Rays outwork their opponents, and it works

An afternoon glance at the AL East standings shows the Tampa Bay Rays in a tie for first place. It’s hard to believe the day has arrived where that doesn’t surprise anyone.

Five years ago, the Tampa Bay then-Devil Rays lost 96 games and finished in last place in their division for the ninth time in their 10-year history. But the organizational turnaround started to yield on-field results in 2008, when the Rays improved their win total by 31, winning the AL East and advancing to the World Series.

Since 2008, they have finished above .500 each season and made the playoffs in three of those four seasons, despite having to compete with high-revenue juggernauts in Boston and New York for about 20 games apiece per season.

Jonah Keri documents the whole thing quite well in his book “The Extra 2%“, which is absolutely a must-read if you’re a baseball enthusiast like myself. Think of it as a modern-day “Moneyball”.

All of this brings me to a story published on the New York Times’ website yesterday about the Rays and their propensity to shift their defense against opposing hitters.

Very interesting story by Hunter Atkins┬ámaking the rounds on Twitter today that really goes into detail about something I’ve been talking about all year: The Rays will shift against anyone. And I mean ANYONE.

The Rays have long been ahead of the curve when it comes to shifts. But it seems like they’re taking it to even greater lengths this year than in previous ones.

And I love it. I really do. They’ve done their homework, and baseball analysts and the standings alike show that what they’re doing is saving runs and winning more baseball games.

And while it may seem complicated to manage all of these shifts against all of these different hitters, the basis of it is simple. Manager Joe Maddon and the Rays – by shifting against stars and utility players alike – are outworking every other team in the game. It’s that kind of mentality that’s hard not to rally behind, even if the fans still aren’t showing up in droves to Tampa Bay games.

I’m always amused too when I see – as the story mentions – a guy like Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher call Maddon a “mad scientist.”

There’s nothing mad about it. Some might think what he’s doing is risky. But really, he’s simply managing based off the numbers and what a hitter’s tendency is. If anything, it’s a risk for a manager to ignore those facts and NOT shift.

Does it draw attention to Maddon? Of course. And most managers shy away from that. Attention can bring criticism, which is why managers ignore matchups and call on the closer every time there is a one-, two- or three-run lead. If the closer fails, the manager can just say, “Well, he’s my ninth-inning guy,” and then their butts are covered.

But I like Maddon because I think he has the full support of the organization and could care less about the attention. And that’s what makes the Rays a fun team to watch.