I know, I know: You're tired of stat nerds professing their love for the Tampa Bay Rays, a franchise that hasn't even reached the World Series since 2008, let alone ever won one.
Why do we love the Rays? They compete despite usually ranking near the bottom in payroll. Why write about them on a night they lost 10-8 to the Boston Red Sox in 14 innings? They always find a way to compete, a credit to the front office's ability to build depth; a credit to the managerial genius of Joe Maddon and his coaching staff; a credit to the players, for their ability to adapt to situations that Maddon creates for them.
This year, the Rays are winning in a new way: They score runs. Cy Young winner David Price won just once in nine starts before landing on the disabled list; like Price, starters Jeremy Hellickson and Roberto Hernandez have ERAs of more than 5.00. In fact, of the 73 American League pitchers who have thrown at least 40 innings, those three rank Nos. 54, 59 and 63 in ERA; that is decidedly un-Tampa like.
Instead, the Rays are averaging 4.97 runs per game, a sizable increase from last year's 4.30 per game. If they keep up that pace, that's a 107-run jump from 2012. After a 4-9 start in which the offense hit just .204 and averaged 3.0 runs per game, the Rays are 30-20 and have scored the most runs per game in the majors.
Yes, there's Evan Longoria, and he's hitting well, but one man does not make an offense. What Maddon and general manager Andrew Friedman have done is construct a team of multi-position platoons. The Rays really have only four regulars: third baseman Longoria, shortstop Yunel Escobar, center fielder Desmond Jennings and first baseman James Loney, although even Loney sits against some left-handers.
Beyond that it's a bunch of interlocking parts that exploit the positional flexibility of the roster. Second baseman/right fielder Ben Zobrist has started 33 games at second and 21 in right (plus four at shortstop) and often changes positions within a game. How rare is his ability to do this? Well, he's the only player in more than 100 years to play at least 50 games at second and 50 games in right field in the same season, and he has done it three times. The only other player to do it was Danny Murphy, back in 1908.
It's so rare that even if you cut the games played down to 35 at each position, you find only four players since World War II to do it: Mark DeRosa in 2008, Tony Phillips in 1992, Bill Russell in 1971 and Billy Goodman in 1951. Basically, Zobrist is a freak, especially since he plays both positions well. But it also takes a manager to think outside the box, and it's easy to forget that Maddon basically created a new position for Zobrist, the hybrid right fielder/second baseman. Longoria is the most valuable player on the roster, but Zobrist is the fulcrum around which the roster operates. Matt Joyce plays right field and left field; Kelly Johnson has played left and second base; Sean Rodriguez has started at four different positions.
Aside from the versatility in the field, it's not an accident the Rays have found success at the plate. Loney was a disappointment with the Dodgers, a first baseman who never hit with the power he flashed early in his career. The Rays didn't see a disappointment, but a guy who could hit right-handers and carry a good glove. With a .327/.387/.519 line, Loney is certainly exceeding expectations, but he did hit a respectable .293/.358/.424 against right-handers from 2009 to 2011 before struggling in 2012. Kelly Johnson had 20-homer seasons in 2010 and 2011; the Rays saw those numbers instead of the guy who struggled in 2012.
There's also room for the offense to improve: Top prospect Wil Myers is heating up in Triple-A, hitting .380 with eight home runs and 27 RBIs over his past 16 games heading into Monday night. The headline on a Tampa Bay Times story on Monday read "Myers looks ready but has nowhere to play," which I don't quite agree with. Designated hitter Luke Scott is hitting .215/.320/.336 -- after not hitting last year -- so it may be time to give up on him. Maddon has somehow found 97 plate appearances for Sam Fuld and his .190 average. So there's pretty clearly room for Myers. Sure, it may mean making Zobrist a -- gasp! -- permanent second baseman, with Ryan Roberts not really contributing, and pushing Joyce or Johnson to the DH slot. Or maybe Zobrist plays more shortstop, like he did at the end of last season.
Either way, Myers should be up soon. I'm pretty sure Maddon can figure out a way to use everybody.
Now, about that pitching staff. ...