Three years ago, Charlie Morton was a 32-year old pitcher with a 46-71 career record and an ERA+ of just 86. Now, after two strong seasons as Houston’s fourth starter – and at the age of 35 – he is perhaps the most unlikely ace on one of baseball’s most unlikely all-time great pitching staffs.
Surely, baseball fans have witnessed pitching that would be considered superior to this year’s Tampa Bay squad, as measured by raw numbers. In 1969, for example, there were nine teams with lower ERAs than the Rays’ 3.36 this season. But the environment was much different back then. The league OPS 50 years ago was a paltry .689, compared with .756 in 2019.
To get a true sense of how well this year’s Tampa Bay Rays’ pitchers have performed in a historical context, it is necessary to normalize the stats across the sport’s various levels of offensive environments. Baseball Reference’s ERA+ and FanGraphs’ ERA- both accomplish this objective by expressing ERA relative to all other teams of the same season. An ERA+ of 100 is league average, while 120 would be representative of a team that is 20% better than average; 92 would be 8% worse than average. Ballparks are also taken into account, as some stadiums yield more runs than others due to their dimensions.
The 2019 Tampa Bay Rays have a team ERA+ of 134, which is tied for the 8th-best mark in modern MLB history (since 1901) and tied for 4th-best in the past 100 years. To put that number into perspective, Greg Maddux’s career (i.e., not peak) ERA+ was 132. As a team, the Rays’ ERA this year has been slightly better than a team full of Greg Madduxes, factoring in ballparks and relative performance of the rest of the league.
Top 10 Pitching Staffs by ERA+, Modern Era (1901-Today)
|St. Louis Cardinals||1942||135|
|Tampa Bay Rays||2019||134|
|St. Louis Cardinals||2015||134|
|St. Louis Cardinals||1944||134|
A lot has been made about the increase in home runs this year across MLB. In fact, the league’s collective ERA is up over 8% from 2018. Tampa Bay’s, however, is down over 10%. There are 30 clubs in Major League Baseball and the Rays are one of only five to have lowered their ERA from last year. Tampa Bay leads all of baseball in runs allowed (3.69/game), ERA (3.36), ERA+ (134), FIP (fielding independent pitching; 3.60), WPA (win probability added by pitchers; 12.1), batting average against (.223), slugging percentage allowed (.366), OPS against (.655) and fewest home runs allowed (1.02/game).
The gold standard of dominant pitching teams may be the 1906 Chicago Cubs, who were led by Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown and finished the season with a record of 115-36 and an ERA+ of 151. Brown (26-6) led the National League that year in ERA (1.04), shutouts (9) and WHIP (0.934). Unfortunately for Brown, the Cy Young Award wouldn’t be created for another 50 years; the trophy’s namesake was still active. And unfortunately for the Rays, they don’t have Mordecai Brown. So how have the Tampa Bay pitchers dominated as a unit in 2019?
WHO ARE THESE GUYS?
The most remarkable note about the Rays’ success this year is perhaps that it has occurred despite a massive drop-off from last year’s team ace. In 2018, Blake Snell went 21-5 with a 1.89 ERA en route to becoming the franchise’s second American League Cy Young Award winner. The first instance occurred in 2012; David Price won with a 20-5 record and 2.56 ERA, but would only spend one more full season with the Rays before being traded to the Detroit Tigers during the summer of 2014.
This time, Tampa Bay made sure to lock up their top pitcher, signing Snell to a five year, $50 million extension during the offseason. The returns on that deal so far, however, have not been encouraging. Snell has a middling 4.55 ERA (the American League ERA as a whole is 4.49) and has yielded nearly 50% more hits per nine innings (8.3) than he did a year ago (5.6).
Morton, however, has picked up the slack. He leads the league in winning percentage (.846), ERA (2.35), ERA+ (191) and FIP (2.79). Each of those stats represents a career-best for the Atlanta Braves’ 2002 3rd round pick, as do his current WHIP (1.037), hits per 9 IP (6.5) and strikeouts per 9 IP (11.2). Entering the season with just 5.1 WAR, Morton’s 3.8 WAR in 2019 is already a personal high.
After pitching to a 4-16 record with a 5.35 ERA across three seasons with Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay, Tyler Glasnow finally matched the hype that surrounded him when he was one of baseball’s top prospects. He began the year 6-1 with a 1.86 ERA before straining his forearm; he remains on the Injured List.
In his second MLB season, Yonny Chirinos has settled in as a very good starter. Though he burst onto the scene with 14 1/3 consecutive innings pitched to begin his big league career, he subsequently faltered during his next few starts. He was eventually moved to the bullpen, where he made his final 10 appearances of 2018 (his final eight as the first man in following a Ryne Stanek start).
Chirinos has started each of his last nine appearances, averaging over six innings per game, with a 3.04 ERA and .627 OPS against during that span. Eight of those nine starts were “quality” (i.e., at least six IP and no more than three earned runs allowed). Four times this year, Chirinos has thrown at least five shutout innings, while giving up two or fewer hits, including five no-hit innings against the Toronto Blue Jays on May 27 and eight shutout innings at Boston on June 7. He is allowing more home runs than he did last year (who isn’t?), but he has cut his WHIP down by over 20% to an impressive 0.963. That ranks second behind Justin Verlander of the Houston Astros among qualified (minimum one IP per average number of team games) American League pitchers.
Stanek has made 27 starts in 39 appearances this season, with none lasting more than two innings. Across 43 innings as a starter, he has a remarkable 2.09 ERA and .568 OPS against. Emilio Pagan, who was acquired in a relatively minor three-team trade during the offseason, has been completely dominant in his first season out of the Rays’ bullpen, with a 1.91 ERA and 0.876 WHIP over 37 2/3 innings. And after struggling last year, Andrew Kittredge spent most of the first half of 2019 in AAA, where he was overpowering hitters (1.93 ERA, 0.800 WHIP, 55 K in 37.1 innings). Since being called up, he has maintained similar numbers, with a 1.98 ERA in 13 2/3 innings. The only MLB runs Kittredge has allowed this season were to the New York Yankees, a team he’s somehow faced in half of his 10 appearances.
It hasn’t been all easy for the Rays on the mound this year. Jose Alvarado had a promising 2018 season out of the bullpen, with a 2.39 ERA across 64 innings. But it’s been a struggle for him this year. In 30 games, he has a 5.06 ERA and a 1.688 WHIP. Alvarado is currently out with a strained right oblique. And journeyman reliever, Chaz Roe, has had control issues, walking 20 batters in just 27 1/3 innings. That has contributed to his inflated 5.27 ERA and 1.756 WHIP. Like Alvarado, Roe is also on the Injured List.
CAN THE RAYS PITCH THEIR WAY INTO THE PLAYOFFS?
When the season began, the Rays’ odds of winning the World Series were 35-1 at Bovada. That was right near the middle of the pack (15th in the league). Tampa Bay then opened the season with the best start in baseball, winning 14 of their first 18 games. Though they’ve come down to Earth somewhat (they’ve lost 11.5 games in the standings to the Yankees since then), the Rays are still hanging on to the top wild card spot in the American League.
However, their claim to a playoff berth is certainly not guaranteed. Tampa Bay is only a half-game ahead of two wild card challengers (Oakland A’s and Cleveland Indians). And the defending champion Boston Red Sox, who began the season by winning just 11 of their first 28 games, are just three games back in the loss column.
From a historical perspective, however, the Rays should be in good shape if their pitching staff continues to perform as well as it has to this point. This year, Tampa Bay and the Los Angeles Dodgers are among the top 25 pitching staffs in the Wild Card era, ranked by ERA+. Of the previous 23, only the 2003 Dodgers failed to qualify for the playoffs. And their pitchers had a good excuse; the team’s offense posted a putrid OPS+ of just 79. Only three teams in the Wild Card era have had a worse offense by that metric: the 1998 Pittsburgh Pirates (78), the 2004 Arizona Diamondbacks (77) and the 2013 Miami Marlins (73). Even so, the ’03 Dodgers were still just 2.5 games out of the wild card spot with two weeks remaining in the regular season.
Going further back, of the top 20 teams since 1900, by ERA+, 17 of them made the playoffs. In fact, the last team with an ERA+ of 130 or more to miss the postseason was the 1926 Philadelphia A’s. Perhaps good pitching only beats good hitting if Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig aren’t in the opposing lineup.
This year, the Dodgers (123 ERA+) have a 14-game lead in their division and are clearly going to qualify for the playoffs. For Tampa Bay, the question is if their hurlers can pitch them there, as well?
Unless otherwise noted, all stats above are from Baseball Reference.
(Photo from Sports Illustrated article written by Jenna West on March 21, 2019.)