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The Rays and the impossible science of the upgrade

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Wilson Ramos, Logan Forsythe, and the complex questions that eventually decide seasons.

Atlanta Braves v Washington Nationals Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

One of baseball’s easiest predictions, seemingly: Forecast which clubs will rank in the top half of the league in production from the ninth spot in the order. With the idea of hitting the pitcher eighth falling out of style, this might be the most coldly logical thought process the game has left. The teams that get to bat nine position players in the vast majority of their contests should unfailingly rank ahead of those that don’t. But, as they say, you can’t predict baseball.

The Tampa Bay Rays’ 9th hitters, collectively, hit like Ben Revere in 2016. Had their 599 plate appearances been the work of a single, unfortunately qualified hitter, the Rays’ 9th-spot performers would have undercut the league’s lowest qualified individual OPS by more than 40 points.

And so it was that our cold logic was thwarted. By wRC+, an adjusted measure of offensive production scaled to league average, those nine-spot hitters accomplished the unlikely feat of ranking 16th in baseball — behind the St. Louis Cardinals.

(As you could probably gather, the Rays ranked dead last if we look at the production of non-pitchers batting ninth.)

That type of futility would probably be amusing regardless of its significance, but the black hole at the end of the Rays lineup — of which this was just one statistical symptom — appears to have been quite costly to a team that PECOTA surprisingly projected to win the AL East.

The bottom of a lineup is only the bottom of a lineup when viewed as a linear set of written words on a card. It never really functions as “the end” of anything. It is just what comes before the top of the lineup – where the good hitters are. So these are the hitters setting the table for the hitters who can do damage.

In 2016, the top of the Rays lineup did its damage-doing job pretty well! By wRC+, their leadoff and two-hole hitters ranked seventh in adjusted offensive performance. And while you would generally look at that number and nod approvingly, it didn’t work out nearly as well for the Rays as for the other teams around them in that category — because while those hitters performed well, they had far, far fewer opportunities with runners on base in which to do so.

If we narrow that sample to show how the first two hitters in each team’s lineup performed with runners on, it looks like a very similar list — as you’d expect — but the Rays’ sixth-place ranking comes with a big asterisk: They encountered that favorable situation only 492 times in 2016, less often than all but the rather pathetic Oakland A’s.

So the great performance of the Rays leadoff and number-two hitters amounted to significantly fewer runs than similarly excellent top-of-the-order-duos — like the Astros or Red Sox — who got 100 or 140 additional chances to hit with men on base.

A more crude and more depressing measure of this? The Rays got a league-leading 59 homers from their top two hitters, and yet those hitters drove in only 140 runs — 12th, and 38 runs behind the league-leading Astros, who we’ve already determined performed, in a vacuum, very similarly.

Who were the actual batters sucking up the offensive air from this ghastly lineup slot? Mostly whoever was catching. The Rays were a bit ahead of the curve a few years ago, identifying and collecting good framers behind the plate. Last year’s catchers — a combination of Curt Casali, Hank Conger, Luke Maile and Bobby Wilson — were above the average waterline for framing, per Baseball Prospectus, but certainly not among the game’s elite. And with the group’s collective OBP coming in at .265, the Rays saw a spot they needed to upgrade.

Lo and behold, Wilson Ramos — a very good offensive catcher rehabbing a knee injury — appeared on the free agent market as a bargain opportunity. The theory is that If Ramos is able to not only return, but return to primary catcher duties (where his framing scored similarly to that foursome), the Rays will have scored one of the biggest upgrades of the offseason.

Whenever he can return to catching duties, Ramos will slot in higher in the order, and push a Logan Morrison or Nick Franklin or Colby Rasmus type toward the bottom of the lineup card on most days. Still nothing special, but he’s a more potent threat than the motley catching crew provided in 2016.

Tampa Bay Rays v Toronto Blue Jays
Logan Forsythe celebrates a solo home run, of course.
Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Upgrades, though, are rarely as binary as we like to imagine.

Franchises like the Rays are constantly weighing the strength of this season’s team against the long-term value of a club’s assets, and those often competing considerations can be a delicate balance to strike. And when the pitching-rich, money-rich Dodgers needed a second base upgrade, they could afford to deal from a well of big-league-ready starters and get a couple years of Logan Forsythe without sacrificing much of anything from their projected performance this year. The Rays, meanwhile, couldn’t reasonably pass up six years of Jose De Leon — despite the uncertainty the deal added to their 2017 outlook.

Forsythe was one of those productive Rays at the top of the order whose overall impact suffered from the effective shortening of the lineup. And now it remains to be seen whether they can replace his production adequately enough to capitalize on the increased number of decent hitters in the lineup.

Perhaps Kevin Kiermaier can blossom offensively and remain healthy. Maybe Matt Duffy flashes back to 2015.

But this is the life of a club on a smaller budget. For each solution, there is a problem. Wilson Ramos was an opportunity to snag a solution at a discount. Jose De Leon was worth trying to solve a new problem. The answers to the open-ended questions that remain — How will a rotating collection of 25 people will play 162 games? — sometimes buck all logic, and eventually, they explain how clubs beat or fall short of projections.

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Zach Crizer is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @zcrizer.