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The Rays Are a Surrealist’s Delight

The Rays emphasize innovation and collaboration, challenging long-held ideas about how teams should pitch, hit and practice. That aim is embodied by a uniformed analytics coach, Jonathan Erlichman, who holds a mathematics degree from Princeton, where he played club hockey.

“Since he comes from a nonbaseball background, he’s like a little kid: ‘Why do you guys do that?’” infielder Matt Duffy said. “And we’ll say, ‘Well: this, this and this.’ And he’ll say, ‘Well, why do you do that?’ The response to every answer you give is ‘Why, why, why?’ And that’s where the dialogue starts.”

Not everything has worked. In 2016, the Rays tried to cultivate knuckleballers, without much luck. Their slugger-heavy offense of 2017 produced the sixth-most homers in baseball, but also the sixth-fewest runs and second-most strikeouts.

The Rays emphasize power now, but in a different way: Through Monday, their hitters had the highest exit velocity in the majors, at 90.1 miles per hour, and their pitchers — who specialize in curveballs and high fastballs — allowed the lowest, at 86.3. Hard-contact rates enticed them to trade for Pham from St. Louis last July, and to land Yandy Diaz in an off-season deal with Cleveland. Pham was hitting .248 for the Cardinals, but the Rays assured him he had simply been unlucky; he hit .343 the rest of the season.

The Rays also upended long-established pitching roles with their use of the opener. They still prize elite starting pitchers, like Snell, Charlie Morton and Tyler Glasnow. But on other days, they often use a reliever to start the game, and piece together the rest.

“A lot of teams haven’t figured out how they do it, and I don’t get how they haven’t figured it out,” Snell said. “They can keep trying, and I’m like, ‘They’re not doing it right.’”

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