Tampa Bay Rays Play It Straight When It Comes to Keeping Pitchers Healthy

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Tampa Bay Rays Play It Straight When It Comes to Keeping Pitchers Healthy
J. Meric/Getty Images

David Price, James Shields, Wade Davis, Jeremy Hellickson and Jeff Niemann combined to pitch 982 innings for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2011, making 148 of the team's 162 starts. Strikingly, that was even better than the year before, when a crew including Matt Garza rather than Hellickson managed to hurl 960 innings over 154 starts.

In 2009, six starters combined for 942.1 innings and 156 starts. In 2008, it was five pitchers, including quality time from Edwin Jackson and Scott Kazmir, who combined for 927.2 innings and 153 starts.

Over that four-year span, no team in baseball matched that consistent good health on the mound. That's one huge reason the Rays made the playoffs three times in those four years and went to the 2008 World Series. The health and effectiveness of their starting pitchers, not to mention the ability to rely on the same, made Tampa Bay the well-respected franchise that it is.

As long-time Boston Red Sox GM and new Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein said recently, the new market inefficiencies in baseball are much easier to identify than they are to execute: 

"It's keeping pitchers healthy, and it's better drafting."

The Rays seem to be ahead of that curve. The question is: How have they done it? The answer is: playing it straight.

From 2008-2011, the median fastball use by starting pitchers was 59.5 percent. Pitchers who throw change-ups as a part of their regular arsenal have used it, on average, about 15 percent of the time. The top users of breaking balls generally threw them about a third of the time, with the medians for both sliders and curveballs falling closer to 20 percent.

J. Meric/Getty Images

In that context, consider the following table:

Pitcher FB% SL% CB% CH%
David Price 72.4 10.1 9.9 7.7
Wade Davis 70.2 10.3 15.2 4.3
Matt Garza 71.6 13.4 9.1 6.0
Jeremy Hellickson 55.5 - 12.1 31.3
Jeff Niemann 66.1 10.2 16.3 0.5
James Shields 42.5 - 15.0 25.5
Scott Kazmir 70.2 14.7 - 15.0
Jason Hammel 63.4 15.5 10.0 11.2
Edwin Jackson 69.3 21.8 1.8 7.1

Clearly, the team places an unusual emphasis on fastballs and change-ups. Pitchers in Tampa Bay are expected to be aggressive and to stick to the straight stuff. This systemic mandate sets the team apart from all but two or three other teams in the league. Most clubs tailor every pitcher's repertoire to the player's comfort and skill set. That's akin to accommodation; the Rays are more about assimilation.

It works for a few reasons. Though no conclusive study has proved as much, fastballs and change-ups pose less risk to the arm than do curveballs and sliders. The Rays' hurlers stay healthier than most because the pitch-mix plan to which they adhere is safer.

Doug Benc/Getty Images

Many teams might know what the Rays know about pitchers, pitches, and the physiology of pitching. They might long to take advantage of their information as the Rays have done. For most, though, it's not possible. 

The Rays play in a spacious home park that suppresses home runs very effectively. That allows them to throw more fastballs, which turn into homers more often than other pitches, and watch the resulting flies die in the deep outfield. Andrew Friedman and the rest of the front office have carefully maintained an excellent defensive outfield that adds extra viability to that strategy.

Selecting the pitchers, of course, is as important as selecting the men behind them in making this system a success. The Rays have made a conscious choice over the last half-decade to pursue pitchers with great fastballs, cutters or change-ups, focusing not much at all on the viability of their breaking balls. 

That paradigm brought Garza and Jackson to Tampa Bay on the cheap, as pitchers whose teams thought they might never realize their potential. By simplifying the game and giving the young men margin for error, the Rays turned each into a handsome asset. Last season, they had the two best fastballs in the National League, and the Rays had Hak-Ju Lee, Sam Fuld, Chris Archer, Matt Joyce and Brandon Guyer as compensation for having dealt them.

Control and change-up aptitude drew the Rays to Jeremy Hellickson, whom they got in the fourth round of the 2005 draft. Hellickson just won AL Rookie of the Year despite throwing his change-up more often than any other pitcher in baseball.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

That calls forth a crucial note about this system: it does not necessarily optimize performance. Rays pitchers are more contact and home run-prone than they need to be. Garza's sparkling success in 2011 with the Chicago Cubs shows what sort of potential this approach sometimes leaves untapped: he threw his fastball 25 percent less often, made more prominent use of his slider, and got fantastic results.

Garza fanned more batters, cut his home run rate in half, and got batters to chase his breaking stuff out of the zone. He induced ground balls on just 35.8 percent of batted balls in 2010—that number jumped to 46.3 percent in 2011.

The Rays, however, are poor. This is no secret. The team doesn't have the cash at hand to pay top-dollar for any arm, and when they do manage to lock a pitcher down at a reasonable rate, they can't afford to lose innings or take undue risks with that asset.

It's a simple question of risk and reward: the team clearly feels, and they're probably right, that the marginal improvement they would get by finding each individual's optimal blend of pitches does not measure up to the marginal risk added by allowing departures from their carefully crafted system.

Value on the mound often comes from concentrated volume. Not many teams can survive sending a sixth or seventh pitching option to the mound 25 times in a season. The Red Sox may be able to pay Andrew Miller seven figures to pitch in Triple-A and await a call, but the Rays could not. 

The newest member of the Tampa rotation, of course, is Matt Moore. He is the top pitching prospect in baseball and will enter next season on the heels of a glorious 2011. He shut down the eventual AL champion Texas Rangers in Game 1 of the ALDS in October, then signed a contract that could keep him in Tampa Bay through 2019 earlier this month. 

Call it small-sample smokescreen, but Moore threw his wicked high-90s fastball over 72 percent of the time in his nine-plus innings of regular-season work. On his left arm now ride a good deal of the Rays' hopes in 2012 and beyond, and the team is going to have him keep throwing the heat more often than not.

Matt Trueblood is a Loyola University Chicago graduate with a degree in journalism, and a Bleacher Report Featured Columnist. Follow him on twitter.

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