Jesse joined ESPN Chicago in September 2009 and covers MLB for ESPN.com.
ARLINGTON, Texas — Tampa Bay Rays rookie Randy Arozarena became the first player to hit nine home runs in a single postseason after taking Los Angeles Dodgers starter Julio Urias deep to right field in the fourth inning of Game 4 of the World Series on Saturday night.
Arozarena, 25, already owns the rookie hit record for a single postseason, set in Game 3, while breaking a four-way tie for most home runs.
Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager also homered in Game 4 and has eight this postseason.
Arozarena also owns the record for total bases in a single postseason. He singled to lead off the sixth inning Saturday night, tying Pablo Sandoval for most hits by any player in one postseason.
The 2020 playoffs featured an extra round, meaning Arozarena is playing in his 18th playoff game already.
Nelson Cruz, Carlos Beltran and Barry Bonds are the three other players — along with Seager — to hit eight home runs in a single postseason.
ARLINGTON, Texas – Smart used to be so cool in baseball.
It was a nice run, beginning sometime in the late 2000s, resulting in the toppling of the eye test, the marginalization of the scout, the destruction of the Tommy Bahama Industrial Complex.
Ivy League was in, practical baseball experience was out, your credibility only as robust as how young and overeducated your assistant GM might be.
It ended with the thud of a bat striking a trash can, acts that occurred in 2017 but the sound waves not hitting the game until 2019, when the depth and specifics of the Houston Astros’ illegal sign-stealing campaign were revealed.
Suddenly, the executives and analysts and the media that celebrated them had their What Hath God Wrought moment, a time for introspection, to ponder that perhaps hyper-efficiency wasn’t everything, that arbitrage would eventually come for us all.
So now, the most efficient and cost-contained and most-wins-per-dollar franchise has reached the World Series, a time to analyze #process and peek beneath the hood.
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Yet, all the brain trust wants to do is claim ignorance – or at least cop to being nothing more than state-school material.
“Virginia Tech and Florida State aren’t outsmarting people,” insisted Tampa Bay Rays executive vice president Erik Neander, referring to his alma mater and that of his manager, Kevin Cash.
That was a nice try.
Tuesday night, the Rays return to the World Series for the first time since 2008, on the strength of a player acquisition and development apparatus that has practically lapped the field. They will take on a Los Angeles Dodgers team that boasts a 2020 payroll more than three times its size.
The Dodgers are headed by baseball operations president Andrew Friedman, who built Tampa Bay’s modernized infrastructure before bolting to L.A., where he enjoys both efficiency and a near-bottomless trough of cash to tap into in the event, say, he wants to trade for Mookie Betts and sign him for $365 million.
Friedman left plenty of pixie dust in St. Petersburg, still a launching pad for top baseball jobs. Chaim Bloom now runs the Red Sox; James Click was snagged by the Astros in January to take over as GM after Jeff Luhnow was fired while serving a one-year suspension from Major League Baseball for enabling the Astros’ cheating scheme.
Neander joined up as an intern in 2007 and never left, joining Bloom atop the org chart when Friedman departed after the 2014 season. He grew into the public- and player-facing side of the job, suddenly tasked with explaining to the clubhouse why he was gutting a clubhouse of veterans, or to a fan base why payroll commitments shrank while industry revenues boomed.
Now, there is little to explain: The Rays posted two consecutive 90-win seasons before winning 66% of their games this year, a 108-win pace over a full season. They dispatched the Blue Jays and Yankees and Astros and now take on the Dodgers, who are appearing in their third World Series in four years.
Tampa Bay’s playoff roster has included up to 14 players acquired in trade, a startling tribute to Neander’s flurry of transactions and the people executing the club’s vision. The club is, predictably, loathe to specify the whys of their success, but also avoids smugly spiking the ball on their conquests.
Rather, the Rays tout a workplace low on toxins, a lab of collaboration, an ethos sent down from owner Stuart Sternberg to embrace failure, so long as you “break windows – don’t burn down the house”
You might call it analytics served with a side of humanity.
“I can’t stress how well the organization has treated me – not just me, but everyone here,” says Neander, 37. “I can’t imagine a workplace – not just in sports, but anywhere – that would treat us as well as we have.
“Just a wonderful group of people who enjoy what they do, united around the subject of baseball, about the team as much as one can imagine. And if we fall short, making sure we have a lot of fun along the way.”
Yeah, it’s not exactly the Bronx. And a franchise that manages to stay ahead of even the most analytically inclined and successful clubs can also steadfastly insist on a human element.
The Rays of Friedman and Joe Maddon and Evan Longoria are now the Rays of Neander and Tampa guy Cash and Kevin Kiermaier, the lone holdover from the Friedman-Maddon regime.
It is a vibe Kiermaier is determined to maintain.
“It was the same environment when I showed up,” says Kiermaier, the 30-year-old Gold Glove center fielder. “Be a professional, be yourself, do what you need to do, as long as you handle yourself each and every night out on the field, we don’t care what you do. But don’t cross that line or abuse what we got going on because it’s a really good thing.
“Guys come over here and say everything we do – in the clubhouse and behind closed doors – it’s incredible to be a part of. I have to thank the players who were here before me, because this is all I know. I just wanted to do my part to maintain that.”
Randy Arozarena and Kevin Kiermaier celebrate the Game 7 win against Houston. (Photo: Orlando Ramirez, USA TODAY Sports)
It would seem a challenge, given the consistent roster churn. Seventeen members of the 40-man roster have been acquired over the past two seasons. Then again, it’s a little easier when seemingly everyone who shows up can play.
In each of the past two off-seasons, the Rays traded for partially-known commodities – infielder Yandy Diaz and outfielder Randy Arozarena – based in some part on underlying statistics such as how hard they hit the ball. Diaz was the star of the 2019 postseason, while Arozarena, with a stunning seven home runs this October, has practically slugged Tampa Bay into the World Series.
“They’ve been right time and time again,” says Kiermaier, “and the majority of our roster has come from different organizations over the years. We’re dangerous, we know that, and it’s a beautiful thing to have talent all over the roster.”
Kiermaier speaks vaguely of formulas and data and other mysteries the club deploys. Neander speaks in far simpler terms, particularly when describing the Rays’ “stable” of relievers who push 100 mph on the radar gun. Just two of the nine full-time relievers on their ALCS roster – international free agents Diego Castillo and Jesus Alvarado – were originally signed by the Rays.
Take out veteran free agent Aaron Loup, and the others are young pitchers with less than two years’ service time imported from other organizations for their underlying skills – oh, and that velocity.
“Our guys are who they are because of their ability to throw strikes with two different pitches,” says Neander. “We don’t get too far away from the message of throwing strikes.”
He is quick to point out that this is far from the only way to build a championship roster. Flavors of the month are as popular in the executive suite as they are in the media. It is inherently harder to do it the Rays way and scratching the occasional nine-figure check for an All-Star caliber free agent can make up for a deficit in sweat equity.
There’s also something to be said for not asking your charges to put in more than you, while maintaining an air of acceptance.
“The way that they treat the guys, the way they treat everybody, it makes you feel comfortable, makes you feel at home,” says shortstop Willy Adames, a native of the Dominican Republic who was acquired from Detroit in the 2014 trade for David Price. “The work ethic of the organization makes them different than everybody.
“It makes you work even harder every day to prove to them that you belong here, that you can ball, and you can be a good player.”
A little humility doesn’t hurt, either, even in an industry where having all the answers – or insisting to your prospective boss that you do – remains the hope.
“We screw up a lot,” says Neander. “There’s support to take chances and make mistakes.
“It’s incredibly empowering to have a culture where you can make mistakes.”
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Let us all, as fans of America’s game, mull over the ramifications of what we have just seen: The Tampa Bay Rays are going to the World Series. And Randy Arozarena was the MVP of an American League Championship Series that featured Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, George Springer and Zack Greinke.
Even as we wait to see who emerges from another Game 7 on Sunday, when the Los Angeles Dodgers face the Atlanta Braves in Texas, let’s acknowledge how in the year of a pandemic, we are on the cusp of a World Series. It’s going to happen. For so long, that didn’t seem possible.
Next, let’s acknowledge that everyone who picked the Rays to win the AL pennant before the shortened season began in July was spot-on. (This writer was not one of them. Thanks, Yankees.) But let’s also revisit the rationale for picking the Rays back then, because that has been on full display throughout this postseason. A lot has been on display during this long postseason.
“You might think a 60-game season, you get to the postseason and it’s just not the same,” Rays Game 7 starter Charlie Morton said. “But I have looked across the dugout in every team we played this postseason, and I know the guys we were playing, they care, they want to win. Probably more so this year than any other year. The motivation is doing it for each other.”
The forecasted love for Tampa Bay had more to do with the Rays’ pitching operation than their hitting. Because the Rays have featured a decentralized, crowd-sourced pitching structure for many years, they seemed well-suited to the frantic, 60-game campaign we ended up with. Starters wouldn’t be built up. No one, really, would be built up. So a club with exceptional pitching depth and a plan for disparate pitcher usage would be well-situated.
If that doesn’t sound like the Rays, nothing does. Sure enough, as the ALCS played out, Tampa Bay’s organizational approach emerged as a moment-by-moment proof of concept.
“The way we have just acquired talent through our minor leagues and trades, it’s incredible what [general manager] Erik Neander and the front office have done,” Kevin Kiermaier said. “It really is. They made a great roster, and that’s why our talent and depth is what it is. If I’ve said anything, it’s that if there’s any staff that can shut down the hot-hitting Astros, it’s our staff.”
True enough, but you also have to score. The issue for the Rays’ offense was that their most productive hitters during the regular season were not being productive during the playoffs — Brandon Lowe, Joey Wendle, Willy Adames and Michael Brosseau among them. So others stepped up, including usually light-hitting catcher Mike Zunino and semi-regular outfielder Manny Margot.
But no one typified the next-man-up dynamic of the Rays more than Arozarena.
Arozarena broke into the majors last season and raked — for St. Louis. He had a .891 OPS over just 19 games and went hitless in four plate appearances during the playoffs. Then he was traded, along with Jose Martinez (since dealt) in exchange for pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore.
Well, players move around the major leagues, right? Arozarena looked good during his brief stint for St. Louis, but sometimes players look good in short stints and get flipped because their original team knows why that success is going to be fleeting. The only problem is that once the Rays inquire about a player, they’ve proved time and again that your best response probably should be, “No, thank you.” Because if the Rays like your player, then there is something very much to be liked.
“I wouldn’t say I was chasing MVP,” Arozarena said through an interpreter. “I was just trying to do everything for the team.”
He almost did. This is not to hammer on the Cardinals, although as the years play out, perhaps it will be impossible not to do that. But who possibly could have conceived that Arozarena would be doing what he’s being doing this postseason?
Look, players get on hot streaks. It happens all the time, and when a player gets on a roll, he isn’t necessarily headed for Cooperstown. Postseason series are by definition a parade of small sample sizes, so you figure that there are always going to be plenty of unsung heroes available to populate playoff narratives.
Yet, what Arozarena has done is not normal. It’s not routine. Others have gotten as hot as he has during the postseason, but if you have any conception of baseball history, his name is going to jump of the list of hottest postseasons and poke you in the eye. Among players who put up a higher OPS than Arozarena’s 1.288 over at least 50 playoff plate appearances, you find only Barry Bonds (1.559 in 2002), Carlos Beltran (1.557 in 2004), Paul Molitor (1.378 in 1993) and Alex Rodriguez (1.308 in 2009).
Then there is Arozarena. One of those names is not like the others.
“Ever since I got traded over, it’s felt like a family,” Arozarena said. “They welcomed me with open arms, and they gave me the freedom to be the player I want to be.”
But that’s the Rays. Just ask Zunino, who homered again in Game 7 and was picked up in a zero-buzz trade last year from the Mariners. Just ask Austin Meadows, rescued from prospect-bust status from Pittsburgh. Ask Manny Margot, who just dominated in a series played on the home field of the Padres — the club that shipped him away last winter.
There are so many similar stories. The common denominator is a lesson that sounds simple, but if it really was, every team would have learned it. The lesson the Rays have learned is that if you focus on what a player can do, rather than what he cannot, and you put him in position to do that thing he does well, that player can excel. Then, as a team, if you surround that player with other players who do complementary things well, it all adds up a good baseball team. Granted, none of this is fodder for a sexy World Series teaser. But, damn, it sure is effective.
“Man, it feels awesome,” Zunino said. “This is beyond my wildest dreams here. I feel extremely grateful. This group of guys, this organization, what we had to endure this year. It is a special group.”
Beyond the everybody-does-his-part aspect of the playing roster, there are the machinations of manager Kevin Cash, who is a kind of oddly enthusiastic Vulcan as dugout logicians go. He speaks in the no-ego, it’s all-about-the-players style of a successful College World Series coach putting on a front for potential recruits. But he’s also a merciless adherent to the actuarial side of the game, following best analytic practices as if he had the dead emotional life of Spock.
Time and again, to the consternation of baseball lifers, his interpretation of quantitative principles is spot-on. It happened again in the clincher.
Charlie Morton, the veteran Rays starter who played a key role in the Astros’ 2017 championship, was on his game. After five innings, he had retired 13 straight Houston hitters and used just 49 pitches. No Rays pitcher has thrown a complete game since May 14, 2016, when Matt Andriese did it, but could it happen again? After all, given Morton’s dominance and minimal pitch count, why would you remove him?
After striking out Josh Reddick on three pitches to start the sixth, Morton walked Martin Maldonado on four pitches. Springer rolled into a forceout. Altuve singled, but it was an infield chopper that was perfectly placed. Morton was at 66 pitches, and while there was traffic on the bases, he still looked like a pitcher in command of the game.
So, of course, Cash took him out. And, of course, it was the right move.
“The thought to go get him, I think we need to stay consistent with what we think is the right decision,” Cash said. “That is not to say [the decisions] are not tough. They certainly are. We’re just so appreciative of Charlie Morton, what he brings to our club on the field and definitely in the clubhouse.”
Nick Anderson — the Rays’ closer — came on to escape that sixth-inning jam. He did just that, then pitched the seventh, and by the time he exited for Pete Fairbanks, he’d gotten six outs. Fairbanks got the last four. Overall, the Rays threw just 114 pitches in the game, easily within Morton’s capability had he been left in to go the distance. But that’s not how these Rays do things.
Now the Rays are in the World Series. Just like in 2008, the other Tampa Bay pennant season, there are going to be numerous examinations about how a no-star team with a rock-bottom payroll can end up in the World Series.
Those examinations are worth conducting, but ultimately, they are going to come up empty. The Rays succeed because they have to. You can apply the same principles and follow the same methods and crunch the same numbers, but you probably can’t come up with the same answer. Because you’re not the Rays.
The Rays do not have superstars. They have a roster full of excellent baseball players, even if a lot of players on that list weren’t that special when they toiled for someone else. It’s like rooting for ants, or a Rotten Tomatoes score, or the All-Star Game voting.
Keep that in mind when the Rays match up in the World Series against the Dodgers or the Braves. You might scan their roster and wonder how that team of drones could end up in the Fall Classic. Don’t. The Rays are the collective wisdom of the baseball masses.
“We believe in our process,” Cash said. “And we will continue doing that.”
ESPN’s Pedro Gomez covered the Oakland A’s home and away nearly every day from 1992-97 for the San Jose Mercury News and Sacramento Bee and then became the national baseball writer and later a general columnist at the Arizona Republic before becoming an ESPN bureau reporter in 2003.
SAN DIEGO — It was a year ago that Randy Arozarena made news for all the wrong reasons. It was Arozarena who live-streamed Cardinals manager Mike Shildt’s profanity-laced postgame talk after St. Louis eliminated the Braves in the National League Division Series. It went viral, and Arozarena was ashamed.
Fast-forward to the present, and Arozarena is making MLB news this October with his bat instead of his phone. After a torrid stretch in which Arozarena was 12-for-20 in the Tampa Bay Rays’ first five postseason games — including home runs in each of the first three games against the Yankees in the ALDS — teammate Tyler Glasnow proclaimed him “the best player on earth” last week.
It’s difficult to argue that point after Arozarena again came through in Game 1 of the ALCS against the Houston Astros, blasting a laser-like solo shot to straightaway center field in the fourth inning to erase a one-run deficit. The Rays went on to win the opening game 2-1.
“I think everyone is just in awe when he steps into the box,” catcher Mike Zunino said. “The power surge really ignites our offense. The sky’s the limit with him. It’s truly amazing what he can do against the best arms in the game.”
Arozarena’s four postseason home runs put him in elite Cuban company. He joins Tony Perez, Jose Canseco and Kendrys Morales with the most postseason home runs by a Cuban-born player. Remember: He’s still technically a rookie.
Rays manager Kevin Cash knows a good thing when he sees one, and that’s why Arozarena has been in a key spot in the lineup since he was activated in early August after returning from the COVID-19 list.
“I don’t know if I can,” manager Kevin Cash said when asked after Sunday’s victory to describe what Arozarena is doing this postseason. “I don’t know if I want to get in the way right now. He doesn’t have any familiarity, doesn’t know these guys he’s facing. He’s timed up. For a guy who swings as aggressively as he does, Randy’s just been as bright as any spot or as any player in the postseason.”
Like so many on this Rays roster, Arozarena fits in perfectly as someone who came from another organization that believed it would be better off without him. His is a story not uncommon to many of the Cuban-born players now in Major League Baseball. It’s a tale that includes a covert and incredibly dangerous journey and the desire to play baseball at the highest level possible. Arozarena has said that he escaped Cuba under the cover of night on a boat, heading across the 120 or so miles from the westernmost point in Cuba to Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.
Leonys Martin, 32, is from an earlier era than Arozarena, 25, and the two have much in common, though they have never met. Martin made almost the exact same journey five years earlier in 2010. He wound up playing nine seasons in the majors and has been playing in Japan the past two seasons. He knows firsthand the terrifying anxiety associated with the path Arozarena took.
“Knowing I have made $40 million in my career, if you put me in the same situation, I would of course leave Cuba again, but I would never again put myself in a nightmare situation like that again in my life,” Martin said from Japan, where he plays for Chiba Lotte. “The worst decision a human could ever make is to put their life in danger simply to realize their dream. From the time you start planning until the time you are comfortable in the United States and playing baseball, there are so many things that can happen, from losing your life to losing everything you have worked so hard to attain.
“If they catch you in Cuba, you are ruined, and you will never be anything ever again. You can die so easily on open seas. You can be killed once you arrive in Mexico or be kidnapped. And you really have no idea what you’re getting yourself into. Knowing everything I know now, I would never leave Cuba again in the manner I did. No chance.”
Sadly, that is the way many of the Cubans currently in American professional baseball arrived. The two countries have no formal relations. It was in Mexico that Arozarena established residency and began playing pro ball in the Mexican League.
From there, the St. Louis Cardinals scouted him and signed him for $1.25 million. He has hit at every level he has played, even flexing some power numbers. But that was nothing like what he has done since the calendar flipped to September this year. His 11 home runs since Sept. 1 are second only to Adam Duvall’s 12. His first game for Tampa Bay this season was more than a month after the season began in late July because he contracted COVID-19.
As an aside, Arozarena wore No. 66 for his team in Tijuana because of his admiration for fellow Cuban Yasiel Puig, and he did so again last season in St. Louis. Upon arriving in Tampa Bay, Arozarena was given No. 56 after he was traded along with Jose Martinez in January, a deal that sent highly regarded pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore and another minor leaguer to the Cardinals. The Rays, an organization that always thinks pitching first, liked Arozarena so much that they dealt one of their top minor league arms.
Unlike Puig, Arozarena was mostly a silent player inside the clubhouse, shying away from most any interview requests while with the Cardinals last year. He has been on a couple of postseason zoom calls with reporters this month and is starting to show more of his personality, joining teammates in a celebratory dance-off on the field on Friday at Petco Park after the Rays sealed their five-game series victory over the Yankees.
“I’ve always considered myself a pretty good player and also a pretty good hitter,” Arozarena said last week during a pregame call with reporters.
Anyone who shines brightest under the intense lights of October could very well be MLB’s next Cuban star in the making.