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History suggests a hurried baseball season might benefit Rays

John Romano | The last time Major League Baseball rushed through spring training, starting pitchers were pulled more quickly from games. That scenario suits Tampa Bay just fine.

Of all the major sports, baseball always has been the most fluke-resistant.

Its regular season is longer, and its postseason is more exclusive. You might find a handful of teams in the Baseball Encyclopedia that sneaked into the playoffs, but for the most part, it’s hard to fake your way through 162 games.

That’s what makes the current proposal for the 2020 season so intriguing. At 82 games, it would be the shortest regular season in history, by a long shot.

Neither the first World War nor the second ever shortened a regular season like this. The Spanish flu cut a few weeks off the 1918-19 seasons, and labor strife once wiped out a World Series, but every baseball season since the 1800s has had at least 100 regular-season games.

So if you’re looking for the perfect guide to what we might see this summer, it does not exist. But if history does not repeat itself, as Mark Twain supposedly said, it does sometimes rhyme.

And the best facsimile might be the 1995 season, which was delayed by a strike, then hurriedly began after a spring training that was less than three weeks long.

So what does that shortened spring have to say to us?

The Rays might just have an advantage.

It would probably be slight, and it might only exist for the first 30 games or so of the regular season, but a case could be made that Tampa Bay’s style and its roster could be tailored to a season that begins in haste.

Here’s what I mean:

Nearly every position player of the last century would tell you that spring training lasts too long. The only reason it drags on for six weeks and as many as 30 games is because it takes that long for starting pitchers to build up arm strength.

So a three-week spring training (which seems to be the target) means teams will enter the regular season with their starting rotation less-than-prepared. That is exactly what happened in 1995.

If you look at the first month of the ′95 season, managers were clearly trying to protect their starters. Through each team’s first 30 games, starting pitchers threw at least six innings less than half the time (46.1 percent). Compare that to the previous season when pitchers threw at least six innings in nearly two-thirds of their starts (64.3 percent) through the first 30 games.

Theoretically, that meant teams with more flexible pitching staffs had an advantage.

Sound like anyone you know?

Payroll concerns always have made the Rays more amenable to outside-the-box thinking, and one of their greatest innovations has been approaching pitching as a 27-out puzzle. Instead of worrying about one person being responsible for most of those outs, Tampa Bay always has looked for the most efficient way to get 27 outs.

Sometimes that has meant a reliever being a starter. Sometimes that has meant using six pitchers a night. Rarely has that ever meant a starter throwing a complete game. The Rays have been masters at collecting a variety of arms capable of mixing-and-matching from the first inning until the ninth.

And that could be an incredibly valuable trait in July if teams have hurried training camps in June.

“We pride ourselves on winning as many games as possible and using a full roster to do it,’’ Rays manager Kevin Cash said this week. “The players have created that culture, and if there’s an opportunity to feed off that in a scenario that’s being presented or being speculated, hopefully that helps us.’’

Cash wasn’t exactly jumping on the idea that the Rays might somehow have a built-in advantage in a shortened season with a shortened spring. His greater point was that a team with pitching depth was going to be in better shape whether a season lasts 82 games or 162 games.

Tampa Bay’s projected rotation — Charlie Morton, Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, Yonny Chirinos and Ryan Yarbrough — had a 3.44 ERA in starting situations last year. And, if rosters are expanded to 30 players as proposed, that means Brendan McKay, Trevor Richards and Jalen Beeks will all be available for long stints out of the bullpen. And that’s before reaching Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo, Chaz Roe, Colin Poche, Oliver Drake or Jose Alvarado.

So do the Rays have history on their side?

If nothing else, we’ll find out quickly.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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