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Coolican: Despite loss, have the Rays flipped the script?

| Monday, November 2, 2020

Billy Beane once famously told “Moneyball” author Michael Lewis, “My s— doesn’t work in the playoffs. My job is to get us to the playoffs. Whatever happens after that is f—ing luck.”

Beane, who is well known for both his profanity-laced diatribes and his cost-cutting, inefficiency-finding moves as the general manager of the Oakland A’s, is at least partially correct. Since 2000, the A’s have made the playoffs 11 times, yet have only made it past the division series once. Other small-market teams who have tried to imitate the A’s success, most notably the Tampa Bay Rays, have had a similar lack of success in the postseason. But does it come down to mere luck?

The outcome of a playoff series can often be traced back to a few key moments. In the case of the one game wild card playoff, this is often just one pitch. It is impossible to analyze how players will perform at such a microscopic level. Even the best analyses can only loosely predict how a player will perform over an entire season. Despite this, 25 of the last 26 World Series champions have finished in the top half of the league in their payroll, according to USA Today. Spending money, historically, has clearly led to success. The 2019 Washington Nationals won the World Series thanks to starting pitchers Max Scherzer, who made more than $37 million in 2019, and Stephen Strasburg, who was signed to a $245 million contract extension this offseason. The three highest earners on 2018 Red Sox made more than $70 million combined. These stats can be given for nearly every champion since the start of free agency. 

Having money is a luxury. In a sport like baseball, where there is no salary cap, teams can spend as much as their owner is willing to pay. Of course, the luxury tax serves as a disincentive to overspend, but certain teams (*cough* Yankees) are prone to exceed the luxury threshold year after year. While the A’s have done as well as anyone could reasonably expect, they are still, at the crux of the matter, bargain hunters. Teams like the Yankees and Dodgers don’t have to sift through piles of neglected players to find the few who rise to the top. They can simply sign the the most transcendent talents in baseball. This is not to say that the A’s don’t have top talent; players like Matt Chapman and Khris Davis are among the best in the league. But they are no Mike Trout or Gerrit Cole. 

This year’s World Series featured two teams that could not be put together more differently. The Dodgers have a payroll of more than $107 million, good for second in the MLB, according to Spotrac. The Rays, on the other hand, have a payroll of just over $28 million, 28th in the league. The two players who earn the most on the Dodgers make more than the Rays’ entire 28-man roster. The payrolls are much lower because of salary adjustments due to the shortertened season, so the difference is even more staggering than it appears. 

The Rays aren’t an exact replica of the “Moneyball” A’s, but they clearly were influenced by them. They are managed by a manager who embraces analytics in a way few others do, often defying conventional wisdom. They employ four outfielders against certain hitters, and were among the first to use the opener strategy, where the starting pitcher pitches just one or two innings. They only rarely sign players to long-term, big money contracts, instead preferring to get their production from players on pre-arbitration salaries and other teams’ castaways. This strategy has worked extremely well for getting the Rays to the postseason, but much like the A’s, they have failed to achieve consistent success. 

This year, however, the Rays were the top team in the American league, and gave the Dodgers all they could handle in the World Series. Even the most die-hard baseball fans didn’t recognize many players on the 2020 Rays. Yet, they not only had the best regular season record in the American League, they tore through the playoffs, defeating the up-and-coming Toronto Blue Jays before dispatching the Yankees and Houston Astros, both in the top five in payroll. This year’s postseason was arguably even more rigorous than usual. Each team had to play three series before the World Series: a best-of-three wild card series, a best-of-five divisional series and a best-of-seven league championship series. Each of these series had no off days within the series. After dispatching the Blue Jays in back-to-back games, the Rays had to play five against the Yankees and seven against the Astros. The Rays played 12 games in just 13 days, a brutal stretch that would test even the deepest of teams.

Of course, we have to question whether the 2020 postseason was an outlier. Playing just 60 regular season games undoubtedly creates a different result, even if the playoffs maintained their rigor and intensity. Playing only divisional opponents and interleague games helps some teams and hurts others, there may have been more injuries than in a typical year, and the COVID-19 outbreaks within the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins teams were significant. However, there aren’t enough differences between them to say that this Rays’ team isn’t for real. Regular season success isn’t the issue. The Rays showcased their depth in the postseason, and that same depth would have carried them for 162 games. They simply beat three great teams in the playoffs. Of course, to see if this result holds, we will have to wait and see what happens next year and beyond. But the fact that this year’s Rays team made it to the World Series and nearly won should serve as encouragement for small market teams everywhere. It is also validation for everything Billy Beane has worked for. A team in the bottom half of the league’s payroll hasn’t won the ultimate prize since the 2003 Marlins. This Rays team proves it is still possible in today’s game.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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