The Rays’ Cinderella Season

Tampa Bay is for real, and midnight seems nowhere in sight.

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Nearly every year, some baseball team has a Cinderella season, rising from the depths of many losing or mediocre seasons and jostling among the perennial contenders for first place. But no team fits the metaphor as well as this year's edition of the Tampa Bay Rays.

The Rays, who changed their name from Devil Rays during the off season, had been a model of futility. In each of their 10 previous seasons, they had lost at least 90 of their 162 games. Stuck in the American League Eastern Division along with perennially contending teams like the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, the Rays seemed doomed to a doormat.

Then came this year. The Rays have won at an unprecedented pace so far; their 72-47 record has them atop the division with the Red Sox and Yankees. Only once since 1993 has a team other than the Yankees or the Red Sox (the 1997 Baltimore Orioles) won the division. Such is the dominance of the top two teams—in both the standings and in the media—that I have to remind many baseball fans here in New York City, that the league consists of 30 teams, not two.

Most fans here and in Boston keep waiting for the clock to strike midnight on the Rays, and there is an appealing logic to their expectations. The Rays are a young team, and most of their stars have never felt the heat and the glare of a pennant race. Cinderella's lease of regal beauty was temporary, but in baseball many Cinderellas have a longer dazzling turn in the spotlight. The 2002 Anaheim Angels had endured six mediocre or losing seasons before making the playoffs and winning the World Series. The 2003 Florida Marlins suffered five straight losing seasons before winning the World Series. The 2005 Chicago White Sox waddled their way through four mediocre seasons before catching fire and winning the World Series.

I'm piling on here, but it gets better! The 2006 Detroit Tigers put their fans through 12 tortuous losing seasons before winning the American League pennant and going to the World Series. And lastly the 2007 Colorado Rockies endured seven straight losing seasons before reaching the World Series last year. In other words, those glass slippers have an excellent track record, when adorned with baseball cleats.

My longstanding qualm about the Rays has been their run differential. Run differential is typically the best indicator of future performance, and this holds true in baseball, football and basketball. What the statisticians who have studied winning tendencies have learned is that what distinguishes the good teams from the mediocre ones isn't the ability to win close contests (though winning nail biters is good for highlight clips and mythmaking). Instead the distinctive aspect of good teams is that they trounce their opponents much more often than they lose by large margins and that accounts for the predictive ability of run differential.

The Tampa Bay run differential is plus 65, which is excellent, except that the Boston Red Sox have a differential of plus 118. If this were the midpoint of the season, that would be a major concern for Rays fans. However, we're nearing the 3/4 mark of the campaign. In other words, the run differential is only going to exert an influence on 43 more games. The Rays run differential suggest that they will win 56 percent or 24 of their games. It's a dropoff from the pace they're on, but such a result will leave them with 96 wins.

Can the Red Sox top that? The Red Sox run differential suggests that they will win 25 of their remaining 41 games. That's an excellent pace. A team winning at that rate for 162 games might win 100 of them, but it's not enough to catch the Rays. The Yankees fare no better by these methods. Their run differential suggests that they are on pace for a 86-76 finish, well out of the post-season conversation.

Both the Rays and Red Sox have been hit hard by injuries. The Rays lost outfielder Carl Crawford for the season with a torn tendon band in his right middle finger and third baseman Evan Longoria for several weeks with a broken wrist. However, Crawford was having a poor season and the Rays have reserves who can replace his production. Longoria's loss will hurt Tampa's efforts, but it's offset by the fact that his Boston counterpart, Mike Lowell, will also miss at least two weeks due to a strained oblique. Both injures tend to have lingering effects, so it's likely that neither team will meet its projection.

So while the conventional wisdom—say nothing of the fervent hopes of Yankee and Red Sox fans—suggests that the Rays will fold as the season wears on, the evidence paints a different picture. Teams new to the championship hunt tend to do well down the stretch (ironically the three most dramatic September folds of the last 15 years were by veteran squads, the 1995 Angels, the 2004 Chicago Cubs and the 2007 New York Mets). So maybe the metaphor is apt; in the end Cinderella got her Prince…and surprising baseball teams tend to get their share of glory.