Through the first 29 pitches of the 5/14 game against the Seattle Mariners, Jake Odorizzi threw 15 strikes and 14 balls and that has been the story of his season so far. He gets more than his fair share of strikeouts but through his first seven starts, Odorizzi has gone six innings just once. Why? Mainly because he doesn’t get quick outs. He doesn’t attack the strike zone as much as he sometimes should and thus, his pitch counts balloon early. In those first seven starts, Odorizzi logged 32.2 innings. That means, on the average, he wasn’t even going five innings. The Tampa Bay Rays bullpen had to take up the slack. The problem is, Odorizzi was not the only Rays starter doing this. Chris Archer, Matt Moore, Erik Bedard, Cesar Ramos, and Odorizzi have failed to go six innings in 20 of their 28 starts. This has put a major hurt on their bullpen and frankly the Rays’ record reflects it.
The Rays’ organization preaches pitching to contact. Why not? The big league team consistently has one of the best defenses in baseball. At times this year the starters have seemed reluctant to trust in their defense, seemingly in search of the perfect strike rather than a quick out.
Then, I read an August 2013 community research piece on Fangraphs. It was titled The Folly of Pitching to Contact. The article argued that the idea of pitching to contact and throwing ground balls is somehow detrimental to a young pitcher’s development. To quote – “It seems every time a young pitching phenom arrives and starts striking out hitters, people start talking how he needs to pitch to contact.” The author had a study to back up his assertions. I could only hope whoever authored the piece was watching as Tampa Bay starters were running up their pitch counts, dancing around the strike zone. If they were, a serious rethink of their article is needed.
First, it should be stated that I will not argue that strikeouts don’t have their place in baseball. They do. Gone are the days, though, that pitchers were going to finish what they started. Instead of Sandy Koufax, we have Stephen Strasburg. Baseball history is as old as May 13th’s 15 strikeout performance by Strasburg and that becomes the standard bearer. Never mind the fact that Koufax could do what Strasburg could, only better.
The author continues to expand on the theory saying, “Teams and pitching coaches that are advocating pitching to contact as a means to pitch longer in games are essentially sacrificing a lot of quality for a tiny amount of quantity.” Baseball is littered with the right elbows of those “quality pitchers”. Francisco Liriano had three-quarters of a good season as a dynamic strikeout pitcher and was of no use to the Minnesota Twins the rest of his career. What the Chicago Cubs wished had happened with right-hander, Kerry Wood and what he actually did are two vastly different things. As well, the question has to be asked, will Stephen Strasburg ever be a great pitcher or is he a lot of Scott Boras hype?
And then we come to the Rays. Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Erik Bedard and, before he ultimately succumbed to Tommy John surgery, Matt Moore, have not been good at attacking the strike zone. Odorizzi’s last start against the Seattle Mariners was a mixed bag. Yes, he looked very good, but he found himself in several 3-2 counts. Will the result be the same when he doesn’t have his best stuff? Like Jake Odorizzi, Chris Archer, at times, has seemed reluctant to attack the strike zone. To date, Odorizzi has thrown 4.31 pitches per plate appearance and 19.2 per inning. Combine that with enigmatic Matt Moore, who threw 4.18 pitches per plate appearance and 18.4 per inning before he went down, and you see why there have been a lot of early calls to the bullpen.
Pitching to contact does not stunt or diminish a pitcher’s growth. A pitcher is never dazzling 100% of the time and most strikeout pitchers live on the ledge already. When strikeouts aren’t coming fast and easy, they are lost and start to pitch scared. It becomes a slippery slope that is detrimental to their team. As well, in the case of the Tampa Bay Rays, you have a team that continually has one of the best defenses in baseball. Last year alone, they had Gold Glove finalists all around the infield, except for catcher. Call me lazy, but why wouldn’t you want to utilize that and pitch deeper into games?