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Among the secrets to Rays’ success? Buy-in

Getting players to accept and understand how playing time is decided leads to more wins overall.
Getting into the game can require patience if you're a Rays player. There have been 138 lineup variations in the first 141 games.
Getting into the game can require patience if you're a Rays player. There have been 138 lineup variations in the first 141 games. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Sep. 11

DETROIT — Brandon Lowe leads the Rays with 33 home runs and ranks among the top 10 in the majors. He is among the most productive hitters against right-handed pitchers in the American League. And since the All-Star break he has made marked improvements in his performance against lefties.

But three times in the first eight games of September he was not in the starting lineup.

Lowe has been around the Rays long enough, debuting at the end of the 2018 season, to know how and why they do things, maximizing platoon advantages with a somewhat interchangeable cast of talented and versatile players, and emphasizing a rotation system designed to keep them rested and ready.

So he tries not to get ticked off as much when he is the one left out.

“It happens a lot less than it used to,” Lowe said. “So I’ve definitely gotten a little bit better at understanding what the reason is behind the not-start call.”

Brandon Lowe connects for a hit against the Red Sox at Tropicana Field on Aug.t 31.
Brandon Lowe connects for a hit against the Red Sox at Tropicana Field on Aug.t 31. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Part of the indoctrination to the Rays’ way is understanding you’re not always going to have your way. That could be a tough sell, especially among alpha males who have grown up — and come through the minor leagues — getting what they want.

“Obviously every single person that’s in this clubhouse at this point in their career, you don’t get there without being an extreme competitor and wanting to be in the game, wanting to play 162, getting four or five at-bats a game. It just doesn’t happen,” Lowe said.

“So when you do get told that you’re not starting, it kind of lights that fire a little bit. Like, ‘All right, I’m not playing this time. Time for me to work and get better.’ ”

Rays coaches and executives know the players don’t necessarily like the inconsistent opportunities, and in a way consider it a good thing. Manager Kevin Cash often says that they’d be more concerned if they had the type of guys who didn’t want to play or didn’t care.

What makes it work is the way the Rays get the buy-in from the players.

How they get them to understand that a lineup that changes daily, 138 variations in the first 141 games, is beneficial. That having 13 different pitchers get saves, starting Manuel Margot in all nine spots in the order (and three other players in eight of the nine), and pitching Andrew Kittredge in innings 1-11 somehow makes sense.

Manuel Margot (13) triples in the fifth inning against the White Sox during an Aug. 20 game at Tropicana Field.
Manuel Margot (13) triples in the fifth inning against the White Sox during an Aug. 20 game at Tropicana Field. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

One big selling point is the success the team has had, going into play Saturday night with an American League-best 88-53 record and closing in on a third straight playoff appearance.

“I think there’s buy-in when you’re winning,” said pitcher Chris Archer, a Ray from 2012-18 who signed to return this year. “If it’s a winning culture, winning atmosphere, and you see the formula and the formula works, there’s going to be buy-in.

“If it wasn’t working, there might be a little more pushback. But how they coach guys, how they maneuver the roster, how they use the bullpen, how they give guys days off when they need them? It works. So ... you look like an idiot complaining, you know? So if it didn’t work, then that’s a different story. But it works.”

Veteran centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier has had his own playing time reduced as the Rays, especially after the late-July acquisition of DH Nelson Cruz, have rotated five outfielders into three spots, sometimes in unexpected combinations. But as the team’s longest-tenured player, he makes a point to help new Rays understand, accept, even embrace the plan.

“It’s one of those things where we operate in mysterious ways at times,” Kiermaier said. “But from a player’s standpoint, I’m never going to judge or critique anything we do, because we are trying to win games in a unique way. We compete, and there’s no doubt about that.

“So I have no problem with it. And I don’t think anyone else should either. I want our players to always have that competitive drive, where if they’re not playing, they’re upset. You want that in guys. But still, from a realistic standpoint, it’s, ‘Hey, I understand what you’re saying, but just calm down. You’re going to get your opportunities.’ ”

Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier has seen his time in the rotation reduced a bit this season, but trusts in the game plan.
Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier has seen his time in the rotation reduced a bit this season, but trusts in the game plan. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

That’s because the other part of the sales pitch to players not starting is to tell them to wait an hour or two, because there’s a good chance they’ll end up in the game to pinch-hit in a favorable matchup or to play defense.

Because of how the Rays stock their roster with versatile players, there’s a handful of players on the bench on any given night who could start for many/most other teams — plus, Kiermaier said, “Our Triple-A team could be a big league team” — which gives Cash the freedom and confidence to make moves early and often.

“One of biggest things is we understand that it’s not a day off,” Lowe said. “Being on this team and not starting in a game, you always know that your name is one base hit away from getting called. There’s never a time where you’re not starting and you think that, ‘I’m not going to be in the game today.’ ”

It also helps, Cash said, to have the veterans lead the way in accepting what they do.

“We know the young guys are watching them, so how they react to things is really as important as anything that goes on in our clubhouse,” Cash said. “They’re pros, and they do understand. And they want to be out there.

“But I think they’re also saying, ‘You know what, I might not be out there from the first five innings but I might be in the most important part of the game, or the most important at-bat, whatever it is.’ And part of being a good teammate is understanding we’ve got a lot of good players and the more that we can rotate through that and keep (everyone) fresh, the better we’re going to continue to be.”

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