The Value of the Tampa Bay Rays’ 12th Pitcher


How much is the 12th pitcher on the roster really worth? (Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

In 1984, Baltimore Orioles Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver wrote a book with Terry Pluto called “Weaver on Strategy.” In it, Weaver described the strategy and tactics he used that enabled him to achieve a lifetime .583 winning percentage, 6 division titles, 4 pennants and 1 world championship. On page 79 Weaver states something that no manager in today’s baseball would: “ten pitchers are too many.”

Weaver liked to use a four-man rather than a five-man rotation, which gave him five relievers. In today’s game just about every team uses a five man rotation. Weaver wanted starters who could go deep into a game. He had a great defense behind his pitchers. Knowing their teammates could catch the ball gave his pitchers confidence to throw strikes, which helped keep them in the game. Weaver wrote, “I believe that last regular player will help you win more games than a tenth pitcher. That extra player will be in the close games, while that extra pitcher will be on the mound in the blowouts.”

30 years later, most managers would disagree with Weaver. Clubs routinely carry 11 or 12 pitchers. The Tampa Bay Rays generally had 12 pitchers with the club for most of the season. Yet Weaver’s logic is persuasive. Kyle Farnsworth was arguably the Rays’ 12th pitcher for the first part of 2013. He appeared in 39 games, but only pitched 29 innings. Cesar Ramos, who the Rays like enough to put in the competition for the 5th starter, was probably the 11th or 12th man on the staff. He pitched a total of 67 innings, and was 2-2 with a 4.14 ERA. He rarely pitched in crucial situations. If the Rays carried 11 pitchers, they could have replaced Farnsworth or Ramos with a player who could pinch-run, pinch-hit, or play better defense at the end of a game. As Weaver predicted, it’s almost certain that another position player would have played during a lot more crucial situations than Farnsworth or Ramos.

Ten days before opening day, the competition for the last two position slots on the Rays roster has heated up. The team had some impressive hitters on the bubble in camp, and nearly all of them are gone. Jerry Sands and Jeremy Moore hit 3 home runs each to lead the team, but have been demoted to minor league camp. The last player who fits the profile in camp: Wilson Betemit. Betemit started slowly in his first games in nearly a year, starting 0 for 7, but he is 5 for 15 including a 2-double game on Wednesday. Most importantly, he’s a hitter with a good big league track record, managing a .280/.346/.459 line in 1050 big league plate appearances from 2010 to 2012. Think of it this way: some time this year, the Rays are going to have Jose Molina set to come up against a right-handed pitcher in a key spot late in the game. If Molina was the only backup in an otherwise regular lineup, who are the Rays going to pinch-hit for him with? Ryan Hanigan? Brandon Guyer? One of their utility infielders? Wilson Betemit or a similar player would give the Rays an actual hitter they can send up in that spot and be reasonably confident he will succeed. Wouldn’t that player have more value than a 12th pitcher who might pitch 40 innings in blowouts?

Joe Maddon‘s ability to shuffle his lineup and move men around the field has been one of the keys to the Rays’ success. Keeping 11 pitchers and 14 position players during the season would enhance that advantage. I’m not advocating returning to Weaver’s recommendation of nine pitchers, but based on the available personnel, I think that the Tampa Bay Rays would be a stronger team with 11 pitchers instead of 12.