Why the Rays are in 1st place
Record vs AL East
As you can see, every other team in the AL East has a below .500 record against the division except the Rays.
Inside the numbers we see that Tampa has enjoyed beating up on the Orioles, with an 8 – 3 record so far. They have also had their way with the Jays, going 5 for 6. Outside of this they are 5 – 5 vs the Yanks and 3-3 vs the Red Sox. Even with the slow start, the head to heads vs the Red Sox and Yankees may be the deciding factor for the Rays divisional hopes in 2008.
Oddly enough the Orioles are .500 or better vs the rest of the AL East field.
Tampa has also played surprisingly well on the Road this season. In 2007 they were 29-52 away from the Trop. In 2008 they are only a game below .500 at 11 – 12. Sample size aside, perhaps the maturation of many players on this young club has helped ease the road woes. Any team that can stay close to .500 of the road will be in good shape, so this is an additional factor to watch as the season unfolds.
I’d be remised if I didn’t mention one of, if not the key factors in the Rays 2008 success, that being the improved defense. With essentially a new middle of the diamond set-up (Bartlett at SS, Iwamura at 2nd and a full season of Upton in center) the Rays have gone from worst to first. Last season the Rays had by far the worst DER (Defensive Efficiency Ratio) in the AL at a unbelievably bad .657 rate. This season they rank first in the AL with a .718 mark.