A couple of weeks ago, we showed that, in contrast to the 2008 Rays, the 2009 Rays were underperforming their Pythagorean record. That is, despite leading the American League in runs scored, and run differential, the Rays were still just a .500 ballclub.
After sweeping the Nationals, the Rays are 33-31, but based on their runs scored and runs allowed, their record should be closer to 38-26, which would put the Rays 1 game behind the Red Sox in the AL East.
So why have the Rays underperformed their Pythagorean (Expected) Record?
One reason we have stated previously is the Rays performance in 1-run games. Last year’s team was 29-18 in 1-run games. As a result, the 2008 Rays actually outperformed their Pythagorean Record by 5 games, finishing 97-65. This season, the Rays are only 8-13 in 1-run games, and that is after winning two 1-run games this past weekend.
So why is this team so awful in close games?
Let’s go to the numbers and see how the 2008 and 2009 Rays performed overall as compared to how they performed in clutch (Close and Late*) situations…
A few notes on the chart…
- In 2008, both the offense and the pitching got better in clutch situations.
- We see the exact opposite in 2009, the offense’s OPS goes down in the clutch while the pitching’s OPS allowed goes up.
- Overall, the offense is much better in 2009 with an OPS 52 points higher as compared to last season. However, they are actually 9 points worse in clutch situations as compared to 2008.
- The relief pitching has not been as good overall as they were in 2008. Their OPS allowed has increased by 27 points. But when the game is on the line, the OPS allowed has increased a whopping 89 points as compared to 2008.
With both the offense and the pitching staff doing worse in clutch situations this season, the obvious question is: Why? This is where it gets tricky.
Some possible explanations…
- Small sample size. As somebody that plays with statistics a lot in their day job, we are yet to see a convincing argument about what exactly a “small sample size” is in baseball. It would seem to us that one-third of the season, 352 plate appearances for the offense and 367 plate appearances for the pitchers is a fair sample size in this case.
- The Rays miss the veteran presence. The 2008 squad included Cliff Floyd, Eric Hinske and a full-time Troy Percival. All three of those players were veterans that had been through the battles many times. But more importantly, all three were considered players that the younger members of the team leaned on. Maybe there is something to be said about the calming influence and leadership those three provided in the most tense situations. And while separately, each player was expendable, maybe it was too much to lose all three.
- The Rays miss Jonny Gomes. We have seen quite a bit of sentiment in the comments that the Rays miss Jonny’s fire and cheerleading. Most dismiss the claim, but one cannot deny that Gomes was a very vocal and fiery player. Maybe his cheerleading pushed some members of the team to lift their game a notch in crucial situations.
In the end, we don’t know what the answer is. All we know is that the 2008 American League champions came through more often than not when the game was on the line. And the 2009 Rays do not. Can they turn it around? We need to see those numbers above take a turn for the better before we get too excited, and that means more than winning a couple of close games against one of the worst teams of the last 40 years.
*Close and Late is defined as plate appearances in the 7th or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or the tying run at least on deck.