OK, the Rays don’t hit into double-plays on purpose. But it does appear that they hit into a lot of double-plays by design. It appears that groundballs are the new Moneyball stat for the Rays.
Much like OBP with the A’s in the book “Moneyball,” and defense with the Rays a few years ago, the Rays appear to have found a new (Moneyball) stat that may be undervalued by other teams, groundballs.
That is, the Rays appear to intentionally prefer hitters that hit more groundballs and pitchers that give up fewer groundballs.
So far this season, the Rays are third in the AL in double-plays grounded into (79) and yet they are dead last defensively with just 50 double-plays turned, 11 fewer than any other AL club and less than half of the double-plays turned by the Orioles (102).
We all know the Rays are good defensively, so there must be another reason.
So, why do the Rays hit into so many double-plays and turn so few? It may that the Rays are taking advantage of the turf at Tropicana Field.
Outside of Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford was the greatest offensive player in franchise history. He also hit into a lot of double-plays despite being a left-handed hitter with speed. The reason? He hit a ton of groundballs. The turf speeds up groundballs and may increase basehits. The downside is more double-plays. Meanwhile, flyballs are generally easy to catch.
Here is a look at the groundball rate for Rays hitters since the current front office took over in 2006. The key numbers here are from the last few years which may indicate a shift in focus by the front office.
Notice that since 2009 the Rays batters have increasingly become more groundball oriented. That is especially true over the past two seasons.
But if groundballs are good for hitters they must be bad for pitchers. If that’s the case, the Rays would then prefer pitchers that give up fewer groundballs. Let’s take a look.
Weird. From 2012 to 2014, the batters’ groundball rate went way up and during the same timeframe, the pitchers’ groundball rate went way down.
That can’t be a coincidence.
We don’t have amateur data to see if these are the type of players the Rays prefer in the draft. But we do have data for players added via the minors, trade, or free agency the last few years.
Here are the key batters added to the roster the last two seasons and their career groundball rate. Keep in mind that higher groundball rates may be better for hitters and the AL average groundball rate is about 44.5%…
- Yunel Escobar, 54.5%
- Brandon Guyer, 52.6%
- Kevin Kiermaier, 50.5%
- Ryan Hanigan, 48.9%
- Wil Myers, 46.3%
- David DeJesus, 45.2%
- James Loney, 43.0%
- Logan Forsythe, 39.8%
All of them have above-average groundball rates except for Loney (exceptional glove) and Forsythe (versatile defense).
But let’s face it. The Rays front office suits are the masters of pitching and it is that side of the ball where the Rays have excelled.
Here are the pitchers added over the last few years who pitched at least 20 innings over the last two seasons. Keep in mind, lower career groundball rates are better for pitchers under this theory.
- Joel Peralta, 31.1%
- Brandon Gomes, 32.0%
- Jake Odorizzi, 33.1%
- Grant Balfour, 35.7%
- Josh Lueke, 38.5%
- Matt Moore, 38.7%
- Juan Carlos Oviedo, 39.1%
- Alex Colome, 41.8%
- Erik Bedard, 42.0% (33.9% this season)
- Brad Boxberger, 42.2%
- Cesar Ramos, 45.2%
- Chris Archer, 47.2%
- Fernando Rodney, 50.2%
- Roberto Hernandez, 51.4%
- Jamey Wright, 56.0%
The interesting names on this list are the last three, the three with the highest percentage of groundballs. Both Rodney and Wright were very important pieces and yet the Rays let both of them leave in free agency. Remember, Rodney signed with the Mariners for only $2 million more than the Rays gave Balfour and there was no indication the Rays even offered Rodney a contract even though he wanted to come back.
The other pitcher at the bottom of the list is Hernandez who was a disaster with the Rays.
Of course, the downside to more groundballs for hitters and fewer groundballs for pitchers is fewer home runs for the good guys and more home runs for the bad guys. On the offensive side, the Rays are 10th in the AL with 76 home runs and have just one player with more than eight (Evan Longoria, 11). Meanwhile, Rays pitchers have given up the 5th most home runs in the AL (92).
But if we can get past all the double-plays (for the bad guys) and the home runs (for the bad guys), the Rays seem to think this is a strategy that can create more wins. It hasn’t worked this season (yet), but a team like the Rays must think outside the box and that box may have produced the newest Moneyball stat, groundballs.