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Rays 2017 Rotation: Deep as Mariana Trench

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MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at New York Yankees Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

The Mariana Trench is the deepest known point in the Earth’s oceans at 36,070 feet deep. In baseball terms, that translates to the depth of the Rays rotation, and this after they dealt two-fifths of their beginning of 2016 staff for younger controllable players. Few other MLB teams can boast this depth of talent.

The staff is led by their “veteran”, 28-year-old Chris Archer, who has thrown at least 200 innings in each of the last two seasons. Beyond their ace, the rotation has an outstanding balance of experience and youth.

To appreciate the depth of this rotation, I’ll review the projected top 4 pitchers who are slated to start the season leading the staff, and then provide a glimpse of how intense competition will be beyond that.

RHP Chris Archer | 28 | $4.9M | FA: ‘22

To assess any kind of trend with Chris, let’s take a look at the most recent 3 years.

Chris Archer ‘14 to ’16

Yr GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Yr GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP WAR
14 32 194.2 8.0 3.3 0.55 0.296 46.5% 6.9% 3.33 3.39 3.70 3.2
15 34 212.0 10.7 2.8 0.81 0.295 46.1% 10.4% 3.23 2.90 3.01 5.2
16 33 201.1 10.4 3.0 1.34 0.296 47.8% 16.2% 4.02 3.81 3.41 3.1
http://www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=6345&position=P

The first thing that jumps out is how consistent he was in a majority of areas. The IP, BB/9, BABIP, GB%, and WAR have all been within a small range. That consistency is part of what makes Archer the leader of this staff.

If we’re looking for worrisome trends, there are two obvious ones here: the HR/9 have almost tripled over the last 3 years; that HRs come off his FB for the most part indicates a possible need for an adjustment. However, the problem isn’t velocity, because there has been very little change in his FB velocity.

So what changed in 2015 and 2016 when compared to 2014?

The absence of the sinker and the increased use of the slider, as displayed here, are the most obvious changes.

This isn’t to say that re-introducing the sinker would alleviate the increase in HR off his FB, but that along with a timely use of his slider could help those numbers shift back into the right direction. Archer’s slider was swung at about 50% of the time it was thrown in 2016, and on average 20% of those swings were whiffs. His change up also induced fewer whiffs than in 2015 (about 7% lower on average), so sharpening it could help him out in 2017.

Still, with few or no changes there’s still reason to expect more dominance, which we’ll get into below. Here are his projections.

Steamer Proj: 32 GS | 201 IP | 9.55 K/9 | 2.89 BB/9 | 0.92 HR/9 | 3.32 ERA | 4.1 WAR

I’m more optimistic than those projections indicate, and here’s why.

The comparison of the 1st half and 2nd half of 2016:

Chris Archer 2016 Splits

Monthly IP ERA TBF H ER HR BB SO AVG OBP SLG wOBA
Monthly IP ERA TBF H ER HR BB SO AVG OBP SLG wOBA
1st Half 110 4.66 484 110 57 18 48 130 0.253 0.330 0.437 0.331
2nd Half 91.1 3.25 366 73 33 12 19 103 0.212 0.260 0.360 0.269
http://www.fangraphs.com/statsplits.aspx?playerid=6345&position=P&season=2016

Archer was clearly trending in the right direction after the All-Star Break, which we hope bodes well for 2017. He pitched to contact more often, and the Rays also made some changes defensively that seemed to help him out. Archer enjoyed his best month of the season in August, after the Rays added Matt Duffy who filled in admirably at SS (6.9 UZR/150 vs Brad Miller’s -25.1 UZR/150).

One example of his improvements is the lower wOBA, from 0.331 in the first half to 0.269 in the second half. That compared favourably to Madison Bumgarner (.289 wOBA), Max Scherzer (.266 wOBA), and Chris Sale (.285 wOBA). That’s pretty outstanding company, and an indication that few changes may be required in Archer’s repertoire. He may simply need more support on the field.

Archer’s FIP also helps tell the tale of what better D could do for his 2017 season since it dropped from 4.29 in the 1st half of 2016 to 3.29 in the 2nd half.

Factor in a full season of Matt Duffy at SS, the additions of Gold Glove candidates Wilson Ramos (by mid-season) and Colby Rasmus, and likely future Gold Glove candidate Mallex Smith, and Chris Archer should have the best season of his career.

Those factors combine to set the tone for the rest of this list, and indicate how dominant the Rays pitching staff may be in 2017.

Next, we rev up the Odo-meter.

RHP Jake Odorizzi | 26 | $4.6M | FA: ‘20

Odorizzi has been subject so many rumours, (too many if you ask me) that his trade value seems to get more discussion than his 187.2 innings of solid 2016 performance. Why the rumours? Despite extension talks, he and the Rays have not reached a long-term agreement, which means he may get expensive at some point. But when you consider that he is still cost-controlled, hasn’t peaked in value, and provides innings that the staff needs to fill in order to compete in 2017, it becomes clear that there shouldn’t be any urgency to trade him.

As the guy who everyone’s been waiting to see take that next step, he has been a workhorse for the Rays and should be able to build on his last 3 seasons which resulted in the following:

Jake Odorizzi ‘14 to ‘16

Yr GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Yr GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP WAR
14 31 168.0 9.32 3.16 1.07 0.295 29.9% 8.70% 4.13 3.75 3.9 2.0
15 28 169.1 7.97 2.44 0.96 0.271 37.3% 9.00% 3.35 3.61 4.0 2.9
16 33 187.2 7.96 2.59 1.39 0.271 36.6% 12.00% 3.69 4.31 4.4 2.0
http://www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=6397&position=P

Just as with Archer, Odorizzi got a significant bump in numbers in the 2nd half of 2016 (ah, the glories of good defense).

Jake Odorizzi 2016 Splits

Monthly IP ERA TBF H ER HR BB SO AVG OBP SLG wOBA
Monthly IP ERA TBF H ER HR BB SO AVG OBP SLG wOBA
1st Half 104.2 4.47 436 99 52 17 34 98 0.246 0.307 0.438 0.318
2nd Half 83.0 2.71 337 71 25 12 20 68 0.227 0.282 0.395 0.290
http://www.fangraphs.com/statsplits.aspx?playerid=6397&position=P&season=2016

Whereas Odorizzi’s production has been fairly consistent across his (short) MLB career, all of his metrics improved significantly in the second half of 2016. So what changed for Odorizzi in the second half of last season?

The velocity charts indicate about as steady a velocity as you can imagine, so we decided to focus on the pitch type instead. It’s interesting that as he increased the use of his cutter - and introduced a change up for the first time - his performance improved by a significant amount. This suggests that he has tinkered with his arsenal and may be on the cusp of figuring out how to use it to become more dominant.

Steamer Proj: 28 GS | 162 IP | 8.07 K/9 | 2.99 BB/9 | 1.26 HR/9 | 3.99 ERA | 2 WAR

The projections certainly don’t point to much progress for Odorizzi, so we’ll wait and see if he can in fact take that much awaited for step forward.

RHP Alex Cobb | 29 | $4.2M | FA: ‘18

If it felt like you waited forever for the return of Alex Cobb in 2016, you weren’t alone. He was more anxious than anyone to make his return after an arduous 15 month rehab. Rays fans were hoped for a mid-season return but had to be more patient as he worked himself back into MLB form. Here’s what his last 3 seasons in MLB look like, less 2015:

Alex Cobb ‘13 to ‘16

YR GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP WAR
YR GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP WAR
13 22 143.1 8.41 2.83 0.82 0.279 55.8% 14.8% 2.76 3.36 3.02 2.5
14 27 166.1 8.06 2.54 0.60 0.282 56.2% 8.5% 2.87 3.23 3.33 2.8
16 5 22 6.55 2.86 2.05 0.355 52.5% 21.7% 8.59 5.6 4.39 -0.1
http://www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=6562&position=P

So was he worth the wait? Yes.

Facing the Jays in two of his first 3 games back, a team fighting for a playoff spot and loaded with talent - one of the best offensive teams in MLB - he managed the following:

  • Sept 2nd: 5 IP | 4 H | 2 ER | 1 BB | 7 SO
  • Sept 14th: 6.2 IP | 2 H | 1 ER | 3 BB | 4 SO

Those performances, and others, at the end of the season provided the Rays with enough confidence in him for 2017 to trade Drew Smyly. They have confidence in him re-establishing himself as one of the core starters of this group, and if he performs as some expect, he’ll make himself one of the more attractive trade pieces the Rays will be able to capitalize on before the trade deadline.

Do the projections show him becoming that outstanding trade chip?

Steamer Proj: 23 GS | 128 IP | 6.71 K/9 | 2.78 BB/9 | 0.93 HR/9 | 2.78 ERA | 1.7 WAR

Yes, the projections are showing confidence that Cobb will re-establish himself as a solid 2-3 starter and rebuild his trade value in the process. The question that many will raise if he does wind up being shopped is how much he has left in the tank to help out a team in a playoff hunt. It’s a valid question, but if a team knows they can likely re-sign him for 2018 and beyond, it’s likely something that will be of minimal impact.

LHP Blake Snell | 24 | Lg Min | FA: ‘22 or ‘23

Making his MLB debut during the 2016 season vs the New York Yankees, Snell was immediately at home on an MLB mound:

I just settled in, and it felt like it felt my whole life when I went out there and pitched,”

And thus begins what should be an impressive pitching career for the Southpaw from Seattle. He came in as announced after making quick work of 3 levels in 2015, as displayed below:

Blake Snell ‘15 to ‘16

Yr Team GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Yr Team GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP WAR
15 A+ 2 21.0 11.6 4.7 0.00 0.227 0 2.17
15 AA 12 68.2 10.4 3.8 0.66 0.260 1.57 3.26
15 AAA 9 44.1 11.6 2.6 0.41 0.276 1.83 2.12
16 AAA 12 63.0 12.9 4.0 0.57 0.356 3.29 2.57
16 Rays 19 89.0 9.9 5.2 0.51 0.356 36.50% 5.60% 3.54 3.39 4.35 1.8
http://www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=13543&position=P

Overall, the walks may have been a little high, but if he can get those down slightly and continue to keep the ball down, he should get improved results in 2017.

Here’s a close look at how his arsenal production looked in 2016.

Blake Snell: Sabremetric Outcomes

Pitch Type Count Foul/Swing Whiff/Swing GB/BIP LD/BIP FB/BIP PU/BIP GB/FB HR/(FB+LD)
Pitch Type Count Foul/Swing Whiff/Swing GB/BIP LD/BIP FB/BIP PU/BIP GB/FB HR/(FB+LD)
Fourseam 986 44 20 33 32 29 7 114 2
Change 309 26 29 41 30 20 9 207 3
Slider 210 26 56 38 50 13 0 300 20
Curve 220 40 35 70 15 10 5 700 0
Blake Snell Sabermetric Outcomes http://www.brooksbaseball.net/tabs.php?player=605483&p_hand=-1&ppos=-1&cn=200&gFilt=&time=month&minmax=ci&var=so&s_type=16&startDate=03/30/2007&endDate=01/24/2017&balls=-1&strikes=-1&b_hand=-1

The reason I wanted to focus on this table is that it provides us with the first in-depth look at the outcomes of each pitch he throws. For instance, his curveball was extremely effective at producing a GB, and both his CB and CU were more effective at getting swings and misses than his FB. And while his slider led the way in whiffs, it also led the way in line drives.

All in all, Snell’s performance was what you’d expect from an outstanding young pitcher finding his form as a rookie. He still has a lot to learn about how to harness his electric stuff, but with the guidance of Rays pitching staff, Archer, and incoming GG catcher Wilson Ramos, chances are he’ll take a step forward in 2017.

Do the projections agree?

Steamer Proj: 24 GS | 134 IP | 9.74 K/9 | 4.35 BB/9 | 0.94 HR/9 | 3.60 ERA | 2.0 WAR

His projection resembles the production the Rays got from Odorizzi in 2016. That is backed up by his MLB power ranking for the 2nd half of 2016 placing him just behind Odorizzi (Snell 32nd, Odo 29th), with Archer reaching “ace” status at 10th overall.

While that’s a solid projection, I’d look for him to exceed it slightly, particularly in the GS, IP, and WAR categories. By mid-season Snell should be solidly positioned as the #3 starter in this rotation and provide them with much needed innings after the departures of fellow Southpaws Matt Moore and Drew Smyly.

The Battle of After Four

The battle for the fifth rotation spot should make for a lively spring training. While most fans and analysts have already given that role to Matt Andriese, there are a few “more than decent” arms that may have something to say about that should he falter. After all, he did wear down in the second half of the season, getting hit to the tune of .318/.341/.534 over his last 8 GP. Maybe batters started to figure him out, or maybe his arm wore down after throwing double the innings year-over-year.

Whether healthy and effective or not, competition is always a healthy thing, and the Rays rotation has tons of it.

Here’s a breakdown of who the Rays have at the AA level or above to pick from, with only the stats where they spent the majority of 2016 listed.

Rays Pitching Depth (AA and Above)

Pitcher Age IP / Lvl K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP ERA FIP DRA
Pitcher Age IP / Lvl K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP ERA FIP DRA
RHP Matt Andriese 27 127.2 / MLB 7.7 1.8 1.20 0.304 4.37 3.78 4.25
RHP Jose De Leon 24 86.1 / AAA 11.6 2.1 0.94 0.259 2.61 3.24 1.36
RHP Brent Honeywell 21 59.1 / AA 8.0 2.1 0.61 0.287 2.28 3.17 2.32
RHP Chih-Wei Hu 23 142.2 / AA 6.8 2.3 0.44 0.283 2.59 3.28 3.39
RHP Taylor Guerrieri 24 146 / AA 5.5 2.8 0.68 0.266 3.76 4.23 4.70
LHP Ryan Yarbrough 25 128 / AA 6.9 2.2 0.49 0.276 2.95 3.30 3.09
RHP Jacob Faria 23 83 / AA 10.0 3.9 0.54 0.282 4.21 3.20 2.79
RHP Austin Pruitt 27 162.2 / AAA 8.2 1.5 1.16 0.316 3.76 3.53 2.02
RHP Jaime Schultz 25 130.2 / AAA 11.2 4.7 0.83 0.327 3.58 3.45 4.27
RHP Chase Whitley 27 27.2 / AA 7.2 2.6 0.98 0.268 2.51 3.50 3.73
RHP Yonny Chirinos 23 66.2 / AA 5.8 1.6 0.68 0.307 4.46 3.55 4.20
http://www.baseballprospectus.com/

Let’s place those listed above into three groups: those ready now; those likely to be ready before mid-season; and those likely to be ready at the end of the season:

That doesn’t mean Honeywell won’t earn a promotion before those who may have more experience in AA or AAA. What it does show, however, is how may high quality arms are knocking on the door, making front office decisions on who to promote. and where to have them pitch (rotation or pen) fairly difficult in 2017.

Now let’s break these prospects down in terms of ceiling:

  • #1-2 Starter: Honeywell | De Leon
  • #2-3 Starter: Hu | Faria
  • #3-4 Starter: Andriese | Yarbrough | Whitley | Schultz | Guerrieri
  • #4-5 Starter: Pruitt | Chirinos

There are cases to be made for upgrades or downgrades, but the fact that the Rays could essentially put two entire rotations together and have them MLB ready by year’s end is impressive.

Rotation......or Pen? There’s Pressure on Both

In all likelihood, some of these pitching prospects will wind up helping out in the bullpen, especially with recent history showing the value of a flexible and dominant pen.

As the Blue Jays showed in 2015 when they brought in two rookies - Aaron Sanchez and Roberto Osuna - rookie RP can have an immediate impact on the success of the team, and it doesn’t mean they’ll remain RP. Sometimes, as was the case for Sanchez, it’s a way to get a live arm some MLB experience while helping a weak spot of the team.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone to see up to 3-4 of the arms listed above in the Rays pen at some point in 2017. They’ll have to beat out other prospects, such as Ryne Stanek, but it would be a great way to get them MLB experience while improving the pen.

Therefore, not only does Andriese have to worry about his position as the fifth starter, but the majority of the pen is now forced to perform with the knowledge that there’s a Mariana Trench depth of arms coming up through the system, clawing their way to a shot in The Show.

Closing Thoughts

A rotation with five starters that most would consider #1 to #3 caliber pitchers (Archer - Odorizzi - Snell - De Leon - Honeywell) suggests that the Rays will be competitive for years to come, despite a constrained budget.

(And that’s just the first wave. Behind those listed above are high quality arms such as Hunter Wood, Greg Harris, Austin Franklin, Genesis Cabrera, Spencer Moran, Easton McGee, Peter Bayer, Michael Santos, Sandy Brito, and Hector Lopez among others. It truly does keep going, and going, and going.....)

Many fans are impressed by the White Sox recent haul of talent, but the Rays boast deeper pitching. If they can support that pitching talent with some MLB average or better offensive production, they’ll make the playoffs and surprise many people across MLB.

With pitching as deep as the Mariana Trench, Rays fans have a lot to be excited about in 2017 and beyond.