The Rays are off to a historic start in 2023.
They’ve gone 29-9 through their first 38 games, becoming only the fourth team in the 21st century to start this well.
It’s been a thoroughly dominant display of baseball excellence that few teams have ever shown for this long of a stretch to start the season. Through Wednesday, their pitchers have allowed the fewest runs (2.95 ERA) and the hitters have scored the most runs (231). That’s a winning recipe.
While the pitching has been excellent, it was also great in 2022 when they finished fourth in the Majors with a 3.41 ERA. The offense, however, has taken a massive step forward. In fact, it might be the single biggest offensive improvement we’ve seen in the last decade.
Here is more on how the Rays turned around 2022’s subpar offense and are now scoring runs at will in 2023.
The following stats are through Tuesday’s games
It’s fair to say that Rays’ offense was not good in 2022. Of the dozen teams to make the playoffs, they finished last in runs scored (666) and bested only the Guardians in wRC+ (101). Injuries to Wander Franco and Brandon Lowe and underwhelming offensive performances from most hitters outside of Yandy Díaz and Randy Arozarena led to the club’s worst offensive season since 2017.
The script has flipped in ’23. The Rays aren’t just the best offense in the Majors; they’re running laps around their competition. They rank first in every major offensive category.
Rays’ offensive numbers in 2023 in comparison to second-ranked teams
12.7 WAR (TEX, 7.2)
143 wRC+ (ATL, 117)
230 R (TEX, 223)
75 HR (LAD, 61)
.274 BA (AZ, .273)
.348 OBP (ATL, .343)
.517 SLG (ATL, .465)
The shift from mediocrity to elite performance has been dramatic. When you put the 2022 and ’23 numbers side-by-side, it looks like a completely different team the Rays are running out there.
The Rays’ 55-point jump in xwOBA — expected wOBA based on the quality of contact, Ks and BBs — is the second-largest year-to-year jump by any team in the Statcast era (since 2015). Only the ’20 Padres, who made their huge jump in a shortened season thanks to the first MVP-level performances from Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado in San Diego, have seen a bigger improvement (58 points).
One would think that the Rays made wholesale changes over the offseason to revamp their offense. That is not the case. In fact, the Rays did not acquire a single MLB position player — either in free agency or trade — this past offseason. What’s different, however, is better luck with health and further experience for a group that has developed continuity with one another.
Franco and Brandon Lowe are healthy again. Their presence supplements Díaz and Arozarena, two of their best hitters from ’22 who are even better this season. Hitters such as Josh Lowe, Taylor Walls and Christian Bethancourt are excelling after dealing with previous MLB failures and getting extended chances to perform in ’23.
The Rays are getting the optimal combination of top-level performance from several hitters and depth in the lineup. Of the 13 Rays hitters with 50-plus plate appearances, nine of them have a wRC+ of 115 or better. Seven of those hitters are at 150 or better. It is a collectively dominant effort from practically every hitter.
Rays hitters and coaches credit an improved approach for their success this season, thanks to a commitment to taking better at-bats. As Walls told MLB.com Rays beat writer Adam Berry, “We’re just picking our spots to be aggressive,” and looking to get into hitters’ counts that make it easier to do damage.
But in terms of what the numbers show, the single biggest change to the 2023 Rays offense is their ability to do damage on baseballs. Much like their improvement in xwOBA, their 114-point improvement in expected slugging percentage is the largest year-to-year improvement by an offense in the Statcast era. They’re doing so by hitting the ball harder and getting more of their batted balls in the air.
Rays’ batted ball numbers in 2022 vs. ’23
Ground-ball rate: 44.7% vs. 41.5%
Avg. launch angle: 11.4 degrees vs. 14.0 degrees
Avg. exit velocity: 88.9 mph vs. 90.4 mph
Hard-hit rate: 38.8% vs. 44.5%
Barrel rate: 6.1% vs. 11.8%
The Rays have nearly doubled their barrel rate — the number of batted balls hit with optimal exit velo + launch angle (typically HR/XBH). At the risk of sounding like a broken record, their 5.7% increase in barrel rate is also the largest year-to-year jump by a team since 2015. Nearly half of the Rays’ hitters have followed this pattern of crushing and lifting more baseballs.
The poster child for the Rays’ offensive improvement is Díaz, who was long known for hitting the ball extremely hard but on the ground too often. This started to change when he shaved his ground-ball rate to a career-low 50% in 2022, which helped lead to the best wRC+ (146) of his career. By dropping his ground-ball rate even further (45.5%) in ’23 and hitting the ball harder (95.0 mph avg. exit velocity), Díaz has taken off to an elite hitter as he is tied for second among qualified hitters with a 187 wRC+.
Rays coaches encouraged Díaz, one of baseball’s most patient hitters, to be more aggressive and let it rip in hitter’s counts. By embracing this approach, he has unlocked a new level of power; his nine home runs puts him on track to blow way past his career-high 14 home runs, set in 2019.
It’s not just Díaz. Two of the Rays’ other top hitters have embraced the elevate and celebrate movement. Arozarena started incorporating data and scouting reports into his routine this year. It’s helped lead to the fifth-best wRC+ (173) among qualified hitters, more hard-hit balls in the air, and a significant increase in barreled baseballs.
Franco, the 22-year-old wunderkind, has erupted in his third big league season in no small part to hitting the ball harder and in the air more often. After slugging .439 in his first two seasons, he’s slugging .556 in ’23, which trails only 10 qualified hitters. Franco has always possessed plus raw power; now he’s learning how to get to it in games and drive more baseballs over the wall.
Even some of the lesser-known Rays are following this blueprint. Harold Ramírez flourished in his first year in Tampa Bay in ’22; he was the only Ray with a .300+ batting average and his 119 wRC+ trailed only Díaz and Arozarena. After hitting just six home runs all of last season, Ramírez has matched that total already this season.
“Harold’s a really good hitter. I think that he has so much confidence in his swing that if he wants to take some chances to try to get a ball up in the air, he’s willing to do that,” Cash told Berry last month. “Very similar to Yandy. Both those guys are just really talented hitters that hit the ball on a line a lot more than most. Now they’re taking some chances to get it a little higher in the air.”
Bethancourt, who is in a timeshare with Francisco Mejía behind the plate, is slugging .526 with a 117 wRC+. At desperate crossroads in his career with the A’s in 2022, Bethancourt made a change to start elevating his hard-hit balls more often. He’s carried over those changes after being traded to Tampa Bay last July.
Not a cookie-cutter approach
The elevate-and-celebrate model has been key for the top Rays’ hitters, but it hasn’t been a prerequisite for other Rays to improve in 2023. For some, the improvements have been tied to simply being healthy (Brandon Lowe). For others, it’s been about getting extended chances in the Majors and learning from their previous failures.
Josh Lowe is one of several Rays hitters who struggled in previous stints in the Majors. Lowe, who ranked as the 50th-best prospect according to MLB Pipeline heading into 2022, struck out in roughly a third of his plate appearances in ’22 and posted an 83 wRC+.
In ’23, the 25-year-old has shaved his strikeout rate 10.5% and has the fifth-best wRC+ (178) among hitters with at least 100 PA. For Lowe, his progression is more about a guy learning from his previous failures, getting more comfortable in the Majors, and making some subtle changes in the offseason.
Walls is another Ray who previously struggled at the dish, but has shown drastic improvements in ’23. Of the 205 players who had at least 400 plate appearances in ’22, Walls’ 66 wRC+ trailed only five players. Due to the injuries to Franco and Brandon Lowe last year, Walls received an extended chance mostly due to his superb defense, his good approach at the plate (11.2 BB% in ’22) and his previous track record of hitting in the Minors.
This year, the bat has come around thanks to a power surge and changes during the offseason; his 156 wRC+ trails only 17 hitters (min. 90 PA) and is just behind names like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Yordan Alvarez.
Before the season, Walls discussed having a lot to prove in ’23 and made several adjustments in the offseason. One of those adjustments involved going to the Brain and Barrel facility, where “they broke down the types of pitches that he struggled against and made minor tweaks to Walls’ setup, aiming to put him in a better position against the high fastballs that gave him trouble last season.” Clearly, it’s worked out for Walls.
Luke Raley, a former Dodger who was out of Minor League options this year, came into the year with a new, more efficient swing. Raley talked in Spring Training about implementing multiple fixes for his setup, including “setting his hands closer to his body in order to make his approach shorter and more direct and reducing his leg kick”.
The strikeouts (34.8%) are still there for Raley, but it’s less of an issue when you’ve homered eight times in 89 plate appearances and barreled a quarter of your batted balls.
Put all of these team-wide and individual player changes together and you have the makings of baseball’s most improved offense.
Every passing moment that the Rays continue to produce like this, the more you think it’s legitimate and that this offense really is this good.
Adam Berry contributed reporting to this story.