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Tampa Bay Rays Starting Rotation Fuels Success

The Rays have kept pace with a historically talented American League East, and you have the Starting Rotation to thank for the team's success.

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 13:  David Price #14 of the Tampa Bay Rays struggles in the third inning against the Boston Red Sox during the home opener on April 13, 2012 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 13: David Price #14 of the Tampa Bay Rays struggles in the third inning against the Boston Red Sox during the home opener on April 13, 2012 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Getty Images

Are you aware that your Tampa Bay Rays are in third place? Well, they might not be anymore.

The American League East is in constant shuffle, and as of this article - on June 7th, 2012 - the Rays are one game back in the standings, currently outpaced by the leading Orioles and the Yankees (0.5 games back). Toronto (2.0 games back) and Boston (4.0 games back) are not far behind. In fact, all five teams in the AL East have records of .500 or better, and place only four wins apart. This hasn't happen since the 90's, and it was the National League East.

However, with the Stanley Cup and NBA Finals looming, it's easy for this drama to be swept under the rug unless you 1) are a die hard baseball fan, or 2) have money invested in a fantasy baseball league.

The Rays, still mired in injuries, are facing a sweep in New York this evening, and the headlines are sure to be broadcast regardless of tonight's outcome. The Rays have lost the series. New York is on the rise. Some fodder like that. What you should recognize is that this race is neck and neck. If the boys in blue drop a few before interleague play kicks up tomorrow (against the Marlins!), don't go abandoning ship.

What the Rays need now is for you, the fan, to stay positive. Pray to your favorite diety, send good vibes Joe Maddon's way, and pay attention. If the games get hard to watch, I understand - the defense has been lacking and the offense has been mournful - but don't give up!

The Rays have beaten the odds this season, and they've done it with pitching. While this is a noble feat, if you are anything like my wife - who knows nothing of strike zones or pitch selection and needs runs on the board to keep her eyes open during a ball game - this advantage can grow wearisome; but I assure you good news is on the way. Desmond Jennings was activated from the Disabled List yesterday, the Rays have added former World Series MVP Hideki Matsui, and Evan Longoria begins his rehab assignment for a torn hamstring tomorrow. So take heart, Tampa Bay is about to get really offensive...

If pitching is your thing, however, I have some fun stats for you: Did you know this team is leading the American League in ERA (3.47) and xFIP (3.74)?

Let that sink in.

Your on-again-off-again first place Rays are leading this side of major league baseball in pitching, the most predominate part of The Show. And you know what? You can thank the starting rotation.

The 2012 Season has been strong as ever for the Rays' front five with David Price and Jeremy Hellickson at the helm. Both have an ERA below 3.00 and are leaving 83% of base runners stranded - the key to winning games with an anemic offense.

That's nice, you say, but the rest of the rotation currently has an aire of underachievement!

I assure you this starting rotation is among the strongest in baseball. Take a look at the numbers for yourself:

James Shields
Jeremy Hellickson

Note the strengths of the starting rotation:

  • David Price leads the group with an ERA and xFIP among the top ten in baseball. He has cut his home run rates to the lowest of his career (0.61 HR/9) and UPDATE: leads the AL East in games won - eight.
  • James Shields has a glaring 4.27 ERA, but his 3.12 xFIP and dominant strike out rates - a career high 8.77 K/9 - have helped him succeed. In fact, Dave Cameron at FanGraphs still considers Shields the ace of the rotation, and among the best in baseball.
  • Jeremy Hellickson is currently outplaying his FIP considerably, but this is a continued trend from his rookie season and pleasantly expected. He is holding batters to a .228 batting average and has added a cutter to his arsenal. Fun fact: to solidify his repertoire even further, Hellboy also recently improved his curveball with the help of James Shields.
  • Matt Moore boasts an 8.90 K/9, but his walk rates are sky high compared to the rotation. That's good enough to place him in the bottom 20% of starting pitchers this season, but in context his is ahead of Tim Lincecum, Yu Darvish, and along side C.J. Wilson. Moore historically starts the season erratic and brings his control back into focus. When he settles down, we could see him follow in Hellickson's footsteps of scooping up the AL Rookie of the Year award in the final two months of the season.
  • Alex Cobb has played well through his four starts with a 4.13 ERA, 3.89 xFIP, and has held opposing batters to a .245 batting average against Atlanta, Boston, Chicago (White Sox), and New York.

There are a couple other things to consider. Moore and Shields both have strikeout rates above 22% and have survived BABIP's above .300 thus far. Likewise, David Price has excelled in spite of the .293 Luck Dragon breathing down his neck. When I say beating the odds, this is what I'm talking about.

Additionally - as well as my motivation for writing this article - there is the final column: SIERA. An abbreviation for Skill-Interactive ERA, this stat puts less stress on balls put in play by the batter and focuses of the performance of the pitcher. This models the pitcher's skill and projects future performance as well. The stat is standardized to look like ERA - in other words, anything between 3.00 and 4.00 is stellar - and we can see that the weakest links of the rotation (Shields, Moore, Cobb) project well in terms of what they could control. With the return of more skilled defensive players from the Disabled List, such a low SIERA hints that their performance will only improve. (tl;dr - it's not their fault)

Finally, we would be remiss to not mention the slight disparity in traditional pitching markers. The Rays starters are 4th in the league in ERA (3.49), but 9th in batting average against (.244), 13th in WHIP (1.29) and 19th in quality starts (29 for 56 games). The rotation has the 6th most strikeouts, but the 8th most walks. Traditional statistics paint a B- picture. In short, I'm here to tell you the front five deserve an A, your applause, and your attention.

There is a bottom line to this article. The Rays lost their No. 4 starter Jeff Niemann on May 16th to a broken leg, just when he was posting career numbers in ERA, FIP, and strikeouts - and still Tampa Bay rivals the White Sox and Tigers for the best rotation in the American League. If you follow the traditional stats, you'll find reason to shake a fist, not cheer. So arm yourself with knowledge, and the next time you sit down to watch the Rays play - admire the work of our starting rotation and pitching coach Jim Hickey.

The Rays are still incredibly good, even if it's sneaky good.

For more on the Rays, and especially for you stat junkies, visit our affiliate DRaysBay.

Photographs by, thelastminute, turtlemom nancy , fesek, kthypryn, justinwright, sue_elias, pointnshoot, and scrapstothefuture used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.