How Rays’ biggest challenge, facing their own pitchers, could be huge benefit

For Tampa Bay's hitters, facing some of the majors' best arms on a daily basis in camp should only make them better during the season.
Rays outfielder Yoshi Tsutsugo watches his pop fly during a simulated game on Tuesday, July 14, 2020, at Tropicana Field.
Rays outfielder Yoshi Tsutsugo watches his pop fly during a simulated game on Tuesday, July 14, 2020, at Tropicana Field. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published July 15, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — Much of the time, and a lot of the talk, at Rays Spring 2.0 camp has been about getting the team’s prized pitchers prepared — how to best tailor workouts in the abbreviated training time to minimize injuries and maximize performance.

Trying to get Rays hitters ready is a less exact process.

More so than pitchers, the type of work hitters want and need is varied — whether solo swings in the cage off a tee or tosses, live batting practice on a backfield or in the competitiveness of exhibition game settings.

So that process obviously also had to be adjusted, especially absent the chance to face opposing pitchers as the Rays are doing all their work in-house, with live batting practice sessions, simulated games and upcoming intrasquads.

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“I think everybody is different,” manager Kevin Cash said. “We’ve heard for years so many hitters talk about spring training starts, they come out of the gate they feel great, then they go through like a 10-day lull, then they try to ramp it up that last week with their timing and everything.

“Spring training can get really stale. I think the staleness of that helps create that, gives you that mind-set. But as you get closer to the finish line and getting to opening day, your mentality changes a little bit.

“This is a really unique situation. I hope they’re getting stuff out of this. They’re getting the (at-bats). Are they getting the most out of them, like if we were in Clearwater playing the Phillies or at Steinbrenner (Field in Tampa) playing the Yankees? Probably not. But that’s not what we’re working with.”

The Rays, though, might actually have an advantage. And it goes back to getting their pitchers ready.

The Rays have some of the best arms in the majors. The mix of power, style, stuff and different looks provides somewhat of a master class in pitching and a massive challenge that should only help the hitters facing them every day.

“It’s nice to be able to take your live (at-bats) off our pitchers,” infielder Brandon Lowe said. “It’s not fun. But it’s helpful to see the arms that we have and be able to gauge yourself against that level of pitching.”

Rays centerfielder Manuel Margot gets out of the way of a pitch during a simulated game at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg on Wednesday, July 15, 2020.
Rays centerfielder Manuel Margot gets out of the way of a pitch during a simulated game at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg on Wednesday, July 15, 2020. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

“A huge benefit,” centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said.

“Without a doubt,” said Hunter Renfroe, the outfielder acquired from San Diego. “You face the best day in and day out, I think you’re going to be able to adjust to whatever goes your way.

“I think it’s going to help us tremendously. I think we’re going to have an edge on everybody. It’s going to help us when we go into the season and face the Yankees or Red Sox or whoever, I think we’ll be prepared, for sure.”

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Cash said that he hopes it’s true and that the hitters realize it’s to their benefit, which they seem to.

Plus, there’s the added benefit for the hitters of being able to do some recon work, asking a pitcher why he was attacking him that way and what they saw him doing at the plate.

But there is also the potential for some negative feedback, for doubts to creep into a hitter’s mind if he fails repeatedly at the plate, feels his timing is off or he has lost his sense of what pitch is best for him to hit.

Rays coaches make it clear to the hitters they are there to get work in and won’t be judged on the results. And they will make some adjustments, such as having the hitters follow the live hitting sessions with some confidence-boosting regular batting practice, and getting lefty-swinging newcomer Yoshi Tsutsugo some more comfortable at-bats against right-handers.

“For sure you have to balance the reality of the guys we’re facing, especially with (pitching coach and frequent simulated-game umpire) Kyle Snyder’s strike zone getting a little big at times,” hitting coach Chad Mottola said.

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“It’s one of those things that for sure you want to see the ball a little bit bigger rather than a BB every time at-bat. We had to get Yoshi a couple (at-bats against right-handers) because he saw (hard-throwing lefty Jose) Alvarado a couple days in a row. It was like, ‘Don’t worry Yoshi, these are not normal pitchers you’ll see all year.‘”

Cash said he thinks they’ve handled it well. Rays staff decided after the first few days of workouts that it needed to prioritize getting the hitters more live at-bats, so they started bringing up pitchers from the Port Charlotte group to throw. By the July 24 opener, Cash said most of the hitters will have 40-plus live at-bats, which isn’t much different than a regular spring training, even if they’re all coming against pitchers wearing the same color uniform.

“If we were playing opening day tomorrow, I think our hitters would be fine. I really do,” he said. “Timing is different for everybody. But from what we’re seeing, what we can gauge from our eyes and some of the (high-tech data) numbers underneath right now that we’re analyzing, they all look really, really good.”