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Tampa Bay Rays: Modern-Day Moneyball

It’s no secret there’s a direct correlation between MLB player salaries and winning the World Series championship. That was really brought to light in the Michael Lewis book Moneyball that was popularized by the 2011 film starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill.

If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, essentially it covers the 2002 MLB season following the 2001 MLB playoffs in which the New York Yankees beat the Oakland Athletics in the ALDS. The premise was that Oakland would never beat New York due to player salary differences. In the 2002 season, the A’s had the third-lowest payroll in the majors while the Yankees had the highest.

Oakland then would need to sign budget players who performed well in certain categories (on-base percentage, to name one) to gain an advantage and win without buying big-name players. The A’s finished the 2002 regular season with a 103-59 record while the Yankees had a 103-58 season; both teams lost in the ALDS round.

The Tampa Bay Rays have fit that narrative perfectly in recent memory and have held their own in the AL East, the home of financial powerhouses in New York and Boston.

Tampa Bay 2020 Season

Looking at the Statista data of the Opening Day payrolls for each of the MLB teams in the 2020 season, the Tampa Bay Rays had the fourth-lowest at $72.1 million.

The Rays went on to have a dominant campaign, posting the best record in the American League and advancing to the World Series. Now one could argue that with MLB playing a shortened 60-game season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Rays benefited from not playing a full season. Regardless of the length of schedule, Tampa put together a 40-20 regular season with the best run differential in the AL.

Tampa Bay’s 2020 Futures Odds

Ahead of the 2020 season, the teams with the top three payrolls were also the top three favorites in World Series odds. The Yankees and Dodgers were co-favorites at +350 with the Astros right behind them at +700. You had to go down to the 10th team on the oddsboard to find the Rays at +2200. This trend continued across many other futures markets.

The Rays were fifth in AL pennant odds at +1000, second in AL East odds at +600 and even had just -120 odds to make the playoffs. Furthermore, they had just one player in the MVP odds – Austin Meadows was 20th on the list at +5000. There were three Rays pitchers listed in the Cy Young odds with both Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow tied for fifth at +1600 and Charlie Morton 12th at +2500. All of the odds were found at Bovada.

Rays Playoff Run: Moneyball at its finest

The Rays’ route to the World Series consisted of three series wins to get to play the Dodgers. The first series came against the Toronto Blue Jays, who had a payroll of $110.76 million, $38 million more than Tampa Bay. That wild-card series was a two-game sweep for the Rays, who moved on to the ALDS. There, the Rays met the Yankees – the preseason co-favorite to win the World Series – and their MLB-leading $254.19-million payroll. Tampa edged New York 3-2 to go to the ALCS.

In the ALCS, the Rays collided with the 2017 World Series champion Astros, who were third in the Opening Day payroll graphic at $215.39 million. Tampa won that series in seven games to head to the World Series for the first time since 2008. The Rays’ run ended there as Tampa was simply outmatched by the LA Dodgers and their $227.82-million payroll, second on the list.

After dishing out that large payroll, Los Angeles won the Commissioner’s Trophy in six games. Was it worth it?

Is Tampa Bay the Best-Run Organization?

The Rays, known originally as the Devil Rays, had their inaugural season in 1998 and their first 10 seasons were a disaster. They didn’t have a winning record in any of those campaigns and finished last in the AL East in all but one year. However, the team dropped “Devil” from its nickname ahead of the 2008 season and the franchise had its first winning year, winning the AL East and making it all the way to the World Series before losing in five games to the Phillies.

Since the team rebranded in 2008, the Rays have finished last in the AL East just once. They have won three AL East titles, made it to the playoffs six times and appeared in the World Series twice. Furthermore, the team has had three AL Rookies of the Year, three Manager of the Year winners and two Cy Young winners, all the while having a payroll of below $90 million in all but four seasons from 2001 to 2020.

Since 2010, only one team hasn’t had multiple seasons with a payroll over $100 million and that is Tampa Bay. The Rays surpassed $100 million just once, in 2018, with the payroll dipping to $87 million the following year. Every other franchise has had more than one season with a payroll surpassing $100 million and in most cases has gone over that plateau in every year from 2010 onward without having the success the Rays have had.

With innovative defensive shifts, bullpen days and an emphasis on a strong rotation, it just begs the question: are the Rays the best-run organization in MLB?