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Rays Are Picking Machines

When the Rays traded John Jaso to the Mariners, I wondered who their starting catcher would be. I didn't see a strong candidate on their roster, though they had options. A day after trading Jaso, they signed Jose Molina, and Rays GM Andrew Friedman had this to say:
Jose has been one of the best defensive catchers in baseball over the past decade, and his presence will bring even more stability to our defense, and he will, of course, be a great asset to our young pitchers.
(you can check this article to confirm he really said this)

Now, it's not like a GM will ever come out when they sign a guy and say, "well, he has limited offensive upside thanks to huge holes in his swing, but he's adequate." There's always some gamesmanship when commenting on an acquisition. You want people to feel good about the player just acquired.

Still, when Friedman says someone is a good defender, he knows what he is talking about. Friedman took over the Rays in 2006, and under him the Rays clearly made defense a priority, right around the 2007 offseason. The following is a list of Tampa Bay's defensive efficiencies (which is simply the percentage of balls in play that turn into outs) since 2006, along with their rank in Major league baseball that year:

  • 2006: 67.1%, 30th
  • 2007: 65.2%, 30th
  • 2008: 70.8%, 1st
  • 2009: 69.5%, 8th
  • 2010: 70.9%, 3rd
  • 2011: 72.4%, 1st
In particular, the Rays defense this past season was extremely good. The league average was 69.4%, meaning the Rays were a full 3% above average at converting balls in play into outs. That may not sound like much, but consider how many balls go into play. That 3% turns into tangible differences in a hurry. Moreover, it's a huge increase over the last time they were the best in baseball. In 2008, the Rays were only 1.9% above league average.

Going back through the past decade, only a couple defenses really compare with the 2011 Rays - and interestingly enough, they are both Mariners teams. The 2003 Mariners come close to the Rays fielding prowess. That team was 2.7% above league average that year. The memorable 2001 M's squad has the 2011 Rays beat. Their defensive efficiency was 72.7%, good enough for 3.6% above league average. It's just another example of how superb that team really was.

Clearly, the Rays have figured something out about defense. Given what Friedman shared about Molina, it certainly seems that he fits into whatever the Rays have figured out.

I'm still happy the Mariners acquired Jaso. They didn't get fleeced in the deal. He brings some much-needed plate discipline. It seems pretty obvious now that Jose Molina was a target for the Rays though, and they just got a player they highly desired.

What I'm interested to see is how much longer it takes for other teams to scrutinize Tampa Bay's strategy, and copy it. Their rise perfectly coincides with their defensive improvement. Granted, the Rays improved in many facets the past five years, but the drastic increase in defensive efficiency played a major factor. Moreover, they can still find a guy like Jose Molina in the current market - a guy most see as a journeyman backup, but that the Rays see as one of the most valuable assets available. Either the Rays are way off, or there is a major market inefficiency - and recent history suggests that the Rays know what they are doing.

I thought defense was on its way out as a market inefficiency, given how much more teams have paid attention to it in recent years. However, apparently one team - and the one that just happens to be the best at piecing together a defense - can still find guys they love for modest prices.