No days off.
Those three words are usually seen as athletes are describing their offseason workout routines in order to prepare for the season ahead.
The absence of travel days resulted in no rest days off between games for the Wild Card Series, Divisional Series, and League Championship Series rounds of play. This challenge is especially impactful on planning how to utilize and manage their pitching staffs. After playing five games in five days against the New York Yankees to win the Divisional Series, the Rays had just one day off before Sunday night’s Game 1 against the Houston Astros.
Success will require having plenty of horsepower available for any situation in any game.
The Stable is stable
Ever since Kevin Cash declared “I’ve got a whole damn stable full of guys who throw 98 miles per hour,” the bullpen has become affectionately known as the stable. While the equine analogy makes for fun conversations and apparel, I’m wondering if we’ve been looking at this whole stable thing in the wrong way.
Not to go full English nerd but perhaps we need to think of the adjective form of stable instead of the noun form of the word. The dictionary defines stable as a description of an object or structure that is not likely to give way or overturn; firmly fixed.
Is there a better description of the 2020 Tampa Bay Rays bullpen so far?
This group of pitchers has overcome numerous injuries that would test the depth of any team and provide a reasonable excuse for underperformance. Instead, the Rays continued to be an unusual team in the most unusual of seasons.
During the regular season the Rays had 12 different pitchers record a save, tying the MLB record for a single season despite playing in far fewer games. Their stability showed with them only allowing 17 of 97 inherited runners to score resulting in a major league leading 18% inherited score percentage.
The thrilling 2-1 victory over the Yankees relied heavily on the A-bullpen being available and being dominant like we saw from Nick Anderson, Pete Fairbanks, and Diego Castillo.
Anderson had a very impressive 44.8% strikeout rate during the regular season as he performed his duties primarily in the ninth inning — even though all Rays fans know his number could be called in at any moment, even the third. His 95 mph fastball is impressive and when paired with his 84 mph breaking ball he can be extremely hard to hit, if not almost impossible. His curve in 2020 had a 53.5 Whiff% and a .091 xBA. His talents were on full display to help closeout the Yankees and he will continue to be a versatile asset for Cash in the postseason.
Fairbanks brings an average fastball velocity of 97 mph which combined with his 87 mph slider helped him achieve a 33.3% strikeout rate on the year. In his last appearance against the Yankees he threw 28 pitches as he faced the top of their order in the sixth inning. Then he came out of the dug out in the seventh for a 12-pitch inning that included three straight fastballs to strike out Brett Gardner. If he can channel that Game 5 seventh inning strength he will be very intimidating for Astros hitters.
Castillo and Anderson were tied for the team lead with 12 save opportunities during the regular season, though, Castillo has continued his mid to late-inning appearances so far this postseason. His 86 mph slider sets hitters up for his sinker and fastball that both clock at 96 mph this season.
Alvarado rides again
If the stable was not dangerous enough, the Rays added Jose Alvarado back to the 28-man roster for the ALCS proving you can never have enough horses in the stable. He has not taken the mound in a game since injuring his shoulder in mid-August.
In his nine appearances this year his velocity was slightly down compared to last season, though, a 97 mph sinker and 91 mph curve will still offer plenty of chances for swings and misses.
Preparing for Game 2 and beyond, Castillo was the only member of the A-bullpen that was needed in the 2-1 win over the Astros in Game 1, his fourth appearance in six days.
Thankfully for the Rays all he needed was one pitch to get the inning-ending double play extending the Rays streak to not allowing any of the 15 inherited runners this postseason to score. Led by the stable, the Rays bullpen is not likely to give way or overturn once they take over for the starter or opener.
If the situation presents itself, it would make sense to get Alvarado on the mound in Game 2 in order to shake some of the rust off from two months with no action, particularly if the Astros put two lefties near each other in the lineup again.
No matter the usage, the Rays bullpen should prove to be the horsepower needed to return to the World Series for the first time since 2008.