Fuzzy math with Tampa's magic number

September 17, 2008 - 7:20 am

A year ago, the Tampa Bay Rays went 66-96, good for the worst record in baseball. Towards the end of the season, however, manager Joe Maddon conjured the formula that he thought his team could use to reach the playoffs. He summarized the concept on T-shirts that he had ready for his Rays team when they arrived in spring training this year. His formula: "9=8." The concept defied logic in somewhat Orwellian fashion, perhaps the first signal that the view from behind Maddon's glasses had gone from rose-colored to distorted. Yet, as is often the case with Tampa's skipper, the equation had an unusual and intriguing explanation with a couple of wrinkles. Maddon suggested that a team with nine players on the field (10 including the DH, but when you're making a claim like "9=8," you can take some liberties) who executed properly and well for nine innings every night would allow his team to be one of eight in the postseason.  "I wanted nine more wins out of the offense, nine more wins out of the defense and nine more wins out of the pitching staff than last year," Maddon said last week.  That improvement would tack on 27 wins to Tampa's total of 66 victories a year ago.

"Two plus seven equals nine, nine equals eight, that would put us at 93 wins for the season, which I thought would get us into the playoffs," Maddon concluded. 

His team probably didn't fully understand the concept, but they embraced it nonetheless. All the same, things haven't quite worked out in the balanced blueprint that Maddon drew. A year ago, the Rays scored 782 runs, 15th in the majors. This year, Tampa is on pace for 750 runs, and its average of 4.63 runs per game ranks 16th in the bigs. Offense has not been responsible for propelling the team to the brink of the postseason.  Tampa's pitching and defense, however, have improved in astounding fashion. Tampa is allowing opponents to score 4.10 runs per game, the second lowest mark (behind only Toronto) in the American League. That mark represents incredible improvement. Tampa's bullpen, for instance, which had an abysmal 6.16 ERA in 2007 that ranked last in the majors, has a 3.53 mark this year that is fifth in baseball. While the members of a pitching staff typically get almost all of the credit for such jumps, the improved Rays defense has been nearly as responsible for the improvement. Tampa was the worst team in the majors last year at turning balls in play into outs. Their defensive efficiency rate (the number of balls in play converted into outs) was last in the majors. This year, the Rays rate as the best team in the majors in the same category. The team is giving away one or two fewer outs per game this year, thanks in no small part to the additions of Jason Bartlett (an underrated component of the trade that sent Delmon Young to Minnesota for Matt Garza) at short and Evan Longoria at third, the latter move having freed Tampa to move Aki Iwamura from third (where he is not so good) to second (where he is excellent). Thanks almost solely, then, to their improved pitching and defense, the Rays are on pace for 97 wins, a mark that would set a new record for victories by a team that finished the prior season with baseball's worst record, and exceeding Maddon's projections. Now, as his team nears fulfillment of that preseason goal, Maddon is simultaneously reveling in the remarkable story of his club and thinking about a sequal. "(9=8) was my brainstorm at the end of last season," he said. "I'€™ve got my thoughts for next year."