Have the Rays Unlocked the Future of MLB Pitching?

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistOctober 25, 2020

Tampa Bay Rays relief pitcher Nick Anderson throws against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the fifth inning in Game 2 of the baseball World Series Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

The Tampa Bay Rays' 8-7 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 4 of the World Series was defined by offense and, in the end, bumbling defense by the Dodgers.

Now, with the series knotted 2-2 and Tampa Bay two victories away from claiming the first Commissioner's Trophy in franchise history, an interesting question has emerged: Have the Rays unlocked the future of MLB pitching?

On Saturday, Tampa Bay started left-hander Ryan Yarbrough. It was the 28-year-old's second start in four appearances this postseason. He lasted 3.1 frames and kept Tampa Bay in the game, then yielded to a parade of six relief pitchers.

The American League champs surrendered seven earned runs on 15 hits. Yet, overall, this is a template that has served them well.

The Rays finished third in baseball with a 3.56 ERA during the regular season. Their starting pitchers—fronted by the trio of Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow and Charlie Morton—tied for sixth with a 3.77 ERA. Yet Rays starters ranked 26th in innings pitched with 258.

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Instead, Tampa Bay and manager Kevin Cash leaned heavily on the bullpen. Rays relievers ranked third in both innings pitched (269.2) and ERA (3.37).

And it's not merely how often the Rays use their bullpen weapons, but also when they deploy them. Tampa Bay has frequently gone to ostensible late-inning options early in the game if the situation warrants.

On Saturday, the team turned to top-shelf relievers Pete Fairbanks and Diego Castillo to handle the fifth and sixth innings. Middle relief was once synonymous with the more, well, middling arms in a bullpen. But the Rays will reach for any arm at any time.

That's not to say they don't benefit from the performance of their starters. Snell, the 2018 American League Cy Young Award winner, carried a no-hitter two outs into the fifth inning of Game 2 against the Dodgers on Wednesday. 

But shortly after he allowed a two-run homer to Chris Taylor that trimmed the Rays' lead to 5-2, Snell was removed and replaced by Nick Anderson.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Anderson saved six games during the regular season, yet Cash had no qualms about summoning him in the fifth inning. In that game, which Tampa Bay won 6-4, Anderson was followed by Fairbanks, lefty Aaron Loup and, finally, Castillo.

Mix and juggle. Play the matchup and the moment, not necessarily the inning. These aren't brand-new ideas, but they fly in the face of traditional pitching management.

Thus far, they've gotten Tampa Bay to the doorstep of a championship.

The Rays, recall, were among the pioneers of the "opener" in 2018. These envelope-pushing machinations are an organizational tenet.

A small-market squad with the third-lowest payroll in baseball, Tampa Bay can't hang financially with the the New York Yankees (whom they bested in the division series) or the Dodgers.

Instead, they innovate. They try things. It doesn't always work perfectly, even when they win. Game 4 was a prime example, as Rays relievers yielded five earned runs on 10 hits.

Yet they might be pioneering something special. Los Angeles—led by president of baseball operations and former Rays general manager Andrew Friedman—has turned early and often to its relievers in the postseason and shown a willingness to play matchups at any point. 

Dominant starters will always be a part of the game. The Dodgers' Walker Buehler showed that in Game 3 of this World Series.

But the notion that sometimes it's better to pull a starter before he faces the same hitters a third time is gaining traction. The idea that you can bring a guy in to close a game one night and call on him in the middle innings the next doesn't seem so wacky.

Of course, it helps to have talent. Anderson, Castillo and Fairbanks as well as Loup, Ryan Thompson, John Curtiss and Aaron Slegers give Cash an enviable array of options.

Gregory Bull/Associated Press

"All of these guys are really tipping the scale and maximizing their potential," pitching coach Kyle Snyder told reporters. "They've certainly arrived differently, but they're all tremendously successful pitchers."

The Rays, likewise, have been successful. Now, especially if they topple Los Angeles, their outside-the-box pitching blueprint is one many clubs will undoubtedly try to emulate.

   

All statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference.