The Struggling Tampa Bay Rays Are Leaning on an Unlikely Hero

Viewing one player in a different light has made a tremendous difference for one of the most intelligent organizations in baseball.

Isaac Paredes of the Tampa Bay Rays rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run during the first inning against the New York Yankees at Tropicana Field.
ST PETERSBURG, FLORIDA - JUNE 21: Isaac Paredes #17 of the Tampa Bay Rays rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run during the first inning against the New York Yankees at Tropicana Field on June 21, 2022 in St Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)

We always hear about the Tampa Bay Rays making under-the-radar moves, but we often don’t understand quite what they’ve done until the results play out on the field.

In past offseasons and at past trade deadlines, the organization has made countless moves that didn’t seem to add up. Yet, we have to give credit where credit is due, as they have made the playoffs time and time again on one of the lowest budgets in the league.

No, they haven’t won the big one, but it’s still important to recognize that this team is more than competing within the strict margins in which they operate.

So, the same goes for this year, correct? Well, we’re more than two months in, and thus far, we have seen nothing but a dead team.

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Let’s get something straight: The Rays have never seen players as players, they see players as wins, which are achieved by scoring and preventing runs. This strategy is fantastic when the team is crossing home plate (and preventing opponents from crossing home plate), but that just hasn’t been the case for this year’s club.

So far in 2024, offensive struggles have plagued this squad. Their -62 run differential is ugly and looks even worse when you realize their 2023 run differential was +185. Even though pitching and defense are factored into run differential as well, the bats are the bigger issue here. 

We’ve seen this same core of Rays players produce for the past couple of years. There’s no question they’ve got the ability, but they have not executed up to this point.

This poor performance has quickly landed the Rays at the bottom of the ultra-competitive American League East. Their chances of finishing at or near the top of the division are starting to seem nonexistent in an environment where both the Yankees and Orioles are playing excellent baseball. 

The Rays’ Home Run Issues

So, if the Rays have shown to be such a brilliant unit in the past, then why has there been almost zero success for their bats in 2024?

To lead things off, let’s state the obvious: A total home run power outage has occurred down in St. Pete.

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After Isaac Paredes (more on him in a moment), the player with the next-highest home run total is Randy Arozarena with eight. The star outfielder has been one of the most disappointing players in the league over the first two-plus months of the season, hitting .175 with a .604 OPS.

His batting average looks even worse if you put it in the form of 40-for-228; he has nearly made 200 outs at the plate, and we’re just over two months in.

The Statcast data doesn’t offer much reason for confidence that he will turn it around, either. We’ve seen players prove expected stats wrong before, but the fact that he ranks in the 4th percentile of all major leaguers in whiff percentage is frightening. 

What about Yandy Díaz? You know, that guy who hit 22 homers with a .330 average in 2023?

Well, he’s doing better than Randy, but that’s not saying much. And with just four dingers, Díaz can only have so much impact slapping the ball around the diamond if there’s nobody on base to drive home.

Many teams rely on the home run in order to score, a strategy that I’ve always been a fan of. It only takes one swing to put up a run. If you are playing small ball, it takes a lot of patience, much more needs to go your way before you score.

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Just because the Rays are a low-payroll organization, it does not mean they play small ball.

The Rays have relied on the homer more than most other teams for the past few seasons; they placed sixth in MLB with 230 long balls last season on their way to 99 wins.

This team probably never thought they’d rank last in team home runs at this point in 2024. And no homers seems to equal no success in this equation. A lot of their problems could be solved by hitting the long ball. Of course, that’s easier said than done.

Batted Ball Measurements

Could the Rays’ low home run total have anything to do with pull percentage? I wouldn’t think so, since so far they are right around league average. 

The majority of this team is made up of young, right-handed hitters who like pulling the ball, as they have done in the past. Nobody does this better than Isaac Paredes, whose spray chart looks like an unbalanced connect the dots.

What about a low barrel percentage? The Rays are a full percentage point lower than league average at 6.7%. Plus, they are clearly not hitting the ball in the air enough, producing a lower fly ball rate than the league average. If they can correct a few of these things and get back to their former ways, a saved season could be on the horizon. 

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Sure, it hasn’t helped that Josh Lowe has been injured for much of the year. He’s back now, but it won’t make much of a difference if the rest of the offense doesn’t wake up. Your second-best bat cannot be Amed Rosario or Jose Caballero, but that has been the reality so far.

Guys like Jose Siri and Richie Palacios have to be better. And, hopefully, once Junior Caminero gets the call, he’s ready to fill in and won’t shy away from those lofty expectations. 

A Singular Hero

There hasn’t been a lot to smile about on the offensive side for this team. The bats have gone silent. However, one man continues to prove his many doubters wrong.

Despite his career year last season, many experts did not buy into Isaac Paredes and his 2023 numbers. Yet, if not for his solid hitting thus far, the Rays would be all but dead in the water.

Let’s dive deeper into why Paredes is undervalued and why so many continue to question this potential superstar. And while we’re at it, let’s talk about how the Rays knew he was going to be so valuable.

Just last season, Paredes smacked 31 home runs and 98 RBIs in 143 games played. A .250/.352/.488 slash line was the final result, a level of production most players would dream of reaching.

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But for some reason, high-level baseball analysts did not buy it, and many called for a huge dip across the board. Consider that his expected batting average last season was .230. His xBA is currently sitting at .228, even though he is actually batting .288 up to this point.

So, should this lead to a deeper discussion about Statcast’s expected statistics?

Obviously, the Tigers didn’t see much in Paredes, shipping him to Tampa Bay in exchange for Austin Meadows and a Competitive Balance Round B Draft pick just before the 2022 season kicked off.

Is it possible the Rays are valuing and developing players in a way like no other team? Are they looking at expected stats and laughing as the rest of the baseball industry puts too much faith in such figures?

I believe this is true because over and over the Rays turn mediocrity into usefulness. I think the Rays are creating their own expected statistics and shaping their transactions around said data.

We’ve heard it said that you don’t want to trade with the Rays. Their method of finding undervalued players is truly impressive. Before the Rays acquired Paredes, he was hitting .215 with just two homers in 57 career games. With Tampa Bay, he is averaging 28 home runs per 162 games, while his batting average is nearly 30 points higher at .244.

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Paredes is a special and unique player, not only because of his flying under-the-radar talent but because he seems to continually break Statcast data. His xBA, xSLG, average exit velocity, bat speed, barrel percentage, and hard-hit percentage are all in the 30th percentile or lower. Yet, he keeps hitting and helping his team to as many victories as possible.

Here is something I found to be quite amazing: Since last season, no qualified third baseman has a higher wRC+ than Paredes. That alone should tell you the type of value he brings to southwest Florida.

Looking to the Future

No matter how the rest of the season goes for the Tampa Bay Rays, it’s vital to learn something from Isaac Paredes and his career so far. No individual scouts or individual metrics can say with 100% certainty whether or not a player will pan out.

There are so many moving parts to becoming a successful big leaguer, and talent alone will not do anything if you don’t have confidence and overall baseball intelligence.

So far, Paredes has shown these attributes, and the Rays’ belief in his player profile has paid off in a big way. This underestimated hot corner performer will not be stopping anytime soon. Hopefully, his teammates give him some help on the way to the finish line.

Stats and rankings updated prior to first pitch on June 10.

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