Analytics have taken over the world of baseball. Depending on who you ask, you’ll get one of three responses:
- What’s analytics? Isn’t that the capital of Maryland?
- That’s great! We should always look for ways to improve the game and make teams and players better!
- That’s terrible! We don’t need fancy mathematicians to tell us who is and isn’t good at baseball (or football).
Well, the Tampa Bay Rays are proving group number three wrong.
Over the past half-decade or so, the Tampa Bay Rays have slowly creeped up into the realm of baseball’s elite ball clubs. Since 2017, despite playing in the toughest division in baseball the Rays have never finished worse than third in their division, have consistently increased their win percentage, and have done so all the while being bottom-five in payroll across the league. This stretch of steady improvement over the years shouldn’t happen in Major League Baseball barring some extraordinary luck. No team as poor as the Rays should be able to maintain their key contributors for several years unless they have tons of players in their farm systems ready to take their place. However, having that many capable players waiting in the Minor Leagues would take years, and an insane amount of luck in order to continue winning at the Major League level… or, and hear me out, maybe the Rays are just several steps ahead of the rest of the league.
The Rays were one of the first teams in Major League Baseball to take a chance on analytics. They’re by far the most analytically advanced team across Major League Baseball. They’ve used analytics as a tool not only in order to trade for efficient players they can use in the future, but also as a development tool for those players to make sure they become as good as possible before reaching the Major League level, and the results of this experiment have been insane.
Every single level of Rays’ baseball saw success in 2021. All five of their domestic Minor League affiliates (Durham Bulls, Montgomery Biscuits, Bowling Green Hot Rods, Charleston RiverDogs, FCL Rays) reached the championship of their level. Four of them won the championship, and the one that didn’t, the Montgomery Biscuits, came within one run of winning. This is an absurdly well-run organization, and in a sport where wealthy teams continue to dominate year-in, year-out, it’s incredible to see a team take down the mammoths of the sport by simply looking at data no one else is willing to.
Obviously, baseball has its problems with elitism. Oldheads love to sit in the corner and talk about how you don’t need advanced metrics or weighted statistics in order to determine who is the better player for your team. They’ll talk about the good ol’ days when “nerds” hadn’t taken over the sport.
Well, guess what? Money is still king, but knowledge appears to be a close second nowadays. Sure, there are still teams, managers, and players, who live by their old ways and find success. There are also times when analytics have come back to bite teams in the derriere, like when Rays’ manager Kevin Cash pulled Blake Snell out of Game 6 of the 2020 World Series, because that’s what the data told him to do, but you’re forgetting that he still reached the World Series with one of the lowest payrolls in Major League Baseball. His team had the second-best record in the league, and you want to bring him down because of one bad decision? Those are bound to happen!
There are also instances of managers improving their teams after coming around to the idea of analytics. Look no further than Gabe Kapler, manager of the San Francisco Giants, and the likely recipient of the 2021 NL Manager of the Year Award. In 2019, Kapler, then-manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, hated using analytics. He hated using computer data to run a team and thought it was detrimental to the game. Kapler underwhelmed as the Phillies manager and, in his two years leading the clubhouse, could never get the Phillies above .500. Then he goes to the Giants, and like the plot to a Hallmark movie, learns the error of his ways, succumbs to the world of analytics, and stuns the baseball world two years in a row. First, in 2020, when his Giants were supposed to be one of the worst teams in the league, yet remained in the playoff hunt until the very last day of the season. Then, in 2021, as his Giants continue to remain at the top of the MLB standings, ahead of powerhouses like Los Angeles and Houston.
It’s easy to see where the world of baseball is headed if you just look. Teams that continue to play by the old rules will get left in the dust by a team that spends one-quarter what they do. The Rays are the most well-rounded organization in baseball. They’ve set themselves up to be a dominant force for years, and they did it by moving away from traditional baseball values. Checkmate, oldheads. Your time is past.