By Cliff Corcoran
The first half of the 2017 Major League Baseball season has been shaped in many ways by surprising team performances, be it that of the Rockies, Twins, Yankees, Diamondbacks or Brewers. But there's one team that should get some more love, one that has gone from losing 94 games last year to occupying the second Wild Card spot in the American League entering Wednesday: the Tampa Bay Rays.
The Rays snuck up on everybody. They didn't have a big offseason. Their top acquisitions were free agents Colby Rasmus and Wilson Ramos. Meanwhile, they traded second baseman Logan Forsythe, who was third on the team in wins above replacement in 2016, and lefty starter Drew Smyly, and previously dealt righty Matt Moore and outfielder Brandon Guyer at 2016's non-waiver Trade Deadline. The only established Major Leaguer they received in return for those four was former Giants third baseman Matt Duffy, whose intended move to shortstop was interrupted by a major surgery of his own, on his Achilles tendon.
With Duffy, Ramos and Rasmus on the disabled list, the Rays opened the 2017 season by going 12-14 in April. It wasn't until late May that they began to gain steam, and wasn't until mid June that they managed to have sustained success. However, while the Rays' actual record hovered around .500, the advanced stats were telling a very different story, with run differential and third-order record showing Tampa as one of the best ballclubs in the AL.
On June 1, the Rays' third-order winning percentage was .613, third-best in the AL behind the Yankees and Astros. Since then, the Rays' actual and third-order winning percentages have begun to converge. Tampa Bay reached a season-best four games over .500 on June 23, and are still around that level with a 44-41 record entering Wednesday. Their third-order winning percentage, meanwhile, has cooled off to .560, but it's still a top-five mark in the league. Boston and Cleveland are the only teams that has slipped past them in the AL's third-order standings.
What makes the Rays particularly compelling heading into the second half of the season is that, despite their middling actual record and the early June loss of one of their most valuable players, elite defensive center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, to a fractured hip that will keep him out until at least August, Tampa Bay has been aggressive in upgrading its roster. On June 17, they picked up corner infielder Trevor Plouffe from the A's in what, for Oakland, was a salary dump of an underperforming walk-year veteran. On June 26, with Duffy seemingly no closer to a return to action, they traded a pair of Minor League non-prospects to the Marlins for shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria. Meanwhile, Ramos returned to action on June 24, giving the Rays two new starters as two key up-the-middle positions nearly simultaneously.
In Kiermaier's place, they have installed speedy former Padres and Braves prospect Mallex Smith, part of the return for Smyly, who has hit .321/.396/.407 since Kiermaier's injury. The rotation, meanwhile, has been reinforced by the early-June callup of 23-year-old righty Jacob Faria who has posted a 2.23 ERA and 7.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio through his first five Major League starts.
On the season, the Rays have been buoyed by career-years from 29-year-old first baseman Logan Morrison (.256/.366/.579, 24 HR, 57 RBIs), 28-year-old designated hitter/left fielder Corey Dickerson (.318/.362/.557, 17 HR, 40 RBIs) and 28-year-old right fielder Steven Souza (.271/.372/.502, 16 HR, 55 RBIs). That trio has transformed the Rays offense, which hit just 117 home runs in 2014, the year before Souza's acquisition and two years before Morrison and Dickerson were added. Already this year the Rays have hit 129 round-trippers, the third-best mark in the league. They were also fifth in the Majors in walks (308) and first in strikeouts (830) before Tuesday's games. With the league-wide Three True Outcome rate (home runs, walks and strikeouts, the three most common plate appearance results that don't involve the vagaries of fielding) at an all-time high of 33.4 percent, no team is producing those outcomes more often than the Rays, who have walked, homered, or struck out in 38.1 percent of their plate appearances this season.
Meanwhile, the Rays' starting rotation, the source of so much optimism heading into their 94-loss season a year ago, has posted the second-best rotation ERA in the AL thus far, their 4.10 again trailing only the Astros, who boast a 3.80 mark. Unlike the Astros' top-heavy quintet, however, the Rays' rotation has been more consistent from top to bottom. Chris Archer, Alex Cobb and Jake Odorizzi all currently sport ERA+ marks between 102 (Odorizzi) and 106 (Archer), while Faria has done an excellent job of replacing the injured Matt Andriese, who will be out until August with a stress reaction in his hip.
That the Rays have played so well despite their rash of injuries is impressive, but it also hints at a potential second wave of reinforcements if Rasmus, who hit well in May before returning to the DL with tendonitis in his surgically repaired hip in June, Kiermaier, Andriese and shortstop-turned-first-baseman-turned-second-baseman Brad Miller, who started a Minor League rehab assignment on July 1, can return by mid-August.
Also working in their favor is that there are just five AL teams with third-order winning percentages above .500: the Astros, Yankees, Indians, Rays and Red Sox, in that order. The Rays have been easy to overlook this season, but per Baseball Prospectus's Playoff Odds Report, they have a 42.6 percent chance of reaching the postseason, the fifth-highest mark in the AL. If you haven't already, start paying attention.
Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent the last 10 seasons covering baseball for SI.com and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.