2017 Fantasy Baseball: The Fielding Chronicles– Tampa Bay Rays
It’s fascinating watching low budget teams get around their lack of funds. Watching the big spenders is boring. They simply buy players whenever they need it. The low budget teams must pick and choose what they want to prioritize and what they have to let go of. The Rays and Athletics are similar in that regard. Both teams have taken advantage of the inefficiency of platoon splits, but the Rays have reacted a little differently when it comes to the value they place on fielding.
In particular, their focus on pitch framing at the catcher position has allowed their pitching staff to perform better. They added two new catchers this season in the guise of upgrading the position offensively while maintaining that focus. That’s something we haven’t seen from the Athletics and one reason why they seem to have less success.
We are looking fielding numbers according to the Fielding Bible. We can find defensive runs saved (DRS) at billjamesonline.com. They have information on individual players and they break down team performance by position. We will be looking at the infield, outfield, and their shifting advantages as well and we will compare that with their defense efficiency rating (DER) according to baseball-reference.com.
Small market teams are the incubators for new ideas. They have to use new ideas because without them they will finish dead last every time. It was sad to see Andrew Friedman go to the Dodgers in some ways because it meant he didn’t have to think as hard anymore. The Rays treat their financial challenges different than the Athletics and that is what makes studying the two organizations so interesting.
The jump in the outfield data can be traced to Kevin Kiermaier. The Athletics almost never keep any of their young stars, but the Rays try to lock them up early to keep the costs down over time. They did that with Kiermaier because he is almost a three win player defensively. If he develops any offensive ability he will be a superstar and they will have a superstar on the cheap; at least for a while.
Kiermaier’s three season totals are bordering on the ridiculous. He is plus 81 runs over the past three seasons. He was “only” plus 14 runs in his first season which means he has been more than 30 runs a season over average the past two years. That’s ludicrously good. His transformation alone makes the Rays one of the better defensive outfields in baseball and they have made some moves in the offseason to add to that.
Like the Athletics, the Rays have used the platoon advantage to help keep costs down and maximize their flexibility. Sometimes that means cutting corners and they have cut some corners in the fielding department. Brad Miller has played everywhere on the infield for the Rays and now will settle in at second base. He has been minus 39 runs the past three seasons where he has mostly played shortstop and first base. Miller had less than 200 innings in his career at second base and minus 4 runs there coming into the season.
The Rays have Tim Beckham, Nick Franklin, and Matt Duffy that can all play a number of defensive positions. So, they will mix and match all season long to figure out which alignment will work best for them offensively and defensively. Considering he hit 31 home runs last season, you figure they will try to find a home for Miller somewhere.
Both Wilson Ramos and Derek Norris have been good fielding catchers historically. Both have been hot and cold with the bat. The addition of Norris became necessary when it was clear that Ramos would not return from his torn ACL in time to start the season. Norris signed a one year low salary contract to reestablish his value. His loss was the Rays’ gain as they now have someone to catch regularly until Ramos can return in June.
None of the other regulars are new faces, but the club did add Colby Rasmus to add to their outfield depth. He can play all three outfield positions when he returns to health himself. The club hopes that Logan Morrison and Corey Dickerson hit enough to hold down first and left field respectively, but Rasmus will be there and he has a stellar defensive reputation in the corner outfield slots.
Chris Archer is an early round pick on everyone’s board, but if he can stay healthy, Alex Cobb might be the best pick for a sleeper. He has a 54 percent ground ball rate over the past four years and has performed solidly when healthy. He is off to a solid start this season, he bares watching in case he finds himself on the waiver wire in your league.
On the flip side, Jake Odorrizi will have to rely on Kiermaier and the luck of whether his fly balls will stay in the park. His ground ball rate over the last three seasons has been a paltry 37 percent. Even with a great defensive outfield, he will always be susceptible to home runs as long as he gives up fly balls at that rate.