Major League Baseball
What we learned in MLB this week: The Rays are historically good
Major League Baseball

What we learned in MLB this week: The Rays are historically good

Updated May. 11, 2023 1:54 p.m. ET

Every Thursday, Jordan Shusterman takes a look at one thing from each MLB division that we’ve learned from the past week of action. 

AL East: The Rays’ offense is somehow more impressive than their record

Twenty-nine and nine is an unfathomably good start to a season. Even coming off back-to-back losses, the Rays are just the 17th team since 1901 to begin 29-9 or better. Of the other 16, 12 clubs went on to appear in the World Series and seven won it all. 

And yet, 29-9 does not jump off the 2023 Rays’ Baseball-Reference page as much as the stunning array of offensive performances. We’ve spent years talking about the Rays’ ability to turn no-names into out-getters on the mound, utilizing progressive pitching philosophies and funky arm angles and nasty pitches you’ve never seen before. This year, the pitching is once again very good, and will likely only get better with the pending return of Tyler Glasnow.


But we are only seven months removed from watching these same players produce one run on nine hits across 24 miserable innings against the Guardians in last year’s wild-card series. Yes, Cleveland’s pitching was awesome. No, Wander Franco was not at full strength and Brandon Lowe was out. But to think the bulk of that lineup would return this season and suddenly become the 1927 Yankees is hard to wrap my mind around.

Even as they made a postseason push, 2022 never felt like the Rays' year. They were in the mix because they are always in the mix, but something was just off.

This year couldn’t be more different. Everyone in the lineup is essentially hitting laser beams. The team has an OPS of .854, good for a 140 OPS+. Here are the best team OPS+ marks from the past 100 years (excluding 2020):

  • 2023 Rays: 143
  • 1927 Yankees (see?): 127
  • 1931 Yankees: 125
  • 2017 Astros: 123
  • 1982 Brewers: 121
  • 1976 Reds: 120

Those are some decent ballclubs, I’d say. But if comparing them to teams from 100 years ago doesn’t fully satisfy, let’s put this in another, more modern perspective:

  • 2022 Pete Alonso: .271/.352/.518
  • 2023 Tampa Bay Rays: .274/.345/.509

It’s May 11, and the Rays' lineup is basically made up entirely of Pete Alonsos.

Braves & Rays still dominant atop Ben's MLB Power Rankings

The thing is, I’m mostly buying it? I believe in Franco, Randy Arozarena and Yandy Diaz as legitimate star-level players. I don’t think Josh Lowe and Harold Ramirez are .950 OPS guys, but I think Ramirez has proven he can be comfortably above-average and Lowe looks like the top prospect he was billed as not long ago who is legitimately unlocking his potential on a daily basis. Isaac Paredes has nearly an identical OPS to what he did a year ago, and Brandon Lowe hasn’t even been that good yet. 

I could see the regression coming harder for guys like Christian Bethancourt, Luke Raley, and Taylor Walls especially, but this lineup should still bop even if those guys turn into pumpkins. I’ll bet against them finishing with the best OPS+ of all time, but I’m thoroughly convinced it is now one of the best offenses in baseball regardless of how I felt at the end of last season. It’s been tremendously fun to watch. 

AL Central: The Tigers' rebuild is having some strange developments

I came into this season with three primary questions about the rebuilding Tigers: 1) How good will we feel about the long-hyped trio of Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning by the end of the season once they are hopefully all healthy? 2) Can Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene still become foundational offensive pieces after lackluster rookie years? 3) What kind of bounce back might we see from free-agent signings Eduardo Rodríguez and Javier Báez after their disappointing debut seasons in Detroit?

I’m in too good of a mood to focus on either of the first two questions (yikes), so let’s dig in on the third. Rodríguez has been simply brilliant, and one of the more pleasant surprises of the season thus far. After spending a lot of time away from the team in 2022, Rodríguez looks as good as ever through his first seven starts in 2023. His 1.57 ERA and 0.79 WHIP are both second–lowest in baseball among qualified starting pitchers. The rest of the rotation has been about as poor as expected, but E-Rod is more than living up to the $77M deal he signed before 2022.

As for Báez, it’s a little more complicated. He started the year with an ugly 4-for-40 stretch over his first 11 games but has since rebounded with a .329/.390/.506 line over his past 23 games. The strangest part is that while Báez is still swinging at a ton of garbage nowhere the zone — his 43.6% chase rate is down five points from last season but still one of the six highest marks in MLB – he’s also somewhat miraculously running by far the lowest strikeout rate of his career (17.3%) thanks to improved contact ability across the board. 

You might assume this would portend a significant uptick in overall production, but Báez’s power simply hasn’t manifested as expected even amid his recent hot streak. He has the same number of barrels this season as guys like Tony Kemp and J.P. Crawford. The strikeouts used to be aplenty for Báez, but they came with prodigious pop. If the whiffs are gone, is the juice gone too? We’ll see. 

AL West: Bryce Miller looks like the next great young Mariners pitcher

It wasn’t that long ago that the Mariners were regularly giving starts to the likes of Mike Leake, Wade LeBlanc, Erasmo Ramirez and Tommy Milone. This isn’t to say those pitchers didn’t serve their purpose or even have stretches of legitimate effectiveness during their Seattle tenures. But from a pure stuff perspective, the Mariners were about as unsexy as it got among all 30 big-league rotations. It was grit and guile and grounders. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. Perhaps the best way to put it: It rarely caught PitchingNinja’s attention. 

But that was then. Joining a rotation that already features a bona fide Cy Young candidate in Luis Castillo and two young studs in George Kirby and Logan Gilbert, here comes a 24-year-old right-hander straight from Double-A in Miller, ready to throw his fantastic fastball right by some of the best hitters in the world. 

Marco Gonzales continues to carry on the crafty lefty legacy left behind by LeBlanc, and bless him for it. He is still more than capable of delivering quality innings at the back end of a rotation, and remains a crucial cog for Seattle moving forward. But with Miller now taking the ball every fifth day, the watchability of this Seattle rotation is nearly unmatched across the league. Eighty percent of the time, the Mariners have a chance to see their starting pitcher definitively dominate their opponent with vastly different yet similarly explosive arsenals. Even without Robbie Ray, Seattle starting pitchers rank first in MLB in fWAR. And swapping in Miller for Chris Flexen figures to boost this group even further in the coming months.

As for the Mariners' offense? Well, that’s a topic for another day. 

NL East: Sean Murphy is the latest Braves star to enter the MVP chat

Last week, I highlighted outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. for finally looking like the pre-injury version of himself and playing like an MVP for the first-place Braves. I suppose it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the best team in the National League actually has multiple MVP candidates, and this week it’s Murphy’s turn to get some love.

Atlanta’s new backstop has joined Acuña atop the WAR leaderboards thanks to a scorching stretch at the plate over the past few weeks that now has him leading the NL in OPS (1.040) along with nine home runs — half his career best — through just 33 games. I was optimistic that Murphy’s offensive numbers could take a healthy step forward just by saying goodbye to the cavernous Oakland Coliseum as his home park, but I can’t say I saw this kind of production coming. Murphy has always hit the ball hard, but the underlying metrics this season are downright ridiculous: 91st percentile average exit velocity, 100th percentile xwOBA, 98th percentile barrel rate and 66th percentile chase rate. Not to mention that his defense at the game’s most demanding position is still undeniably elite. 

No one doubted that Murphy would make the Braves better, as odd as the fit seemed at the time of the trade with Travis d’Arnaud and William Contreras still in tow. This much better though? Uh, not quite. It’s still early, but Murphy has officially entered the conversation for being the best catcher in baseball. 

NL Central: The Contreras brothers are having very different seasons

The Willson Contreras saga in St. Louis is one of the more bizarre personnel decisions to play out in the public sphere in quite some time. The Cardinals could have subtly scaled back Contreras’ catching duties, giving him more DH days while working on his game-calling behind the scenes. Instead, they loudly and proudly announced to the world that Contreras would not be catching for the foreseeable future, citing a need to change something drastically before their season spiraled any further. 

No matter how much praise and support the team’s management and players have vocalized in the days since the move, actions speak louder than words. As long as Contreras isn’t catching, the decision to build their entire offseason around him as the heir to Yadier Molina’s throne behind the dish looks like an utter farce and failure.  

Meanwhile, in Milwaukee, Contreras’ younger brother William couldn’t be fitting in with his new team any better. Not that the Braves are missing him with the way Murphy has been playing, but Contreras has been exactly what the Brewers hoped as one of the team’s most reliable hitters who has also miraculously improved his defense to Brew Crew standards in short order. 

At the same time, these two brothers are clearly being graded on very different curves. Willson signed a massive contract and is trying to fill the shoes of a franchise legend. William just needed to be as good or better than — respectfully — Victor Caratini and Omar Narváez. Sure, William might be improving behind the plate faster than big bro, but the pressure isn’t nearly the same.

Regardless of their individual showings, what matters most now is a 7.5-game difference between two teams we were expecting to compete for the NL Central title. I’m fascinated to see how each Contreras continues to endear themselves to their new fan bases, and if their seasons keep rolling in opposite directions. 

NL West: Kris Bryant joins the 1,000-hit club

Bryant recorded his 1,000th career hit on Monday in Pittsburgh. I’ll be honest, my first reaction was: that’s it? Kris Bryant? The guy who combined for 492 hits over his first three seasons and looked like a future lock for Cooperstown? He’s only getting to 1,000 hits now? Over 1,000 players have recorded over 1,000 hits in the big leagues! It’s a lot of hits, and it’s a big round number, but it’s not a milestone you expected from him at 31 years old.

At the same time, Bryant’s success so far this season has been a great reminder that he could realistically continue to put up monster numbers in Coors Field over the remainder of his Rockies contract. It just might not lead the team to a playoff berth — not that that is his fault whatsoever. Here’s what the other 1,000-plus members of the 1,000-hit club don’t have: a Golden Spikes Award, NL Rookie of the Year, NL MVP and one of the most iconic World Series titles in baseball history — all before turning 25. 

At this point, I’d be happy for Bryant to just rip 60 extra-base hits a season into his mid-30s while living in Denver and making $27 million a year. Seems like a nice life. He may not be on the Hall of Fame track we thought he was destined for earlier in his career, but if Bryant stays healthy, he’s got a great chance at reaching 2,000 hits — something only 293 players can claim in MLB history. 

Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He has covered baseball for his entire adult life, most notably for, DAZN and The Ringer. He's a Mariners fan living in the Eastern Time Zone, which means he loves a good 10 p.m. first pitch. You can follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_.


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