After taking the baseball world by storm in 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays have stumbled out of the block in Oh Nine. Pundits and bloggers fall over themselves to state they "knew it all along" and decry the little Rays as flashes in the pan or one-hit wonders. Is it true? Have the Rays regressed back into the gaping maw of mediocrity so soon after climbing out of it's sad depths?
In a word: no. The only thing to regress early on this season is the Rays fortune. They're still a balanced, talented team built around excellent defense, solid pitching, and a core of young stars. This combination powered them to 97 wins in 2008 and the franchise's first appearance in the World Series. Mostly.
The Rays, well assembled as they may be, rode a lot of luck in 2008. Not dumb luck, but numerous forces conspired in their favor. They outperformed their Pythagorean record by more than 3 wins. A 29-18 record in one-run games is phenomenal when you consider league average is around .500. (Before you say "that's the mark of a good team", consider in 2008, the 72-90 San Diego Padres were 31-21 in one-run games.) The clutch stat, which measure how much better or worse a team performs (in terms of WPA/LI) in high-leverage situations, shows both the Rays offense and pitching staff really stepped up their games when the heat was on in 2008. The superlative yet soft-tossing Rays pen notched an ERA of 3.82 with a FIP of 4.22, meaning their excellent and soon-to-be-document-for-posterity defense saved them half a run a night.
Turn the calender over to 2009 and things haven't gone so swimmingly. It's still very, very early but the Rays are already behind the Pythag and one-run game 8 ball. The clutch numbers are essentially the opposite of the last year: a relief core not up to snuff performing worse in the late & close and an offense with the worst clutch numbers in baseball.
Add this reversal of fortune to very slow starts by regulars B.J. Upton and Dioner Navarro and you've got a disappointing record and fans wondering why? Don't forget two red hot teams inside the division to magnify the early season struggles. Are the Rays likely to lose more games than they win in 2009? No, they're too good for that. They can survive down seasons from one or two everyday players; what they can't expect is to skate into the post season again without an infusion of that fickle mistress luck.