The story of modern baseball in 2021 — whether you love it (as I do) or hate it (as the loudest voices on the internet often seem to) — is at its core a story about pitcher usage. The Rays don’t have a monopoly on this story, but they play an outsized role in it for two reasons:
- They’ve been willing to get out in front of the traditional herd when the data suggests doing so can help win baseball games.
- While breaking with tradition, they have won a lot of baseball games.
In many of the tellings, there’s too much importance given to iconoclasm. There’s nothing magical about an opener. Ryan Yarbrough is the same pretty good pitcher whether he’s pitching the first seven innings or innings two through six, and the close observer will understand why he’s sometimes asked to do one and other times the other.
The main work of preventing runs is about finding Good Pitchers and helping them become the best possible versions of themselves, and this is also an area where the Rays excel. But it’s the usage patterns on the margins that are changing the game and powering macro trends across the league. If you care about the state of baseball in 2021, you should know and understand the story of the Rays.
One might start that story on May 19 of 2018 when World Series winning closer Sergio Romo punched out the side against Mike Trout and the Angels in the first inning before ceding the game to Ryan Yarbrough. This was when much of the baseball world first noticed that something was up. Yarbrough, Ryne Stanek, Diego Castillo, Hunter Wood, and the Rays’ run to the 2019 playoffs confirmed that the opener was a thing, and that it was here to stay.
A more astute observer might start the story earlier that year on March 3, when Andrew Kittredge began the game and pitched three and a third innings, before Yarbrough came in and pitched four. Kittredge got two more starts that year, giving up runs in all of them. Something was up then too — Kittredge was pitching more innings than should have been expected and on an unusually modified schedule — but by and large, the baseball world did not notice.
It could plausibly start with the partially-unsuccessful transitions from starter to reliever of Erasmo Ramirez in 2016, or Matt Andriese in 2018, or with any of the many “bullpen days” the Rays dropped in during the mid 2010s (perhaps at one of the two games Steve Geltz started in 2015?), not as a thing to do only as a last resort but as a proactive attempt to prevent runs.
A stickler for history might start the story in 2006 when the Times Through the Order Penalty (TTOP), the inescapable fact of the game that shapes modern pitcher usage, was identified in The Book, by Tom Tango, Michael Lichtman, and Andrew Dolphin, or in 2013 when blog posts by Lichtman resurfaced the idea again into the public consciousness and inspired Bryan Grosnick to describe the concept of The Opener and to coin the term.
An incredibly sheltered observer might start the story with one out in the sixth inning of Game Six of the 2020 World Series, but that would be a very silly thing to do.
But let’s start on August 11 and 12 of 2020, when Rays manager Kevin Cash made a very strange decision that he then likely regretted about 24 hours later.
It’s Kittredge again, the Forrest Gump of modern baseball. Before he was the All-Star multi-inning relief ace of the 2021 Rays but after he was the rubber-armed, too-old fringy relief prospect starting games while pitching on a schedule, Kitt was a simply a pretty good right-handed reliever, who was pitching when he shouldn’t have been.
After bouncing up and down between the majors and the minors, on and off the 40-man roster, Kittredge came back up again in 2019, and he was throwing mid-90s rather than low-90s. That mattered; once average at best, he was now pretty good.
But he shouldn’t have been closing out a two run lead against the heart of the Red Sox order on August 11, 2020, not when Nick Anderson was rested and available. I knew that, you knew that, Kevin Cash knew that. Heck, Kitt probably wondered what he was doing out there.
That’s the game when I realized there was more going on than sequencing gimmicks, more than the TTOP, and more than the simple complaint of sabermetric orthodoxy that “managers should do a better job matching up their best pitchers with the highest leverage game situations.”
So that’s when we’ll start. Then, and also before then.
Over the course of this series I’ve pulled together data to try to answer questions that were not easily answered by the publicly available datasets in their most accessible form. Much thanks to Adam Sanford who both helped put these together and also basically taught me how to use Baseball Reference.
I’m including my massaged data sets below, both so that y’all can check my work, and more importantly because I would love to see more and better research on pitching usage.
If any of this saves you time, I’d love to know and read what you do with it.
- For identifying bursts of reliever usage. This uses data from Baseball Savant. Unfortunately, this data set contains no info on length of appearance. If I refigure and improve that I’ll add it here. Note that to work properly, the “All” sheet must remain sorted first by player_name then by game_date.
- Just for the Rays, a list of every pitcher appearance of at least seven outs but no more than twelve outs by year since 2015. Data is from Baseball Reference. I went down the road of trying to craft a narrative out of the average leverage (aLI) but decided that was too noisy for what I was trying to say. Doesn’t mean there isn’t a thing to say about it.
- For all of baseball, a list of every pitcher appearance of at least seven outs but no more than twelve outs for 2020 and 2021. This one is probably more useful than the previous one. Data is from Baseball Reference. Eventually I’ll extend it back further to previous years.