ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Chad Mottola was positive he was achieved with baseball. He had given 16 years to the sport, all to get 25 hits within the majors and a thousand stressed nights within the minors. Nagging questions would swirl by way of his mind at odd hours: How might he change his swing? Would he ever get one other name to the majors? Ought to he give up?
When he lastly retired, at 36 years previous in 2007, Mottola thought of a profession in soccer scouting. However a good friend thought he’d make an excellent baseball coach, and the job he was provided — on the lowest degree of the minors — was handy for his younger household. Mottola took it, cherished it, and now guides the surprisingly strong offense of the Tampa Bay Rays, the most effective staff within the American League.
“The youngsters had been simply so harmless, and it introduced again my innocence,” Mottola mentioned lately within the residence dugout at Tropicana Subject, not removed from that first teaching job, with a Toronto farm staff in Dunedin, Fla. “I assumed, ‘You understand what, I feel I’ve one thing to supply these guys.’ I take pleasure in seeing folks have success, and even simply sleeping properly at night time, and I might speak about that loads. That’s my entire purpose day by day: how am I going to, while you lay your head down, get you to relaxation?”
Lately, it appears, the Rays are those maintaining rivals up at night time. They’ve gleefully upended standard knowledge since their first successful season, in 2008, however now they do it higher than ever: They set a franchise report for victories this season, with 100, propelled by the most effective offense in staff historical past, with a serious league-high 857 runs scored.
The Rays are coasting into the playoffs, as their rivals fight for wild-card spots, and so they have scored all these runs whereas additionally main the A.L. in strikeouts, difficult the traditionalist’s notion that groups should — or at the least ought to — try for contact.
They decreased their whiff charge down the stretch, helped by the rookie shortstop Wander Franco, who had extra hits than swings-and-misses in a current streak of 43 video games reaching base. However the Rays, who will host the winner of the wild-card sport on Thursday to begin their division collection, usually are not a staff 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 quick or second — that’s an out,” mentioned second baseman Brandon Lowe, who leads the staff in homers (39, together with three on Saturday) but additionally has 166 strikeouts. “So if a man’s going to try this on 0-0 or 0-1 rely, with our protection and the staff that now we have, it’s like: ‘Thanks, I admire you promoting your bat out that means.’
“There’s one thing to be mentioned about getting your swing off till two strikes — and when you actually take a look at it, what number of guys follow a two-strike method? What number of instances do you exit in batting follow and say, ‘OK, I’m going to take this like I’m hitting with two strikes.’ Not plenty of guys do this. It’s arduous to go up there in a sport and simply fully change your swing. So, clearly, no person desires to strike out. However I feel there’s a extra optimistic outlook to getting your swing off and with the ability to do injury than breaking your swing down simply to make contact.”
The Rays can reside with strikeouts as a result of they perceive there aren’t any excellent gamers — at the least none of their value vary. In line with Baseball Prospectus, they spent simply $83 million on their 40-man roster this season (twenty sixth within the majors) with out a single participant making $12 million. To make up for an absence of well-rounded stars, the Rays search gamers with particular expertise and deploy them in simply the proper spots.
They settle for flaws, emphasize strengths, and now have a five-year streak of bettering 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.’ Nevertheless it’s simply attempting to benefit from what now we have and what’s greatest for our gamers. The fellows within the batter’s field, they’re additionally those that run the bases, they’re additionally those that play protection, and among the guys that do strike out are distinctive in these different areas. That issues, too.”
Whereas the Rays are lacking their prime three starters from final yr’s World Collection — they traded Blake Snell to San Diego, let Charlie Morton depart 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 principle, the Rays’ penchant for strikeouts makes them weak to the facility arms most groups use in October. (“That’s honest to all the time have at the back of your thoughts,” Supervisor Kevin Money acknowledged. “If you’re dealing with 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 staff excels in situational hitting, batting .357 with runners on third and fewer than two outs by way of Friday (the M.L.B. common: .316) and scoring by far essentially the most runs within the majors within the ninth inning.
Mottola mentioned he by no means pays consideration to staff totals, as a result of each hitter has totally different strengths and weaknesses. His itinerant professional profession — which started because the fifth total draft alternative by Cincinnati in 1992, one spot forward of Derek Jeter — taught him there aren’t 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 part. However my expertise as a participant made me understand there’s nobody reply, and there’s nobody strategy to assume. I performed with plenty of good gamers, and never considered one of them taught me the identical factor.”
The proliferation of non-public swing coaches worries Mottola; creating 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 duty to check any principle that may intrigue his hitters.
“You all the time hear in regards to the cookie cutter method, and he’s about as anti-cookie cutter because it will get,” Lowe mentioned. “After I first obtained up right here in 2018, he type of sat me down and mentioned, ‘I need you to inform me every part about your swing, the way you need to hit, your method, your drill work, every part, so I will help you higher perceive your swing and what you must do to optimize it.’ He desires to study you earlier than he tells you something to do.”
That may be a useful trace to understanding a corporation usually portrayed as rigidly tied to analytics. As a lot because the Rays look to information for solutions, they may not translate the teachings with out the type 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 only shrug and maintain successful.
“It’s a team-first method right here — that’s the type 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 need to change that?”