Before the season started, all of the baseball folks at SB Nation worked rather hard on a fancy season preview. My job was to make predictions, which was fun because I got to pretend I know everything, but was also awful because I knew I was going to look like a fool in about two months.
The only thing I knew for sure was that the Rays had the best team in the American League.
Rays over A's
I guess that matchup could still happen, though it would be a roundabout way to get there. Let's assume, though, that the Rays are finished. They have about 45 days to decide if they're trading David Price and others, and if they play .700 baseball before the deadline, they still would be 53-54 on July 31. They would need to have an all-time streak to consider hanging on to Price and other important players.
Our job now is to figure out what's so different with the Rays. How could we all be so wrong? What we have to do is look at the things we generally admit we can't predict.
Pitchers (especially young ones)
It's probably not fair to suggest we can't predict pitchers at all. Before the 2011 season, everyone gushed over how good the Phillies pitching was supposed to be, and look at that, the 2011 Phillies had tremendous pitching. The Nationals were supposed to have great pitching this year, and that's exactly what happened.
But allow for a tortured analogy. Pretend all of these people running down a hill after a wheel of cheese are pitchers. Each four feet represents a season of that pitcher's career.
Some pitchers fall horrifically and get back up. Others scoot on their butts the whole way down, not doing anything really exciting. The guy in the white t-shirt in the upper-right part of the screen around 0:22? That's Mark Prior.
The point is that all pitchers are on a downhill trajectory. All pitchers are forever a second closer to their last good moment as a baseball player. Hitters, too, but especially pitchers. In between that last good moment, there are probably going to be all sorts of ups and downs.
Right now the Rays have all the people falling down. Matt Moore is hurt. Jake Odorizzi is learning. David Price and Alex Cobb aren't performing up to expectations and are possibly unlucky. (Price has to be unlucky.) You expect pitchers to be mercurial. You just hope it doesn't happen at the same time. The Rays had it happen at the same time.
Bullpens are a steaming pile of nonsense, with all of the variables of the previous section, but spiked with sample-size shenanigans for good measure. The last time we saw Grant Balfour, he was an excellent closer on a playoff team.
Months went by, and now he's broken. It's possible -- probable? -- that the problems are related to whatever scared the Orioles away from their pending deal. Still, he was supposed to be a strength, not a horrible weakness. The same goes with the rest of the bullpen.
For the last few years, the Rays have deftly navigated their way around the icebergs of bullpen construction. This year, they couldn't. Next year, they'll probably be fine. But if you want to play a fun, horrible game, try ranking bullpens 1-30 before the season and see how you did at the end of the season. You will have been incredibly wrong.
Except for the Braves. Just wait, though. One of these years, the bullpen gods will come for them, too.
You can't predict crap luck, by definition. The Rays have it. They're three games under their expected record based on runs scored and allowed. Their hitters are second-to-last in the AL in batting average on balls in play. Their pitchers are above the league average, even though they play in a latter-day Astrodome and have a brilliant defensive infield. They've been adept at getting the hits when they don't need them. Combine all of that with the bullpen nonsense and the rotation nonsense, and you have a team that's far, far closer to the Cubs than the best team in baseball.
Over at Deadspin, Barry Petchesky argues against the over-reliance on the word "luck" in sports analysis. If you prefer, then, it isn't bad luck the Rays are having, but they're being negatively affected by thousands of variables that we can't predict or identify, which are happening in a way that wouldn't be repeated if the season were reset tomorrow.
I'll stick with crap luck because isn't as wordy.
You can write this same article about the Red Sox, but I was skeptical about them before the season started. The Rays, though, baffle me. They were supposed to be the best team in the league, if not the game. They still might have the raw talent to play like the best team in baseball over the next 95 games. It won't matter.
This happens to a team every year. The 2013 Giants, the 2012 Phillies, the 2011 Twins ... this year, it's the Rays' turn. There doesn't have to be a reason for it. They just got snared up in the things we're awful at predicting.