There are teams ahead of the curve, there are smart teams... and then there are the Rays. We don't have to go through the whole spiel in talking about how the Rays have the fourth lowest payroll in baseball and yet the best record (and offense) in MLB.
What we are here to do, however, is to look at the outrageous offensive production of this interesting group of hitters and how exactly they got to this point.
Some of these numbers are quite preposterous, but let's go through them: The Rays are first in home runs (97, with the second place team having 83), first in wOBA (.364, with the second place team at .342), first in wRC+ (138, with the second place team at 119), first in OPS (.842, with the second place team at .792) - and just to prove a point, lead the league in stolen bases with 62. Randy Arozarena and Wander Franco have absolutely proven themselves as genuine talents that would likely garner way more attention if thrusted into a bigger market. But now, add in Yandy Diaz who is playing at a clear All-MLB level - along with some role players we will discuss later in the article - and you have a recipe for the best team in baseball.
Oh yeah, when I say clear All-MLB level for Diaz, I mean the most underrated player in baseball. As the leadoff hitter on the best team in MLB, Diaz has already topped his home run total from last year and is maybe the best hitter so far in 2023. Traded back in 2018 in a three-team deal which sent Jake Bauers to Cleveland and cash considerations to Seattle, the Rays honed in on a player in Diaz who always hit the ball hard and had a well-advanced approach and knowledge of the strikezone dating back to his very first year in 2017. Diaz has ranked in the 90th percentile or higher for average exit velocity in 2019, 2022 and obviously this year (see below). It's simply that the Rays are able to find value better than any other team - and can then develop these players into their best self.
(Source: Statcast, 2023 Yandy Diaz)
The fact of the matter is that the Rays hit the ball really, really, really hard. Last year, as a team, the Rays hit for an 88.9 mph exit velocity where the league average was at 88.6 mph. Continuing this trend, the Rays hard hit percentage was 38.7% when the league average was 38.4%. Fast forward to 2023, and well - that is just not the case.
Now, Tampa Bay is in the top 3% for average exit velocity, barrel rate and hard hit percentage. A lot is in part to the adjustments made by players like Luke Raley and Taylor Walls, but also in part to players like Christian Bethancourt who were clear targets for the Rays due to his ability to - you guessed it - hit the ball hard.
(Source: Statcast, 2023 Christian Bethancourt)
When he was acquired in July of last year, the former A's catcher was in the 90th percentile or higher in barrel rate and average exit velocity. In 2023, he is doing the same exact thing - and while he may be whiffing and chasing - he's barreling up balls and hitting them out of the park. And now, who is this?
(Source: Statcast, 2023 Luke Raley)
Well, it's the aforementioned Luke Raley. While swinging and missing... a lot - these types of Rays have provided instant boosts with their power and have played a vital role as supporting cast members to a grossly stacked lineup. As we have seen with other players, Raley "fixed" his leg kick to more of toe tap and has brought his hands closer to his body resulting in a more compact swing. Yes, the K-rate is still way high - but the adjustments have lessened the moving parts to an already long swing, which in turn has caused him to be shorter to the ball.
With a glut of pitching a few years ago, they traded highly regarded prospect Matthew Liberatore for Arozarena back in 2020. Their less publicized trades, however, are the ones that really show off what this front office is about. They built this formidable "bottom of the lineup" through these ticky-tack trades - acquiring Raley for a relief prospect, and Bethancourt for a fringe pitching prospect and outfielder Cal Stevenson. By no means is Bethancourt an All-Star or even close to it, but he's tied for third in home runs (7) among catchers and has provided a spark at the bottom of the lineup that has characterized the Rays offense in 2023.
Of course, the Rays professional scouting department is probably the best in baseball, but their player development and coaching staffs are likely the at the top of the list too. Yes, Wander Franco is the guy - but what about Josh Lowe and Taylor Walls?
Drafted in the first round of the 2016 draft, Lowe was always an intriguing prospect. He oozed potential given his athletic frame, speed, and natural ability to lift the ball. Well, when you are the Rays and can work with that profile, anything is possible. As is the usual in 2023, Lowe - who has hit at the top of the lineup when Yandy Diaz has been sidelined - is putting up a .977 OPS and looks to be a plus outfielder moving forward.
Walls, the Rays' 2017 third round selection is OPSing .850 and producing balance and protection throughout the lineup. Incredibly, the young shortstop finished 2022 hitting .172 with a .553 OPS. Of course, however, Walls made key adjustments at the plate after a visit to a hitting facility this offseason. He brought his hands closer to his body pre pitch and also moved to bringing his hands way down to create - like Raley - a more compact and efficient swing path and motion.
It does not quite matter how they got into the organization, but if they are a Ray - they are likely going to make adjustments, hit... and hit the ball hard.