ST. PETERSBURG — In those early days before they became geniuses, the people in charge were mostly desperate.
They were not trying to tear down conventions or upend the status quo, they just wanted to make the most of an imperfect pitching staff. They had guys coming off injuries, guys who had never topped 100 innings in a season, guys with just enough talent to get through a lineup once, maybe twice, a game.
What they did not have were a lot of proven starters.
Thus, a new model for a Major League rotation was born in Tampa Bay. The Rays pioneered the use of openers. They got starters out of the game before facing hitters a third time. They carefully counted innings to avoid putting too much stress on young or recovering arms. They set a Major League record for the fewest innings pitched by a rotation in a 162-game season.
And, along the way, they won the fourth-most games in the majors from 2018-22.
So why is that relevant today? Because the Rays have evolved again. They have parsed the numbers, studied their options, evaluated individual pitchers and come up with this new approach for 2023:
The Rays are going old school.
Or, at least, what passes for traditional in today’s game. The Rays will not be averse to seeing Shane McClanahan flirt with 180 innings. Jeffrey Springs, Drew Rasmussen and Zach Eflin could go 150 innings or higher. Tyler Glasnow, once his arm is built up after recovering from an oblique injury, will have the chance to throw deeper into games.
After having the fewest number of innings of any starting rotation in the majors in 2022, the Rays could look shockingly ordinary in 2023.
“In the past, we tried to make the most out of our roster. We had good pitchers, but we thought they could be better if we were aggressive in some situations with them,” manager Kevin Cash said. “Now, we think we have the most talented starting staff that we’ve ever had, and we’re going to let them pitch to their limits.
“We’re still going to manage workloads, but we want them to pitch as much as possible.”
Talent is certainly the driving force here. There’s no reason to worry about Glasnow or McClanahan facing hitters for a third time in a game. Even Springs’ numbers were pretty consistent on a third time through the order last season.
And, unlike previous seasons, most of the guys are coming in with a good base number of innings behind them. McClanahan, Rasmussen and Springs all threw 135 or more innings last season. Counting the postseason, Eflin threw close to 90 innings in Philadelphia. Only Glasnow, coming off Tommy John surgery, will need to be monitored closely, and his season will already be shortened with the oblique injury.
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“This is no disrespect to anybody that we’ve had in the past, but I think there’s probably more confidence to expose these guys to more times through the order,” pitching coach Kyle Snyder said. “We can use them in a more traditional way than how we may have been made up in the past.
“We only had three starters when we began the season in (2018). We had to be creative. When (Nathan) Eovaldi went down with bone chips the day before opening day, we didn’t have the luxury of somebody else that was ready for it. Those are situations where we were forced to be creative, which we will always be in a situation like that. But we will also react in times like this where we can afford to be more typical or traditional because we have those guys.”
It was never about worshipping analytics or reinventing the wheel. It was figuring out what was most likely to succeed in any given situation. For a franchise considered avant-garde in many ways, the Rays are more pragmatic than anything.
“You can do your own research and see how many guys have come in here as young prospects and made strides to become an impact Major League player or came here from somewhere else and redeveloped their careers,” said Eflin, who had been limited by knee issues in recent years. “It was kind of a no-brainer for me to come here. I kind of felt I fit the mold perfectly for these guys where I’m at in my career.”
Have pitchers been happy about having their innings limited? Not entirely. But have they appreciated what Tampa Bay’s out-of-box thinking has done for them? You better believe it.
Springs had a career 5.42 ERA as a reliever in parts of three seasons with Texas and Boston before coming to the Rays. After his first year as a starter in Tampa Bay, he signed a four-year, $31 million deal. Rasmussen had Tommy John surgery twice before ever pitching in the minors and was used exclusively in relief in Milwaukee. Almost one year to the day after being put in the Rays rotation, he took a perfect game into the ninth inning against Baltimore.
“I trust these guys 100 percent. They have nothing but our best interests in mind,” Springs said. “Everybody wants to pitch as much as possible, and I’m no different. I want 30-plus starts, I want to throw as many innings as I can. They dictate that, and they do a really good job. I have the utmost faith in what they think and what they tell us.”
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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