The Tampa Bay Rays have taken a novel approach to starting pitching this season, essentially giving one turn in the rotation to an intentional “bullpen day” filled with several pitchers in short stints.
The Rays have experienced relative success doing it and are expected to do it against the Twins on Sunday at Target Field, so the question is this: Should this be a model other teams adopt?
First take: Michael Rand
Personally, I love the concept. The Rays did it for multiple reasons, but the two biggest ones I’ve seen cited were an abundance of pitching depth and the desire to keep pitchers from having to face batters a second time through the order.
Both their starters and bullpen have ERAs in MLB’s top 10. Ryne Stanek, their most common de facto “starter” during bullpen day, has excelled in the role. In 11 starts (totaling just 16⅔ innings), he’s allowed only two runs.
It really only works with the right set of pitchers, but it has merit. Consider the Twins, who use a conventional five-man rotation. Their starters have allowed a .682 OPS to batters the first time they face them in a game this year, but that jumps to .741 the second time and to .828 the third time.
Seems smart to avoid that if you can, doesn’t it?
Chris Hine: It is, and by now everybody in baseball is aware of the dreaded “third time through the order” statistics. I love that the Rays are doing this and taking a radical look at something baseball took for granted for a long time — how to deploy pitchers. Teams look for any edge they can and they’ll also copy anything that works. Given Tampa’s success, I bet other teams will try to adopt this in future years.
I also enjoy the mockery it makes of the win statistic. Wins are nice, but they don’t matter when evaluating a pitcher’s acumen. The Rays are trying to kill it once and for all.
Rand: Indeed, though I do want to put a giant asterisk next to (or probably not acknowledge at all) any “records” the Rays pitchers have set for most consecutive scoreless starts.
But you’re right, it is a copycat league. I don’t know why a team couldn’t take it a step further and roll with three true starters and two bullpen games per rotation spot. If rosters ever expanded in MLB, every game could be a bullpen game!
Hine: And won’t that go over well with people who say all these pitching changes make games too long! That would be the downside to every game being micromanaged with matchups and several relievers. On second thought, maybe I don’t want this to happen?
Rand: It’s only mid-inning changes that are the problem. With all these fresh relievers dominating, it will be nothing but clean innings.
I welcome a future where starters get zero wins and the league leader has something like 11.
Final word: Chris Hine
I’m intrigued about what this means for the future of pitching. Does a top-end starter become more or less valuable? How much will you have to pay for a good reliever? Or are we moving to a time when pitchers going beyond two or three innings becomes antiquated?
I just hope the robot umpires can track all the changes on their scorecards.
More Rand: startribune.com/RandBall
More Hine: startribune.com/NorthScore