Making sense of Rays’ bizarre strategy to start a reliever
Forget about tradition in the sport that values it most. Just look at the season as a puzzle of, on average, nine innings six days a week and 1,450-ish innings over six months.
Given the Astros rotation, you would be a traditionalist. Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton are 1-2-3 in the AL in ERA, and the cumulative rotation ERA of 2.25 is the best by a team since 1920.
But what if you had the Rays’ scenario? Two workhorses (Alex Cobb/Jake Odorizzi) left via free agency/trade. Two potential replacements (Jose De Leon/Brent Honeywell) needed Tommy John surgery in spring training. Nathan Eovaldi had an elbow cleanup and is yet to pitch. One of the plug-ins, Yonny Chirinos, also is now out (flexor strain, right forearm).
The Rays could have avoided rankling traditionalists by enlisting their version of Tommy Milone and Adam Wilk to start (hat tip to the 2017 Mets). Or they could look at that nine-inning/1,450-inning puzzle and maximize what they had.
To that end, the Rays have used either a three- or four-man rotation and “bullpened” the other games. The most extreme version, though, came when career veteran reliever Sergio Romo started on Saturday vs. the Angels and, oh yeah, on Sunday, too.
On Saturday the Rays were slated to “start” Ryan Yarbrough, a rookie lefty who has mainly relieved this year and has not gone through a lineup three times yet.
The Angels’ lineup skews righty, especially when Shohei Ohtani does not DH, and since Ohtani was the starting pitcher Sunday, by rote he was not playing Saturday. Thus, the Angels’ top seven hitters were righty. That set them up from the outset for Romo and his relentless righty slider.
Keep in mind: Yarbrough is not going to be allowed to go through a lineup a full three times, but by having Romo deal with such righty forces as Mike Trout and Justin Upton, it eased the way to do it twice. The Angels could have started lefty-swinging Luis Valbuena and pulled him after one at-bat. But with teams carrying 12-13 pitchers, using the lone lefty bat on a slim bench in the first inning leaves few alternatives late should injury strike or strategy dictate a change.
Romo whiffed Zack Cozart, Trout and Upton in his first start after 588 relief appearances, Yarbrough followed splendidly and Tampa won. On Sunday, Romo walked two in a scoreless 1 1/3 innings in a Tampa loss. Despite the absence of a full rotation and the exit of their four top homer hitters from 2017, the Rays were a respectable 22-23.
“Frankly, we have less to lose and more to gain [by trying something untraditional],” Rays GM Erik Neander said by phone. “On paper, if we are being honest with ourselves, we knew coming into the year that we probably could not see eye to eye with the best of our division [Yankees, Red Sox]. That gives us even a greater incentive to learn about our pitchers when we have a lot of young ones not yet ready to give us seven innings over and over. It got us wondering how to get the most out of this group while being responsible from a physical standpoint.”
Is this for every team? No. And even the Rays won’t do this on a day a strong starter such as Chris Archer or Blake Snell goes. But could the concept of an “opener” — which my MLB Network colleague Brian Kenny proposed in his 2016 “Ahead of The Curve” — be a useful tactic when the matchups and moons align?
Mickey Callaway, long a pitching coach for the Indians before becoming Mets manager, said he worried about the psyche and comfort of starters if you changed routines. Mets pitching coach Dave Eiland said, “I like to think outside the box,” but a starter should be able to get through a lineup three times. Joe Girardi, while Yankees manager, expressed concern a “trick” strategy would not work and would have a trickle impact that would overtax a staff for days — or longer.
That is all acknowledged and real. But this is an age when all but the best starters are not allowed to navigate a lineup three times — plus starters are not being trained to run this marathon any longer, so the pool of candidates is thinner. Thus, more relievers than ever are used. So, does it really matter except aesthetically/traditionally if they are used at the beginning or end, especially since at the beginning you can guarantee specific, desirable matchups? Lastly, the small benches reduce the offensive options to thwart such maneuvering.
Ultimately, the most traditional thing in the sport is to try to win, and Neander said of this strategy, “We are seeing if it is best to keep runs off the scoreboard.”
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