Up two games to none on the Houston Astros in the American League Championship Series, the Tampa Bay Rays are proving with every contest that they are not to be underestimated. Although the franchise had the sixth-most wins in baseball during the 2010s, it also struggled to make the playoffs — and on the rare occasions it did, it never advanced past the division series.
This year is already different. With an 82 percent probability of advancing to the World Series (according to the FiveThirtyEight forecast model), what very well could be the best Rays team ever is closing in on what might be the most special season in franchise history.
If the Astros are the villains of this league-championship round, in the wake of their well-documented cheating scandal, the Rays should be heroes to every underdog lover out there. As is customary for the franchise, Tampa Bay continues to do more with less: While the other three active playoff teams all ranked among the top half of MLB in payroll, according to Baseball-Reference.com — with Houston and Los Angeles finishing second and third, respectively1 — Tampa Bay had the second-lowest payroll in baseball this season, ahead of only the Baltimore Orioles.
Aside from center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, who carries a $10.2 million price tag, the rest of the Rays’ top 15 players by wins above replacement2 cost a combined $17.3 million, or a little over $1.2 million per player in full-season payroll salary. By all rights, a team like this shouldn’t have been close to the playoffs at all, but Tampa Bay has long had a knack for unearthing hidden gems. Just a few current examples include selecting second baseman Brandon Lowe, the team’s 2020 WAR leader, 87th overall in the 2015 draft; finding ALDS hero Mike Brosseau as an undrafted free agent in 2016; and swindling Pittsburgh out of starter Tyler Glasnow and left fielder Austin Meadows in a now-infamous 2018 trade.
And those were just the players powering the Rays’ first-place AL East finish during the regular season. Even by its standards, Tampa Bay has outdone itself in this postseason. Take Randy Arozarena, for instance, the previously obscure Cuban outfielder who played only 23 regular-season games but boasts a team-leading3 1.359 OPS during the postseason. Or Manuel Margot, who had a regular-season OPS of just .679 (with one home run) and now owns a mark of .928 in the postseason (with three homers). The Rays have also leaned heavily on relievers Diego Castillo and Ryan Thompson, who combined for 0.5 WAR during the regular season but have allowed just two runs in 12⅔ innings so far under mostly high-pressure circumstances. The list goes on. Even after earning the AL’s top seed, the Rays couldn’t resist finding unheralded ways to win in the postseason.
Of course, Tampa Bay’s success hasn’t all come from unexpected sources. The Rays’ defense, second in WAR during the regular season only to the St. Louis Cardinals, has excelled at the routine plays — among teams that made the division series, only the Astros have a larger negative gap between their postseason ERA and fielding-independent pitching4 — and the difficult ones alike:
In large part because of this, Tampa Bay held an Astros lineup that had been averaging 6.7 runs per game through the first two rounds of the playoffs to just three total runs in the first two games of the ALCS, making Houston look more like the team that disappointed horribly for most of the year.
If the Rays do manage to hang onto the series against Houston, it would earn them just the second pennant in team history. The first? Led by Evan Longoria, Carlos Peña, James Shields and Melvin Upton Jr. (then known as B.J.), the 2008 Rays were a terrific story, improving by 31 wins after dropping the “Devil” from the team’s nickname. Though it ultimately ran into a World Series buzz saw in the form of the Philadelphia Phillies, that team enjoyed one of the best rags-to-riches runs in baseball history. But if we look at a variety of different metrics, this edition of the Rays is probably better than the 2008 version was:
Tale of the tape: best Rays team ever?
Comparing the 2008 and 2020 Tampa Bay Rays, by the numbers
|2008 Rays||Category||2020 Rays|
|10th||Batting WAR rank||10th|
|3rd||Total WAR rank||3rd|
Obviously, the 2020 Rays haven’t advanced as far as the 2008 edition did … yet. And Houston has kept things relatively close in the series so far, despite its 2-0 deficit. In fact, the Astros have gotten plenty of runners on base against the Rays in the ALCS — they actually have a higher OPS in the series than Tampa Bay does (.736 to .614). Houston could easily be tied or even leading the series right now, if not for a few important breaks here and there.
But that’s the nature of postseason baseball. Instead, it’s Tampa Bay that has a great chance to represent the AL in the Fall Classic, much to the joy of most non-Houstonian observers across the nation. And as always — even as ALCS favorites — they’re doing it in classic scrappy Rays fashion.
Check out our latest MLB predictions.