The Tampa Bay Rays continue to redefine conventional pitching roles.
One of the many wonders of the past few years has been the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays have made the playoffs the last 3 years, including a World Series appearance in 2020 and finishing with the best record in the American League in 2021. They have managed all this success while playing in a tough division. The thing that makes them so hard to explain is their lack of star power.
When looking at other teams that have reached the Ray’s success in the past few years, you find the Dodgers with players like Betts, Seager (now Turner), and Muncy just to name a few. These are players that have had seasons where they end up in the MVP discussion. Similarly, the Astros have seen great success with players like Altuve, Bregman, Brantley, Tucker, and Alvarez. All of them are feared hitters that have added massive value to the offense. The Rays, on the other hand, only have a few players that have produced amazing offensive numbers over the course of a season.
Instead of using sheer star power to overwhelm opponents, the Rays seem to find untapped potential in average relievers and make the most of all their appearances. Their winning formula often includes close games controlled by multiple relievers.
The Winning Formula
Last year, the Rays had 58 wins in relief. This was 9 more than the next closest team, the San Francisco Giants. Rays relievers were also tasked with getting more outs than any other team’s relievers. The team started 37 games with pitchers that worked largely in relief throughout the year. The Rays were the first team to really lean into this idea of pitcher versatility. Openers, which the Rays were the first to begin using heavily, often pitch the first inning or two to face the most difficult hitters in a lineup before handing it off to someone else who may go through the entire order the second time around. Ray’s pitchers averaged 4.6 innings per start. Every other playoff team was at least 5 innings.
The Rays use of the bullpen may be where the future is headed but they remain ahead of the pack at the present moment. Many teams have moved toward more bullpen innings to allow starting pitchers more rest and hopefully prevent injuries. The difference is many teams still covet their starters as their best pitchers and the starters are the ones that must set up the team for a win. In short, the starting pitchers are the main attraction. Meanwhile, the Rays seem to be moving toward no pitching stars at all, opting for a group of unknown but effective relief arms instead.
Some of the Rays Roster Moves Do Not Make Sense
Perhaps the best display of the Rays reliance on their bullpen can be seen in last year’s trade deadline. Tyler Glasnow was supposed to be a huge part of the Ray’s success. When he was lost for the season, Rich Hill became the guy that seemed poised to fill that spot. The Rays decided, instead, to trade away Rich Hill without getting a different key starter in return. In only half a season, Hill accumulated the fifth most innings for the Rays. Tyler Glasnow ended the season just behind him.
So, how did the Rays fill this hole in their pitching? They doubled down on their practice of versatile pitching roles.
Another trade made before the deadline had sent away shortstop Willy Adames and reliever Trevor Richards. In return, the Rays received relievers J.P. Feyereisen and Drew Rasmussen. Both would play important roles for the team. Rasmussen came in with a 4.24 ERA in 17 innings. He had not started a game since he was last in the minor leagues in 2019. Yet, he ended up starting 10 games with the Rays and making 10 more appearances from the bullpen with a 2.44 ERA. September was particularly productive for Rasmussen as he threw 24 innings and only gave up 4 runs. Feyereisen made 36 appearances of his own, lowering his ERA as well. They also resorted to other pitchers for innings like Collin McHugh who had only recently switched from starter to reliever. The Rays had 31 pitchers throw less than 50 innings for the team over the course of the season.
When it comes to utilizing pitchers effectively, the Rays consistently seem to find the right mix of pitchers to get effective innings.
The Tampa Bay Rays Have Placed Themselves at the Forefront of Baseball Innovation
It’s not surprising the Rays have led this new line of thinking about pitching. Their situation actually supports this fluidity quite well. For starters, they are a lower-budget team that has always been willing to try new tactics that seem promising. There also seems to be a sense of trust that they can develop pitchers to perform excellently in the majors. We can see this trust on display in trades that have sent away proven MLB talent for prospects and journeymen. Most teams would be hesitant to make these trades but the Rays never shy away from the opportunity and the players they receive in return always seem to play an important role in the team’s success. They have also built one of the best defensive outfields in baseball. With outfielders that cover a lot of ground, the Rays may have more flexibility in the type of pitchers that can be successful.
The Tampa Bay Rays are truly an interesting team. They never support a star-studded roster that fans look at and see World Series Champions. Yet, the results the last few years have shown them to be very close. I think much of the baseball world will have their eyes on the Rays these next few years. They will be watching to see if the team can get that first title and to see what new ideas they will come up with.
Data via Rays Team Pitching page at baseballreference.com.