What’s next for the Rays’ new pitching strategy

Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash says his club's new pitching strategy is focused on avoiding having pitchers face hitters three times in one game. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) MDPS123
Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash says his club's new pitching strategy is focused on avoiding having pitchers face hitters three times in one game. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) MDPS123
Published May 21, 2018|Updated May 21, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — When Kevin Cash called team president Matt Silverman Sunday morning to wish him happy birthday, he expected to get back some form of an "attaboy" for implementing the Rays' latest unorthodox pitching strategy in using reliever Sergio Romo as a starter the day before, and then doubling down and doing it again.

"I said, "Man, I got nothing from you. No call. Nothing,' '' Cash relayed lightheartedly. "And he's like, "Do you want my snarky answer? I tried to get you to do this three years ago.' So he's happy.''

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Three years late and two games in, the Rays latest grand experiment in pitching stratagem would be considered an initial success on the field. And a massive hit in terms of sparking discourse and discussion throughout the game of its merits.

Cash said they are going to keep doing it on days when they don't have an established starter going and the opposing lineup lends itself to matchup advantages. The weekend series versus the right-leaning Orioles would seem likely, though probably they'll try to avoid back to back days again.

Are the Rays really reinventing the game, or simply adapting traditional roles to what works best for them?

Simplified, the plan is to use a proven reliever to get the first three-to-six outs facing the hitters stacked atop the opposing order. Then, in theory, to make it easier for the pitchers who follow since they'd start facing lesser hitters and, if they're getting outs, be much less likely to face those big boys that treacherous third time before being replaced by the Rays high-leverage relievers.

"It's just about banking leverage, banking third time through,'' Cash said. "As much as we can put ourselves in a situation to kind of hide a pitcher, avoid him facing too many hitters at one time, we're going to be benefitted from it.''

Any analysis or evaluation with this small of a sample size is going to be results-oriented, so Romo made them look good. Working as "the opener" — as MLB Network host/author Brian Kenny and others call it in contrast to the traditional end-of-game closer —he retired all three hitters he faced Saturday as the Rays went on to win 5-3, then four of six on Sunday as they lost 5-2.

Sensitive to the "smartest kids in the class" label, the Rays are playing humble, careful to not suggest they've found a new and better plan, just that this is the best way for them to win games with the personnel and schedule they have.

It's not all that different than the Rays' original "Bullpen Day" plan from their first pitching revolution in going with four, and for a while, three starters, except rather than using Andrew Kittredge for the first couple innings they are using a higher level reliever in Romo, and maybe lefty Jonny Venters. (Though likely not  top setup men Chaz Roe and Jose Alvarado, preferring to save them for  traditional late-game use.)

For it to work going forward, Cash acknowledged the major challenge of getting the buy-in from the pitchers, which, realistically, may have been a reason it took a while to find the right time. In 2015 they experimented with aggressively pulling starters before they went through the order a third time and had some clubhouse fallout.

That makes communication more key, from the preparation for and physical toll of the hybrid roles to potential consequences on future earnings based on having fewer starts and innings.

"The last thing we'd ever want to do is put them in a bad position or put them to where they can't succeed in their careers,'' Cash said. "But our first and foremost goal is we've got to win games. And if we feel this is the best way to win games, we're going to do it.''

Bigger picture, the Rays admit they have a lot more to learn about what works best, how much structure is needed, if one day all the pitchers will be amorphic. At some point, there will be enough data for deep dives on how it works best, who is impacted the most, whether there would be a benefit to doing in the minor leagues so pitchers are familiar with the demands. They're also curious, now that they took the first step, what other teams try something similar and how they do it.

For now, they're just trying to see what works and not to pay too much attention to the raging debate.

"It has gone well,'' Cash said. "And it's always better to go well than not, because you guys (in the media) would be crushing us if it didn't.''

Marc Topkin can be reached at Follow @TBTimes_Rays