ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Chad Mottola was certain he was achieved with baseball. He had given 16 years to the sport, all to get 25 hits in the majors and a thousand stressed nights in the minors. Nagging questions would swirl by way of his mind at odd hours: How may he change his swing? Would he ever get one other name to the majors? Ought to he stop?
When he lastly retired, at 36 years previous in 2007, Mottola thought-about a profession in soccer scouting. However a buddy thought he’d make baseball coach, and the job he was provided — on the lowest stage of the minors — was handy for his younger household. Mottola took it, beloved it, and now guides the surprisingly sturdy offense of the Tampa Bay Rays, one of the best group in the American League.
“The youngsters have been simply so harmless, and it introduced again my innocence,” Mottola mentioned lately in the house dugout at Tropicana Discipline, not removed from that first teaching job, with a Toronto farm group in Dunedin, Fla. “I assumed, ‘You realize what, I feel I’ve one thing to supply these guys.’ I get pleasure from seeing folks have success, and even simply sleeping nicely at night time, and I might discuss that lots. That’s my complete objective each day: how am I going to, once you lay your head down, get you to relaxation?”
Nowadays, it appears, the Rays are those preserving rivals up at night time. They’ve gleefully upended typical knowledge since their first successful season, in 2008, however now they do it higher than ever: They set a franchise file for victories this season, with 100, propelled by one of the best offense in group historical past, with a serious league-high 857 runs scored.
The Rays are coasting into the playoffs, as their rivals struggle for wild-card spots, and they’ve scored all these runs whereas additionally main the A.L. in strikeouts, difficult the traditionalist’s notion that groups should — or not less than ought to — attempt for contact.
They lowered their whiff fee down the stretch, helped by the rookie shortstop Wander Franco, who had extra hits than swings-and-misses in a latest streak of 43 video games reaching base. However the Rays, who will host the winner of the wild-card recreation on Thursday to begin their division collection, will not be a group of slap hitters.
“No person’s afraid of the man who’s going to interrupt his swing down and make contact and hit a floor ball to brief or second — that’s an out,” mentioned second baseman Brandon Lowe, who leads the group in homers (39, together with three on Saturday) but in addition has 166 strikeouts. “So if a man’s going to do this on 0-0 or 0-1 rely, with our protection and the group that now we have, it’s like: ‘Thanks, I admire you promoting your bat out that manner.’
“There’s one thing to be mentioned about getting your swing off till two strikes — and in the event you actually take a look at it, what number of guys apply a two-strike method? What number of occasions do you exit in batting apply and say, ‘OK, I’m going to take this like I’m hitting with two strikes.’ Not a number of guys try this. It’s exhausting to go up there in a recreation and simply utterly change your swing. So, clearly, no one needs to strike out. However I feel there’s a extra constructive outlook to getting your swing off and with the ability to do harm than breaking your swing down simply to make contact.”
The Rays can dwell with strikeouts as a result of they perceive there are not any good gamers — not less than none in their worth vary. In keeping with Baseball Prospectus, they spent simply $83 million on their 40-man roster this season (twenty sixth in the majors) and not using a single participant making $12 million. To make up for a scarcity of well-rounded stars, the Rays search gamers with particular expertise and deploy them in simply the suitable spots.
They settle for flaws, emphasize strengths, and now have a five-year streak of enhancing their total rating in runs scored: from twenty fifth in 2017 to first now.
“There’s trade-offs to all of it,” mentioned Erik Neander, the Rays’ president of baseball operations. “It’s not essentially like, ‘Oh, strikeouts, no matter.’ However it’s simply making an attempt to profit from what now we have and what’s greatest for our gamers. The fellows in the batter’s field, they’re additionally those that run the bases, they’re additionally those that play protection, and a number of the guys that do strike out are distinctive in these different areas. That issues, too.”
Whereas the Rays are lacking their high three starters from final yr’s World Sequence — they traded Blake Snell to San Diego, let Charlie Morton go away for Atlanta as a free agent and misplaced Tyler Glasnow to Tommy John surgical procedure — their offense stayed largely intact. Add Franco and Nelson Cruz, subtract Willy Adames and Hunter Renfroe, and it’s nearly the identical group that hit .207 throughout the final three rounds of the postseason.
In idea, the Rays’ penchant for strikeouts makes them weak to the ability arms most groups use in October. (“That’s honest to at all times have in the again of your thoughts,” Supervisor Kevin Money acknowledged. “Once you’re going through the big-time strikeout pitchers or staffs, how can we match up?”)
However the Rays led the majors in strikeouts final season and nonetheless got here inside two victories of their first title, helped significantly by a sudden slugging outburst from outfielder Randy Arozarena. Money is a grasp of leveraging matchups; he has used a serious league-high 157 totally different lineups this season and substitutes usually. The group excels in situational hitting, batting .357 with runners on third and lower than two outs by way of Friday (the M.L.B. common: .316) and scoring by far essentially the most runs in the majors in the ninth inning.
Mottola mentioned he by no means pays consideration to group totals, as a result of each hitter has totally different strengths and weaknesses. His itinerant professional profession — which started because the fifth total draft selection by Cincinnati in 1992, one spot forward of Derek Jeter — taught him there are not any absolutes to his craft.
“Nobody’s found out hitting,” Mottola mentioned. “I do know lots of people have claimed on the web that they’ve all these solutions and every thing. However my expertise as a participant made me understand there’s nobody reply, and there’s nobody solution to suppose. I performed with a number of good gamers, and not certainly one of them taught me the identical factor.”
The proliferation of private swing coaches worries Mottola; growing hitters, he fears, shall be raised as robots, drilled on faddy strategies that may not be greatest for them. Then once more, he mentioned, it’s a part of his accountability to review any idea that may intrigue his hitters.
“You at all times hear concerning the cookie cutter method, and he’s about as anti-cookie cutter because it will get,” Lowe mentioned. “After I first acquired up right here in 2018, he sort of sat me down and mentioned, ‘I would like you to inform me every thing about your swing, the way you wish to hit, your method, your drill work, every thing, so I may help you higher perceive your swing and what it is advisable do to optimize it.’ He needs to find out about you earlier than he tells you something to do.”
That could be a useful trace to understanding a corporation usually portrayed as rigidly tied to analytics. As a lot because the Rays look to knowledge for solutions, they may not translate the teachings with out the sort of private connection Mottola seeks.
Coaches construct belief by listening to gamers, so when Money writes an uncommon lineup or Neander makes a puzzling commerce, the gamers don’t panic. Often, they simply shrug and maintain successful.
“It’s a team-first method right here — that’s the sort of ambiance that’s been set for us, and it begins from the highest down,” third baseman Joey Wendle mentioned. “We’ve seen success doing this, and if we’re having success, then why would we wish to change that?”