At the time I’m writing this, the Tampa Bay Rays are 29-9, 4.5 games up on the AL East. They’re the toast of baseball, and although I wish we didn’t have to heap praise on the franchise, credit is due — they’ve played terrific baseball. They lead the world in runs, home runs, ERA and wRC+, which if it held up for the entire year would be the best mark in baseball history.
Through 38 games last season, the Yankees were 28-10, one game behind what the Rays have done so far this year. They led the world in home runs and wRC+, lowest ERA and top three in FIP and K-BB%. I don’t need to tell you that that didn’t last, the Yankees still won the division but limped their way there, finishing with a then-disappointing 99 wins before being swept out of the ALCS.
The 2023 Rays are likely not the best team in the history of the game. There will be a correction, and they’re not going to win 124 games this year. The question is, how much of a correction is due? Is this team more like the 2022 Yankees, the 2018 Red Sox, or something else entirely?
Let’s be clear, they’re almost certainly going to be a playoff team, and they’re probably going to win the AL East, with FanGraphs giving them a 67 percent chance of doing so at time of writing. There’s a lot of daylight between “Division Winner” and “One of the Five Best Teams Ever”, though.
First of all, how does someone suss out the record when properly contextualizing the team’s schedule? The Rays opened the season with nine games against the Tigers, Nationals and Athletics, who are a combined 41-70 with the Tigers by far the best team in that group. Those are nine banked wins, they count, but as we just saw with the Yankees, playing teams like that can hide a lot of otherwise obvious flaws in a roster.
They’ve only actually played three series against teams with more than 50 percent chance of making the playoffs — losses against the Astros and Blue Jays, and then taking two of three against the Yankees last week. It’s only nine games, but they have at best held serve against the teams we would expect to see come October. In a league where many teams are either not trying to win, or at least not trying to get better and a more balanced schedule allows you to play the Central divisions more, you can probably get by with that kind of approach; crush the bad teams and tread water against the good...unfortunately for us, the jury is still out one what side of that column the Yankees fall under.
And then there’s just the inevitable drag of the MLB season, where 162 games become sand in the gears of the best baseball machines. The Rays have already seen injury strike their pitching staff, and players like Taylor Walls aren’t going to hit to a 153 wRC+ the rest of the year. Even when the excellent development and optimization programs the Rays feature get things right — getting Yandy Díaz to finally get the ball off the ground — the odds are going to forever be against Díaz mainlining a 180 wRC+ all year. The projection systems mostly agree, tagging the Rays for about 96-97 wins over the full season, and it should go without saying that’s about nine wins better than what the Yankees are pegged for. They are catchable, but perhaps not by the Yankees.
On the other hand, the fact the Rays are so good at helping their players adjust and optimize, as well as their penchant for rostering guys with little service time, makes me think that Tampa’s projections come with more upside than most teams. A team like the Yankees, with a plethora of veterans bringing more of a track record, narrows upside. We know what to expect from Giancarlo Stanton because we’ve seen him play for a decade; we know a lot less about what to expect from Luke Raley and his 230 MLB plate appearances.
So if we allocate some sort of Rays premium to those projections, we end up with a team right around 99-100 wins, exactly where you’d expect the winner of the AL East to be, and probably a little high for the Yankees to catch given how much ground they’ve ceded in the season’s first two months. The Rays are a very, very good baseball team. They are neither the ‘27 Yankees, nor purely a product of their schedule. The offense will undoubtedly come back to Earth, but all those wins count.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to take some Pepto.