It’s tough to find a more successful baseball club over the past decade-plus than the Tampa Bay Rays, owners of a 1,035-901 record — fifth-best in MLB — ever since their stunning breakout in 2008. The Rays went to the World Series that season and made the playoffs in three of the five years that followed, creating a blueprint for other teams hoping to win on similarly microscopic budgets. Even this year, the Rays sit 10th in our Elo team rankings despite ranking 30th in payroll.
But for all of those wins, Tampa Bay has had some lousy luck in actually getting to the playoffs. The Rays have made only three postseason appearances this decade — and none since 2013. Only three teams in the expanded wild-card era (since 2012) have won 90 games but failed to play in the postseason: One of those was the 2013 Texas Rangers; the other two were Rays clubs, in 2012 and 2018. And this year’s team, on pace for 95 wins, has just a 54 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to the FiveThirtyEight model. What do the Rays have to do to get some postseason love around here?
Some of Tampa’s troubles simply have to do with playing in the cutthroat American League East, where the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are together currently spending more than twice as much on players as the rest of the division combined. Whether in terms of the average victories necessary to win the division or even just the bare-minimum requirement, those numbers have consistently been higher for the AL East than any other division in baseball this decade:
|Winner’s Wins (per 162 games)|
In every division except the AL East and NL West, a 90-win team has had at least had some chance to come out in first place this decade. But in the AL East, no fewer than 93 wins have been required to win the division, and seldom fewer than 91 have been needed to make the playoffs, period.1 By my accounting,2 being in the AL East makes it 8 percentage points tougher for a 90-win team to make the playoffs than being in another division would make it, 10 percentage points tougher for an 89-win team and 12 percentage points tougher for an 88-win team.
That sweet spot around 90 wins happens to be where Tampa tends to often find itself, and it’s tough to make the playoffs from that zone when you’re in the AL East. Last year was a great example: The Rays went 90-72 but were precluded from winning the division (the Red Sox won 108 games) or even finishing in second place (the Yankees won 100 on the number). That left only one solitary playoff spot even up for the Rays to battle for, and it was snapped up by the 97-win Oakland Athletics. Baseball’s seventh-best team by wins above replacement,3 sporting a record that would normally earn a playoff slot 81 percent of the time in the double-wild-card era,4 ended up missing the playoffs by seven whole games.
But the Rays have found ways to miss the playoffs even when the Yankee/Red Sox hegemony was partially broken. Back in 2012, New York was good (95 wins) but hardly dominant, and Boston deteriorated completely under the not-so-watchful eye of Bobby Valentine, going 69-93. Meanwhile Tampa Bay had the fourth-most WAR in baseball, led by star seasons from Ben Zobrist (5.7 WAR) and David Price (5.5), plus solid years via players ranging from the expected (James Shields, Evan Longoria) to the out-of-nowhere (Jeff Keppinger??). By WAR, that was one of the most talented teams the Rays have ever produced. But they underperformed relative to the record their underlying stats say they “should” have had — according to BaseRuns, they should have made the playoffs with a 95-67 mark — wasting a red-hot 36-22 finish over the last two months of the season to end up three games shy of Texas and Baltimore for the wild card.
The disappointing Red Sox will miss the playoffs this season as well, possibly finishing as many as 10 games behind the rival Rays. Although the Yankees have dominated this season, tracking for 105 wins, you would think 95 wins could at least buy the Rays a wild-card appearance, in a wide-open year with Boston out of the picture.
And yet, here Tampa Bay is again, fighting for its playoff life on a nightly basis over the final few weeks of the season. Once again, the Oakland A’s — in many ways the West Coast mirror image of the Rays — are almost assured of one wild-card slot, putting themselves on pace for 97 wins by season’s end. And after the Minnesota Twins unexpectedly dominated the AL Central race, the Cleveland Indians’ only playoff hopes essentially rest on the same wild-card spot Tampa Bay has been eyeing all season. In the mega-top-heavy AL, one misfortunate team could win 95 games and still miss the playoffs entirely.5
If that team ends up being Tampa, it would obscure what has been maybe the most quintessentially Rays-y season of them all, in terms of doing more with less. The team’s best player by WAR (with 5.1) has been pitcher Charlie Morton, who had 1.5 career WAR to his name before joining the Astros in 2017; he is easily obliterating his previous career-best WAR (3.2 in 2018) this season at age 35. Left fielder Tommy Pham (3.9 WAR) had previously displayed his talent with 6.2 WAR in 2017, and shortstop Willy Adames had up-and-coming star potential. But the rest of Tampa Bay’s expected stars — such as pitcher Blake Snell and center fielder Kevin Kiermaier — have been merely OK, if also injured and/or underwhelming.
Instead, the Rays have succeeded with a mishmash of acquired prospects (Austin Meadows, Tyler Glasnow), unheralded youngsters (Brandon Lowe), seemingly random pitchers (Ryan Yarbrough, Yonny Chirinos, Emilio Pagan), retread veterans (Travis d’Arnaud) and other spare parts. They still use the opener, still shift a ton and still play relievers in the field before putting them back on the mound. They’ve fought through key injuries to rank fifth in the league in WAR per game, and through Sunday they were tracking to become just the eighth team since the 1994 strike to rank among MLB’s top 11 in WAR from every phase of the game — hitting, fielding, base-running and pitching (both starting and relieving):6
|WAR Rankings by category|
|2019||Tampa Bay Rays||11||6||11||7||1||5|
|2008||Tampa Bay Rays||10||9||6||6||7||3|
(Fittingly, the 2008 Rays — the team that started it all — are also in that club.)
If Tampa Bay does end up missing the playoffs, it would go down as one of the best teams ever to fit that criteria. Its current Elo rating of 1543 would tie last year’s Rays for the second-best among nonplayoff teams of the double-wild-card era (trailing only the 2012 Rays), and its 0.303 WAR per game would easily be the highest of any nonplayoff team since 2012. The last team to miss the postseason with as many WAR per game was the 2011 Red Sox, who fumbled away their playoff hopes with one of the most infamous collapses in baseball history.
But if the baseball gods know what they’re doing, they would maybe consider giving the Rays a break this time around. The franchise has already seen several of the hardest-luck nonplayoff seasons in recent history — and this year’s might be the cruelest postseason snub of all, given how many wins the Rays might rack up in vain. After so many years spent knocking on the door with records that usually belong in the postseason, it seems like it’s time Tampa finally gets in.
Check out our latest MLB predictions.