How the Rays Turned the Trop Into Thunderdome Labs

The Rays have turned into a team of mad science for baseball nerds

The Tampa Bay Rays are an experimental baseball team in 2018. They are trying to win in unique ways, and building for the future in ways no team has really tried before. That prototype kind of team has the feel of baseball mad science. Combine that with the controlled environment of Tropicana Field and you get a team that embraces the nerdier aspects of baseball. Welcome to Thunderdome Labs, a weekly report on the Rays’ ongoing science experiments.

In a sport without a hard salary cap, and in a division where two resource-rich teams can drown out the competition for a big name player, how is a team like the Rays supposed to compete? Innovation has been the thing that has leveled baseball’s playing field, and the 2018 Rays are looking to get themselves onto the cutting edge.

To do that, a team needs to try things that nobody else has ever done before just to see what will work and what won’t. This is the concept of market inefficiency in baseball: If you can find value in an area where nobody else is looking, you have an advantage over everybody else. This is true until other teams take your methods and refine them further.

The Rays have become mad science’s favorite baseball team. They are a prototype, a series of experiments to find out what they have in each player on the roster and to collect some best practices to try and gain that leg up on the Yankees and Red Sox of the world.

Some of these baseball experiments, such as the Opener in place of a Starting Pitcher, are easy to spot. Others, not so much. The Rays are going to try a lot of things to set themselves up for long term success starting as soon as next year, and it is going to be a team for all the baseball nerds out there.

What makes this team more scientific than others?

For one thing, any good laboratory is a controlled environment, meaning they eliminate as many variable factors as possible. The Oakland Athletics of Moneyball vintage played outdoors in a particularly windy place. Theo Epstein’s Red Sox teams played in the cold weather of Boston in April, with a ballpark where the very architecture skews results.

The Rays, meanwhile, play indoors in a climate-controlled environment set to ideal baseball conditions. 72. No wind. No short porches, normal amounts of foul territory, the most laboratory-like ballpark in the big leagues. It even resembles a spaceship if you approach it from the right angle.

The Tampa Bay Rays are also largely free from outside pressure. They don’t have the resources of their titanic division rivals, with both the Yankees and Red Sox possessing loaded teams. Nobody would have reasonably expected the Rays, either last year’s model or this one, to compete with two teams currently experiencing best-case scenarios. Sure, fans want the team to win and have some hard questions of a squad that has dealt away some fan favorites including the franchise’s biggest icon to date. At the same time, this is St. Petersburg, not Boston. People will get impatient, they will not become an unruly mob.

More than anything else, however, the Rays are the experimental prototype that they are because in a lot of ways they have to be. Necessity is the mother of invention.

As this column is being written, the Rays have a grand total of two active, established starting pitchers. Thus, they are trying some new ideas to begin baseball games, because the alternative would involve Blake Snell taking on Cy Young’s workload or forcing young pitchers into roles they may not yet be ready for.

The Rays have a young team, they are not the most well-heeled team in baseball (though a coming television contract will help in that regard), and their goal is to be a contender of some sort in 2019. Getting there is going to require some outside-the-box thinking, and the Rays are prepared for that.

Is this another baseball calculus lesson?

It is important to note that this is science, not just math. Baseball math has become the norm. Nerds took over the league with it, whether you think this is a way of helping level the playing field or a boring distraction that slows the game down it’s hard to deny that. Baseball fans know names like Bill James off the top of their heads. Baseball was Nate Silver’s testing ground, and guys like Theo Epstein who resemble cast members of Silicon Valley became architects of championship teams.

Tropicana Field has already had teams of mathletes. The 2008 AL Champions utilized sets of numbers based around the models their management had become familiar with throughout careers on Wall Street, and in doing so they acheieved what seemed like the impossible at the time.

The Rays aren’t the loudest and proudest champions of sabermetrics in the league by any stretch. Largely, this is not due to a distaste for advanced analytics so much as a team not interested in letting the rest of the world in on their practices. Keep in mind the stats we look to as advanced, our sabermetrics, are just the tip of the iceberg. Teams have proprietary models all their own, something that is becoming a bit of an industry standard.

Rest assured that the Tampa Bay Rays have sets of statistics that only they get to see.

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Tim Williams has been covering sports since his days as a student at Northeastern University covering events such as the Beanpot. In the thirteen years since, he has covered college hockey, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour, and the National Hockey League. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Tim has returned home after living much of his life in the northeast, including sixteen years in the Boston area. These days the Managing Editor of Sports Talk Florida can be found on Florida's golf courses when he's not working.