Monday, April 23, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Look to the mound for next Rays innovation

ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays pitching staff is certain to look different next season.

Veteran starter Alex Cobb and relievers Steve Cishek and Tommy Hunter are free agents who have earned big paydays they'll get elsewhere. Jake Odorizzi seems headed to be the annual starter auctioned off over the winter. And, pending the calculus of future salaries versus potential return, there will be interesting discussions, and decisions, on whether to keep or deal standout starter Chris Archer and closer Alex Colome among others.

But the pitching staff also is likely to have a different look.

One in which starters are pulled early from games even with leads and relievers are teamed to cover multiple innings to finish the job.

It's something the Rays experimented with in 2015 — and that didn't play particularly well in the clubhouse or to critics — but that many other teams have since sampled, with similarly mixed results.

They saw it from other side Monday, when Yankees manager Joe Girardi pulled veteran CC Sabathia after the Rays got two on with one out in the fifth inning even though he had a 5-1 lead — and thus wouldn't qualify to get the win.

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Asked — in typical baiting New York style to solicit criticism — if he found Girardi's decision "striking," Rays manager Kevin Cash instead give it his full endorsement — and a preview of what's to come.

"I think it's brilliant," Cash said. "You're going to see us do that here in the near future."

The premise is based on two somewhat related reasons:

Most starters are less effective, some dramatically so, the second and especially the third time they go through the batting order in a game.

And most hitters are less effective facing different pitchers — specifically with different looks in handedness and style, hard vs. soft throwers, ground ball types vs. elevated fastballs, sidearm vs. traditional, etc.).

Consider Matt Andriese, who starts tonight for the Rays as they return home to face the Red Sox.

The first time hitters face him as a starter, they have .249 average and .663 on-base plus slugging percentage. The second time, as they have a better sense of what he is doing and how he is trying to do it, they hit .298 with an .834 OPS. And when they get to see him for a third time in a game, they hit .296 with the OPS climbing to .900.

The career numbers for Archer, Odorizzi and Blake Snell also climb significantly they longer they pitch, while others, such as Cobb, are fairly consistent.

For the Rays overall this season, the OPS against their starters grows from .686 the first time through to .729, .815 and .864.

Managing the pitching staff this way successfully requires several accommodations, most significantly having a bullpen that is good enough, and deep enough, to handle the additional workload, including two relievers who can handle those multi-inning gigs.

When the Yankees yanked Sabathia Monday, they turned to David Robertson, a former All-Star with 132 career saves, to finish the fifth then handle the sixth and seventh, then used their dynamic duo of Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman.

"To me it's a way to win games," Cash said. "And when you have that type of bullpen, why not try to shorten games when you have guys down there that are fresh and they're ready to go. You're talking about elite relievers that are challenging to any lineup."

To make it work, there has to be a "buy-in" from both sides, which is an ongoing effort by the coaching staff.

From the starters, which was an issue when the Rays tried it in 2015, who, for all the new-era talk about wins not mattering a gauge of success, tend to get a little chirpy when pulled short of the five innings required to qualify for a W. And, similarly, when they are limited in logging innings, which is a key factor in getting them paid. "They don't buy in to anything," Cash joked.

Second, from the relievers, who have to accept that their work is just as important in those middle innings as the eighth or ninth, even though they won't get the saves, high-leverage designations or credit that that tend to pay off (such as former closers Cishek and Sergio Romo have done recently). And that they have to alter their training to handle the workload.

Cash acknowledged they can't, and won't, handle all their starters this way consistently, and that the ability of the bullpen able to handle the extended workload on a given night will be a factor.

But, there will be times when they do things differently.

"It's totally dependent on the situation," Cash said. "We have to make decisions to help this club win. You're not always going to agree with it whether you're a hitter or a pitcher or whatever, but we're going to do what's best to win the ballgame that night."

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow @ TBTimes_Rays.

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