Whether it is now or after his next start, Drew Smyly is about to be shut down by the Tampa Bay Rays. It certainly makes sense. Smyly is at 153 innings for this season, more than double his 76 in relief last year and also well above his career-high of 126 innings from back in 2011. What is strange, though, is that unlike other teams, the Rays rarely end their starters’ seasons prematurely.
Since they removed the “Devil” from their name in 2008, the Rays have not shut down a single major league starting pitcher who started at least three games for them in a season. That seems difficult to believe, but that is what the record shows. Go through the Rays’ pitching game logs, and you will not find a single instance of a starting pitcher suddenly seeing his season end in early or middle September except in the case of injury. What makes things confusing is that Alex Cobb was supposed to be shut down. Joe Maddon said on September 7, 2012 that Cobb was supposed to make two or three more starts before being replaced by Chris Archer in the Rays’ rotation. However, that is not what happened as Cobb made four more starts, actually starting twice after Archer’s last start of the season. It was a bizarre sequence of events–I was thoroughly perplexed when Cobb made that fourth start–but apparently the Rays changed their minds.
Aside from the Cobb craziness, the closest thing we can find to a pitcher being shut down since 2008 was when Matt Garza had a start skipped in September of 2008 without an injury being involved. In that case, though, Garza had just made a start on three days’ rest, and the Rays were passing over him once in the rotation to compensate for that.
With all of this in mind, the last time that a Rays pitcher was shut down was James Shields in 2007. Through 31 starts that year, he had already thrown 215 innings, 29 above his 186 from 2006, and the Rays did not want to risk injury, especially in a non-contending year. The same logic holds true for Smyly’s innings increase and the Rays’ irrelevance in the standings (although obviously 2014 has gone better than 2007), and the irony is that Smyly also wears 33 on the back of his uniform. J.P. Howell replaced Shields for two starts to end the season, his final starts with the team before he broke out in relief in 2008.
In the previous season, 2006, Shields also may have ended his season early, starting the Rays’ 153rd game but none thereafter. In that case, he was jumping from 115.1 in 2005 all the way to 186–although he had thrown as many as 143.2 innings in 2003. At least by current logic, it would have made sense to shut down Shields a start or two sooner, but it certainly made sense that the Rays did halt his season at some point.
That is all the relevant information in regards to the Rays shutting down pitchers because the current ownership group’s first season was in 2006. Nevertheless, I did look back earlier in Rays history to see what else I could find. In 2002, the late Joe Kennedy made his final start in the Rays’ 154th game to cap a season where he tossed 196.2 innings pitched. He had tossed 190.2 innings the year before, but it would have made sense for the Rays to try to protect their 23 year old lefty nonetheless. In 1999, meanwhile, Ryan Rupe finished off his solid rookie year by making his last appearance in Game 147 for the D-Rays. He had jumped from 69.2 innings in his first pro season in 1998 all the way to 168.2, so our modern perspective would say that he desperately needed to be shut down. Kennedy and Rupe are the only other pitchers that can join Shields as pitchers that the Rays have previously shut down, with other candidates like Rolando Arrojo and Tony Saunders in 1998 only ceasing to pitch in mid-September because of injuries.
Drew Smyly is following a path that has barely been walked on by Rays pitchers before him, and it is worthwhile to ask why. The Rays do obviously shut down prospects, but is there something special that has helped the Rays avoid ending their young pitchers’ seasons early? The first thought that comes to mind is that the Rays’ starting depth, especially since 2008, has allowed them to ease their pitching prospects into the major leagues and have them be ready for a full workload once they arrive. Unfortunately for Drew Smyly, the fact that he started with the Detroit Tigers and not the Rays will cause him to make his final start of this season a little sooner than he would have hoped.