by Matt Gajtka
Watching the insanity taking place on Major League Baseball fields along the Eastern seaboard Wednesday night, as no fewer than three games featured drastic, improbable reversals that determined playoff berths, I couldn’t help but root hard for the Tampa Bay Rays.
As a fan of the Pirates as well as baseball, this is the time of year for choosing a team (or teams) to get behind during the postseason, because Lord knows I’ve never experienced a Bucco playoff game. Beyond that, watching sports is always more urgent, more gripping with emotional investment on one side or the other.
Even before they charged from nine games behind in the AL Wild Card pursuit and seven runs down in the eighth inning Wednesday night, the Rays were an appealing club for this baseball follower.
First of all, to have already earned postseason appearances in two of the previous three seasons was impressive enough in the high-rent AL East. Furthermore, the way Tampa Bay goes about its business amidst perhaps the toughest competition in pro sports is a model for all organizations to follow.
Much like the Pirates, the Rays endured an extended stretch of losing from the late 90s through the mid 2000s. The similarities end there, however, as Tampa Bay invested in high-ceiling draft picks, while the Bucs continued to play it safe until the past few years.
But success in scouting and developing elite amateur talent doesn’t tell the whole story. No, the Tampa Bay front office, led by VP of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, set about to squeeze the most out of all their players through proprietary methods largely derived from the number crunchers on Wall Street.
This process of achieving efficiency is detailed in Jonah Keri’s recent book The Extra 2% and has given teams without above-average resources a blueprint for winning an unfair game, as baseball is described in Moneyball.
Although Friedman and his office staff provide most of the brain power behind the operation, the Rays smartly have a manager ideally suited for the franchise’s experimental personality. Joe Maddon has proven to be both a breath of fresh air as well as a nearly-perfect ambassador for the way they do things on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
This is where it gets frustrating for Pirates fans. Playing in MLB’s toughest division, with a very thin tradition, a terrible ballpark and a fickle fanbase, the Rays have outclassed the Bucs to an embarrassing degree over the last four seasons.
Yes, Pittsburgh GM Neal Huntington has gone about implementing a coherent plan and Clint Hurdle has at least brought some excitement where there was none at the manager’s spot, but Friedman and Maddon have set the standard high for rebuilding.
It’s almost as if the Pirates are afraid to go all the way with their vision. They seem to want to rely on youngsters, yet they continue to sign low-potential free agents in the offseason. They bring in a sabermetric expert like Dan Fox to work in the front office, yet they continue to give away outs at the plate due to Hurdle’s obsession with “small ball.”
Last season, the Pirates started the year employing dramatic defensive shifts, especially in the outfield. After some balls dropped in for hits and media members questioned the tactic, they backed off. The Rays, meanwhile, employed the most non-traditional shifts in baseball this season, and they turned a remarkable number of balls in play into outs, making their great pitching staff look even better than it is.
Granted, this year the Pirates did do a fair amount of shifting, especially on the infield – and for a good portion of the season they posted an above average defensive efficiency rating. Maybe they’ve found their convictions and are headed in the right direction.
There are no “maybes” in Raysland today, though. They are in the playoffs, they are a remarkable success story and they are equipped to win for the long term. Even in what was supposed to be a “down” year, they are 11 wins away from a World Series title.