From the moment the Rays signed him, it seemed pretty clear that Jamey Wright was going to make the Rays’ Opening Day roster. The 38 year old 17-year MLB veteran was coming off a strong season for the Los Angeles Dodgers, managing a 3.72 ERA, a 7.2 K/9, a 4.0 BB/9, a 0.3 HR/9, and a 67.3% groundball rate in 67.2 innings pitched and he seemed to be a perfect fit to replace Burke Badenhop, the groundball specialist who the Rays traded to the Milwaukee Brewers earlier in the offseason. Add in the Rays’ reputation for signing unheralded veteran relievers and turning them into huge pieces of their bullpen, and it seemed almost obvious that Wright was next in line. But then the games began, and Wright’s abilities were quickly put into question. Wright has been entirely unimpressive for the Rays all spring, managing just a 6.30 ERA in 9 appearances, allowing 7 runs on 9 hits in 10 innings and putting up a strikeout-to-walk ratio of just 3-3. He has allowed 3 home runs after allowing just 2 all of 2012 with the Dodgers. And with spring training winding down, the Rays have a decision to make: either add Wright to their 40-man roster or outright him to Triple-A with the possibility of him declining the assignment and signing with another organization. Has Wright done enough to merit a spot in the Rays’ bullpen to begin the season?
Jamey Wright has always been adept at forcing groundballs, even going back to his days as a starting pitcher from 1996 to 2007 as he has managed a 53.2% career groundball. Since becoming a reliever in 2008, though, Wright has taken that to an entirely new level, upping his groundball rate all the way to 61.5%, the highest mark of any MLB pitcher who has thrown a minimum of 350 innings since that point. After such a long history of forcing groundballs, could we really say that Wright has suddenly lost his touch? Joe Maddon thinks that Wright’s problems are something he’s only a matter of time away from resolving.
“The ball’s been up a little bit, that’s been it. Otherwise, the gun numbers are good, breaking ball’s good. He feels well. I think here’s a guy who wants to get to the regular season when it matters, and you’re going to see the ball where it’s supposed to be… I think he’s off a little bit with command, but not because there is anything wrong with him. I think it’s just that time of the year yet.”
Wright also pointed to Badenhop as another example of groundball pitchers starting out slow in spring training and was confident that all Wright needs to resolve himself is time. But even as Badenhop allowed 2 home runs last spring for the Rays, his strikeout-to-walk ratio was an incredible 14-2 in 12.2 innings pitched. There’s no obvious way to spin Wright’s numbers this spring into a positive light. But does that even matter? Are we really going to get worried about Jamey Wright because of his spring training numbers in a minuscule sample?
We saw Maddon allude to it and Wright talked about it as well- how good his curveball and cutter have been this spring. Wright described them to Roger Mooney as “as good as they’ve even been.” If Wright’s secondary pitches have really been that good, why has his results been so bad? The answer is clearly that he’s been working on his sinker even though he hasn’t been getting the best results and that’s exactly what skews spring training numbers. Once the regular season begins, if Wright doesn’t have a great sinker he’ll rely more on his other pitches and do whatever he can to get hitters out. In spring training, there’s no adjustments being made, with pitchers simply following a gameplan attempting to be oblivious to how they’re doing on the mound. And with Wright throwing his sinker so much this spring, of course his strikeout to walk ratio looks terrible because he’s not using his put-away pitches nearly as much. Wright is having issues locating his sinker down in the zone right now and the result has been way too many flyballs and a trio of home runs. But even as he struggles, we need to bear in mind that he would be doing exponentially better if he was approaching games like he would in the regular season. And while Wright has been having issues, it might be a situation where everything will just suddenly click into place- and after Wright forced 3 groundouts in the 9th inning of Sunday’s game, that may be something already in progress.
Jamey Wright has struggled through a terrible spring training for the Rays. No one is disputing that point. However, is it really worth it for the Rays to risk losing him when his secondary pitches have been fine, his fastball has been just off, and the last five years have proven that he can be a rock-solid middle reliever in the major leagues? Absolutely not. Brandon Gomes seems more deserving for a spot right now and it seems crazy to leave him on the 25-man roster in favor of a pitcher who has been terrible all spring. But nevertheless, the Rays are relying on a whole lot more than a few mostly-meaningless innings to determine who should be in their bullpen this season and his recent history makes it clear that Wright deserves a chance. If Gomes keeps pitching well, he’ll undoubtedly get his call-up before long. Right now, though, Jamey Wright has done nothing to warrant the Rays cutting ties with him, and by the time the season comes around, his sinker should be working fine and his spring frustration will likely be quickly forgotten as he becomes a valuable member of the Rays’ bullpen.