The Gold Standard? The Rays Organization Won Games At A Historic Rate In 2021
Story has been updated with final 2021 MiLB standings
Baseball is a sport with a constant, inexorable gravitational pull toward equilibrium.
There have been multiple NFL teams that have gone undefeated for an entire regular season, and others that have gone winless. In the NBA, the best teams of all time have won nearly 90% of their games, while the worst have won just more than 10% of the time. In soccer, there have been teams that have avoided losing for an entire 38-game Premier League season and others that have won only once.
But baseball is different. No MLB team has won 75% of its regular season games in a season in more than a century, and winning 70% of the time places a team among the all-time greats. Similarly, the 1962 Mets won 25% of their games, a mark that remains the gold standard of baseball futility.
It’s not just the majors. Even in the minor leagues, the greatest teams of all time are those that manage to post a .700 or better winning percentage, and any club that tops .600 can be considered special. Since 2010, there had been just four minor league teams to top a .650 winning percentage, led by San Antonio’s .671 mark in 2011.
All that makes what the Rays organization did this year seem unfathomable.
In the minor leagues, winning always takes a back seat to player development, but teams want to win. And there are ways that teams ensure they are successful at some level of the minors. Teams can selectively group players, holding a few players back at a level while maybe promoting a few others a level beyond their expected ability. By putting all its eggs in one basket, an organization can boost one of its affiliate’s chances of winning while sacrificing another’s.
The Rays didn’t do that this year. They just won everywhere. The Rays had the best winning percentages of all 30 teams at the Triple-A, High-A, Low-A and the Complex level. They then came one win short of a perfect sweep of the playoffs. The Rays five domestic minor league teams won four league titles. The Triple-A Durham Bulls then won the Final Stretch crown as well. Only Double-A Montgomery missed out, as it lost its title by one run in Game 5 of a best-of-5 series.
It’s remarkable. It’s astounding. I think the argument can be made that it’s the greatest minor league season by an organization we have ever seen.
The Rays’ High-A Bowling Green affiliate posted a .695 winning percentage, the best of a full-season club since West Michigan posted a .702 mark in 1997. The Rays’ Low-A Charleston affiliate was right behind with a .683 winning percentage.
Three minor league teams won more than 80 games this season. All three were Rays affiliates. As an organization, the Rays’ minor league teams outscored their opponents by 918 runs. The Rays finished the season with an organizational winning percentage of .653 across all five domestic minor league levels.
Of the 116 non-Rays full-season minor league teams, High-A Central champion Quad Cities (.653) had the best winning percentage. The Rays overall winning percentage was a few percentage points better than Quad Cities.
The Rays’ worst minor league team this year was Double-A Montgomery. It finished with the second-best record in its league and lost the deciding Game 5 of the championship series by one run. Triple-A Durham won its league, as did Low-A Charleston and the Rays’ Florida Complex League affiliate.
Baseball America has tracked overall organization standings since 1989. The only other winning percentages above .600 over that span was the Giants’ .603 winning percentage in 2009 and the 2017 Yankees’ .602 winning percentage.
There are fewer minor league teams in the reorganized minors, so it’s fair to wonder if that played a factor in the Rays blowing away any and all past precedents. But I don’t think so. Even if you added two subpar short-season teams who each went 30-40 to the Rays 2021 winning percentage, they’d still have the best winning percentage since 1989.
“I think we’re most proud of what it says about the work we’re doing,” Rays farm director Jeff McLerran said, who then quoted longtime Rays farm director Mitch Lukevics.
“Our mission statement of winning is a byproduct of good development.”
Tampa Bay did this while graduating prospects Wander Franco, Randy Arozarena, Luis Patiño and Shane MccLanahan to the big league club. Many of the team’s minor leaguers will be eligible for multiple championship rings because so many of them started the year at one level and earned one or more promotions during the season.
The Rays still have many issues when it comes to attendance and their long-term future in St. Petersburg, but when it comes to winning at all levels of pro baseball, the organization seems to have discovered an anti-gravity machine.