In terms of injuries, the Tampa Bay Rays have been dealt some pretty unfortunate blows in the last year or so. Four of the five starters expected to be in the rotation (Alex Cobb, Jake Odorizzi, Drew Smyly, and Matt Moore) have been injured, leaving the team to pitch Nate Karns, Erasmo Ramirez, and Alex Colome with some regularity. They’ve also been missing Desmond Jennings, James Loney, and John Jaso for extended periods of time.
So the fact that Tampa Bay is just a game out of first place is a bit surprising, and Chris Archer turning into one of the very best pitchers in baseball has been a pleasant surprise, too. But there’s another part of Tampa’s team that has been much better than anyone (probably) expected, and it’s helped keep them afloat so far.
Let’s have a quick quiz: Which team’s outfield would you guess has produced the most fWAR this season?
Based on the title of this post and the first two paragraphs, you would probably go with the Rays, right? Well you’d be wrong — it’s the Dodgers, with 7.7 fWAR. But, the Rays are right behind them with 7.2 WAR, so congratulations on a good effort! The Dodgers get a sizeable chunk of that value from Joc Pederson, who is obviously very good. There’s also a good bit each from Andre Ethier and Scott Van Slyke, while Kike Hernandez and Yasiel Puig are right there with them. Pederson has almost certainly surpassed expectations, but that’s a group of five that we might expect to combine for one of the best outfields in baseball.
Such is not the case for Tampa, and do keep in mind that Desmond Jennings has barely played this year. So the five outfielders we’re seeing from the Rays are Kevin Kiermaier, Brandon Guyer, Steven Souza, Joey Butler*, and David DeJesus. That sounds like a pretty underwhelming group. So let’s take a closer look at these guys.
*Disclaimer: Joey Butler is listed as an outfielder and has provided about a win to the Rays’ outfield value, but he’s played just 15 games in either left or right field. For that reason, I won't get into what Butler's done this year, even though he's been pretty outstanding. Taking Butler out of the equation would put the Rays outfield at 6.2 fWAR, which is still good for 7th in baseball, and seems noteworthy given the other four guys in the group.
There's not a ton to examine with Kiermaier, since we kind of knew what he was when the season began. He seems to have taken a step back at the plate this year, but when we consider what he can do on the bases and in center field, that's a loss that the Rays can deal with. Using Fangraphs' defense rating, Kiermaier actually rates as the best defender in all of baseball.
Not surprising, that, since he can do these types of things:
As a 29-year-old in his second season with meaningful playing time, Guyer has taken a step forward on both sides of the field. He rated as an average left fielder defensively in 2014, adding good speed and a league-average bat in 294 plate appearances. Defensively, he rates as the fourth-best left fielder in baseball using Fangraphs. Between those from last year and this season's 182 PAs, we have a fair amount of data to work with for Guyer.
He had a .322 BABIP last year, and .318 right now. Those are a little high, but Guyer's line drive/ground ball-friendly profile can lead to a higher BABIP, so any regression might not hit him terribly hard. Like Kiermaier, he's a speed/defense guy, and what he's done with his bat thus far seems like the vanilla icing on the red velvet cake that has been the Rays' 2015.
Souza is an interesting player, and he's one that keeps the speed and defense the Rays seem to like so much in the outfield. We're really getting our first look at the 26-year-old right now — he came up to the plate just 26 times with the Nationals last year — and he hasn't disappointed, unless you really hate strikeouts and don't care about anything else.
The difference between Souza and Kiermaier/Guyer is the former's power, and the power might be legitimate. He pulls the ball nearly half of the time he makes contact, which puts him in the top 20 in the league. Souza also ranks 32nd in average fly ball and home run distance on Baseball Heat Maps, at just under 300 feet. If Souza can keep pulling the ball with some authority as he has and walking at a better-than-average rate, his offense does more than enough to help the Rays.
And Souza's defense has rated as fifth-best among right fielders, while his BsR score places him in the top 30 in baseball. The Rays certainly seem to have a type, don't they?
DeJesus is approaching 11 years of big league service time, and he's still a somewhat valuable piece at 35. He's still an above average bat, and his defense, while not great, isn't really ruining the Rays. We basically know what DeJesus is, since he's been around so long, or we at least know what he was. You could say he was at his "most David DeJesus" (DeJesusest?) in 2012 with the Cubs, and he's basically just been that again — average bat, average power, decent enough speed and defense. No, he's not quite as good as the other three, but he hasn't been terrible, either, and that's a pretty good thing to not be.
In typical Rays fashion, the Tampa Bay club has put together another pretty solid team while using pieces that perform much better than expected. Chris Archer and the rest of the starting rotation have been good, Evan Longoria has basically continued being Evan Longoria, which is good, Logan Forsythe has been hitting, somehow or another, and Joey Butler has been hitting very well as the team's DH. As far as really good performances go, though, that's about it. In a year that has thrown a lot of uncertainty the Rays' way, the outfield has more than done their part.
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Murphy Powell is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @murphypowell.