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Three key statistics fueling the Rays’ surprise contention

Many did not expect the Tampa Bay Rays to look as solid as they have thus far in 2017. How are they doing it?

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Rays were projected by some to contend for a wild card spot this year. Others projected them to end up nowhere near the 2017 playoff picture.

The fact is, the Rays — who sit at 40-38 as of this writing — are wild card contenders. And, they are not going away. In fact, they have already begun bolstering their roster in anticipation of a meaningful second half and stretch run.

Prior to this season, some felt the Rays were on a solid path to getting back to their late 2000s heyday. But even those with the most ardently positive outlook on the team from The Trop might not have expected things to start falling in place this quickly. After all, in what universe would a team that was 68-94 the year previous churn out 40+ wins before the all-star break?

How have the Rays turned about their fortunes in such an efficient window? The reasons are myriad, but today we will present a few that help to tell the tale.

Corey Dickerson’s contact rates

Left fielder Corey Dickerson has never lacked talent. Carrying more raw skill than most late-round draftees, Dickerson benefited from the crisp Coors Field air early in his career. His watershed 2014 season — his first full-time major league season — saw him post a .931 OPS on the back of a .312/.364/.567 slash.

The intervening two years were unkind to Dickerson, thanks in part to a rib injury that limited his 2015 season to just 65 games. Last season was his first in Tampa Bay, and his OPS dropped to .761, which included an ugly .293 on-base percentage.

2017 is a different story altogether, as Dickerson is making good on the early promise he showed during his Rockies heyday. As of this writing, he has posted a 154 wRC+ on the back of a .330/.371/.587 slash line. Dickerson has some small adjustments to thank for his renewed run production prowess, and chief among them are his various contact rates.

Here is a quick look at some selected plate discipline statistics for Dickerson over the last two seasons:

Corey Dickerson Selected Contact Rates and Disicipline

O-Swing % O-Contact % Swing % Zone % Z-Contact %
O-Swing % O-Contact % Swing % Zone % Z-Contact %
47.1% 73.2% 59.1% 40.3% 78.6%
44.0% 69.6% 56.4% 38.9% 76.7%

A first look at this compiled data may not show much, but — as is the case with many statistics — the way they work together paint a larger picture of Dickerson’s solid play.

We see that he is actually offering at more pitches outside of the zone, but is making more contact with these pitches. He increased his aggressiveness overall with a slightly higher swing rate, and is putting more bat on ball when getting a pitch to hit.

If we couple these metrics with his hard-hit rate of 35.7 percent (as per FanGraphs) and his four-point reduction in strikeout rate (20.2 percent, against 24.5 percent in 2016), we see that he has done more than enough to “earn” his .374 BABIP. A bit more aggression and better contact on hittable pitches has done wonders for Dickerson.

A similar tweak has led to their unquestioned “Ace” finding a new way to keep hitters off balance.

Chris Archer’s slider and its spin rate

Chris Archer’s bonafides are certainly well known.

From his debut in the major leagues in 2012 through 2015, Archer was magnificent. He pitched to a 3.36 FIP over that timeframe, striking out nine hitters per nine innings. He also did a solid job in keeping batted balls in the park with a 0.8 HR/9 rating.

In 2015, Archer went through his worst year as a major leaguer, even if his “worst” was actually not all that bad. In his “down” year he pitched to a 3.81 FIP with a 1.24 WHIP. He still struck out a large number of hitters with 10.7 punchouts per nine.

However, he was unable to limit the long ball. He gave up 1.5 per nine in 2016. All told, he gave up 30 dingers, 11 above his previous career high of 19 in 2015, despite pitching 11 less innings.

In 2017, Archer is back to his usual solid self, and an increase in slider usage — and a key difference in spin rate — may be the impetus.

Since 2015, Archer has consistently relied on three pitches: a four-seam fastball, a slider, and a changeup. Over his entire career, the changeup was the runt of the litter with a usage rate at 7.6 percent or below for each year he has been in the majors. (This is all as per Brooks Baseball data.)

Something funky happened in 2016, with the change jumping up to a 11.3 percent usage. Perhaps the Rays were hoping he could keep hitters a bit more off balance by de-emphasizing the four-seam. In any event, results were mixed. Batters tagged the pitch for a .271 average, but it carried a very good ground ball rate — 66.1 percent -- and other peripherals show that it was an okay pitch overall.

The issue with Archer’s changeup was two-fold. First, it was put in play at the highest rate of any of his pitches (17.75 percent), which is undesirable for a pitch designed to, well, change things up and fool hitters. Second, he just had a better pitch that he might have wanted to emphasize more.

That pitch? The slider. And 2017 has seen a course correction in slider usage from Archer, with a jump to a 46.1 percent usage rate, an increase of 6.0 percentage points year over year. That increase has come almost entirely at the expense of the changeup, which has seen a 5.4-point drop in usage.

However, it is not just more sliders that has led to Archer’s considerable year-over-year improvement in HR/FB rate, down to 9.3 percent in 2017 after a swollen 2016 rate of 16.2 percent. Rather, he is also throwing better sliders. Or, at the very least, sliders with higher spin rates.

In 2016, Archer averaged a spin rate of 2315 rpm on the pitch. That figure has jumped to 2544 rpm in 2017. While it is true that a slider is much more forgiving of low spin than, say, a four-seam fastball, many feel that the right kind of spin on a slider can lead to some nice horizontal movement.

Archer has had horizontal movement on the slider that could be considered close to average, at a 2.51 horizontal movement rate as per Brooks Baseball. This is a bit below his previous high of 3.31. Additionally, Archer has consistently hit a rate of 3 or higher in each of his major league seasons.

So, the slider is not as lively as it may have been in the past. So what? Look at the spin rates on Archer’s sliders in terms of strike zone:

image as per Statcast

Archer does a great job at maintaining spin rates no matter where his slider lands. In this way, the relative lack of movement on the pitch does not hinder him all that much.

In fact, utilizing a lower-spin slider may help him, as hitters are able to identify the slider but late to react, as they’re not seeing the break they are accustomed to. Archer’s slider might be moving less than it has in the past, but more important than raw movement is how it’s surprising hitters. We see this borne out by the fact that Archer is on pace to induce more poor, low-velocity contact (as per Statcast) in 2017 than he did last season.

In 2016, Archer had 231 batted balls on the slider labelled as “poorly” hit, again as per Stcast. In 2017, he has already tagged 154 poorly hit balls, and he has already reached 56.6 percent of sliders thrown for all of last year.

All of this is presented as a way to illustrate that, despite solid contributions from others, the Rays starting pitching unit still relies on Archer’s stoically solid performance. They are likely very happy to see it return.

Logan Morrison’s everything

Our last item will be brief: Logan Morrison is having a career year, and the Rays are benefiting from the breakout.

Pardon us for cheating a bit, but not much analysis is required to see that Morrison is excelling across the board. He has posted a 2.4 fWAR/142 wRC+ in the season to date. He carries a .323 ISO. He claims a gaudy 14.3 percent walk rate, and is doing it all with a very unlucky .252 BABIP.

If we had to point out one metric that has fueled Morrison’s excellent year, it would be his hard-hit rate. FanGraphs has it at a whopping 43.8 percent. That, coupled with what we already know — Morrison has successfully hopped on the launch angle bandwagon — has led the Rays to a brilliant middle of the lineup bat.

A small market team like the Rays has to get the most out of its talent, and based on everything we have seen above, they are doing exactly that.

Jason Rollison is awfully excited about spin rates and other pitching paradigms. Follow him on Twitter, maybe?