Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

For Rays righties, getting big-league chance is tall order

PORT CHARLOTTE — Sizing up the situation, they figured it was best to tell a tall tale. Brandon Gomes did it. So did Kirby Yates, Steve Geltz and others.

Having a big arm was good. Big numbers, too.

But for a pitcher, especially a right-hander, hoping to get a chance in pro ball, being under 6 feet tall can be a big problem. To get stubborn scouts to even look, they would have to stretch the truth, filling out scouting profiles and pushing school information directors to say they were 6 feet.

"I had to," Gomes said. "Nobody's looking for a 5-9 right-hander."

Actually, the Rays are. Or at least they're willing to push that conventional scouting bias aside to consider them, with four right-handers in camp, all present or future parts of their bullpen, who are under the arbitrary 72-inch requirement to go on the ride.

"We are singularly attracted to guys who can get outs, and we appreciate they come in all different shapes and sizes," said Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman, who is only 5-8 himself.

"It's a relatively small sample size, but we've found with guys who are more vertically challenged — I'm allowed to say that — that they come with a chip on their shoulder and a certain level of competitiveness that we really value."

Geltz, a 26-year-old who had a strong season at Triple-A Durham after being acquired last spring from the Angels, said that always has been part of his arsenal.

"Absolutely," he said. "I've always pitched like that just for that reason, facing adversity everywhere I go. Who's going to pay attention to a 5-9 righty? We're a dime a dozen. That's kind of motivated me to work hard, get guys out."

The rap against short right-handers, particularly power relievers, is twofold: They won't be strong enough or, without throwing on a downward plane, good enough to dominate.

"It's a bias," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "It's an old scouting axiom that is primarily based on a lack of durability and the fact that they think right-hand hitters who see him too often are going to get him because he's not tall enough to create an angle."

Yates — who measures up at "5-10 and three-quarters" — has heard it for years, especially with an older brother, Tyler, who pitched five seasons in the majors and stands 6-4.

"People are always like, 'What happened?' " said Yates, who also had a stellar season at Durham. "And I'm like, 'I got the arm he got, and that's all that matters.' "

The mid 90 mph gun readings and the stats back that up, as Yates dominated Triple-A hitters last season, posting a 1.90 ERA in 51 games, allowing only 38 hits in 61⅔ innings and striking out 93.

But getting the chance to show it was the problem.

"I think it was a huge reason I didn't get drafted," Yates said. "Even though there are a ton of guys that are 5-10 and have been real successful in the big leagues, everyone wants the 6-foot-5 guys, the big, intimidating guys."

Of 481 right-handers who pitched in the majors last season, 41 were under 6 feet. Of the 19 who made at least 20 appearances, the Rays had three: Gomes, Joel Peralta and Fernando Rodney.

Gomes is competing again for an opening day roster spot. Yates was close to making the majors last season, even pulled out of a June game because of the possibility of a promotion, and should get a chance this season. Geltz, who measured up with infielder Cole Figueroa recently to determine that, at 5-9, he was indeed the shortest player in camp, is pitching his way into the plans, having posted a 2.52 ERA in 41 games for the Bulls, allowing 35 hits in 67 innings while striking out 80.

Doubting them, it seems, is a short story.

"It's never bothered me," Yates said. "I think it bothers everyone else a little bit more. As far as I know, I've always been 5-10."

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]

   
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