Insider: What Is Infecting the Rays Defense?

Joe Maddon thinks his team’s recent poor defensive play is becoming a viral epidemic. After Tuesday’s ugly loss to the New York Yankees, Maddon called the recent string of misplays a “virus,” adding, “we have to get rid of it. We need some kind of an infield antibiotic.” While the scientists in the front office work on a cure, a combination of time, talent, and some of Beanie Maddon’s cooking should do the trick.

Despite progressive shifts and aggressive positioning, the majority of Tampa Bay’s miscues have been rooted in failed execution of routine plays whether they were ruled official errors or not. Errors and fielding percentage are subjective in nature. There are clear-cut errors, but inconsistencies are a given whenever a statistic is left up to a judgment call.

For example, say Sean Rodriguez dives for and fields a groundball that is well out of the range for a normal shortstop. But he has trouble with the transfer and is unable to complete the throw to first base. In most cases, that play is scored an error, thus penalizing Rodriguez for having great range.

Alternatively, say a routine groundball is hit toward Rodriguez. This time he dives, but dives to the completely incorrect side of the field. Yes, he looks ridiculous in doing so, and it is a misplay on a ball that could’ve been converted into an out, but errors are typically assigned only in cases where the fielder makes contact with the ball. Since Rodriguez didn’t touch the ball, the play is scored a hit.

That’s a lot of words to say the obvious that errors cannot always be trusted; however, that the Rays have made 49 of them—some of them rather routine—though 56 games should not be ignored as simply scorer’s bias .If anything, you could argue there were a few more misplays that should have been scored errors. There is good news to be found in that statistic. A large chunk of the Rays errors have been committed by replacement-level players, or players playing out of position due to injury. Replacing Evan Longoria and Desmond Jennings has not only left the Rays’ offense thin, but has created some havoc in the field, too.

Sean Rodriguez has seen the most time at third base in Longoria’s absence, and has five errors at the hot corner. With Rodriguez at third base, Elliot Johnson has been forced into the lineup as the team’s primary shortstop. He has also made five errors. Rodriguez and Johnson will both be on the roster after Longoria returns, but Johnson will likely return reduced role on the bench while Rodriguez shifts back to shortstop where he has looked fluid.

With Jennings’ perch in left field vacated, Maddon moved Matt Joyce from right field to left and took Ben Zobrist from second base and dropped him into the outfield. This shift, along with injuries to Longoria and Jeff Keppinger, allowed Will Rhymes and Drew Sutton to add seven more errors to the team’s total. Rhymes contributed four errors at second base and one more at third base. Sutton, while filling in for Rodriguez (who was filling in for Zobrist, who was filling in for Joyce, who was filling in for Jennings), committed two errors at third base. Even Zobrist, perhaps as a byproduct of all the shuffling, has made six errors on the season.

In addition to the errors behind the pitchers, Chris Gimenez was charged with three errors (catcher’s interference) while filling in for backup catcher Jose Lobaton. Even the pitchers are in on the act, having committed five errors themselves.

Were Longoria and Jennings healthy over the past month, the team still would have made errors. Longoria made six errors prior to his injury, making him a primary candidate to be patient zero. That said, a combined 20 errors charged to Johnson, Rhymes, Sutton, Gimenez, and an out-of-position Rodriguez (along with five more to the pitching staff), could mean the leather-eating virus may not be infecting the core of the Rays defense. Advanced defensive metrics, while volatile in small samples, peg the team’s overall performance on converting balls in play into outs as being closer to league-average than league-worst.

The point remains: the Rays need to play better defense. The good news is that the illness should begin to go away as the names on the disabled list return to action.