Inside the Tampa Bay Rays' historic unbeaten start

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Thirteen games into the 2023 MLB season, what the Tampa Bay Rays have done so far is mind-boggling: A 13-0 record. A plus-71 run differential. And their 1-0 win against the Boston Red Sox on Monday was the first time they've won by fewer than four runs.

To make sense of it all, we asked ESPN MLB experts Jeff Passan, David Schoenfield and Bradford Doolittle to answer one of these three questions: Why do the Rays believe this team is special? What do the numbers show us so far? How real are the Rays?

The undefeated Rays! Are they as surprised as we are?

During the Rays' postgame victory celebrations, when they toast the heroes of the game, players get together and decide who will drink the tequila shot given to the best pitcher that day. Among those who have yet to receive the honor this season: closer Pete Fairbanks. The Rays have won so convincingly that before Fairbanks registered a save to lock down Tampa Bay's 10th consecutive win Monday, his teammates had saddled him with a new nickname fitting for someone who throws so infrequently: Rarebanks.

Chances are the Rays will level off, Rarebanks will morph back to Fairbanks and the excitement surrounding the most dominant start to a season in baseball history will give way to a dogfight in the American League East. For now, though, the Rays are a vibe, a team embracing all the things that make it good and running roughshod through an easy early schedule in historic ways.

Everything is working -- and lest you believe that's an exaggeration, chew on these numbers after Thursday's 9-3 win over Boston, the victory that tied the modern era record:

  • Runs scored: 101 (1st in MLB)

  • Runs allowed: 30 (1st)

  • OPS: .941 (1st)

  • ERA: 2.23 (1st)

  • Barrel %, batters: 13.8% (1st)

Category after category, the Rays find themselves at the top. (Which, as we'll get to below, is in part a function of a schedule that has included series against the Detroit Tigers, Washington Nationals, Oakland Athletics and Red Sox, who are a combined 14-36.) And while Tampa Bay's sprint to an undefeated start has surprised outsiders, it aligns with the Rays' internal expectations entering the season. From the front office to the clubhouse, they believed they were a very good baseball team. They simply needed to show the world how good.

During an Opening Day players-only meeting, the Rays emphasized that even though they were coming off their fourth consecutive postseason appearance, this was a new year, a new opportunity to play like the team they believed they could be. Wander Franco and Randy Arozarena could be stars. Jeffrey Springs and Drew Rasmussen could take leaps. The bullpen could be the island of misfit toys. They just needed to do it together.

Winning 13 games -- the first nine by at least four runs, something that hadn't been done during a nine-or-more-game winning streak since 1884, when the pitcher's mound was 50 feet from home plate -- reinforced that notion of camaraderie, fellowship, fun. This isn't a team that started in the depths of the minor leagues together and worked its way up; only seven of the players on the Rays' 26-man roster are homegrown. They've nonetheless figured out how to coalesce, with each player filling a necessary role, something the Rays preach and achieve better than anyone.

Franco and Arozarena are playing like stars -- and nearly all of their regulars (Luke Raley, Harold Ramirez, Josh Lowe, Jose Siri, Brandon Lowe, Isaac Paredes and Yandy Diaz) are slugging .538 or better. Springs and Rasmussen have thrown a combined 29 scoreless innings, though Springs exited Thursday's game with a nerve issue in his left arm and could join Zach Eflin on the injured list., and Shane McClanahan is his ace self, with a 1.59 ERA. The bullpen ERA of 2.34 is second best in the AL.

Long lauded for its relief depth, Tampa Bay entered the season looking for something new. Even with Tyler Glasnow out because of a strained oblique, the Rays wanted their starting pitchers to work deeper into games and avoid overtaxing their bullpen. It has mostly worked: Before using an opener against Boston on Monday, Tampa Bay's 29 innings from relievers this year were the third fewest in baseball.

The Rays' schedule grew more meddlesome starting against Boston, and it really accelerates starting May 5: New York Yankees, at Baltimore Orioles, at Yankees, at New York Mets, Milwaukee Brewers, Toronto Blue Jays, Los Angeles Dodgers -- 23 games in 24 days. By that point, they'll presumably have come back to earth, but until then, they're happy to keep hoisting those shots of tequila, knowing what they are doing, regardless of who they've done it against, is indeed rare. -- Passan

So how much of this is the Rays -- and how much is the competition they are facing?

With 13 straight wins, the Rays tied the 1987 Milwaukee Brewers and 1982 Atlanta Braves for the longest streak to begin a season. The Braves held on to win the NL West that season (that's right, they were in the West), but after slugging outfielder Rob Deer made the cover of Sports Illustrated, the Brewers soon squandered their hot start with a 12-game losing streak in May, although they did finish with 91 wins.

While winning 13 straight to start the season is unusual, winning 13 in a row at any point in the season isn't necessarily unique. The Seattle Mariners and Braves both won 14 in a row last season. In 2021, the Cardinals had that famous 17-game winning streak in September, while the Yankees and Oakland Athletics also had 13-game win streaks. What we haven't seen in a long time is a stretch of dominance like this by Tampa Bay. The Rays have won 11 of the 13 games by at least four runs and have trailed at any point in just three of the games.

The 1884 St. Louis Maroons of the Union Association started 20-0, but that is a dubious professional league, as it lasted just one year and several of the teams didn't even make it through the season. (The St. Paul Whitecaps lasted eight games, the Milwaukee Brewers played 12, the Wilmington Quicksteps lasted 18 and the Altoona Mountain City squad played 25 games and, yes, we need a team nicknamed "Mountain City.")

In other words, comparisons to the Maroons are silly, so let's compare the Rays' run differential of plus-71 (+5.46 per game) to other recent streaks of at least 13 games from the past 10 seasons:

2022 Mariners (14): +36 (2.57 per game)

2022 Braves (14): +60 (4.29 per game)

2021 Cardinals (17): +62 (3.65 per game)

2021 Yankees (13): +40 (3.08 per game)

2021 A's (13): +45 (3.46 per game)

2017 Cleveland (22): +105 (4.77 per game)

2017 Diamondbacks (13): +53 (4.08 per game)

2016 Indians (14): +55 (3.93 per game)

2013 Braves (14): +51 (3.64 per game)

The Rays' run differential per game still beats any of those streaks. This is where we now mention who the Rays have played: the Tigers, Nationals, A's and now the Red Sox. None of those teams have a winning record and there's a strong likelihood that three of those clubs might be the three worst teams in the majors at the end of the season. So, yes, the Rays took advantage of a soft schedule. But that's usually the case with winning streaks. The 2022 Braves beat the Nationals, Pittsburgh Pirates, A's, Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks in their 14-game streak, all teams that would finish with losing records, while the Mariners also played the Nationals and A's (although they did win six in a row against the Blue Jays and San Diego Padres). The 2021 Cardinals did beat the Brewers, who won the NL Central, five times, and twice beat the Reds, who finished over .500, while the other 10 wins came against losing teams.

That's not to diminish what the Rays have done -- they're succeeding in every aspect of the game. Perhaps the biggest key is they're hitting a lot of home runs -- two more on Thursday as Brandon Lowe hit his fifth and Yandy Diaz his fourth. That's 32 in 13 games -- a pace of 399 home runs, which, yes, would shatter the 2019 Twins' record of 307. The Rays were third in the AL in home runs in 2021 when they finished second in runs scored, but they fell all the way to 11th in both categories last season. If they keep hitting home runs, they're going to be tough to beat. -- Schoenfield

Bottom line: Are the Rays for real?

After the Rays' back-to-back 11-0 drubbings of the rebuilding Athletics over the weekend, their start made the leap from absurd to sublime. At that point, the Rays were on pace to outscore their opponents 1,350 to 324 this season. Those numbers are stunning, eye-popping, spine-tingling, or whatever hyperbolic adjective you want to conjure. They are also, if we're being realistic, all but fictional.

No MLB team is that good. If you identified the best possible 40-man roster made up of all the best-right-now professional baseball players in the world and put them on the same team, that club would not outscore its opponents by 1,026 runs over the course of a season. It would not do anything close to that. So from that standpoint, as amazing as the Rays have been, this start is more unreal than real.

Indeed, the Rays' pace has cooled because they finally played a couple of close games on the way to their record-matching start. But the pace remains mind-blowing: The Rays are now on pace to outscore their opponents 1,259 to 374, a run differential of plus-885 that would more than double the existing big record. It's a slump!

Still, there are lots of reasons to think that this unprecedented start offers some real evidence of a special team, quality of opposition aside. It's way, way too early to start talking about things like 116 wins or a 1939 Yankees-level run differential, which was a modern era record plus-411. However, it's not too early to suggest that the Rays might have already surpassed the Yankees as the favorites in the AL East. Some of the betting outlets have flipped, others have the Rays closing in fast. Either way, the bottom line is that the Rays' early surge is creating a lot of believers.

This is not because the Yankees have floundered, either. New York has been very good in the early going and has plenty of reasons to stake a claim to the title as the best team in the majors. My own power rankings have the Rays and Yankees as the top two clubs in baseball, in that order. The Rays won the AL East in 58% of my most recent run of simulations, up from 19% when the season began. That surge has happened even though the Yankees' strong power rating hasn't changed much. The Bombers have played to expectations, but the Rays have exceeded their forecast to a degree that has changed their outlook, even though the season is less than two weeks old and even though they opened the season against baseball's lesser lights.

All this being said, I do think the scale of the Rays' early run differential overwhelms systems like mine and, I assume, others. Sure, we adjust for schedule but those adjustments are conservative, especially this early in the season. The Rays will fall back, relatively speaking. The only question is how far. We'll know a lot more about six weeks from now, as the Rays have already completed one of the softest stretches of schedule any team will have this season. In the weeks ahead, matchups with the Yankees, Mets, Blue Jays, Houston Astros, Red Sox and Brewers all loom.

For now, what we can do is look at some of the early metrics that have led to this run, the ones that are somewhat opponent agnostic and meaningful in short samples.

On offense, the Rays lead the majors in barrel rate and near the top in average exit velocity, and hard-hit rate. This has led to an off-the-charts isolated power percentage (.289) that laps the field. For context: The big-league record for isolated power at the team level in a season in a non-shortened season is .224, by the 2019 Minnesota Twins. So that's not sustainable and there is probably a strong element in that figure that reflects the pitching the Rays have faced.

Still, stylistically this is who the Rays are. Only the Athletics and Pirates have a higher average launch angle. Elevating the ball is what this collection of Rays seeks to do. They won't keep hitting homers at this rate, but they'll keep trying.

As their homer rates drop, however, the Rays' offense could still maintain much of its early scoring rate by a corresponding climb in offensive BABIP. Tampa Bay's BABIP is just .295, five points below the big league average, and that's despite all of those hard-hit balls. The sky-high flyball rate has something to do with that (fly balls that don't leave the yard tend to be caught) but the Rays do have a line-drive rate around league average. These categories, too, should level out and it'll be to the Rays' favor.

On the pitching side, one quick observation we can make is the Rays have been baseball's stingiest run prevention team even though Glasnow has been on the IL with an oblique injury. Also: The Rays' team defensive metrics have been more middling than elite, but Tampa Bay projected to land somewhere in the six-to-eight range in team defense going into the season.

As those things find their levels, it should be a mild boost for the Rays on the run-prevention side. Their early sub-2.00 ERA isn't sustainable, of course. In fact, the Rays have been merely good (as opposed to off the charts) in things like FIP and strikeout-minus-walks percentage. Per Statcast, their WOBA allowed (.241) is a whopping 19 points better than their expected WOBA (.260). Those numbers will move closer together as the season goes along.

Here's the thing: That expected WOBA figure was the second-best in the majors. That's really the theme of the Rays across the board. Their key indicators aren't going to remain this far ahead of the majors over the full season. But that doesn't mean that they won't remain strong.

For now, all we can say is that the Rays were a strong on-paper team before the season started and what they've done against lesser opposition to date is remarkable. But all of those wins and runs and runs prevented have given Tampa Bay a sprinting start to the campaign. Surely the Rays will be challenged as the months pass, but the onus is now on the competition to chase them down.

Maybe the Rays haven't yet broken baseball. Still, this is a team we expected to be good, really good, and this amazing start suggests that despite our high hopes for the 2023 Rays, we may have actually underrated them. -- Doolittle