They play in the worst ballpark in Major League Baseball. Their attendance numbers are always at the bottom of the league. They’re not going to make the playoffs. Chances are baseball fans outside of Tampa Bay aren’t familiar with more than a handful of players on the Rays roster. Yet, after taking two of three from the Cleveland Indians, who are about to win their third consecutive AL Central division title, the Tampa Bay Rays are going to flirt with 90 wins.
How is this possible? A team with a roster chockfull of has-beens and unproven young players is 15 games over .500 in mid-September. In the last 12 months, the Rays have traded away franchise icons like Evan Longoria and Chris Archer as well as All-Star catcher Wilson Ramos. There have been plenty of other transactions as well and on the surface not many of them indicate a team looking to compete in 2018.
The most obvious trend the Rays have started has been the use of “The Opener” across baseball. Before the season, pitching prospects Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon had Tommy John surgery for Tampa. In June, another pitching prospect, Anthony Banda, went under the knife for the same surgery. Banda pitched less than 15 innings in the big leagues this year and Honeywell and De Leon were expected to contribute at the big league level this season. Rather than just hand the ball to the next man up simply because that pitcher was a conventional starter, the Rays and manager Kevin Cash took a different approach. Cash started using relievers to start games, a statistically-sound strategy albeit new. The first inning is the inning in which the most runs are scored in Major League Baseball. On certain days, Cash has used a reliever for the first inning and then allowed the “starter” to pitch through the order twice and usually throw up to five innings.
| Kim Klement/USA Today Sports|
Kevin Cash and the Tampa Bay Rays have
exceeded expectations more than any team
in Major League Baseball.
It was certainly different, and if there’s one thing old-school baseball fans hate, it’s anything different. Thankfully, baseball has moved on from the pitcher win as a relevant statistic and the growth of “The Opener” is only further proof of that. Not only does it make sense to use a pitcher who goes full-throttle for one inning to start the game in the league’s highest-scoring inning, but this also avoids the next pitcher from seeing the opposing team’s best hitters three times. If it’s not the first inning, then another statistically-backed theory indicates the third time through the order is when offenses tend to have lots of success against starting pitchers. In other words, get the starter early, or hope he tires out late. “The Opener” eliminates both of these issues that generally arrive for traditional starting pitchers.
In some games this year, the Rays have opted for a full bullpen approach where no one pitcher throws more than two or three innings. They were thin on starting pitching. So they practically eliminated it. Traditionalists would sooner call up minor leaguers with no real future in the big leagues just to be a starter than try something like Cash and the Rays have done. Once that leads to a loss, it can simply to chalked up as “not our year” and nobody within the organization really gets blamed for such a loss because they played it by the book. Cash has decided to do anything in his power to win the game in front of him and his bullpen decisions have certainly helped do that.
One time, Cash even kept left-handed reliever Jose Alvarado in the game in the ninth inning to play first base because he wanted to bring him back in later in the ninth inning. The Rays won this game. This kind of situational bullpen usage in the ninth was another example of combating conventional wisdom. While leaving a reliever in the game as a position player was new, practically every manager in baseball now has realized the absurdity of refusing to use your best reliever until the ninth inning or in some cases, extra innings if you are the visiting team.
This feels like a good time to remind everyone Baltimore manager Buck Showalter left Zach Britton in the bullpen in the 2016 AL Wild Card game in Toronto. He was waiting for his team to take the lead in the top of one of the extra innings. That lead never came and the best reliever in baseball in 2016 never pitched in a one-game playoff. Nice way to head into the offseason.
Since implementing “The Opener” in the middle of May, Tampa Bay has the second-lowest ERA in baseball. Other teams have also started using it. Yet, this idea is still met with discontent by lots of baseball fans. The Rays are not necessarily out to kill the starting pitcher entirely. Their left-handed ace Blake Snell is probably the AL Cy Young award winner and they’re not using an opener on days he starts. They just found a better way of filling innings and winning games than rounding out a rotation with lackluster starters.
There’s also a few feel-good stories about this Rays season. Left-handed reliever Jonny Venters had three Tommy John surgeries only to return to the majors six years after last pitching in 2012. Like most Rays who had the slightest ounce of trade value, Venters was dealt before the non-waiver trade deadline in July. It would appear outfielder Mallex Smith has however found a steady home in Tampa Bay after being traded while in the minor leagues and twice in one day back in January 2017. Smith is slashing .303/.373/.421 this year with 31 stolen bases and a 121 OPS+.
With pace of play being such a hot topic amongst the owners and commissioner Rob Manfred in recent years, the Rays bullpen strategy and a few teams following suit is certainly going to spark more pace of play discussions. But, can anyone fault the Rays? They just keep winning and the players have bought in. It’s not going to be enough because the American League has three teams that are going to win 100 games and two of the three are in the Rays’ division. For what it’s worth, Tampa’s 80-65 mark would put it atop the NL West and second in the NL East. Kevin Cash is the American League Manager of the Year. If by some chance he doesn’t win, then it’s Bob Melvin with Oakland, who has wisely taken bunting to new lows.
But Oakland was aggressive at the deadline and it looks to be paying off as the only question surrounding the A’s is if they can win the AL West or if they’ll have to settle for a wild card. Tampa Bay was realistic about its chances and knew it could not compete with Boston or New York in the AL East. But that hasn’t stopped Cash from trying to win every game he manages and he’s done alright.