There's a buzz around the Tampa Bay Rays this season. Everyone's talking about the exaggerated defensive shifts manager Joe Maddon employs, particularly against left-handed hitters. There's also some talk about declining defense from Gold Glove winner Evan Longoria. The Rays' star third baseman has racked up six errors through 20 games, compared to 14 in each of the past two seasons. And there's the very deep, very talented starting rotation.
But something else interesting is going on with the Rays. Something less noticed, a bit more subtle, until you dig into the numbers. Since bursting through with their first division title in 2008, the Rays have been a speed first, power second team on offense. The Rays led the league in stolen bases in 2008, 2009 and 2010, and ranked second in 2011. In those same seasons, Tampa Bay ranked seventh, sixth, 12th and ninth, respectively, in home runs.
In 2009, teams hit an average of 168 home runs, and the numbers have been declining ever since. The per-team average was 153 home runs in 2010 and 152 in 2011. At the same time, stolen base rates have been steady or increasing. Teams stole an average of 99 bases in 2009 and 2010. That figure jumped to 109 last season.
While the league is hitting fewer home runs and stealing more bases, the Rays are moving in the opposite direction. Tampa Bay is becoming a power first, speed second team. And it's working.