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Baseball for Sad Boys

The Tampa Bay Rays have succeeded by transforming Baseball from a game to a chore.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

For the next three days, the San Francisco Giants will be bludgeoned to death by the team they’re trying to emulate. Since they’ll never have the financial resources or fan base (seriously, check out annual revenues and attendance) of the Dodgers, it makes sense for the Billy Beane acolyte to chase the team that actually improved upon Moneyball: the Rays.

The Tampa Bay Rays have redefined success to mean the ability to hit certain physical markers observed by a laser tracking system. There is no team that lives “process over outcome” more than this team and why not? That single focus has turned the entire franchise around from a team the rest of the AL East wiped their cleats on to a consistent force of... well, not wins, because those are outcomes and outcomes are anti-process, but... they’ve turned into a team that can frustrate other teams’ processes.

To wit, their record through their first 10 seasons of 645-972 (.399) is what you’d expect from an expansion franchise. Maybe not quite that bad for quite so long, but there it is. Since 2008, though — so, for the past 15 years/16 seasons, they’ve gone 1,338-1,111 (.546) and have the fourth best record in Major League Baseball.

That’s not because they tried to become “winners,” they tried to become a better team. What’s the difference? Well, if you optimize every facet of being a professional ballplayer, the thinking goes, then you will become so efficient that you will succeed more often.

The Rays are very big on LinkedIn because they’re proof positive that if you signal to shareholders and stakeholders early and often that your firm/organization intends to shift from an outcome-focused firm/organization to a process-focused firm/organization then, the thinking goes, you will be able to insulate yourself from failure.

7 Lessons From the Tampa Bay Rays That Engineering Companies Can Use to Grow

Lesson #1: Be Fundamentally Sound (Before You Do Anything Else)

Lesson #2: Make Decisions Based on Data

Lesson #3: Innovate to Differentiate Yourself From Your Competitors (and Stand Out to Future Employees)

Lesson #4: Be the Best in Recruiting and Developing Staff

Lesson #5: Build a Culture Focused on Team Goals (Not Individual Accomplishment)

Lesson #6: Always Be Fiscally Responsible (Don’t Buy the Shiny Objects)

Lesson #7: Find and Develop Leaders Who Can Execute Your Philosophy

A lot of the above is pretty basic, but it’s the Rays obvious success that has driven a cult of personality around them. In the business world, nothing matters more than CYA, and since it’s become unpopular and legally tricky to cover one’s ass by blaming individuals, creating a culture to hide within has become fashionable.

“Process” has become a culture unto itself. The Rays are one of the most successful teams in Baseball because of their “process,” not because of their on-field results. Kids don’t grow up wanting to become baseball players, they want to become professional optimizers in the Tampa Bay Rays mold.

It makes a lot of sense. If you don’t have money to spend fielding a team, then optimize every penny to get the most bang for the buck. Sure, we could bother to dig deeper on why the Rays “don’t” have money to spend, but this is just a series preview, and I want to look at how the Rays eschewing the pursuit of success has made them wildly successful.

If you don’t think the Rays are successful, then why does every front office wish it was the Rays? Why does every team owner want to be the Rays? Oh... okay, I’m seeing it now. I see it. Front offices want to be the heroes and owners want to convince paying customers they’re being as competitive as possible at half the cost.

In another LinkedIn post a data scientist writes,

The true meaning of “Focus on the process, not the result”

[...] Just because we have a robust process in place, it doesn’t mean it’s right—or appropriate in all circumstances. We should be obsessed with improving our processes, not blindly following them.

If achieving the desired outcome often requires you to depart from the process, your process isn’t right.

Many experts suggest finding “a middle ground” between following the process and beneficially departing from it when required to achieve the desired outcome. And that may be fine when you face a rare situation where bending the rules makes sense.

But if you find yourself repeatedly having to bypass a process step to achieve results, that’s a clear sign that your rules need to change—potentially to embed more flexibility.

It’s very hard to win the World Series. The playoffs are a crap shoot. Get in and anything can happen. The acquisition cost for the most talented players is very high, and a lot of teams can quickly find themselves hampered in their efforts to improve the entire roster because of the financial burden of 1-2 guys. Injuries are a part of the game so building depth is key.

All of these are reasons for why the Rays have managed to outperform expectations and succeed when wealthier teams have failed. Still, I think this is a pretty sad way to win. Why must fandoms hold the same views as their team’s front office? Farhan Zaidi isn’t using Fan Fest to show fans the 3-5 year plan or the season projections and it’s just a weird dynamic to ask fans to invest time and money in a long-term project that will have just a brief competitive window with no guaranteed outcome.

There was a time when all of this made sense to me and it was sort of fun to get inside of and reverse engineer — when there weren’t books or articles that made clear what was going on. Then I got older and I embraced the notion that I get one life. Teams may be eternal like a corporation, but the individual fan — the individual player — gets one life.

And another thing: the Rays aren’t a business, they’re a team. They’re in an industry where wins and losses matter quite a lot. The Rays have spent the better part of the last 15 years trying to reframe reality. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to root for a team to win. Somehow, the Rays have used enough creative management — popularizing the opener, turning Zack Littell into a starting pitcher — to reinvent themselves as annual contenders but through their strenuous trumpeting of “process,” they’ve signaled that wins and losses ought to be irrelevant, that they’re merely an extension of outcomes. Somehow, their gimmicks make them more legit than teams that just “buy talent.”

The Rays had an historic unbeaten start to the season (13-0) and in their first 54 games were 38-16. Because they’re The Rays nobody thought that this suggested a negative regression. They’re simply wizards. If any other team had done this, there’d be a huge contingent of skeptics riding alongside the success waiting for the fall. The Rays have simply found another avenue for eventually being humbled by the game.

After 13-0 went to 38-16, they’ve gone 33-33 since and trail the Orioles in the AL East race by 3 games. But the Rays have the second-best run differential in the AL so they’re fine, right? Technically, an extremely First Place team. If it sounds like I’m down on their genius, it’s because I perceive the organization to be dripping with cynicism. They’ve long ignored character issues if it gives them an advantage in acquisition cost. They’re cavalier about player health to optimize pitch to pitch performance. Their front office fans really do perform online as though they reinvented the game. It’s why this meme hits perfectly:

(I know he’s not the originator, but h/t to @StelliniTweets for recently tweeting it out.)

Thing is, the Rays are talented. Yandy Diaz, Isaac Paredes, Randy Arozarena, and Tyler Glasnow are really good. The national mood at any given time, though, seems to focus on how the Rays are simply “optimizing” the talent they have into something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a thing that’s more true of the Giants: they’re not actually a talented bunch, they are guided by an All-Star algorithm devised by the front office.

I don’t think the Rays have figured anything out in a way that meaningfully transfers to other teams, but that’s not going to stop the marketing campaign. I think there’s something despairing and anti-sport in “You can’t control outcome, you can only control process.” Despair is an inward-facing emotion. Somehow, the Rays have perverted selfishness into a teamwide philosophy. “My process! My process!” When you step outside yourself, you sidestep despair and hopelessness, because it’s no longer about you.

There once was a book written about the Rays called The Extra 2% which focused largely on how Clever and Smart the Rays are. Arbitrage might be a tangible “2%,” but so is hope. When I look at the Rays, I see a really talented but hopeless team. Baseball is a weird, very human sport, and the constant refrain out of Tampa Bay is “we can math around that.”

I’ve spent a lot of words you haven’t read smearing a team that’s much, much better than the Giants — on paper, at least — and will be for a while. The Giants are struggling right now against all comers and it’s reasonable to expect that the Rays will sting them to death. They’re two teams alike in only one way: neither will win the World Series this year.

Series details

Who: San Francisco Giants vs. Tampa Bay Rays
Where: Oracle Park, San Francisco, California
When: Monday (6:45pm PT), Tuesday (6:45pm PT), Wednesday (12:45pm PT)
National broadcasts: None.

Projected starters

Monday: Ryan Walker (opener) vs. Tyler Glasnow
Tuesday: TBA vs. TBA
Wednesday: TBA vs. TBA

Where they stand


Record: 71-49, 2nd in AL East
Run differential: +139, 2nd in AL
Postseason standing: +5.0 games up in Wild Card, 3.0 games out of the division
Momentum: 1-game losing streak; 5-5 in their last 10 games


Record: 63-55, 2nd in NL West
Run differential: +18, 6th in the NL
Postseason standing: +1.5 up in Wild Card, 8.5 games out of the division
Momentum: 1-game winning streak; 4-6 in their last 10 games

Rays to watch

Tyler Glasnow: Glasnow had a pretty easy six innings against the Giants back in 2019 (6 IP 0 ER, 6K), but the Giants are a little bit better than that team. Glasnow’s career has been limited by injury, but in just 68.2 IP this season (12 starts), he’s put up a 3.15 ERA (3.18 FIP) with 96 strikeouts against just 22 walks. His last three starts have come against the Orioles, Marlins, and Yankees, and in all of them he pitched 7 innings. His cumulative line against that trio is impressive: 21 IP, 1.71 ERA (2.08 FIP) 25-4 K-BB.

Yandy Diaz: His 161 wRC+ is 5th-best in MLB, and 2nd in the AL behind only Shohei Ohtani. With a 10.6% walk rate against a 16.5% strikeout rate, the best way to describe Diaz is that his entire season has been Wilmer Flores’s past two months. The last time the Rays played at Oracle Park (2019), Diaz went 3-for-12, two of those hits being home runs.

Luke Raley: He’s a strict platoon batter (a lefty against RHP), but he’s slumped terribly in the second half (.211/.309/.324), but his few bright spots have come against either bad (Royals, Guardians) or NL (Marlins, Cardinals) teams. His interleague line: (100 PA) .212/.320/.471 with 5 home runs.

Zack Littell: He’s come a long way since Gabe Kapler glowered him to a DFA to the point that he has become a successful starter for the Rays. Not an opener! A STARTER. Here are his last three appearances:

July 30 @ Houston: 5 IP, 8 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 4K (82 pitches)
August 4 @ Detroit: 6 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 1 K (74 pitches)
August 10 vs. St. Louis: 6 IP, 7 H, 3 ER, 0 BB, 5 K (73 pitches)

He’s doing that with a four-pitch mix of fastball, slider, splitter, sweeper. Who knows if he’ll start this series, but he’s setup to.

Giants to watch

Heliot Ramos: If he doesn’t play in two out of three games it’s going to be really disappointing but also a sign that the Giants haven’t budged off their internal projection that he’s going to be a platoon bat, disproving my theory that he fits Mitch Haniger’s profile. A really important thing to keep in mind, though, is that the Rays have one of the finest pitching staffs in the sport and that there’s a good chance that even if he gets every possible at bat, he’s going be completed dominated by a superior force.

Michael Conforto: We’re all hoping Conforto is starting to heat up. His August has been good to great: .242/.375/.455 (.830) with a pair of home runs and a double as well as 7 walks against six strikeouts. Both of those homers came in this Rangers series where he went 4-for-8. The Rays have two tough lefties in their bullpen (Colin Poche, 9-3, 2.28 ERA and Jake Diekman (3.45 ERA in 28.2 IP since joining the Rays from the White Sox).

Patrick Bailey: The Rays are the best baserunning team in MLB, which doesn’t necessarily put all the pressure on Bailey, but they are also the best stolen base team in the AL (#2 in MLB), and that’s going to be a significant aspect for him to monitor. Meanwhile, he improved his Gold Glove chances with his offensive heroics over the weekend, raising his wRC+ to 101.

Prediction time


Giants vs. Rays - how will it go?

This poll is closed

  • 7%
    I don’t like your attitude towards the Rays
    (9 votes)
  • 2%
    The Rays are my favorite squadron
    (3 votes)
  • 2%
    If the world were more like the Rays, the world would be perfect
    (3 votes)
  • 6%
    lol bro wut even is this?
    (8 votes)
  • 10%
    Mmmm sounds like somebody’s jealous
    (13 votes)
  • 11%
    Rays sweep Giants
    (15 votes)
  • 29%
    Giants win series
    (37 votes)
  • 30%
    Rays win series
    (38 votes)
126 votes total Vote Now