While they have always been known for producing and developing outstanding pitching, the Tampa Bay Rays offense has been elevating the team to the best record in baseball.
The leaders in a loaded American League East pace the Majors in home runs, slugging percentage, and OPS. The Rays rank second in team batting average and runs scored. At the center of the offensive storm is Chad Mottola, who is in his seventh season as Tampa Bay’s hitting coach. He said that this season’s strong start can be traced back to the Rays being eliminated in the 2022 playoffs.
“It was a pretty empty feeling in Cleveland to end the year," Mottola told The Game Day Baseball. “We had to revisit some things and we had some time in the offseason just like the players, to slow it down and think about a new message to these guys."
In last year’s AL Wild Card round, Tampa Bay was ousted by the Cleveland Guardians in two games. The Rays scored one just run, and in Game 2, they failed to score in 15 innings. The regular-season issues that led to the team ranking 21st in runs scored and 25th in OPS were further exposed in the postseason.
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“Getting humbled by Cleveland in that series kind of made it easy to say okay, we have to make changes. And they all knew we had to do something differently," Mottola said about the team’s hitters.
In the offseason, Mottola focused on a different overall approach that emphasized power and crisp decision-making over some of the analytical approaches that have seeped into the game. He wanted to go back to strong fundamentals at the plate.
“There’s so much information out there on mechanics, and all this technology, and all these gurus. They’re forgetting that if you’re not on time and making a good decision on the pitch, none of that matters."
“I tried to bring back some of the old school, and it’s a little easier to evaluate that," Mottola said. “It’s a little more black and white. Did I make the right decision? Did I get in the right count? Am I seeing the ball the right way?"
The results have been apparent throughout the lineup. Mottola also stressed that in 2022, the Rays were a young team (fifth-youngest in MLB) and many key hitters were going through on-the-job challenges.
“A lot of our young guys were kind of sent to failure last year in the big leagues and got to take a deep breath in the offseason and figure out ways to fix what they were working on," Mottola said. “During the season it’s really hard to make those adjustments, and credit goes to those guys for going home and working on it in different ways. Now we feel we have a good grasp on how to be successful daily."
The improvements are highly evident in the strides made by Josh Lowe this season after having to adjust to MLB pitching on the fly last year. Mottola started with Tampa Bay as a minor league hitting coordinator in 2013, and he has worked with the outfielder since Lowe came to the organization as a first-round draft pick in 2016.
In 52 MLB games last season, Lowe hit .221 with only two homers and 13 RBI, and even found himself back in the minors for a spell. This year, the 25-year-old has delivered on his top prospect billing so far, hitting .307 with 11 home runs, 34 RBI, and nine steals in the team’s first 40 games.
“One thing about the separation in the gap between Triple-A pitching and Major League pitching is the velocity that they don’t get to experience on a daily basis," Mittola said. “You just kind of get sped up every day and it’s tough to make the adjustments in-season. In Triple-A, when you’re seeing 92 as opposed to 98, 99 every night, you’re going to have a different swing."
Taylor Walls is another guy that has made a significant jump from 2022 to 2023. Known more as a defensive wizard, Walls stayed in the bigs last year despite a .172 average in 142 games. This season, he has morphed into a respectable hitter, posting a .261 average, seven homers, 19 RBI, and 25 runs scored. Mottola also credits the infielder with doing a lot of his own work to improve.
“In the offseason, he really created a good bat path from both sides, and that was a baseline that he never had," he said. “We’re still tinkering with a lot of the hip moves, a lot of the body, a lot of the load."
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First baseman Yandy Diaz may be the best illustration of how the Rays’ offense has transformed itself in 2023. Prior to this season, the 6-foot-2, 215-pounder had never fully never tapped into his potential power, failing to reach the 15-homer mark in a full campaign. In 2023, Diaz is looking like a breakout performer, having already hit 11 home runs while fashioning a .322 batting average.
Agreeing to a three-year, $24 million contract in the offseason, Mottola indicated, gave Diaz a clear mind to concentrate on maximizing his talents.
“That comfort and stability allowed him to explore searching for more power," he said. “It was also a little bit of willingness to make mistakes in decision-making. I think the comfort in knowing that he’s going to be here a little while allowed that to happen."
Isaac Paredes has also started to look like more than just a power hitter, having boosted his batting average from .205 last year to .272 thus far in 2023. From April 12 through May 14, the corner infielder hit one homer, but then saw the pop return with a two-HR game on May 16.
“Our message has been pretty consistent to cover some more pitches that you are able to hit and we’ll take some base hits," Mottola said. “The power disappeared for a couple of weeks, but the quality of at-bats was really there. Then, he hit two homers and it’s easier to drive home the message when the power shows up as well."
To the average fan, the Rays might look like a team that is getting it done without a true headline-maker. But if Wander Franco can stay healthy, the 22-year-old may emerge as a superstar very soon. Mottola knows that he must work carefully with the organization’s signature player of the future.
“He’s so good at contact, and he can touch everything, so let’s get a better pitch to hit," Mottola said. “Even though you can touch that ball, let’s wait for one that you can drive."
“His ceiling is so high, and he can do so many things. It’s a tough balancing act of giving him things [to work on] or letting the game dictate where things are going."
A first-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Reds in 1992, the Rays’ hitting coach knows a standout when he sees one. Randy Arozarena was the 2020 ALCS MVP and a 2023 All-World Baseball Classic selection, yet Mottola believes he can continue to make improvements to reach even higher levels of stardom.
“You see what he’s done in the playoffs, you see what he did in the Classic, and it’s about getting him to do that all year long," he said. “Everybody’s going to have some lulls during the season, but it’s just about more consistency because his ceiling is up there with anybody’s."
With a core of hitters such as Arozarena, Franco, Lowe, Diaz, and more, it would appear that Tampa Bay has the foundation to continue on its current path of offensive success. The Rays have an MLB-best 11 players with five-plus home runs in 2023, becoming the first team in MLB history to have 10-plus players with five-plus HRs before the 50-game mark.
Can the outlook remain strong, though? When reminded of the unique HR stat, Mottola said some regression may be inevitable, but the team now has a sound offensive foundation to lean on for the rest of the season.
“The stability can continue. Some guys are on a 40-, 50-home run pace, you don’t expect that, but the message has always been to have consistent at-bats," Mottola said. “That’s the part that makes this a little more long term."
“At no point are we searching for power. At no point of the game are we looking for the home run. It’s about getting a good pitch to hit. It’s easy to keep conveying that message when the results are showing."