Flipping through some league stats the other day and one thing popped out to me – the Rays are leading the American League in ERA … by a full run. Surely, I thought, the Rays are good, but are they that good?
So, I dove into the numbers. As of Wednesday the Rays team ERA was 2.92. The next closest team was the Mariners at 3.72. So, not a full run, but close enough for even casual baseballs observers to sputter on their beers.
How are the Rays so good? More importantly for this space, how can they help your fantasy baseball team?
Really, it all comes down to the starters. David Price, Jeff Niemann, James Shields and Matt Garza all have ERAs under 3.00 and rookie Wade Davis is not far behind them in the maturation process at 4.01. They are all young and healthy with Shields the leader at age 28 that, coincidentally, is smack in the middle of “peak years” for starting pitchers (between the ages of 27 to 31, more or less).
The staff as a whole holds opposing hitters to a .227 batting average, .291 on-base percentage and .362 slugging percentage. Consider that league averages tend to be .264/.325/.414, then it goes to show how impressive the Rays staff has been. The peripheries statistics back up what the staff is doing as well with 7.6 hits per nine innings, 2.9 walks per nine, 7.3 strikeouts per nine a 2.5 strikeouts per walk.
The leader in the clubhouse is probably Shields but the maturation of former No. 1 overall pick Price makes him the undoubted leader on the field (and in your fantasy league) through the first two months of the season. A 7-1 record with 2.41 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 46 strikeouts through 59.2 innings pitched tends speaks for itself. That correlates to 6.9 strikeouts per nine, a touch lower than his career average of 7.1, 2.00 strikeouts per walk and an ERA+ of 176 (whereas an average major league pitcher would be 100). Price has done improved incrementally from his relatively disappointing 2009 by throwing more strikes (65 percent ahead of 63 percent in 2009) and doing it early (62 percent first pitch strikes, four percentage points over last season). His secondary pitches have improved and hence hitters have been swinging less and striking out looking more. The only thing that might be concerning about Price is that his batting average against on ball in play (BABIP) is .243, which is a little more than have the league average year-to-year of .300 meaning he may have found some luck in the early going but overall his stuff is good enough that even if it does rise into the .290-.300 range, he should still be able to keep wracking up the numbers. With an average draft position of 164 in ESPN leagues, Price has been a steal for a lot of fantasy owners this season.
Price, like the rest of the Rays pitchers, benefits from a strong Tampa Bay offense that averages 5.3 runs scored per games started, above the league average of 4.6. With a run-differential of +95 though, any of the Rays pitchers should be a good bet to give you wins in your league.
Following Price would probably be Garza with a 5-2 record, 2.41 ERA and ridiculously low 1.082 WHIP through 64.2 innings pitched. His peripheries are better than Price’s too at 7.5 K/9 and 2.70 K/BB and 2.8 BB/9. His walk rate is .7 below that of Price that leads to his low WHIP. Add it all up and Garza leads the team with an ERA+ of 176.
Shields is similar to Garza but not quite as spectacular. The Rays rely on him to be the steadying influence and primary innings eater and he leads the team in innings pitched this year at 69.1 after Tuesday’s start where he was the hard-luck loser to Jon Lester and the Red Sox as the Rays were one-hit by Boston in a 2-0 loss. Shields took the loss, bringing his record to 5-2 with a 2.99 ERA, 1.226 WHIP and a 146 ERA+. Shields’s BABIP is high and the folks at Baseball Info Solutions that put out The Fielding Bible have put together a metric that says Shields has been among one of the unluckiest pitchers in the majors thus far this year (whereas Price has actually been the third luckiest).
The backend of the rotation between Niemann and Davis is decent but Davis, like Price before him, has been having some rookie-like outings in his first season and Niemann has been the beneficiary of some luck himself through the first part of the season. Niemann’s era of 2.54 will not stay that low as his BABIP is low at 2.44 and his “strand rate” (runners allowed left on base at the end of an inning) of 84.5 percent is 13.5 points above the league average of 71 percent. Both of those numbers will go back towards the league average and Niemann’s ERA (and ERA+ of 167) will rise back to the 3.80 range or so by the end of the year. But, with a career average of 2.12 K/BB and the Rays putting up runs behind him he should remain to be a viable fantasy starter but with an own-rate of 90.7 percent in ESPN fantasy leagues, he may be available on the waiver wire in shallower leagues and his WHIP of 1.09 and 4-0 record should look attractive to teams in need of stability on their pitching staff. Also, like Price, his average draft position of 260 makes him a great value for those prescient enough to pick him at towards the end of the draft.
Davis is one to keep and eye on. As of yet he is not a great fantasy option except in deep mixed leagues or in head-to-head leagues when he is a two-start pitcher. He is just 4-4 (which gives him three more wins than Zack Greinke, but that won’t last long) with the aforementioned 4.01 ERA and a 1.480 WHIP translating into a 106 ERA+, making him slightly above average. Yet, when times get tough in the dogs days of fantasy baseball summers, an average major league pitcher on the best team in the league starts to look like a great option. Davis has the talent to go on a streak and will definitely be available in most leagues as a free agent pickup.
Overall, you cannot really go wrong with any of the Rays starting five. None of them were the most sought-after pitchers in drafts this spring but putting together a couple of them (for instance, trading for Shields and Garza if you already own Price) should be able to carry your team to contention come September.
Dan Rowinski is a Fantasy Baseball Columnist for Rotoinfo.com. If you have any questions or comments feel free to e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at Dan_Rowinski.