Sunday, August 19, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays 2017: Innovations that have put Tampa Bay on the cutting edge

The Rays have been on the cutting edge, or at least among the leading proponents of numerous baseball innovations, since 2006, the season Stuart Sternberg's ownership group took over. Here are some of the most relevant:

Sign on the dotted line

The Rays took Cleveland's blueprint of locking up core players long term to a new level, signing players at the start of their careers and adding team options to buy out free-agent years. Most notable was their deal with 3B Evan Longoria, announced during his first week in the majors. RHP Chris Archer and LHP Matt Moore also signed long-term deals with less than a year of service.

Shift happens

The Rays were obvious in being unconventional by how much and how often they moved their infielders to unusual positions to set up defensive shifts. Maneuvers that had been around since Ted Williams' days the Rays took to new extremes — challenging not just pull-hitting lefties in turning balls hit between first and second into outs by a fielder in shallow right but right-handed hitters by bunching three defenders between second and third. They'd adjust to their pitcher's style and recent hitter trends.

As shifting became nearly universal against some hitters, the Rays have remained outliers and leaders. In 2011, Baseball Info Solutions said they shifted a major-league most 216 times and saved 85 runs by doing so.

The Ben Zobrist model

Increasing versatility in players allows lower-payroll teams like the Rays to get more out of their roster. The Rays created the top model of super utility in Ben Zobrist, who moves around the infield and outfield and comfortably between the two — even in the same game. He's even more valuable as a fundamentally sound switch-hitter. Every team wants one now; the Cubs have the original.

Roster maximization

Besides having players master moving to different positions, the Rays have tried other tactics. One, also payroll limiting, is pairing two players with extreme platoon splits to make one position more productive than the cost of its parts. Another, coinciding with the decline in usage of performance-enhancing drugs, was to use younger — and healthier — players who could stay on the field more. They also frequently option players — specifically relievers — to the minors after heavy usage to keep fresh arms available.

Sabermetrically speaking

Baseball is a numbers game, and the Rays changed it with some of their data. Largest was the hefty value they placed on pitch framing — the art of catchers "stealing" strikes by convincing/deceiving the umpire by how they receive the ball, the extra strikes theoretically leading to runs, some suggest 20-30 saved a season. That's why they kept Jose Molina behind the plate for three seasons despite historically meager offensive contributions (.213 average, .557 OPS) and tried others with similar profiles. Another stat they pushed was "spin rate," a metric to evaluate the quality of pitches, thus which pitchers they expected to be more effective. (Though not always correctly; see Eveland, Dana.) The computer geeks also produce a daily "matrix" combining massive data to project the best and worst matchups vs. opposing hitters and pitchers to be used in considering lineups and in-game moves.

Land of the rising fastball

With bulked-up hitters launching homers, teams wanted pitchers who could keep the ball down. The Rays saw an opportunity with hitters looking low to have their pitchers focus on the top part of the strike zone, RHP Steve Geltz and LHP Drew Smyly two examples who had some success.

Pitching in

Before the extended use of Andrew Miller and other relievers became a hot topic during the 2016 postseason, the Rays had some relievers work multiple innings and used top-notch relievers in high-leverage situations earlier than the eighth inning. To adjust to how younger starters would falter after going through a lineup twice, they used earlier hooks.

Technological advances

The Rays were the first team to install the Kinatrax motion-capture system, which provides data capture on multiple points of a pitcher's mechanics. After two seasons, they are still sorting out whether it could be of more use helping them pitch better or stay healthier. They were one of the first teams to sign on with Eon Sports to install a virtual reality system that allows hitters to simulate facing upcoming pitchers. And they have experimented, more so in the minors where there is more freedom given no players' union protection, with wearable devices that provide real-time data on physical exertion and status.

Special education

In trying to exhaust all options to find talent, the Rays developed several programs to accelerate or even salvage careers: one to build velocity by having pitchers work before spring camp with weighted balls, another to teach them the knuckleball.

You are what you eat

Before there were chefs, smoothie machines and organic eggs in every clubhouse and nutritionists on the payroll, the Rays pushed their players to eat better, providing healthy options and banning fast foods, snacks and soda from the clubhouse. They have also employed consultants on sleep and mental aspects of the game.

Exercising their options

The Rays envisioned the obvious value in keeping their players on the field, employing and equipping a full medical/training staff and empowering them to require diligent adherence to an exercise and strengthening program that is among the game's best.

Also, the Rays have:

. Signed several pitchers coming off surgeries, spending time rehabbing them in hopes of getting a big return,

. Sought free-agent bargains by signing players coming off injuries or down years in hopes of bounceback seasons.

. Used unconventional structure in the front office, currently having three execs share duties running baseball operations.

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