In case you haven’t heard, the Tampa Bay Rays are off to quite the historic start this season! Look at any statistical leaderboard, and you’re going to see your fair share of Rays; as of Tuesday, they have four of the top-20 position players in Fangraphs’ Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) and lead the league in weighted-runs-created-plus (wRC+) and ERA. All together, they’re remarkable, and are doing this despite the organization only investing the third-lowest payroll in the MLB on the active roster.
Naturally, the performances of the team’s most well-known players generate much of the spotlight, as well as the absurd nature of their current success. That being said, there is another storyline not to be lost here – they’ve given opportunities to several players who haven’t been granted consistent playing time in the past. With that, comes the chance for a very exciting story.
Indeed, there is a Ray that currently leads the league in isolated power (ISO), is second in barrel rate (25%), and even has the second-best expected slugging percentage on his fly balls this year. This player currently has wRC+ 53% better than league average, is in the 87th percentile in outs above average (OAA), has the same fWAR (1.0) as premium players such as Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Rafael Devers, and Freddie Freeman despite significantly less playing time, and came into the season as a 28-year-old with a career 63 wRC+ in 144 career plate appearances. Intrigued?
By now, you would have hoped I learned that putting a player’s name in the title prevents a teaser from actually working, so, yes, we’re talking about Luke Raley! One of only two players (Ryan Rua) to make the major leagues from Lake Erie College, Raley was drafted by the Dodgers in the 7th round of the 2016 draft, and then proceeded to pack his bags consistently only to end up in the same place:
- 2018: Traded From Dodgers To Twins In Exchange For Brian Dozier
- 2020: Traded From Twins To Dodgers As Part of Mookie Betts/Kenta Maeda Three-Team Trade With Red Sox
We could look at the glass half empty perspective of being traded multiple times, or we could point out the positive – you can only be traded if a different team is interested in your services. Between 2018 and 2021, Raley posted a 129 wRC+ in the upper levels of the minors, but, alas, the major leagues proved to be more of a challenge. Following a rough 72-plate appearance debut (46 wRC+), he found himself part of another trade, this time to the Rays right before the 2022 season.
So, Raley went right back to Triple-A and did what he consistently had accomplished; he destroyed the competition by being 47% above league average, eventually earning an MLB promotion at the end of June. Once again, he received exactly 72 plate appearances, but still couldn’t translate his minor-league success to the big leagues with 80 wRC+.
At that point, who knew what opportunities laid ahead? The Rays may not spend an abundance of resources on free agents, yet they do have an ample amount of position player depth and came into the season with postseason aspirations. So, what did Raley do? Not much, other than posting a .326/.396/.721 slashline in spring training. Suddenly, not only was he on the opening day roster, but he found himself hitting 5th the first time Tampa Bay faced a righty and was the team’s cleanup hitter during the fourth game of the year. Why is that notable? Well, he managed to do this:
Two home runs isn’t a bad way to make an impact! One day later, with the Rays’ backs against the wall, Raley provided quite the encore performance:
Note to the Nationals: perhaps don’t throw Luke Raley sinkers. After all, he’s only the league’s best-performing hitter (min 5 PA) in terms of expected weighted on-base average vs sinkers (.898 xwOBA), while he has a .780 expected slugging percentage against all fastballs. That’s right- .780! Unfortunately for the White Sox, they learned that the hard way:
Notice a happy spot? I’m glad you asked; there’s quite a pattern when it comes to the pitches he’s driven out of the ballpark:
That’s quite the concentrated area of damage, which is the general theme of Raley as a player – balance may be lacking, but the positives are so, so bright. At the risk of appearing lackadaisical, his percentile rankings, courtesy of Baseball Savant, do a tremendous job of illustrating this:
Remember how Raley leads the league in ISO among hitters with at least 80 appearances? Well, he also has the fourth-highest swinging-strike rate, the eighth-lowest BB/K ratio, and is ranked 319th among 338 qualified hitters (50 PA) in xwOBA on non-home runs. In other words, few players have had as much variance in their outcomes, and it doesn’t even stop here:
- Road Statistics: .350/.400/.900 (244 wRC+)
- Home Statistics: .175/.250/.350 (76 wRC+)
It’s likely that this is due to a very small sample size, even though certain Rays players struggle at home, and, to be honest, there isn’t supposed to be any extra analysis power when it comes to this split. Rather, it’s just another funny depiction of the extreme nature of Raley’s 2023 season; almost all of his damage has come against right-handed pitchers, at a specific part of the zone, on the road, and in the same fashion. Man, with the right ultra-specific split leaderboard, prime Barry Bonds could take a back seat!
In the end, production is production, and Raley’s providing plenty of that for the Rays- he’s even pitched for them this year! It’s been a long road, but, hopefully, this is the start of more to come in the future. Sometimes, when a hitter consistently performs in Triple-A, all it takes is the right opportunity, and a spot where they can settle in. Would it be better if Raley didn’t swing-and-miss as much? Sure, but, in life, we need to learn to take the good with the bad, and that’s the theme of the Rays in general; they’re a collective group that works best together. Isn’t that what baseball, a team sport, is all about? Everyone has something they can bring to the table, and when the focus is on what they can provide rather than what they can’t, things change dramatically for the better.
Is Luke Raley (the baseball player) currently a man of extremes? Yep, but, do you know what? That’s perfectly fine.