The goal of a baseball team, generally, is to be great, and most teams are happy with being good, but if you can’t be great or good then the next best accomplishment is to be average and interesting. That’s the 2018 Rays.
With many of their top starting pitchers (Brent Honeywell, Jake Faria, Nathan Eovaldi, Jose de Leon, Anthony Banda, and others) losing time this season to injury, the Rays have fascinated (and sometimes enraged) the baseball world by trying out new strategies to put their available, second-tier pitchers in a position to succeed.
The result has been an above .500 record, and a lot of words on the internet—the most recent of them by FanGraphs prospect writer Kiley McDaniel, who broke down the opener-headliner strategy, with an eye to finding other starting pitcher prospects in the minor leagues who could benefit from not being forced to turn over a lineup three times.
McDaniel broke the Rays headliners (pitchers who take over after a one or two inning opener, are expected to provide length, but are not to regularly asked to work through the order a third time) into archetypes.
His archetypes are good, and make sense, but in one of the three examples (and the Rays hope in two), don’t match the reality of how the specific pithcers he references are being used. And that’s really interesting. As far as prospect development goes, that discrepancy is actually the story here.
The Tyler Glasnow Archetype
Huge stuff, some issues when left in a game too long. Possible durability and/or track-record concerns.
That makes sense as a type, and aside from the fact that he’s pitched the first inning of all of his appearances, it accurately describes where Glasnow is right now. The Rays are trying to work Glasnow’s innings back up into true starter range (the Pirates had moved him to relief), but he’s not quite there yet.
As of now, he’s shown himself able to turn a lineup over using his fastball, his curve, and his slider, but has yet to bring back his third pitch, a vulcan changeup. If he can get where the Rays want him to go, it will make an interesting point somewhat counter to McDaniel’s exercise of searching the top-100 prospect list for others who might fill this role. Namely, teams want these top prospects to improve, and to reach their full potential.
A headliner can provide value for a team, but every team, even the Rays, would rather their top pitching prospects become more than that. We’ll find out about Glasnow in 2019.
The Jalen Beeks Archetype
Solid-average stuff with above-average command and some funk/deception which, during the third time through the order, becomes less effective against MLB hitters.
This group is exactly right, and I don’t really have anything to add to McDaniels’s take on them. The headliner role makes a lot of sense for these pitchers, especially for a lefty (a right-handed opener can help set the opposing lineup in their favor). At the same time, without elite stuff, like the Glasnow group, they’re less likely to work their way up into the 1-3 starter level, so this usage seems like a good way to maximize their abilities.
Jalen Beeks is a perfect example. Ryan Yarbrough, who is Jalen Beeks minus a little bit of the stuff and the prospect hype, is also a great example. I think it’s important to remember that not all of these pitchers will be top-100 prospects.
The Ryne Stanek Archetype
Standout fastball, starter-quality command, not enough offspeed to get through an MLB lineup three times.
This is the part that’s interesting, and the reason I’m writing the article. The Ryne Stanek archetype is a great bet for finding a pitcher who will thrive in a headliner role. But Ryne Stanek, the pitcher, is not doing that.
He’s an opener, which you may as well just think of as “a good reliever.”
Traditionally, good relievers pitch in innings seven to nine of close games. What the Rays have done is also use them in the first inning (which, generally makes it a close game). If you believe that baseball is baseball, and that pitching an inning early is mostly the same as pitching an inning late (and Stanek prepares for them the same way), then there’s nothing to see here.
But what would the Rays do with Stanek if they had drafted him in 2017, rather than 2013?
The most common career path for major league pitchers is that they begin their professional careers as a starters, are given a chance to try to start for as long as they can, and then at some point, a team decides they’re not good enough to make it as a starter (one of the hardest jobs in sports) and moves them to the bullpen.
Some of those converts, like Stanek, thrive in their new job.
Alternatively, starters who don’t quite make it as starters become long relievers (or back in the day “swingmen”), moving between roles and soaking up low leverage innings because someone has to do it.
What the Rays have done, by aggressively limiting starter exposure, is to create another type of career endpoint. Now there’s something between a high-leverage reliever and a long reliever, and a team that embraces this idea can take those near-starters and try to win with them.
Fellow staff writer JT Morgan and I spent some time trying to think of major league pitchers that fit the McDaniel’s Ryne Stanek archetype, and we really struggled. Which is actually the point. Historically, most of these pitchers either improve and become starters, or are made into relievers like Stanek, so we stop thinking about them in their prospect terms.
My best example of the type is Kevin Gausman. This is what Baseball America said about Gausman after the 2013 season:
A sixth-round pick out of a Colorado high school in 2010, Gausman went to Louisiana State before the Orioles took him with the fourth overall pick in 2012 and he signed for $4.32 million. Eight starts into his 2013 season at Double-A Bowie, the Orioles summoned him to make his big league debut in May against the Blue Jays. He shifted to the bullpen in subsequent recalls to the majors. Gausman has pitched with more velocity than he’d shown at LSU, sitting in the mid-90s with his fastball and touching 99 mph. He throws a lot of strikes with his fastball and now does with his changeup as well. He added a get-me-over circle change, thrown harder than his original plus split-changeup, around midseason. The Orioles decided Gausman’s slider would become his primary breaking pitch, and it shows good depth and bite but lacks consistency. Gausman wants to add bulk to his slender frame, and maintaining his control and improved slider will be crucial for him to fulfill his No. 2 starter potential. He could open the season in the Baltimore rotation.
Now with nearly 800 career innings, with many coming in a hitters park like Camden Yards, Gausman has done fine. His 4.19/4.14/3.94 ERA/FIP/xFIP is nothing to make fun of, and he’s had a very solid season as recently as 216, but I think he’s a clear, fastball-heavy pitcher who could benefit from some exposure protection in a slightly more limited role. And if Gausman were just a little bit less good, what would have been done with him?
On the actual 2018 Rays, there is a player who fits the profile of “good fastball, lesser secondary stuff, starter command (or close to it),” who didn’t have top-100 prospect hype attached, but who appears to be making good in the way Kiley McDaniel describes: that’s Yonny Chirinos.
Without improvement in either his command or his slider, it’s difficult for me to see Chirinos regularly turning over a lineup three times, but in his limited healthy time in the majors this year, he’s been very solid, with a 3.50 ERA and a matching FIP (although the 4.10 ERA gives some cause to worry). Whether or not the Rays let him pitch the first inning, they’re likely to continue to limit his innings overall, and that’s probably good for the youngster’s career.
With any luck, he may even become an archetype himself.