Evan Longoria was activated from the disabled list one week ago, and the Rays are once again leading the Wild Card Race and riding a seven game winning streak. Rejoice!
While Longoria was not the source of the recent offensive explosions - only six hits in six games - the star has proven to be a motivating factor and created an ideal infield for Joe Maddon. The Rays skipper has always used advanced statistics to build an ideal batting order based on the pitcher, not on tradition, and filled the field accordingly. The Rays are constantly rotating who is playing any position (except for catcher). Consequently, players like Ben Zobrist see their playing time split between 2B and RF, as the Rays value defensive ability and flexibility.
For more context, Evan Longoria was injured on April 30, and the front office saw the keeping-up-but-keeping-down Rays in need of a boost. Without a timetable for his return, the Rays made their first trade deadline acquisition since 2008, bringing in Diamondbacks 2B-3B, tattoo clad infielder Ryan Roberts. His arrival allowed the bench players to take their seat, providing high level defense and a bottom-third of the order bat.
Meanwhile, the strongest offense has come from outfielders Desmond Jennings, Matt Joyce, B.J. Upton, Ben Zobrist, and infielder Jeff Keppinger. With Longoria injured, Zobrist could flow between 2B and RF with no conflict while Roberts manned 3B. Now Longoria is back in the line up, Joe Maddon has made the intriguing move of shifting Zobrist to a position he has not played in over three years:
Zobrist began his career in Tampa Bay as the cut off man, playing over a hundred games at the position over his first three years as a bench player before becoming the flexible utility player he is today in 2008. In the last week, he has manned the position four times.
Before Longo's return, the odd man of the infield had been an sore subject for the Rays. A utility infielder from 2011's bench, Elliot Johnson has seen two-thirds of the playing time and hit for a decent .245 average (625 innings), but Sean Rodriguez has played the majority of the other third and hit for a disappointing .209 average (337 innings). While Johnson may still be an effective platoon at the position, but whenever it is best to play Jennings, Upton, and Joyce in the outfield, Ben Zobrist may be the solution to keeping the Rays competitive.
Building a Lineup
Ranking the Rays players by offense is difficult with only one statistic, but using an idea pioneered by Bill James, we can show the amount of offense production by a player using Runs Created. This stat was then altered by Tom Tango to use weighted on base percentage to predict runs created, calling it Weighted Runs Created (wRC). The sports blog Fangraphs further neutralizes the statistic by adding in park factors, giving us what they call wRC+; where a score of 100 is average, and a score of 120 stellar.
Examining what a potential lineup with Zobrist at short stop would look like, the Rays may have finally found a defensive alignment that features a major league offense. While Joe Maddon never uses a consistent lineup or batting order, an approach similar to Tom Tango's sabermetric method from The Book is appropriate. The key is for your best men to bat earlier in the order to garner more plate appearances. Traditionally, the lead off guy is a toolsy player with speed and your best guy at getting on base, then you order the rest of the line up by talent - with the exception of the third and fourth slot, which is reserved for power hitters.
This projection should be taken with a grain of salt, but it can provide perspective to how talented the Rays truly are, and what their offense could become:
Position - Player, wRC+
LF - Desmond Jennings, 104
RF - Matt Joyce, 142
3B - Evan Longoria, 142
SS - Ben Zobrist, 125
DH - Jeff Keppinger, 131
CF - B.J. Upton, 96
1B - Carlos Pena, 91
2B - Ryan Roberts, 91
C - Jose Molina, 53
C - Jose Lobaton, 86
OF - Sam Fuld, 83
OF - Luke Scott, 95
IF - Elliot Johnson, 88