Tampa Bay Rays Lead League in Races and Strikes

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla – Chad Mottola was sure he was done with baseball. He’d given the game 16 years, all to get 25 hits in the majors and a thousand restless nights in the minors. Nagging questions swirled in his brain at odd hours: How could he change his swing? Would he ever have another call to the majors? Should he resign?

When he finally retired, aged 36 in 2007, Mottola considered a career in recruiting footballers. But a friend thought he would make a good baseball coach, and the job offered to him – at the lowest underage level – was convenient for his young family. Mottola took it, loved it and now guides the surprisingly robust offense of the Tampa Bay Rays, the top team in the American League.

“The kids were so innocent, and that brought back my innocence,” Mottola said recently in the home dugout at Tropicana Field, not far from that first coaching job, with a Toronto farm team in Dunedin, Fla. You know what, I think I got something for these guys. I like to see people succeed, or even just sleep well at night, and I talked about it a lot. This is my daily goal: how am I going to rest when you lay down your head? “

These days, it seems, the Rays are the ones who keep their rivals awake at night. They’ve gleefully rocked conventional wisdom since their first victorious season, in 2008, but now they’re doing it better than ever: they set a franchise record for wins this season, with 100, powered by the best offense in history. the team, with an 857 points scored in the league.

The Rays head into the playoffs, as their rivals battle for wildcard spots, and they’ve scored all of those points while leading the AL at bat, challenging the traditionalist’s notion that teams have to – Or at least should – strive to contact.

They reduced their puff rate throughout the stretch, aided by rookie shortstop Wander Franco, who had more hits than hits and failures in a recent 43-game streak reaching base . But the Rays, who will host the winner of the wild card game on Thursday to start their division series, are not a slapping team.

“Nobody’s afraid of the guy who’s going to break his momentum and make contact and kick a ball to the ground on the court or second – that’s an out,” said second baseman Brandon Lowe, who leads the home team (39, including three on Saturday) but also has 166 strikeouts. “So if a guy is going to do it on a 0-0 or 0-1 count, with our defense and the team that we have, it’s like, ‘Thanks, I appreciate you selling your bat from this. way. “

“Is there something to be said about getting your swing up to two shots – and if you really watch it, how many guys practice a two-shot approach?” How many times do you go to batting practice and say, “OK, I’m going to take this like I’m hitting with two holds.” Not many guys do that. It’s hard to get up there in a game and completely change your swing. So obviously no one wants to write off. But I think there is a more positive outlook to getting your swing and being able to do damage than breaking your swing just to make contact.

The Rays can live with strikeouts because they understand that there are no perfect players – at least none in their price range. According to Baseball Prospectus, they’ve spent just $ 83 million on their 40-player roster this season (26th in majors) without a single player making $ 12 million. To make up for the lack of well-balanced stars, the Rays seek out players with specific skills and deploy them in the right places.

They accept flaws, focus on strengths and now have a five-year streak of improving their overall standings in points scored: from 25th in 2017 to first now.

“There are tradeoffs to all of this,” said Erik Neander, president of baseball operations for the Rays. “It’s not necessarily like ‘Oh, strikeouts, whatever.’ But it’s just about trying to make the most of what we have and what is best for our players. The guys in the batting area are the ones in charge of the goals too, they are too. the ones who play on the defensive end, and some of the guys who are pulling out are exceptional in those other areas.

As the Rays miss their top three World Series starters from last year – they traded Blake Snell to San Diego, let Charlie Morton leave for Atlanta as a free agent and lost Tyler Glasnow to a Tommy John surgery – their attack remained largely intact. Add Franco and Nelson Cruz, subtract Willy Adames and Hunter Renfroe, and it’s pretty much the same group that hit 0.207 in the last three rounds of the playoffs.

In theory, the Rays’ penchant for strikeouts makes them vulnerable to the powerful weapons most teams use in October. (“It’s just to keep in mind,” conceded manager Kevin Cash. “When you’re up against the big pitchers or the sticks at bat, how do we match?”)

But the Rays led the majors in strikeouts last season and still came close to two wins from their first title, helped greatly by a sudden explosion from outfielder Randy Arozarena. Cash is a master at optimizing clashes; he’s used 157 different rosters, a major-league high this season and often substitutes. The team excels at situational hitting, with .357 with runners in third place and less than two strikeouts through Friday (MLB average: 0.316) and scoring by far the most points in the majors in the ninth inning. .

Mottola said he never pays attention to team totals because each hitter has different strengths and weaknesses. His traveling professional career – which started as a fifth pick in the Cincinnati Draft in 1992, a place ahead of Derek Jeter – taught him that there was no absolute in his trade.

“Nobody understood hitting,” Mottola said. “I know a lot of people have said on the Internet that they have all of these answers and everything. But my experience as a player made me realize that there isn’t just one answer, and there isn’t just one way of thinking. I played with a lot of good players, and none of them taught me the same.

The proliferation of personal swing coaches worries Mottola; Developing hitters, he fears, will be raised like robots, trained on fad techniques that might not be best for them. Then again, he said, it is his responsibility to study any theory that might intrigue his hitters.

“You always hear about the cookie cutter approach, and it’s about as cookie-cutter as it gets,” Lowe said. “When I first got here in 2018, he sort of sat me down and said, ‘I want you to tell me all about your swing, how you want to hit, your approach, your exercise, everything, so that I can help you. you better understand your swing and what you need to do to optimize it. ‘ He wants to know more about you before he tells you anything to do.

This is a useful clue to understanding an organization often described as strictly related to analytics. Even if the Rays look to data for answers, they couldn’t translate the lessons without the kind of personal connection Mottola seeks.

Coaches build confidence by listening to players. So when Cash writes an unusual lineup or Neander makes a confusing trade, players don’t panic. Usually they shrug their shoulders and keep winning.

“It’s a team-first approach here – it’s the kind of atmosphere that was created for us, and it starts from the top down,” said third baseman Joey Wendle. “We have been successful in doing this, and if we are successful, then why would we want to change that? “