Do the Rays have the best middle infield in the American League?
Dan Szymborski released his 2022 ZiPS projections for the Tampa Bay Rays, giving us all some new fun data to dive into. ZiPS is generally one of my favorite projection systems, and I think Dan does a really good job in the article pointing out some of the fun things he saw this time around. Definitely give it a read.
A couple of caveats that I stress with any and every projection system:
- The projection doesn’t “hate” your team. It’s just an algorithm running numbers
- Projection systems can be biased though. While the emotionless computer doesn’t hate your club, the people programming that emotionless computer can have biases that affect the results.
- Even with biases, it’s not as obvious as “downgrade team X because I hate them”, but certain team’s play or managing style can affect how projections view them, or how accurate the results are.
Rays are a team that utilize depth, young players, and lots of platooning/re-shaped roles - all things that can add variance and affect the accuracy of a projection system.
- Lastly, projections are not the same thing as predictions. Often there are confidence intervals baked into all projections; individual player projections are not the highest or lowest end of what’s expected. In some cases players will beat or underperforming their projections — there are injuries, dumb luck, someone actually being in the Best Shape of His Life, etc.
With that being said, here are my five takeaways from the 2022 ZiPS Rays projection
Mike Zunino (and Francisco Mejía) are Good
Long gone are the days where the catcher spot on the Rays was a black hole where all joy went to get spaghettified. In 2021, Mike Zunino was an All-Star and Francisco Mejía was a high-end back-up who put together the best season of his young career. Both catchers combined for a 5.9 fWAR, with both catchers hitting clear above league average. The Rays picked up Z’s option, and seem poised to run back that same pair again for 2022. ZiPS is projecting that to be a good idea, combining the pair for 3.6 zWAR (ZiPS projected WAR).
Having stability in the catching game can be a bonus for a young pitching staff. Zunino in particular is a fantastic defensive catcher, who seemingly has the complete trust of the team and his pitchers. With Mejía, we saw the flashes of what made him such a highly touted prospect not too long ago.
Starting pitching will have variance
The Rays starting pitching rotation is still going to be one of the most fascinating and uncertain parts of the roster. Shane McClanahan, Shane Baz, Drew Rasmussen, and Luis Patiño are very young, very talented, and any one of them having a massive breakout campaign or hitting some struggles would not be shocking. ZiPS ranks McClanahan and Baz as the two best of that young core, which matches most expectations for fans and analysts alike.
It’s not just young players that add to the high variance nature of the starting pitching. Corey Kluber, the Rays big free agent signing, is coming off another injury-shortened season. How many innings can he provide? How good will he be in those innings? In 2021, Kluber was quite good when he was healthy, and ZiPS is projecting that to continue. ZiPS has Kluber for 93 innings, and a 3.75 ERA/3.88 FIP and a 1.6 zWAR. Rays limiting innings to keep Kluber healthy all year (and into October) seems expected and frankly, smart.
Rays might have the best middle infield in baseball
The big eyeball emoji number from this is the whopping 4.2 zWAR projection for Wander Franco. That is already the 5th highest projected position player in the AL East behind the likes of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Aaron Judge, and Bo Bichette. The ZiPS projected slash is just silly for somebody who still can’t legally drink beer in Florida: .283/.340/.470 124 OPS+ 16 HR/8 3B/27 2B
But not to be lost in the Wander excitement is his middle infield mate Brandon Lowe. Lowe is actually one slot above Wander as the 4th highest projected position player in the AL East behind only the aforementioned Vlad, Judge, and Bo trio. ZiPS projects a triple slash of .246/.333/.507 and a team leading 4.4 zWAR, 130 OPS+ and 33 HR.
In the AL, it’ll probably be only the Texas Rangers with their two FA mega deals in Corey Seager and Marcus Semien that will give Wander and BLowe a run for their money up the middle in the projections. The Rays don’t give out many long-term deals, but both BLowe and Wander received big extensions very early in their careers (Lowe signed through 2026, Wander through 2033). ZiPS projections certainly suggest this was a very good idea.
Rays have elite depth
While the Rays do have some stars, they are built to utilize the entire roster (and then some) to carry this club. We have seen the dangers of the stars and scrubs approach, where a few key injuries send a promising team into a tailspin.
Wander, Lowe, and Randy Arozarena are clearly key star-level players that the Rays will rely on. But the true key to the Rays success over the past few seasons is an elite level of depth. They raced the Houston Astros down to the very last day for the most team runs scored in baseball. When it comes to any single counting result, runs scored is pretty much what it’s all about. The Rays were able to compete with the Astros star players by maximizing every position, every roster spot, every game.
The Rays depth is projected to remain some of the very best in the sport. It’s not an exact science since playing time distribution is extremely hard to project (and ZiPS smartly side steps a lot of the potholes other projection systems fall into in that regard) but this initial projection from ZiPS has 16 players on their roster with 0.9 zWAR or greater. By comparison New York has 12, Boston has 10, and Toronto 9.
On any given day, the Rays lineup will be top to bottom at the very least fine. There’s no single black hole spot that you just dread. There are great hitters, good hitters, and fine hitters for any particular matchup at the beginning or end of games. I like to call this strategy, the “don’t play any bad players” technique, and it’s worked out extremely well for the Rays.
Bullpen will continue to be top tier
Only the Yankees are projected for higher zWAR in the AL than the Rays bullpen.
The big names of primary relievers for The Stable in 2022 according to ZiPS: Andrew Kittridge (1.5 zWAR), Jalen Beeks (1.1 zWAR), Ian Seymour! (0.9 zWAR), Matt Wisler (0.9 zWAR), Pete Fairbanks (0.8 zWAR), and Collin Poche and Brooks Raley (0.7 zWAR each).
Much like the position side of things, ZiPS sees the Rays strength as depth. There are a ton of good to very good pitchers who will be used in some way. When it comes to the Rays, “starting pitching”, “reliever”, “long-reliever”, these are labels that are barely guidelines. How the Rays use their bullpen, how they distribute their innings, are also fascinating to watch. And ZiPS does see a ton of value in guys that haven’t been mentioned like Josh Fleming, Tommy Romero, and Ryan Yarbrough. Starting, Opening, Headlining, Relief Ace’ing, Closing? Just something to look forward to in 2022!