Tampa Bay Rays: Early Defensive Improvements Are a Much-Needed Change

The Tampa Bay Rays’ defense has been playing much better this season after a mediocre 2016.

Despite only being one month into the season, one thing is very clear when watching the Tampa Bay Rays: their defense has vastly improved from last season. Mark Simon of ESPN even went so far as to make three of the team’s players the website’s co-Defensive Players of the Month.

On the whole, the turnaround is quite stark. The Rays have had one of the better defenses this season. By Defensive Runs Saved, the Rays have the best defense in the major leagues through the first month of the season. This still has the typical warnings of a small sample size, but the feat is still impressive considering how truly mediocre the Rays’ defense was last season.

Before games started on Saturday, FanGraphs estimated that the Tampa Bay Rays’ defense was already worth roughly eight runs better than average and the sixth most valuable in the big leagues. Comparing this to their -11.4 figure and 18th overall rank from 2016 shows just how big of a shift this year has been.

One of the primary contributors, as Mark Simon noted in his aforementioned piece, is the typically excellent Kevin Kiermaier. Kiermaier, who turned 27 years old just two weeks ago, has provided the Rays with elite defense since 2014. The centerfielder routinely ends the campaign as one of the best defensive players in the game. In 2015, for instance, FanGraphs valued his glove as 32 runs better than the average fielder.

Evan Longoria has also stood out an excellent defensive asset. Now 31, his fielding abilities have declined over the past few seasons, but things are looking better this year. His five defensive runs saved are already the most since 2013. In fact, he has accumulated negative figures for the past three seasons.

Ultimate Zone Rating, UZR, on the other hand, has typically taken a more optimistic field on his work in the field. Still, his UZR per 150 defensive games is already at its highest figure since 2011. Whether or not Longoria will be able to sustain this pace given his aging frame remains to be seen, but he is once again showing the baseball world the material that made him a near instant superstar.

The final player that Simon mentioned in his article is Steven Souza Jr. The Tampa Bay Rays acquired the outfielder from the Washington Nationals back in the December of 2014. In exchange for Souza and a few other players, the Rays sent Wil Myers, Ryan Hanigan, and Jose Castillo to the San Diego Padres.

The right-handed has played like a star in the outfield so far. He has made 99.1 percent of all routine plays, according to Inside Edge, and his four Defensive Runs Saved is ranked seventh overall among all major-league outfielders so far. Combining Souza’s defensive prowess with that of Kiermaier has allowed the Tampa Bay Rays to have one of the best defensive outfields in baseball this season.

After Saturday afternoon’s win over the Toronto Blue Jays, the Rays owned a 16-16 record and stood five games out of first place. Although the team is probably not going to make the playoffs, the defense has certainly played a role in keeping them in the mix. If their defense had not improved this April, odds are that they would be carrying one or two fewer wins into the summer already. If the team can continue this level of defensive skill throughout the season, they might just be able to play meaningful baseball in the fall.

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