Quick pitch: How the most inventive team in baseball is at it again

Jeff Passan
·MLB columnist

Down they went, first Alex Cobb, then Drew Smyly, eventually Jake Odorizzi, and the one thing upon which the Tampa Bay Rays thought they could rely abandoned them in a flurry of damaged ligaments and muscles. Living on a $75 million payroll in Major League Baseball today already feels like sporting poverty. Doing so with a disabled list full of potential frontline starting pitchers makes an inequitable existence damn near impossible.

So the Rays did what they do better than just about everybody else in baseball: brainstorm. Even without general manager Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon, both gone to richer pastures in Los Angeles and Chicago, the Rays’ braintrust remained the envy of many. Matt Silverman slid over seamlessly from team president to GM, Kevin Cash impressed people across the game with the sort of intelligence and open-mindedness rare in a rookie manager, and the cohesion between the front office and coaching staff never flinched, not even in desperate times.

The Rays have noticed how starters aren't as effective the third time through an order. (Getty)
The Rays have noticed how starters aren't as effective the third time through an order. (Getty)

The Rays needed a strategy, and one was sitting there, waiting for the team brave enough to implement it. The evolution of pitchers has given baseball two varieties: the ones expected to throw 100 pitches in a game and the ones counted on to toss about 20. The 40-to-80-pitch pitcher is baseball’s dodo bird, and considering the effectiveness of modern relief pitching and the misery of back-of-the-rotation starting pitching, the idea of marrying a strong bullpen with a quick-hook starting pitcher made all the sense in the world.

“We’ve had to respond to the circumstances,” Silverman said. “We’re putting pitchers in positions they weren’t expected to be in yet, and we’re very focused on the development of our young pitchers and want to make sure even at the big-league level we shield them some.”

So even in the midst of an awful skid, losing 13 of their last 15, the Rays remain one of the first half’s great success stories, still just 4½ games back of the Yankees in the American League East, proof that strategy can still win ballgames in an era where knowledge is so pervasive.

The ingenuity of flipping a starter’s mentality – everyone in a rotation, Cash reminds, is taught from an early age “the day you pitch should be the day the bullpen gets a night off” – wasn’t just about taking obvious numbers, waving a magic wand and saying, “Abracadabra: rotation!” What Tampa Bay does so well – what it’s done so well since Stuart Sternberg bought the team and empowered Silverman and Friedman in 2005 – is translate the statistical into the sort of practical knowledge players will embrace.

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Here is a truth about pitching: The longer a pitcher stays in the game, the worse he tends to perform. While there are exceptions, the average starter this season has faced a .249/.305/.390 line the first time through the order, .260/.317/.405 the second time and .268/.326/.434 the third time. “Everybody has pinpointed that third time through the lineup,” Cash said.

What most haven’t done is act on it. And none has come close to it as the Rays. Already this season Rays starters have faced 18 or fewer batters 14 times – nearly as many as any team this decade, excluding the 2012 Rockies, whose four-man-rotation experiment fizzled in Denver’s thin air. They’ve had 36 starts of 22 or fewer batters. Two starts came from relief pitcher Steve Geltz, who went two innings before handing the game off to Matt Andriese and Erasmo Ramirez, both 25-year-old starters and guinea pigs of the short-outing philosophy.

Ramirez has been pulled after five shutout innings in which he allowed one hit. Andriese threw six one-hit innings and got the hook. Alex Colome, 26, also has gone five shutout innings before Cash yanked him. Nate Karns, another starter seeing his first extended major league action, left a six-inning, one-hit, no-run game and another outing in which he threw five shutout innings on two hits. The Rays lost both.

At first, the cognitive dissonance was palpable. None of the pitchers understood why, if they’re throwing well, they wouldn’t be given the rope to continue. Early in the season, the pitching staff met with Cash, pitching coach Jim Hickey and bullpen coach Stan Boroski, the latter two of whom have proven vital to the Rays’ near-decade-long success of churning out quality starting pitching.

“They didn’t hand us a big spreadsheet or anything,” Karns said. “But they gave us what we needed to know. That’s something they’ve run a lot of numbers on, crunched a lot of data, and for me to have no numbers myself to refute it, I just trust them and believe what they’re doing is right. And it’s working. When it’s working, it’s easier to go with.”

All-Star starter Chris Archer is still counted on to pitch big innings. (Getty)
All-Star starter Chris Archer is still counted on to pitch big innings. (Getty)

Even with the troubles over the last two weeks, it has worked. Limiting Andriese’s exposure – he’s particularly unhittable the first time through the order and eminently hittable the second – has kept his ERA around 3.00. Ramirez’s ERA this season is nearly a run lighter than his career mark coming into it. Karns has been a pleasant surprise, with an innings mark that could approach 200 and nearly a strikeout per thus far.

Believing in something this intuitive but so counter to how baseball has governed itself takes time and fortitude and a bit of courage. Young pitchers potentially sacrifice victories, the sort of numbers that make them money in arbitration. They entrust Tampa Bay to do with them what it did with Odorizzi and ace Chris Archer: transition them into meatier roles in which going through a lineup three times becomes an expectation, not a privilege. The Rays manage this remarkably well. They were the first team to adopt widespread defensive shifting, and today they turn nearly 72 percent of batted balls into outs, the sixth best in baseball.

“We win games because we shift,” Cash said. “We win games because we use our bullpen the way we do. What we ask of our starters – that’s why we’re where we’re at. If you look at the whole body of work, it’s why we’re winning.”

Where it leads – and whether it becomes a long-term trend – depends on the continued health of Archer, the return of Odorizzi from an oblique injury, the current comeback of potential top starter Matt Moore from Tommy John surgery and the future arrival of Cobb from the same, and the health of Smyly’s shoulder, which the team hopes could see him back as soon as this season. Those five, healthy, are the best rotation in the AL, with the Mets and Cardinals the best in baseball. And with Karns and Ramirez and Andriese and Colome, not to mention prospects Blake Snell and Brent Honeywell, Tampa Bay looks same as ever, overloaded with pitching and in need of some bats to support it.

With all those arms, Cash dreams of blending the current philosophy with one in which all his starters are capable of going long: a new-age fireman in the bullpen for when the starter has a bad outing and needs to exit because of a matchup issue. “What an asset that would be,” Cash said, “to have a starter-turned-reliever that becomes dominant and can get through a lineup one time.”

For now, he’s just looking to get through this ugly stretch and return to how things were, when the Rays, the kings of high-leverage plate appearances in the middle innings, were winning those moments more often than losing. If that means changing strategy, they’re not too proud to do so. It’s the best chance they’ve got to take the impossible and make it otherwise.

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