Debate the Rays' quality with Jayson Stark
THE CASE FORThere comes a point in every season where you are what your record says you are. When a team has the best record in the entire flipping sport halfway through the season, that point has officially arrived. Anyone who thinks this outfit isn't for real needs some serious reprogramming. The Rays have the best record in baseball since April 22 (41-21). They're No. 1 in the sport in Baseball Prospectus' Defensive Efficiency rankings. Opponents are hitting .211 against their bullpen -- which is the third-lowest average against any bullpen in the past half-century. And offensively, this team has gone from one of the least-disciplined lineups in baseball to one of the most. In case you hadn't noticed, Rays hitters have walked more times (300) than the Yankees (278), among other teams.
THE CASE AGAINSTObviously, there are arguments to be made for a bunch of other teams. The Cubs have the best run differential in baseball (plus-94). The White Sox have the best run differential in the American League (plus-85) and lead the nation in ERA (3.39). The Red Sox are the defending champs--and they're second in the major league in OPS and extra-base hits, even without David Ortiz. And the Angels are 31-14 against teams with winning records, and 27-15 on the road -- two stats that tell you a lot about a team.
THE VERDICTOK, here's an argument you can't use: How can they be the best team in baseball if they're the Rays? Sorry. That one doesn't work anymore. This team wins at home (26-6 at the Trop since April 22) and on the road (where, at 19-19, it's one of only four AL teams playing .500 or better away from home). And it isn't like these guys just beat up on the dregs of the MLB earth. They're the only team in baseball that has swept the Angels, Red Sox, Cubs and Marlins. And they're 40-26 against teams currently over .500. So there. I'm going to say it. This is the best team in baseball--right now, anyway. Care to disagree? That's what we're here for.
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Jayson Stark (1:02 PM)
I have a feeling this could be a wild hour. I just fastened my seat belt and placed my tray table in the full upright and locked position. so let's get gonig.
Jayson- its easy to say right now the Rays are the best team. But what if you had to pick teh world series winner? would you choose the Rays? I think not...
Jayson Stark (1:04 PM)
Why not? Because it says "Rays" on the front of their shirts? The fact is, I think this team could even play BETTER in the second half. Carlos Pena hasn't hit yet and just came off the DL. Carl Crawford is 20 points under his career average. BJ Upton only has four homers. They have the prospects and the motivation to make a big deal or two. And they have prospects like David Price who could make a giant impact at some point. So why not? That's my question.
Mike (Tallahassee, FL)
This debate would be a lot easier if it took place this Thursday, after the huge series at the Trop this week. I believe that the one team that may be better than the Rays is the Red Sox. It will be interesting to see how Tampa Bay handles there position in the standings and there play on the field. It doesn't help Boston's case that they have to face Shields, Garza, and Kazmir. I think the answer to this debate will make itself clear if we are just a little patient.
Jayson Stark (1:06 PM)
That's true. If we wait till October, then we'll know for sure. But I agree with you. The Red Sox and Rays rank 1-2 in some order. It's interesting that neither team has won a game yet in the other team's park. So if that holds for the next three days, the Rays will be 3 1/2 up by the end of the week.
I think the only argument you can make AGAINST the Rays is that they are a young team, and may falter under the pressure of a pennant race. Although I don't put much stock in that line of reasoning.
Jayson Stark (1:09 PM)
I actually don't think that's the best argument. If I were them, I'd worry more about the age of the bullpen than I would about the youth of some of these players. They've completely transformed the mindset of these guys as a group. At this point, I don't think THEY feel like they're a fluke. And that's a big part of the equation. I do think that getting a veteran, October-proven starting pitcher to front the young guys in the rotation would be a major asset as they head into September and October.
Dave: Tampa, FL
Your comment on the Rays being the best team in baseball right now is fair. They play great small ball baseball and they are an exciting team to watch. It's great to see experience catch up to the talent the Rays have had for years.
Jayson Stark (1:11 PM)
You know the one comment I hear all the time from scouts and executives of other teams about the Rays? That they're "fun to watch." There isn't a week that goes by when somebody doesn't make that observation. You don't hear that much from the opposition. So while "fun factor" isn't normally part of these best-team-in-baseball debates, I think it's fair to introduce it in this team's case.
The Rays might be playing the best baseball at the moment. However, longterm, their lineup and bullpen rely heavily on players who are putting up career seasons. Is Eric Hinske going to continue his torrid pace? Is JP Howell a legitimate setup man? Are Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine sufficient? The best baseball teams have talented veteran nuclei to whom the unproven youth can look when they begin to wear down. There are few veterans on this roster (Troy Percival comes to mind) who fit the bill.
Jayson Stark (1:14 PM)
That's a reasonable argument, Sean. But I think we've all tended to use name recognition too heavily in assessing who the "best" teams are. And what we're finding is that young energy is better than old famous guys. I agree that it isn't reasonable to expect Eric Hinske to keep this up. But Jackson and Sonnanstine are very useful back-of-the-rotation arms -- better than, say, the Yankees run out there, for instance. And Howell looks like he's for real. So we'll see.
What are the chances of them getting another starter ? They will contend, I think they are for real, but they need another experienced arm if they want to get far in October....
Jayson Stark (1:15 PM)
I don't want to turn this into a trading-deadline chat, because that's not the purpose. But the management strategy of this group is to go for it when they've got the chance, because they recognize that they won't always have the opportunity to win in this division. So I think they'll make a serious run at Sabathia, and others.
To me the playoffs come down to pitching -- outside of Shields/Kazmir, i dont have much faith in their pitchers. The bullpen has been good, but it is brittle and the history isnt quite there. Garza is a good 3, but other teams have better ones...i like the angels
Jayson Stark (1:18 PM)
You know, it's easy to fall in love with the Angels when you watch them play. But I don't know how to argue that they're better than the Rays. They have a worse team ERA. Tampa Bay has outscored them by 42 runs and is ahead of them in OPS by nearly 60 points. They play similar styles, because of Joe Maddon's Angels roots. But to be honest, the Rays play that style better than the Angels do right now, I think.
Travis: Saint Petersburg FL
I can see the Rays contending for one reason alone: Defense! I am hear to tell you that Longoria will win a handful of Gold Gloves in his career. The thing that scares me about this team is young arms. Similar to the Tigers run, the majority of the guys have not been stetched to over 200 innings as a professional and that means tired arms in September and October. It will be exciting though.
Jayson Stark (1:19 PM)
That's a great, great point. Are they going to get enough innings out of their starters to survive the marathon? One more reason to add a rotation arm.
Youth isn't a big issue with this team? Try saying that in September when the real pressures of a tight playoff race begin to build up. That is when i believe this team will begin to lose its swagger.
Jayson Stark (1:21 PM)
I understand the reasoning. I do. I'm a believer in track record myself, and most of these guys have no track record in this setting. But did the 2003 Marlins have a track record? That was one of the youngest teams in baseball, and a team built around young starting pitching, and we know how that worked out. So why is there not enough talent in Tampa Bay to have that same story play out?
Matt (Weston, FL)
I dont think they're the best team in baseball because you can't expect guys like Hinske, Sonnanstine, Navarro, Bartlett, and Gabe Gross to keep carrying them. And can their bullpen keep up what they've been doing for the whole year? The whole team is pitching in right now, but I don't think all of those unproven players are going to keep doing so well.
Jayson Stark (1:23 PM)
Since when is that group "carrying them?" They've gotten production from that whole group. But the best thing you can say about this team is that nobody has really carried it. It's amazing how many players have played a part.
Pitching wins championships. The Red Sox are better simply because of their tremendous quality depth in the rotation. Could the rays afford to lose Dice-k ( or one of their top 2) for a month? Meanwhile, the sox are able to give extra rest to their starters and take extra precaution on injuries (not rushing Ortiz back either it looks like). This sox team is significantly less scary than the theoretical October Sox.
Jayson Stark (1:25 PM)
Good point, but the Rays DID lose their best starter for a month -- Kazmir -- and survived. Here's the Quality Start count: Red Sox 45, Rays 42. So it's closer than you think.
Robert (Temecula, CA)
The fact that I can make this statement proves the Rays really are for real. That said, the Rays are unlikely to make the playoffs by virtue of schedule: 36 games against the Yankees and Red Sox; they aren't as good as the Sox (tho better than the Yanks), and scheduling makes it too hard to win the wild card.
Jayson Stark (1:29 PM)
You would think so. But as I said at the beginning of this chat, they've played great against the good teams, and they've compiled this record while playing one of the toughest schedules in baseball. They've already played five series against the Red Sox and Yankees, so why would their second half schedule be more challenging than what they've faced so far?
IF the rays got Sabathia, isn't that the best rotation by far in MLB: Sabathia, Kazmir, Shields, Garza and Jackson/Sonnenstine 5? thats downright intimidating.
Jayson Stark (1:30 PM)
It would be right up there, anyway. If the White Sox, Red Sox or Angels were better, it sure wouldn't be by much.
If you take this entire roster from the Rays and put them in a yankees uniform would we even be having this discussion right now?
Jayson Stark (1:31 PM)
I don't think so. I think people are automatically skeptical because of the names on the shirts. But anyone paying attention would see this was real.
Actually only 9 remaining games vs the Sox this year (6 in Tampa)/ and 8 vs the Yanks (3 in Tampa). 2nd half of the year is far more friendly schedule.
Jayson Stark (1:32 PM)
Thanks. That's what I mean. Of course, I understand there's more pressure when you play those teams in September than when you play them in April. But strength of schedule was the issue, and it's no stronger in the second half than it was in the first.
Boston is 6-3 against the Rays this year and have a better run differential. The Rays have had a very good year (although having the #1 pick every year for like a decade helps), but I don't see how any sane, baseball-watching person can say Tampa is better than Boston.
Jayson Stark (1:36 PM)
So I guess I'm officially insane. I would never bet against the Red Sox, but the Rays don't have a bad run differential themselves (plus-55). And all of the Red Sox wins against them have come in Fenway. So this jury doesn't think you have to be insane to say the Rays are better. Again, check those standings.
Sean (New Lenox, IL)
Don't the standings alone speak for themselves? The best team in baseball so far is the team with the best record playing in one of the toughest divisions. That team is the Rays.
Jayson Stark (1:37 PM)
Good segueway! Exactly my point. It's not like they were playing in the NL West in the first half, and now they're being transferred to the AL East. They've been playing this schedule all year.
Rusty Broome, Boston
The Rays are a half a game up on the Red Sox. The Red Sox have had to deal with injuries, and don't forget that trip to Japan which everybody seems to agree will throw your whole team off for a week or two. All the Rays have had to deal with is people talking about what a great story they are.
Jayson Stark (1:39 PM)
Rusty, it's a little late to use Japan as an excuse, buddy,.The Red Sox were 3 1/2 up on this team a few weeks ago, and 2 1/2 up in the last two weeks -- three months after they left Tokyo. So I'm not buying that. And let me point out again that Tampa Bay lost its best starting pitcher for a month AND last year's team MVP (Pena) just came off the DL. So pay attention!
About 3 years ago to the day, the Nats (first year in DC) were something like 51-31 and considered one of the best teams in baseball. I believe they went on to finish under .500 for the year. There's a lot of baseball left to be played.
Jayson Stark (1:41 PM)
I agree there's a lot of baseball left to be played. But there's a gigantic difference between this team and those Nationals: That team was viewed as a fluke from day one. This team has been viewed as a team on the rise that just started rising a little earlier than anybody figured. Go back to the winter and read what people like myself, Buster, Gammons and Jerry Crasnick were writing about Tampa Bay. Everybody saw this coming. Just not quite this fast.
The Sox have a better offense, a better bullpen, and an equal starting rotation with Beckett, Dice-K and Lester matching up with the Rays top three. They are a better team.
Jayson Stark (1:43 PM)
This is an interesting discussion point. Seems to me the Red Sox are actually worried about their bullpen, or at least the non-Papelbonian part of it. So far, Tampa Bay has had the better bullpen. I'll concede offense to Boston. But if the top three in the rotations is "equal" and Tampa Bay has had the better bullpen, isn't this a wash, at the very least?
Ryan (Washington, DC)
The difference between the difficulty of first half and second half games versus the Red Sox and Yankees amounts too a few things. First, both teams will make moves at the trade deadline to get better (whether large or small, they will do something). The Rays have typically not been able to get any deals done (admittedly, this may be why they are coming together as a solid team now). Second, with regards to the Yankees, they have been a second half team for quite a few years now. It seems like they are always 4-7 games back at mid-season, but coming roaring back in the end. Lastly, both have underperformed to date where as the Rays have over-performed. Only time will tell, and maybe the Rays can hold off the Yankees, but not the Red Sox.
Jayson Stark (1:47 PM)
OK, I agree with you on the trading deadline. And I'm not writing off the Yankees with half a season to go. But I'm not sure I see where the Rays have "over-performed." Just because their record may be surprising doesn't mean they've "over-performed." Let me ask you this: Who in their lineup is having an all-time career year? Hinske is having a bounce-back season, but not a career year. Evan Longoria is doing what everyone thought he'd do. But isn't most of this group actually "under-performing" compared to career norms, or at least recent career norms? I'd argue yes.
No love for the ChiSox or Angels. I agree that Tampa is fantastic but you guys make it seem like it is a 2 team race. The White Sox have had better pitching then both Boston and Tampa and lead the AL in HR's and run differential.
Jayson Stark (1:49 PM)
I've had 1,000 questions or comments so far in this chat, and believe it or not, yours is the first I've seen arguing that the White Sox are better than either of them. That's a totally valid argument, by the way. But I worry about teams with offenses that are built around the home run. And if you check the Elias Says column today, you'll see that the White Sox are the AL's chief offender in that category. Tampa Bay, on the other hand, can manufacture runs with its legs any time it needs to. And one more thing: the difference in runs scored is only 14 runs (barely more than a run a week). So it's hardly dramatic.
The Red Sox are actually one above their Expected W-L record. 50-34 v 49-35
Jayson Stark (1:51 PM)
So you're saying they're actually the team that's "over-performing." Right? But one win isn't real tangible over-performance. Last I looked, by the way, Tampa Bay was actually below its expected won-lost.
Jeff (Tampa, FL)
SOX have better Bullpen?!? Rays pen: 3.17 ERA, .211 BAA, 1.19 WHIP Sox pen: 3.89 ERA, .250 BAA, 1.40 WHIP That WHIP difference says it all to anyone that know their stats!
Jayson Stark (1:52 PM)
Thanks for the numbers, Jeff. We rest our case.
The Rays have swept the Angels, the Red Sox, the Cubs, the Marlins, the Orioles, and the White Sox. How many sweeps do the Sox have? (I'm not being sarcastic, I'm honestly not sure.)
Jayson Stark (1:53 PM)
They've swept Tampa Bay twice at home and also swept the Rangers, Brewers and Royals -- all in Fenway.
Nando, DelRay Beach, FL
Not to be a Sox apologist, but not only did they lose DiceK for 4 starts, they lost Beckett for 5, Bucholtz for 3 (then Colon, which is why you have Masterson still up), Ortiz for 5 weeks and counting and Lowell for a month. The Rays are where they are, but you're telling me they'd be there without Kazmir for 4 starts, Shields for 4 starts, and 2 of their top 4 offensive starters for a month plus each? Please.
Jayson Stark (1:55 PM)
This is a reasonable point. I'm not accepting any mention of Colon's loss as valid, since nobody expected him to stay healthy. He's just there as a hole-plugger. But would the Rays be where they are without Kazmir AND Shields? I think it's fair to say no. But this isn't a what-if chat. This is a what-is chat.
After this week the Rays will have played 12 less road games than Boston. That's huge.
Jayson Stark (1:56 PM)
Another good point -- if it were true. In fact, the difference is only five by my count. But remember, the Rays have actually been the better road team (19-19 versus 19-24).
Joe (Grand Rapids, MI)
The Rays also have the hardest strength of schedule as well(.534) ahead of the Red Sox(.519), White Sox (.518), and Angels (.507).
Jayson Stark (1:58 PM)
More good info, Joe. Best record in baseball. Hardest strength of schedule in baseball. Yet people still don't want to believe. What are you folks missing?
Bill (North Attleboro, MA)
The Rays have had injuries too. Pena, Kazmir, Percival, Floyd. Worth noting that Longoria missed a good chunk because he wasn't even called up until later in the season. I would argue that list matches up in terms of what they mean to the team with the list of Sox players missing time, or players from any team for that matter.
Jayson Stark (2:00 PM)
I'm not sure how to determine whether this is equivalent to the Red Sox or not. But if your point is that the Rays have done this without enjoying extraordinary health luck, then we're in agreement.
Jayson Stark (2:00 PM)
OK, it's that time again. We only have time for one more. Let's make it eloquent!
Love ya Jayson and you make an interesting argument....but lets wait and see how the Rays react to pressure in September before annoiting them the "best' tag...We have pretty convincing history of how the Red Sox, Yankees and Angels players will react to pressure, but the Rays have no pennant race experience .
Jayson Stark (2:03 PM)
Rob, you're right about this. We have no idea how these players will handle the pressure games of August, September and possibly beyond. But we're debating who's the best team in baseball RIGHT NOW, aren't we? And as I think we've proven, there's a compelling case to be made for this team. If the Rays' first half matches their second, they'll win 98 games. No team in history has ever had the worst record in baseball one year and won 98 games the next. So this isn't just the best team in baseball. It's turning into one of the best stories in baseball history.
Jayson Stark (2:03 PM)
Thanks again to everybody who participated. This has been one of the most interesting debate chats of the year. See you all again next week in Debate Land.
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