It was only five years ago that the Tampa Bay Rays were the surprise of the baseball world, leaping from 66 wins in 2007 to 97 in 2008. The former American League East doormat won the division and advanced all the way to the World Series before falling in five games to the Phillies.
Following a brief 84-78 hiccup in 2009, the Rays have been consistent contenders, averaging over 92 wins per season and qualifying for the playoffs twice under the old single Wild Card format. Their 66-45 record this year has them on pace for 90-plus victories again, and in close pursuit of the Red Sox for the AL East lead.
In becoming one of the most consistently successful teams in MLB, Tampa Bay has set the standard for small-revenue clubs trying to build similar winning programs. The Pittsburgh Pirates are one of those franchises, and it looks like 2013 is the year they dip their toes in postseason waters for the first time since 1992.
Much like the Rays of the past five years, the Pirates have succeeded in 2013 on a combination of pedigreed talent and applied intelligence, both on and off the field.
Of course, the high-level talent has to come first. While Tampa Bay’s breakthrough has been keyed by homegrown third baseman Evan Longoria, Pittsburgh’s main thrust comes via center fielder and former first-round pick Andrew McCutchen. The Pirates’ minor-league system has also produced other valuable position players like (in order of arrival) Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Starling Marte and Jordy Mercer.
The Bucs have yet to produce ace-caliber starting pitchers akin to the Rays’ David Price and Matt Moore, but they do have Gerrit Cole (already in MLB) and Jameson Taillon (Triple-A) on track to lead the Pittsburgh rotation for years to come. For now, the boffo performances of veterans Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett – along with system products Charlie Morton, Jeff Locke and Cole – have been significant in boosting the Pirates’ pitching staff to elite status.
Smart on-field implementation has supplemented Pittsburgh’s talent. After years of dabbling in aggressive defensive shifts, the Pirates are now among the top five teams in MLB in shift frequency, according to Baseball Info Solutions. (Read this awesome piece from James Santelli of Pirates Prospects for more on the details.)
During their streak of winning seasons, the Rays have also been one of baseball’s most shift-tastic clubs, putting reams of advanced batted-ball data available to good use. It’s no coincidence that Tampa Bay (.713 defensive efficiency) and Pittsburgh (.712) are among MLB’s top three teams in converting balls in play into outs.
Additionally, the Pirates have used the platoon advantage – righthanded batters hit better against lefthanded pitchers, and vice versa – effectively at two positions where they don’t have true everyday players: right field and first base. Garrett Jones (L), Gaby Sanchez (R), Jose Tabata (R) and Alex Presley (L) are all slightly-above-average offensive players by OPS, but used judiciously they combine to make RF and 1B no longer MIA on your scorecard. Factoring in the potential call-up of lefty power prospect Andrew Lambo, the right side of the diamond is suddenly looking stronger.
The Pirates were reportedly on the lookout last month to enhance right field and/or first base via trade, but general manager Neal Huntington refrained from making a deal at the expense of a top farmhand like Taillon or Gregory Polanco. An addition would’ve been nice for the stretch run; however, the Rays and GM Andrew Friedman have demonstrated that trade-deadline deals aren’t necessary for a strong finish.
Over the past five years, submarine-throwing reliever Chad Bradford is the only player Tampa Bay has added through a pre-August trade. Pittsburgh has been more aggressive, picking up Wandy Rodriguez, Sanchez, Travis Snider, Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick in the previous two summers alone, so Huntington holding firm this year is a departure from his M.O.
Correlation doesn’t equal causation, but if the Pirates surge to a playoff berth – or even an NL Central title – without making a deadline splash, it will be merely the latest way the Bucs have evoked the Rays’ business plan to great results.
There’s always room for innovation, but if imitation is flattery, the boys in Tampa Bay should be blushing at the excitement in Pittsburgh.