite the public thinking they were fielding a terrible team on purpose, the Tampa Bay Rays currently sit at 46-44 with a +13 run differential, continuing their recent trend of somehow patching together a .500 team every season with what looks like the baseball equivalent of Scotch tape or possibly gluesticks. If not for the Mariners being the luckiest baseball team in history, they would be contending for a playoff spot. The secret to their success is what makes them the most fascinating team in the league to watch: the Rays are willing to rethink every single aspect of the game if it means getting an edge.
In the old Moneyball days, it was somewhat easy for the small-budget organizations to field a winning team because other front offices didn’t know what on-base percentage was and thought the key to winning games was bunting. In today’s MLB, there are no secrets. The big market teams have stopped entrusting their decision-making to former players who don’t actually understand the game, replacing them with robotic Ivy League whizzes and baseball nerds. The odds have never been more stacked against teams like Tampa Bay or Oakland, who can’t afford to keep star players once their salaries get too high and now are left with fewer resources towards analytics than the bigger clubs.
Since simply outsmarting teams like the Red Sox and Yankees is no longer an option, the Rays have gone a different route: they think differently and weirder. In a Wall Street Journal article, a team official summed up the Rays Way: “If we occupy the wake of both the Yankees and Boston and our behavior is aligned with theirs, we’re never going to step out and pass them—ever.” The only edge the Rays have is their willingness to try anything, no matter how crazy it sounds.
So the Rays have become the contrarians of baseball, mostly through necessity. Their home park of Tropicana Field has become like a baseball laboratory, where new ideas are constantly tossed into the fire. Eyebrows first raised in the offseason, when they traded away their face of the franchise, Evan Longoria, jettisoned last year’s best player, Steven Souza Jr., and straight-up DFA’d Corey Dickerson, who was coming off what looked like a career year. This led to the accusations of tanking (and they were obviously salary-cutting moves), but they were more about changing the philosophy of the team. With the rest of the league obsessed with power hitting and launching the ball, the Rays decided to go small ball, building around their defense and pitching.
It’s worked thus far, as the Rays are a competitive team that is notably stingy at giving up runs. Most remarkably, they’ve done it while frequently using a three or even two-man starting rotation. They’ve taken to having “bullpen days,” where 3-4 pitchers go through the batting order once or twice instead of using a traditional starter. They’ve also begun using “the opener,” where one of their normally late-inning relievers starts the game, faces the team’s toughest hitters, then leaves after one or two innings to hand the ball to the “starter,” who is spared from facing that team’s best hitters three times. These are all dramatic shifts from the way every other team is run, with a five-man rotation where the starter pitches basically as long as he can every game.
The logic behind the bullpen days makes a lot of sense: relievers routinely have lower ERAs than starters and pitchers always are better the first and second times through the batting order than the third. While very good starting pitchers are still important (and the Rays have them in Chris Archer and Blake Snell), using a group of bullpen guys instead of trying to wring 150-180 innings out of a mediocre 4th or 5th starter is one of those obvious ideas backed up by data that just needed a team brave enough to try it. As always, due to their situation, the Rays are that team.
Baseball is notoriously resistant to change, which leads to widespread skepticism and even disdain whenever the Rays try these strategies. But baseball’s obsession with tradition and doing things the way they always have been done is exactly why the Rays are able to comparatively thrive despite being in the worst possible situation. And when the rest of the league catches up to them on bullpen days, like they did with infield shifts and aggressive platooning, they will have some other trick to try to stay ahead of the curve (my guess is trying to develop two-way players).
More reasonable critics of the Rays dislike the team’s cold approach and cheapness, which leads to their best players inevitably being shipped out of Tampa, often at the peak of their ability. Personally, I enjoy the team’s lack of sentimentality and borderline disrespect for their own fans. If the Rays only did things that were popular and understood, they would never be remotely competitive in the AL East. And there is something admirable about how they make their decisions with the internal conviction that they are right, even if nobody else agrees. It’s why the Rays are a fun and good baseball team, as well as a walking argument for not just aligning with the status quo.