Why the Tampa Bay Rays Are Surprise Playoff Contenders

Alex Cobb and the Rays have flown under the radar and right into the thick of the American League playoff hunt.

With less than half the season left, the fact that loaded Boston Red Sox are leading the American League East is hardly surprising. The team right behind them, though, is sure to raise more than a few eyebrows.

It is not a talented Blue Jays squad, nor is it Baltimore, which came out of the gates strong. And for all of Aaron Judge’s exploits, it is not the Yankees either.

All three of those teams are looking up at the Tampa Bay Rays, who are 51-45 and also lead the AL Wild Card standings. Perhaps this should not have come as too much of a surprise, as the Rays had positive preseason projections -- PECOTA had them forecasted to win 84 games and FanGraphs had them at 82. Tampa Bay was also solid at both hitting and pitching last season, ranking 16th in OPS and 11th in OPS against, and was a perfectly average team in terms of BaseRuns.

The Rays were done in by sequencing, struggling mightily as soon as men got on base, explaining why the team only won 68 games.

This has actually still been the case to an extent this year -- Tampa Bay has underperformed relative to its BaseRuns record by about two wins -- but its underlying performance has been so much better that the Rays are still in the playoff hunt.

Surging Offense

While the projections seem to have been right about the Rays, it may have been for the wrong reasons. Prior to the season, Tampa Bay was expected to be carried by its pitching, while its offense looked to be in the middle of the pack (PECOTA projected them to be eighth in the AL in park-adjusted hitting).

The opposite has actually been the case -- while the Rays’ pitching has been fine, the offense is what has set the team apart. They are fifth in MLB in wRC+ (106) and are third in the junior circuit behind the Astros and Yankees.

The trio of Logan Morrison (146 wRC+), Steven Souza (139) and Corey Dickerson (136) has led the way thus far. Morrison griped about not being in the Home Run Derby, and while we can quibble about whether or not that was the right thing to do, it is hard to argue that he didn't have a point.

The 29-year-old has already set a new career high in terms of home runs (26), putting him behind only Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, both of whom have 30, for the big league lead. Morrison’s ISO is .308 and he's also posting a 14.6% walk rate, offsetting a .267 BABIP to contribute to a .369 on-base percentage (his career BABIP is .273 over 3,124 plate appearances) so we probably should not expect much regression.

Souza has long been a darling of the projection models and is finally giving a performance worthy of it. He has canceled out a 28.2% strikeout rate with walks (12.8% rate), power (20 home runs, .243 ISO) and BABIP (.342) His lifetime BABIP is .331, and his xBABIP is .324 per, so he may be able to continue running a higher-than-expected number.

As for the third head of this dragon, Dickerson has a .310/.350/.535 line; he is not drawing many walks (5.3% rate) and is striking out more often than average (22.3%), meaning he will need to maintain his ISO (.226) and BABIP (.366) to continue his productivity going forward. His career BABIP is .333 -- and his xBABIP is .315 -- but part of that is due to starting his career at Coors Field.

Some regression is might be in the cards for all three, but their production to-date has helped Tampa Bay bank those 51 wins. The Rays have also gotten above-average production Colby Rasmus (133 wRC+ in 129 plate appearances), Mallex Smith (106), Evan Longoria (105) and Tim Beckham (101).

Solid Pitching

Tampa Bay’s pitching has been solid, if not spectacular. The staff ranks 14th in fWAR and eighth in Baseball Prospectus’ WARP. The latter seems to be giving Rays’ pitchers some credit for allowing a low BABIP (.287, fifth-lowest in MLB), as the staff has four players in the Top 30 in BP’s “out runs” metric (including Alex Cobb, who is third).

The Rays are 13th in both ERA- and FIP-, led by Chris Archer, who has already amassed 3.4 fWAR and 4.3 WARP. His peripherals have been stellar, as he is posting a 28.7% strikeout rate and 7.9% walk rate, while allowing just 0.9 home runs per nine. His ERA- (93) is lagging behind his FIP- (73) thanks to a .330 BABIP, but his career BABIP is just .294 so there is little reason not to expect him to continue as one of the game’s top pitchers.

Cobb (85 ERA-, 98 FIP-), as alluded to earlier, looks poised to run a below average BABIP for the fourth straight season (he is currently at .279, while his career rate is .287). He has been worth 1.6 fWAR and 2.1 WARP.

Fellow FIP-beater Matt Andriese is the only other Ray's pitcher with a WARP or 1.0 or greater, while rookie Jacob Faria has been worth 1.2 fWAR in just 50 innings (though his xFIP of 4.43 is almost a full run higher than his FIP; he's the team's only other pitcher worth more than a win at FanGraphs).

A subpar bullpen has held the staff back. The starters rank 11th in fWAR, while the bullpen is tied for 20th. It is also just 24th in Win Probability Added, per FanGraphs.

Our projections suggest Tampa Bay’s true talent is still that of a roughly average team, as we have them going 34-32 the rest of the way. Their underlying level of performance has been better than average (as evidenced by things like their BaseRuns record), but this seems to be the result of multiple players overperforming relative to their track records.

In any event, they have 51 wins banked, which is a big reason why we still give the Rays a 64.5% chance of making the playoffs.