Every major league bullpen would like to have an effective lefty arm if at all possible. If a team has two, that’s even better. When you’re talking about a fourth lefty, though, that’s when things are getting crazy. The Rays already had thre lefty relievers in their bullpen, Jake McGee, Alex Torres, and Cesar Ramos, yet they just acquired a fourth one in Wesley Wright. Isn’t that overkill? What was the point of acquire Wright when they already had so many other lefties?
The thing about McGee, Torres, and Ramos is that while both are left-handed, neither are lefty specialists. McGee has emerged as a setup reliever for the Rays this season, and as a result, he has actually faced nearly double as many righties as lefties, 122 to 64. In addition, batters have had an almost neutral platoon split against him. .672 for righties and .641 for lefties. Ramos, meanwhile, is on the opposite edge of the spectrum as a long reliever. He has also faced quite a few more righties, 134 to 79, and he has actually been quite a bit better against righties, allowing a .669 OPS compared to the .761 mark by righties. Finally, Torres is a hyrbrid of the two, being a pitcher who could provide length but in higher-leverage situations. He makes three lefty relievers who have faced considerably more righties, 91 to 52, although he has shut both down, holding lefties to a .439 OPS and righties to a .348 mark. The Rays have featured three lefties in their bullpen, but none was that pitcher that you would bring in to face the other team’s big lefty bat on almost a daily basis and be confident that he would succeed. In fact, that has been a problem for the Rays for years.
The mark of a lefty specialist is to have significantly more appearances than innings pitched as they frequently face just one or two lefty batters before departing. The Rays haven’t had a pitcher like that they could trust in years. J.P. Howell was on their roster last year, but he often tossed entire innings even if there was a lefty or two mixed in, accumulating 50.1 innings pitched in 55 appearances. Jake McGee went just 55.1 innings pitched in 69 appearances last year, but once again he faced more righty hitters than lefties, 122 to 90. In 2011, the Rays had Ramos, McGee, and Howell, but none of them were effective, with Ramos managing just a 1.24-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio, McGee’s ERA ending up at 4.50, and Howell’s ERA ballooning to a scary 6.16. In 2010, the Rays had Randy Choate toss just 44.2 innings pitched in 85 appearances, but his ERA was just 4.23, so you can actually go back to Choate in 2009 for the Rays’ last effective lefty specialist. That was a long time ago by baseball standards. Now in Wesley Wright, they hope that they have finally fixed the problem.
Since the start of the 2011 season, Wright has thrown 105.2 innings in 152 appearances, managing an 8.9 K/9, a 3.2 BB/9, and a 0.9 HR/9. He has faced quite a few more lefties than righties, 258 to 193 (although the bullpen-deprived Astros have had him face nearly even amounts this season), and he has been excellent against lefties, holding them to a .218/.229/.318 line overall with 69 strikeouts against just 20 walks. When Wright is at his best, he can be a pitcher who can appear in every other game and get that one critical out that could make all the difference late in a game. Wright doesn’t dominate lefties with his fastball in the 90-91 MPH range, his mid-80′s slider, and his high-70′s curveball, but he does a great job mixing his three pitches to keep them off-balance and force groundballs and a good amount of swings-and-misses as well. The Rays have been waiting for a pitcher like Wright for a while, and they finally have him, not just this year but also potentially for the next two years as he will go through arbitration two more times. Wright gives the Rays that true lefty specialist they have been lacking for years, and Joe Maddon won’t take long to start utilizing his newfound relief weapon. While it may be only a couple outs than he’s getting per game, those few outs could be critical to the Rays’ success as the season wears down.