At 32-12, the Tampa Bay Rays are on top of the baseball world. Despite playing in the toughest division in baseball, they currently enjoy a six-game gap over their nearest competitor, easily the largest lead of any first-place team in the game. They have outscored their opponents 240 to 138, and their plus-102 run differential is also the best in baseball by a significant margin. The Rays are a very good
However, while they have played well, there are several reasons to expect a pretty significant step back may be forthcoming.
Offensively, the Rays just haven’t been that good, despite being just six runs off of the league lead in scoring. They’ve racked up their runs through timely hitting rather than good hitting, the latter of which is much more likely to be sustained over a full season. As a team, the Rays are hitting .231/.311/.370 with the bases empty (10th best in the AL), but have hit .294/.368/.462 with runners on base (2nd best in AL), and those clutch hits have put a lot of extra runs on the
How many? Based on their .333 Weighted On Base Average (league average is .326), we’d have expected the Rays to score 211 runs so far this year, or 29 fewer than they’ve actually scored. Historically, it’s been shown that 10 runs are worth about one win to a team, so the Rays have gained approximately three wins just by making their hits count. (To read specifics about how they're producing clutch hitting see this post.)
While getting clutch hits is fun and nice to root for, historically this isn’t the kind of thing that teams can actually specialize in. Over time, pretty much all teams regress back to being about as good (or bad) at hitting with men on base as they are with the bases empty. Good hitting is a repeatable skill -- timely hitting is (mostly) not.
So, while the Rays' record is sparkly, and even their Pythagorean Expected Record is impressive, there are chinks in the armor. With Carlos Pena struggling, Ben Zobrist hitting like it's 2006 again and the team struggling to find a productive designated hitter, this isn’t the offense of a team that will win 70 percent of its games. While their strong start to the season will help them in their quest for a playoff berth, the Rays would be wise to not rest on their laurels if they want to hold on to their spot atop the American League East.
Dave Cameron is a writer for FanGraphs.