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Rays 2019: Team loves to raze convention

Opener just the latest way Tampa Bay has thumbed its nose at baseball protocol

The opener, as you can tell by all the TV talk, radio chatter and written words (including the cornucopia of coverage on this site), is a big deal. The 2018 masterpiece from the Rays innovation factory rates somewhere between revolution and ruination of the game.

Their strategy of having a reliever get the first three-to-six outs, which enters a second season, isn’t necessarily the biggest bombshell the Rays have dropped on the game.

Since Stuart Sternberg’s group took over in late 2005, the Rays have been up to all kinds of things.

Typically designed to find an edge, develop an advantage or exploit an opportunity to compensate against significantly better-financed opponents. In essence, if you can’t out-spend them then out-think them.

Here are 10 of the more innovative things the Rays have tried:

Shift happens

The Rays under manager Joe Maddon were at the forefront of the defensive shifting movement, evolving from ridiculed to respected for championing a now common cause, putting fielders in the places where the opponents are most likely to hit it. That’s not just putting an infielder in short right field against pull-hitting lefties, but also at times leaving the left side of the infield uncovered, bunching three infielders between second and third to combat right-handed pull hitters, and, increasingly prominent this spring, defending hitters with heavy fly ball rates by putting four players across the outfield.

Shop early

The Indians were noted for their plan to sign young players to multi-year deals to cobble a core cadre. The Rays saw their bid and upped the ante by making more aggressive gambles in signing players even earlier in their careers, gaining cost certainty through their arbitration years and, with options, into free agency. Evan Longoria, Matt Moore and Chris Archer (and now Brandon Lowe) all were signed up with less than a year in the big leagues, and even if the deal didn’t work out as planned, the contracts had value in trade talks as well.

RELATED STORY: Why are the Rays suddenly spending money

Be like Ben

Positional versatility, especially between infield and outfield, allows the Rays to make their 13 position players seem like 14 or 15. They pretty much created the model of a super utility guy in Ben Zobrist, who could be moved from second base to a corner outfield spot during a game, and sometimes back, with no defensive drop-off. Now, most teams have at least one. The Rays have several, and they’re not stopping there. Under manager Kevin Cash they have experimented with moving pitchers to a position for a batter to maintain a left-right advantage with a new reliever, then bringing the first one back to the mound.

And like Shohei

Brendan McKay could end up being another innovation as a pitcher and designated hitter for the Rays.

Before Japanese two-way star Shohei Ohtani signed with the Angels, the Rays were already looking at the next frontier of players good enough to pitch and hit. They have invested in drafting, signing and adjusting their training for players who can do both in Brendan McKay (a starter and first baseman/DH) and Tanner Dodson (a reliever and outfielder), and are open to adding more as well as converting some current minor-leaguers.

Numbers game

The Rays were ahead of the game using now common sabermetric influences, placing value and making roster and playing-time decisions, based on things like a catcher’s ability to “steal” strikes by framing balls just outside the zone, the spin rate pitchers show on certain pitches, the benefits of an elevated fastball, how pitchers’ effectiveness drops off the third time through the batting order, and maximizing potential matchups by processing extreme amounts of data into a daily matrix that highlights moves that should work to their advantage.

BOGO

The Rays rarely shop for top-shelf elite players, preferring to use the two-for-one approach. In short, to find less expensive options they can match up in a platoon that allows them to have two lower-priced players share a position and give them as much or more production than the one higher priced player. Another way to get more they try to make less more is having a stable of inexpensive relievers with minor-league options, allowing them to shuttle in a fresh arm when needed.

RELATED STORIES: Go here to connect to all of our Rays special section stories

The doctor is in

Now common in clubhouse, the Rays were early adapters in advocating, and investing staff and support in focusing on keeping players healthy and expediting recovery time, improving nutrition (such as banning fast food and soda), providing mental skills training, employing sleep and travel consultants to maximum production, experimenting with high-tech training tools, creating programs at minor-league levels to increase pitchers’ velocity through weighted ball training and teaching the knuckleball. Not all pay off, as the knuckleball program was dropped, but at least they try.

Keeping it loose

Over the years, they have trashed considerable baseball convention for the sake of creating a relaxed environment and positive clubhouse culture they feel keeps players happy and ultimately more productive. So they don’t take batting practice every day, did away with dress codes on flights, stress open communication across all boundaries, amended pre-game work to eliminate standing around, and as a whole don’t have many rules.

Open-door policy

The Rays are also not sticklers for corporate structure or hierarchy. For a long time, they didn’t actually have a general manager because they didn’t like the title, letting Andrew Friedman run baseball operations as executive VP. (And now, for example, they have two team presidents, not co-presidents, in Brian Auld and Matt Silverman.) It seems symbolic, but also enables them to break down barriers as well, such as bringing front office analysts into the clubhouse for meetings with coaches, and during spring training inviting them to don uniforms and watch from the dugout to get a better sense of the speed and emotions of the game. They created the field coordinator coaching position, which several teams have now copied. And then took an even bigger step this year, naming analytics director Jonathan Erlichman, who hadn’t played baseball since T-ball in Canada, to the coaching staff as the game’s first “Process and Analytics” coach.

Save this

There have been seasons the Rays had a proven closer and let him do his job, as recently at 2017 when Alex Colome led the majors with 47 saves, and 2012 when Fernando Rodney logged a team record 48. But they have been out front about not limiting a closer to pitching only in the ninth inning, and not committing to set roles in the bullpen overall, and with an emphasis on having relievers work beyond one inning. Call it matchups or closer by committee or something else, but the premise is simple: Use the best relievers in the most high-leverage situations and figure the rest out from there.

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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