The Rays thrive on being at the cutting edge of baseball strategy.
They were among the early adopters of the defensive shift. They were adept at identifying under-valued players who could fill key roles. They used analytics to maximize roster construction back when most franchises were still looking for the “good baseball face.”
But now that the big guys have appropriated these ideas the Rays have lost some of their competitive edge. They will need to be able to ride that next wave of baseball innovation.
Here’s what may be the next step for the Rays.
It’s time to shake up that five-man starting rotation and move to a more flexible pitching model.
Here’s how we see it: most teams are lucky to have one or two elite starters who can regularly face a batting order three times. Small market teams are especially hard-pressed to pay market value for effective starting pitching.
But if you are looking for guys who can pitch respectably once or twice through the order, your potential pool is much larger, and includes a bunch of low-cost guys, either those just coming to the majors, or those coming back from injuries or down years.
Why not construct a pitching rotation with that in mind?
Sure, you want your really elite starters to maximize their innings. But for most teams, the drop-off in quality after the # 2 starter is pretty dramatic.
If a typical pitching staff has 12 pitchers (5 starters and 7 relievers), why not construct it to have six or seven of those be guys who can get once or twice through the order, leaving the other slots for a couple of traditional starters and a couple of high-leverage closer types?
You might still have your 3-4-5 guys, but they would pitch just twice through the order. Then the bullpen, consisting of swingman type pitchers takes over.
The “penalty” pitchers face as the opposing line up sees them a second and third time has been pretty well documented. (And for an interesting overview of manager/organizational philosophy on this, including the views of Kevin Cash, check out this link.) While research shows that just about all pitchers become less effective over the innings,* the significance of this penalty is greater with less elite pitchers.
For example, let’s look at a guy like Matt Andriese. As a starter, the wOBA against him in 2016 was .285 the first time through the order, .330 the second time, and .398 on the few occasions he saw a lineup for the third time. Blake Snell’s wOBA numbers are more erratic (in part due to the small sample size of late inning pitching), but his FIP suggests he loses effectiveness as the game goes on. In his rookie season, his FIP the first time through the order was 2.26. That climbed all the way to 3.77 his second time through and then to 5.74 his third time through.
So is it crazy to consider having Snell and Andriese split the game? We can call it the “collaborative” start.
Or maybe you shake it up even further: you have guys who are good for once or twice through the order, and you can mix and match to take advantage of match-ups. Maybe Erasmo pitches the first two innings, Snell takes the next five, and Colome comes in for the two inning “save.” Perhaps we can retire the notion that there are five guys who are always on the mound at the start of the game and move to a more flexible model.
*We concede that looking at individual pitcher data on this topic can be confounding. Because Rays pitchers are so likely to get pulled before going through a lineup a third time, the sample size for these innings can be small. And the eye test tells us that on those occasions when pitchers are left in longer, it is because they are having a particularly effective game.
Advantages of this approach
Some have suggested that Terry Francona has been piloting this sort of approach in the post season, although of course he has three elite relievers who have been able to dominate multiple innings. But we’ve seen teams like the Rays do this with less talent.
You could argue that Kevin Cash had some success in the front half of 2015 by using guys like Nate Karns in this fashion. With Cobb, Moore and Smyly lost to injury, Cash was forced to rely on Karns as the number 3 or even 2 pitcher in the rotation. For his career, Karns has had a .276 wOBA against the second time through an order, but that jumps to .381 the third time through.
Cash’s solution was to pull him, whenever possible, before the opposition saw him a third time (about 30 of his 142 starter innings that year represented the third time through); he pitched past the 6th inning exactly three times all year. It’s clear that Cash went into those games assuming that his bullpen would be handling three to four innings. This probably put the Rays in a better position to win on his pitching day, and it also allowed him to end 2015 with respectable enough stats that the Rays could turn him into Brad Miller.
Given how few starters can routinely get through more than five or six innings, in reality some version of this system already prevails, but teams haven’t fully adapted their staffing to meet this new reality. Instead, when the starter loses his edge in the fifth inning he’s seen as failing to do his job and managers seem to be scrambling to fill those extra innings.
Applying Collaborative Starting to the Rays
So how often is a reliever the better option facing a lineup than the starting pitcher? We can consider the Rays pitchers in 2016.
Judging from the numbers of the Rays 2-3-4-5 (Jake Odorizzi, Drew Smyly, Blake Snell, and Matt Moore), the Rays top three relievers were often the better matchups the third time through an order. Jake Odorizzi had the best wOBA of the foursome the third time through with a respectable .303.
The Rays top two relievers (Matt Andriese & Alex Colome) both came in way below that the first time through an order with Colome posting .254 wOBA and Andriese had a .191 mark.
As for the rest of the starting rotation, they ranged from .326 to .342 for all over 2016 while Enny Romero and Erasmo Ramirez both came in below .330. So although it’s not a huge discrepancy, there’s evidence that not even the top-tiered relievers are the best match-up.
But if the team is constructed around multiple pitchers who can throw three or four innings every three or four days, figuring out how to manage innings is built into your game plan.
Of course, while this approach reduces the need for those elusive elite workhorse starters, it won’t work if you don’t have a bunch of reliable 2-3 inning guys.
A pitching staff set up this way can’t have anyone who can only be used in a blow-out — the system only works if everyone is capable of getting at least a few outs. So no hiding Dana Eveland in there and hoping no one notices. But if you are spending fewer dollars chasing traditional starters, you might have more money available for darned good relievers.
It also requires a flexible mindset among your pitchers. Indeed, any time such an idea is floated the main criticism is that starting pitchers will resist. They like their routine; they believe they will see bigger paydays with the “starter” label.
Our response: those pitchers who are reliably and effectively going seven innings in a start can continue to anchor the rotation in that traditional role. But far more of the middling guys — those who might be 3, 4 or 5 starters or long relievers — will be asked to take on more flexible roles. In so doing, the team creates opportunities for those who are toiling away in the minors as starting pitchers but may struggle to find work in that role in the majors — the Chase Whitleys, Jaime Schultz’s, and Austin Pruitts of the world would show they can be effective in 3-5 inning stints.
By now we see bigger paydays even for relievers who don’t have the traditional “closer” title, and if more teams adopt this flexible approach it is possible that there will be more value placed on pitchers able to plug into a variety of situations, just as we’ve seen the “super utility” role for position players get new respect and better contracts. The Rays can take the lead in paying for impact rather than shiny metrics like wins and saves.
Tito Francona’s bullpen management has already increased the chatter about more flexible pitcher usage, but his decisions were dependent on having an elite crew of high leverage relievers. Our proposal suggests that moving even farther away from rigid notions of “starting” and “closing” makes sense for a limited budget team that can’t always buy top talent on the open market.