Are the Rays the most clutch team in MLB?

The Rays come to the Bronx for a two-game series with the Yankees as the majors’ best team. The fact that they have the best record in baseball at 28-11 is not surprising. But the fact that they are the American League’s second-highest scoring team (5.3 runs per game) - despite not ranking higher than seventh in any other major offensive category – is quite amazing.

Rays Batting Average, 2010 AL Ranks

The key to their success is their amazing ability to hit with runners in scoring position, as they have the league’s best batting average in those situations. But what is most interesting is that they are hitting only .233 in all other plate appearances, which is above only the Mariners in the American League!

What are the Rays doing when they have “ducks on the pond” that is so different from their approach in other at-bats and so much better than everyone else? And is this incredible clutch performance sustainable over the course of the season? Let’s take a deeper look, using video review data from our friends at Inside Edge.

The first thing that the Rays are doing to help themselves with runners in scoring position is that they are swinging at more pitches – 48.2% compared to 43.5% in other at-bats. And they become even more aggressive on pitches in the strike zone, offering at 72.6% of those pitches with runners in scoring position – the highest rate in the league – compared to just 64.1% in other situations.

Rays, Pitches In Zone With RISP
2010 AL Ranks

They’ve taken advantage of this free-swinging approach in the strike zone, belting out a batting average of .339 and a slugging percentage of .539 on pitches in the zone with runners in scoring position, which rank first and second, respectively, in the AL, and are much higher than their .260 and .418 marks in other situations.

By swinging at more pitches in the strike zone, the Rays are likely swinging at better, more “hittable” pitches. As a result, they’ve been able to get more solid wood on the ball, and it has translated into a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .343 with runners in scoring position, the best mark in the American League, and much better than their .286 BABIP in other at-bats, which ranks 10th in the AL.

While this sounds like a great formula – swing at only good pitches so that you give yourself a better chance of crushing them and hitting them where the fielders aren’t – its likely not sustainable.

Over the course of the season, BABIP will tend to even out to around the league average, which is .292 with runners in scoring position. The theory is that there is luck involved in baseball – some weakly hit bloopers sneak through an infield, while some hard hit balls don’t.

It’s no joke that the Rays are the best team in baseball and are currently tearing the cover off the ball with runners in scoring position. But part of the reality is that they’re also likely benefiting from some good fortune by the baseball gods and it will be a challenge for them to keep up this incredible clutch performance the entire season.

Tune in tonight to Wednesday Night Baseball on ESPN at 7 ET when the Rays put their major-league best 28-11 record on the line as they face the Yankees in a key AL East battle.