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Andrew Kittredge and the long road to relevance

A homecoming brings a new era for the Rays journeyman reliever.

Tampa Bay Rays s v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

There was a time when Andrew Kittredge looked like a new kind of pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays.

Before Sergio Romo became “The Opener” there was the precursor in Kittredge, who at the time we simply called one of the Rays starters, not knowing the fad to come. He was, in fact, the OG without any of the fame.

And if it wasn’t clear then, it still wasn’t clear as the year waned on or the Rays returned in spring training this year, what the plan was for Andrew Kittredge.

A solid arsenal of three pitches and an ability to pitch multiple innings multiple times within a series had serious value, but there were times even in the Spring where the Rays were still putting aspects of his game to the test instead of perfecting what should have been a high leverage arm for the Rays.

Yes, even then.

During the off-season, we learned through Neil Solondz’s reporting that Andrew Kittredge picked up the Driveline program over the off-season, and now that his game has been perfected in Durham, the Rays seem better positioned to deploy him where he could have been used in April had that been the plan all along.

Well, maybe not now.

The Rays will have Jose Alvarado, Emilio Pagan, and Nick Anderson as the top three arms in the bullpen through the rest of the season, which likely reverts Kittredge back to one of his best skills: absorbing innings.

Last year, Ian wondered what the best path forward would be for the Rays and Kittredge, laying out player comps his career path could follow, but through the player’s own reinvention and re-emergence, combined with the Rays own actions at the trade deadline this season, the answer may simply be: new-and-improved Ryne Stanek.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Oakland Athletics
Gonna be honest, Kittredge looks weird without the beard
Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Through the improvements of the Driveline program, Andrew Kittredge has become what the Rays hoped to get from Ryne Stanek and more.

Stanek is a player with a career of major league success, but also a career of hip problems. He can pitch comfortably in the upper 90’s and start games, and over the course of five days can dependably deliver a two-inning outing every five days, and a one-inning outing in between “opens.”

Kittredge offers a bit more in terms of innings absorbed, as the burly righthander is able to go three and then two innings over the same five day cadence while comfortably “opening” as well. What Kittredge lacks in major league success, though, is made up for a better injury history and newfound velocity throughout his appearances.

Last season Kittredge averaged 93-mph on his four-seam fastball, and that worked thanks to a 10 mph difference with his change (after some mid-year improvement).

This season Kittredge is averaging 96-mph, with the same 10-mph drop to the off speed stuff, and it’s made a huge difference.

In 2018, Kittredge allowed 33 runs in 33 appearances; in 2019, he’s allowed only 10 runs in 18 appearances.

In looking to understand his recent success, I asked Kittredge if this was the hardest he’s thrown, and in a sense he confirmed it to be true:

“As far as consistency with the velocity, it’s probably been the hardest. I’ve thrown this hard in 2016-2017, but as far as consistency this is the longest I’ve gone.”

It’s no secret when a pitcher adds the Driveline program to his preparation. Where many pitchers might be carrying a mud-rubbed ball snagged from the communal boxes on the table around the clubhouse in their glove, Kittredge is carrying a conspicuous green, weighted ball the size of a grapefruit in his pulled from his locker, and as we talked he gave it a couple tosses from hand to glove.

Was Driveline the secret sauce behind Kittredge’s rise from stop gap to dependable reliever?

“I think that’s probably played a little bit of a factor, maybe not necessarily so much in arm strength but just kinda cleaning up some mechanical stuff, allowing me to throw what my arm is capable of throwing.”

It also helps that Kittredge now has a four-pitch mix. In addition to his change and a slider the Rays worked extensively on in Spring Training, he now throws standard four- and two-seam fastballs:

Andrew Kittredge fastball grips: Four-seam and Sinker

Kittredge’s two-seam is a sinker, and it’s not necessarily special. It matches the four-seam in velocity, and everything about his grip is standard, but adding that two-seam motion the opposite direction of his slider that has expanded his game.

The stuff can now go any direction:

Four-seam up...

slider left...

change up down...

...and now two-seam right.

All four of those strikeouts came on Kittredge’s most recent outing on August 6th, when he pitched the first two frames of the game, getting all six outs on strikeouts. To be fair, Kittredge also allowed three runs in that appearance, opening for Ryan Yarbrough, but the strikeouts still stand.

The new-and-improved Kittredge can get outs, and it’s for that reason that the opening trend could be coming to an end for the 29-year-old native of Spokane, Washington and University of Washington graduate.

Ahead of the team’s next series in Seattle — his hometown — the Rays have announced the starters as Jalen Beeks, Charlie Morton, and Ryan Yarbrough; notably, not Kittredge, when two of those three pitchers typically come out of the bullpen behind an opener like Kitt.

Instead, the Rays will see what they can get out of their “bulk guys” first before resorting to longer relief options like Kittredge.

Injuries have depleted the starting rotation worse than anything the Rays faced in 2018. Not knowing which pitcher may need multiple innings in relief may be why Kittredge will come out of the bullpen instead of starting the game on the mound; just the man the Rays need in a time of need.

It may not be in high leverage, and it may not be a newly invented role, but for Kittredge his emergence is right on time.