If you’ve hit the snooze button on the first 35 or so games and you’ve based most of your assumptions on last year, here’s the only thing you really need to know: in a division with the defending World Champion Boston Red Sox and the power-hitting New York Yankees, the Tampa Bay Rays lead the pack.
This MLB season is already aging rapidly. The pretenders and contenders in each division are starting to separate, and perhaps the most surprising development so far is how the American League East is shaking out.
Not only do the small-market Rays lead their own division, but they’re also pacing the entire league in winning percentage thus far.
It’s perplexing and ridiculous and borders on insanity: The Rays, with their Opening Day payroll sitting just over $49 million — the lowest in the league by $20 million — lead the mighty New York Yankees and their $177 million payroll in the race for the AL East.
The Existential Question: How are the Rays better than the Yankees?
- On the surface, it makes no sense that the Rays are leading the Yankees after more than 20 percent of the season.
- Payroll aside, the Rays have no star power. New York touts guys like Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge, while Tampa is rolling out Tommy Pham and Avisail Garcia.
- Trying to explain why the Rays are leading the pack is like trying to explain how magnets work. No one really knows, it just happens. But we’ll give it our best shot anyway.
Where it starts: Each team’s rotation paints a picture
- Tampa Bay’s rotation has been a huge part of their success this season. The Rays tout the best mark in baseball with a 2.91 ERA, while the Yankees come in at the No. 5 spot with a 3.73 mark.
- Tyler Glasnow, who arrived in Tampa via the Chris Archer deal, has developed as an early Cy Young candidate to watch, sporting a major-league best ERA of 1.47.
- Charlie Morton, who’s December singing went mostly unheralded, has been excellent in the Rays’ rotation, too, posting a 2.52 ERA in seven starts.
- And, of course, the Rays still have Blake Snell, last year’s American League Cy Young winner, who’s been solid this season with a 3.62 ERA.
- The Yankees rotation has been good thus far, but it seems injuries are preventing the unit from being great. Luis Severino, James Paxton and CC Sabathia have all spent time on the IL so far this season.
- Three-fifths of your rotation ranging from ailing to injured is definitely not what you want.
Rookie of the Year: Tampa’s first-year second baseman is making his mark.
- Maybe it’s a little too early to etch his name onto the American League ROY trophy, but Brandon Lowe is making a strong case for the award so far. His emergence has been paramount to the Rays’ success.
- Lowe, who’s making Tampa Bay’s front office look really good right now for signing him to a 6-year extension before the season (even though he’d logged just 129 big league at-bats) leads the Rays in batting average, RBI, home runs, runs scored, slugging percentage and OPS. He’s been nothing short of excellent.
- The Yankees don’t really have any rookie to match Lowe, and many of their younger players ranging from struggling to incapacitated, with Luke Voit hitting .248 and Aaron Judge on the IL.
Calling the pen: Reliever usage makes a difference.
- You’d be hard pressed to find a bullpen that looks better on paper than that of the Yankees. Between Aroldis Champman (who throws hard enough to leave marks like this), Zack Britton and Tommy Kahnle, along with Dellin Betances and David Robertson who are on the IL, New York’s pen is ridiculous.
- Even with the Yankees’ feared relief unit, the Rays’ pen has still performed better. Tampa Bay’s relief unit has pitched to the tune of a 3.31 ERA, good for fourth-best in the majors, while New York’s bullpen had produced a 4.27 mark.
- A lot of Tampa Bay’s success boils down to usage. Ryne Stanek has been effective in an “opener” role, while the hard-throwing tandem Diego Castillo and Jose Alvarado has been lights out at the back end.
Team chemistry: Not exactly tangible, but definitely evident.
- There’s no clear way to measure team chemistry, but it’s clear that teams need it to win. The Kansas City Royals built a championship run off of it in 2015, and the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox had it, too. Teams without it, like the Los Angeles Dodgers of late, can’t seem to get the job done.
- These Rays have it. They’ve got to. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be winning at such a high clip with such a low payroll.
- The players seem to genuinely be enjoying the season, too, and they’ve talked openly about it. Winning cures a lot of locker room problems, but Tampa’s good mood seems built to last. Outfielder Kevin Kiermaier told The Tampa Bay Times that the team is “just a true joy to be a part of.”
No name, no problem: Star power isn’t a requirement.
- Unlike the Yankees, who’re built on the backs of stars like Judge, Stanton and Garry Sanchez, the Rays aren’t built on any real star power. They even traded one of their most marketable stars in Archer last season.
- Outside of Lowe — who’s a budding star in his own right, though not nearly as big of one as Judge and Co. — Tampa’s roster is full of guys who are relatively nameless. Guys like Yandy Diaz and Willy Adames are playing significant roles in Tampa’s first-place run.
- One could argue that Tampa’s biggest star, whether it’s Lowe or Kiermaier, isn’t even as recognizable as New York’s seventh or eighth biggest names — guys like Brett Gardner and DJ LeMahieu.
Final thoughts: Putting a bow on this thing.
- It’s unclear if Tampa Bay can keep this up. They’re a great Cinderella story, especially playing in such a powerhouse division. But the economics of baseball might catch up to them before the end of the season. And if the economics don’t, the Yankees and/or Red Sox sure could.
- Perhaps, if Tampa Bay keeps winning and fans start attending, it could spur some further investment. Then, the winning might continue further. Perhaps this ultimate David and Goliath story could end with the Rays hoisting an American League East crown at the end of this season, or even a World Series banner.
- Logic says the Yankees or Red Sox will take the division, and the Rays might be hard pressed to even make the postseason. But logic doesn’t always apply in underdog stories or in baseball.
Right now, the Tampa Bay Rays are the best team in the league. Perhaps they’ll stay that way.