There's a mystery going on in Tampa Bay -- a four-year-old mystery that is still without an answer. New cases pop up every year, and it's gotten to the point where we don't even question it any more. The Rays are simply good at turning wild pitchers into relief aces. It's a fact of life, bet against it at your own peril.
But why? How? Fernando Rodney has been incredible this season -- posting a BB/9 rate under 2.0 for the first time in his career -- and he's following in the footsteps of Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit, Rafael Soriano, and (to a lesser extent) Kyle Farnsworth. One case could be luck or happenstance. Two could be a coincidence. But four? Five? This is definitely pattern, but goodness knows how or why the Rays have had this sort of success.
I've been pondering on this question of late, and I've come up with a theory. It's not something we can prove using stats or numbers, though, so let's work through this step by logical step.
There are a couple possible explanations for the Rays' string of success, and each of them probably contributes to a larger or smaller degree. Let's start with some of the most obvious ones and work from there.
Jim Hickey is a Demi-God. If there is a team in the majors that would be able to find some sort of mechanical "silver bullet" for control issues, it'd probably be the Rays. Their research and analytics staff is incredibly strong, and five years ago or so, Josh Kalk was identifying when a pitcher was about to get injured using PITCHF/x data. Five years is a long time, so is it possible they've been able to discover new things about control since then? Quite possibly.
I have a hard time believing this, though. Rodney, Benoit, Soriano, Benoit, and Farnsworth -- all of these pitchers were at least 30 years old when the Rays turned them around. It's difficult to change 30 years worth of muscle memory during a month and a half of Spring Training, and I also tend to doubt that all of these pitchers suffered from the same problem.
And anyway, isn't control all about consistency and repetition? About being able to precisely replicate your delivery time after time after time? Maybe the Rays discovered some secret, but it seems more likely to me that they simply made small tweaks with each pitcher. As R.J Anderson pointed out earlier this year, Rodney has moved over on the rubber and it has improved his pitches a considerable amount. So there's certainly something to be said for the Rays' pitching staff, but I don't think that explains everything.
Selective Memory? Are the Rays taking gambles with a large number of high-upside relievers, and we're only remembering the success stories? It is true that not every control-addled reliever finds success in Tampa Bay (think Juan Cruz and Adam Russell), so there's certainly some selective memory at play here.
But still, if we were to tally up all the hits and misses and compare them with other teams, I feel fairly confident that the Rays would still show up as an outlier. In recent years, how many other relievers have turned around their careers as dramatically as this group? It's bound to be a small group.
The Power of Confidence. So if we believe that the Rays are more successful than most teams at turning wild pitchers into relief aces, and that the reason why can't be pinned solely on the pitching staff or mechanical corrections, that really only leaves one other option: there's something about the environment. There's something about pitching in Tampa Bay that helps wild pitchers throw strikes.
And that's why recently, I've been thinking that the secret to the Rays success with relief pitchers isn't actually a result of their scouting reports, pitching staff, or some Kalk-ian PITCHF/x voodoo: I think they've created an environment in Tampa Bay that allows pitchers to relax and trust in their pitches.
Consider: all the wild relievers that the Rays have targeted have been ones with superb, top of the line "stuff". They've had dominant pitches and high strikeout rates, but had always struggled with their walk rates. So the Rays took these pitchers, plopped them down in Spring Training, and said, "We play in one of the most extreme pitcher's parks in the AL and we have the best defensive team in the majors. Don't worry about what hitters will do if they put the ball in play; let them! Our defense will eat it up like a vacuum cleaner. You have absolutely dominant stuff and we believe in you, so go out there and attack hitters and let our defense take care of the rest."
It must feel so good to have that strong a safety net behind you, and to feel like your team truly believes in you -- especially considering most of these pitchers have had their share of detractors over the years. The Rays have embraced Rodney's eccentricity, just like they embraced Rafael Soriano before him, and they have put these pitchers in the best possible situation to succeed. The Rays' coaching staff is great, but even more than that, they've able to let pitchers loose and truly trust in their stuff.
This is my most current theory, and although there's no actual way to prove or disprove it, I think it's one of the few things that makes sense. The Rays seem to target relievers with excellent stuff, regardless of their walk rate, and I have a hard time believing that they've discovered some magic mechanical bullet for high walk rates. Rodney, Benoit, Soriano, Benoit -- all of these pitchers were at least 30 years old when the Rays turned them around. You don't correct 30 years of control issues in a few months of spring training, you just don't.
Through this lens, the Fernando Rodney signing makes a bit more sense. Maybe the Rays didn't have any particular "fix" in mind for him -- outside the sliding over on the rubber thing -- but they saw him as a high-upside reliever that could thrive in the environment they've created. Put Jose Molina behind the plate, a strong defense behind him, pump him full of confidence, and who knows what could happen?
And oh boy, were they right.