The Rays Outfield Gets Rangier!

Adventures In Exploiting Market Inefficiencies In Tampa’s Outfield
by Jim Silva

    The Tampa Bay Rays have been the definition of a small market team since they got their start in 1998 as the Devil Rays. They have a reputation similar to the A’s as being clever in how they use their resources and have managed to win the rich and powerful AL East twice (2008 and 2010), and caught a wild card spot twice (2011 and 2013). They made it all the way to the World Series in 2008 but lost in five games to the Phillies. The 2008 team did it with speed, a healthy young starting rotation, an excellent and fairly deep pen, solid defense, and some pop – the team finished 4th in the league in home runs. They were young and still cheap. Evan Longoria was only 22. It would obviously be a window that would close quickly, but for a while they looked like a surprising team to beat.
Lately though, they have struggled. In 2016 they finished last in the AL East losing 94 games and they didn’t appear to be moving in a particularly positive direction. They are still on the young side, but they no longer do a good job of getting on base, and although they finished fourth in the AL in home runs, they finished next to last in runs scored. Their pitching is still desired by other teams, but last season saw some of their young staff struggle for portions of the campaign, although they were still a good starting staff if not a great one. Then the Rays traded Drew Smyly, one of their starters, for Mallex Smith, adding a speedy outfielder to the crowded outfield scene. And now they have traded their starting second baseman to the Dodgers for a great young arm in Jose DeLeon. So what are the Rays doing exactly? I think I have a clue about their outfield so let’s take a look at the fairly large crew of players projected to start the season in Florida.
    Any discussion of the Rays outfield has to start with their centerfielder – glove man supreme – Kevin Kiermaier. Few in baseball have gotten more love for their glove work than the speedy Kiermaier. Even though he spent time on the disabled list, the 31st round draft pick from 2010 still managed a 25 DRS (defensive runs saved) and 24.2 UZR per 150 innings (a similar defensive metric to DRS, but prorated per 150 innings) season. Both defensive metrics measure a player’s ability to save runs beyond the average player at his position, and Kiermaier has lived near the top of the leader board in both categories since he became a starter. He has the range, the arm, and the fearlessness that define a superior centerfielder. What he hasn’t had that would make him a star, is the bat. Last season saw some moves in the right direction, but at 26 he is approaching the point where we will have to accept that he is what he is. And what he was last season was an elite level centerfielder who doesn’t hit for high enough average (or walk quite enough to make up for it) to be a leadoff hitter even though he is a high percentage base-stealer (87.5% last season). His on-base percentage was .331 in spite of his .246 batting average because his walk rate increased to almost 10% – his career rate is 6.6%. He is also an excellent baserunner, both as a high percentage base thief (23 of 26 last season) and just running the bases where he was 2.9 runs better than average. It could be argued that a lot of his offensive value comes from his base runnings skills. If you are a WAR guy (wins above what would be created by a replacement level player), Kiermaier is almost a 3.0 Offensive WAR guy with back to back seasons of 2.7 and 2.8. His overall WAR for the last three seasons – his first three as at least a semi-regular – has been 3.6, 7.3, and 5.5 – over 7.0 is near MVP level and over 5.0 is All Star level. Granted a lot of his value is in his defense and as he ages, that will likely decline. Still, right now, there are few players you would rather have playing centerfield for your club.
    The right fielder for right now is Steven Souza Jr., who if he makes it should be the poster boy for Portuguese ballplayers, and should get a nickname like “The Portuguese Man of War” because dude is a physical specimen at 6’4 and 225 pounds. Souza is fast and powerful and that’s what the Rays wanted when they got him in a crazy three team trade from the Nationals (the trade where the Nats ended up with Trea Turner AND Joe Ross – wow!). If Souza turns out to be as good as he looks then the Rays won’t fret what they gave up in the trade (four players, including Ryan Hannigan and Wil Myers), but so far Souza has two similar seasons of “meh” in a Rays uni. His last two seasons, he has put up wRC+ scores of 102 and 94 respectively where 100 is average runs created after park and league adjustments. In other words he was 2% above average and 6% below average in his first two campaigns with the Rays. Factor in his defensive metrics – a DRS/UZR per 150 of -4/-2.4 in 2015 and an improved 2 and 6.3 in 2016 – and you get an athlete with unfulfilled potential who is 27. He has yet to do better than a 1.0 WAR so he hasn’t shown himself as even an average starter, much less the star the Rays thought they were getting when they traded for him. At 27, projecting a breakout would probably fall into the category of wishful thinking. He certainly improved afield last season, but looking at his swing patterns, it doesn’t look like he did anything that would portend an imminent breakout with the bat. Souza actually swung at more pitches last year – 49.8% driving his career rate to 47.9% – than he had in the past including more pitches outside the strike zone – 68.7% last year pulling his career rate up to 67.5% and missing more often, making contact with 68.6% of the pitches he offered at, dragging his contact rate down to 69.3%. So he is swinging more and making less contact. His walk rate also dropped to 6.6%, with a career rate of 8.7%. This is not meant to pile on Mr. Souza – in fact Souza tried to play through a hip injury before going under the knife for a tear in his labrum. So here is hoping for Souza to have a healthy year and to break out, because teams like the Rays can’t afford to miss too often.
    Left field might go to Colby Rasmus, unless it doesn’t. The Rays signed Rasmus on the cheap after he had a poor season that was probably at least partly due to a slew of injuries – he had surgery for one of them this off-season. Rasmus is, at his best, a power-hitting rangy centerfielder type who walks some, but strikes out enough to suppress his batting average. Last season Rasmus played incredible defense in left and center (career high DRS/UZR per 150 of 20 and 31.0 respectively), but his slugging was well below his career average and it looks like there was some bad luck too as his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) dipped to a career low .257. After three seasons in a row with wRC+ numbers above 100, the 30 year old outfielder only created runs at a 75 level – well below average. Teams like the Rays and the A’s have to gamble on guys like Rasmus because they don’t have the money to spend on sure bets. As gambles go this might be a good one. Rasmus is the kind of guy – assuming he turns it around –  they could easily flip at the trade deadline for a solid if not spectacular prospect. In the meantime he will get playing time in left and possibly center spelling Kiermaier.
    If Souza and Rasmus don’t win the starting jobs, the Rays have two more players who could steal playing time and even the starting jobs in Mallex Smith and last year’s trade acquisition, Corey Dickerson. Dickerson mostly played left in 2016 and did an ok job in the field posting a DRS of 2 and a UZR/150 innings of 14.6. Those are by far Dickerson’s best defensive numbers, so it is unclear whether or not they represent actual growth or a one off. Dickerson is a hitter first and foremost, and last year was less than what the Rays were hoping for with the bat possibly costing Dickerson the starting outfield job he held last season. Dickerson hit the ball hard – 24 home runs, 36 doubles, and an ISO (slugging – average intended to show how much of his hits are for extra bases) of .224 in line with his career numbers – but hit only .245 which was 34 points below his career average. Since Dickerson doesn’t walk much (6.5 % walk rate) his on-base percentage is reliant on his batting average which means in 2016 he made a lot of outs. His on-base percentage of .293 was more than 30 points below his career rate, but it might be the new normal because he went from the best hitting park in baseball to one of the worst. It remains to be seen if Dickerson can be more than a league average run producer (101 wRC+ in 2016) and more than an overall slightly below starter level outfielder 1.5 WAR. Right now Dickerson looks like last week’s news because Mallex Smith could be in one of the corner spots. It could mean that Dickerson is the primary designated hitter. If that happens, his seemingly improved glove would matter less and his subpar baserunning would matter more, so his average and walk rates would have to improve for him to be worth keeping around as more than a pinch hitter.
    Unlike Corey Dickerson, who stole zero bases in 2016, Mallex Smith has elite speed and almost no power with an ISO of around .100 every season in the minors. So far in the majors, he uses his speed better in the field than on the bases, but if he can adjust and look like he did in the minors he has the potential to lead the league in steals. In the minors, Mr. Smith got on base a touch over 38% of the time, and hit safely close to 30% of the time making him an ideal leadoff hitter – especially when combined with his blazing speed. He stole 230 bases at a 79% clip in the minors, but went only 16 for 24 in his debut in the majors last season. The Rays would hugely benefit from a guy who could get on base at the top of the lineup, and he would fit with Kiermaier, Rasmus, and Souza to cover a ton of ground in the field. An outfield of Smith, Kiermaier, and Souza, with Rasmus as the 4th outfielder giving guys breathers, would rival the Mariners new crew for best defensive outfield in the league.
    Elite speed and defense in the outfield is apparently the new way to build an outfield on the cheap. All the cool kids are doing it – ok, so the Mariners are doing it, but if the M’s and the Rays experience success with this strategy don’t be surprised if others try to capitalize on this apparent inefficiency in the market. For a team in a pitchers park that relies on deep starting pitching, it is a strategy that makes a lot of sense. Unless Mallex Smith comes into spring training and underwhelms everyone, they should go all in on the strategy and keep Dickerson in the DH spot right from the start. Rasmus makes an excellent fourth outfielder who can also come off the bench to hit and stay in any of the outfield spots. He would make it hard on opposing managers to get too cute with their pitching changes when facing the Rays starting outfielders in close games. When Rasmus gets starts, Dickerson can pinch-hit unless he is the DH, and the Rays wouldn’t lose much bringing one of their glove men in to catch flying things for Dickerson. When you can put together an elite defensive outfield and you aren’t looking to contend, it seems like you should. If it works and you are better than expected, you can bring in offense at other positions or go get more pitching. The Rays need to do something different after an awful 2016 and they have the pieces, so go bold Rays!