We know what transpired in the Tampa Bay Rays’ “road” series against the Baltimore Orioles at Tropicana Field. On Friday, manager Kevin Cash removed Alex Colome after five innings and just 60 pitches and the Rays bullpen was dominant for the last four innings. On Sunday, Cash tried the same strategy after Nate Karns‘ five excellent frames, but his bullpen collapsed entirely to lead to the loss. People want to second-guess Cash for his decision on Sunday, and they are right to do so–though they should be doing the same thing about Friday.
Jason Collette of The Process Report made a fascinating insight: Cash isn’t pulling his starters based on pitch count, but when they arrive at the third time through the batting order. The idea is that hitters will continuously do better as they see pitchers more, and generally that’s true. From that perspective, it makes sense to bring in a reliever who they haven’t seen in the game and who probably has a better arsenal for his one inning of work. Instead of giving hitters the same thing the third time through the order, you’re giving them a completely different look.
The issue with thinking like that, though, is the fundamental difference between a starting pitcher and a reliever: the starter showed enough stuff, command, and variety in his pitches to get a chance to face hitters multiple times. This is what they are supposed to be doing, and if they are incapable of that, you don’t want them starting for your team. If a pitcher runs out of steam after five innings, then you have to take him out. That’s not the issue. However, pitchers need to receive chances to pitch as long as they are effective.
You can make a comparison between removing your starter for a reliever and removing him for a pinch-hitter in the National League. In the NL, there are cases where the team has the number eight hitter in their order at the plate with two outs in the sixth inning of a close game. If the number eight hitter reaches, they will pinch-hit for their starter hoping to narrow their deficit. If the batter makes out, though, their plan is to put the starter out there to begin the seventh if he has been effective and can throw more pitches. Why take him out unless you have to?
The danger of sending Nate Karns or Alex Colome back out for the sixth inning is that either allows a home run before Cash has the chance to take him out. However, that is a risk worth taking given all of the other possible outcomes. If the starter allows a couple of baserunners, then remove him. Until that point, though, you see how long your starter can take you. He is not going to pitch for another five or six days, but your relievers could easily be needed tomorrow and the next day. If you use the bullpen arms by choice rather than need, they will be burned out before long.
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Then we have the matter of the need for these young pitchers to develop. It is incredibly difficult to beat big league hitters three times, but if a young pitcher never gets the chance, how will he know what to do? If Karns can dominate with just his fastball and curveball the first two times through the order, then he doesn’t need to throw his changeup and using it would make him do worse. It’s that third plate appearance by opposing hitters where it could actually give him an advantage and where he would have a chance to gain confidence in it.
There will be times when it comes back to bite him, but Kevin Cash needs to learn that for the sake of his relievers in the short-term and his starters in the long-term, he needs to throw his starting pitchers as long as they have stamina remaining and are pitching well. Tampa Bay Rays fans have been impressed on the whole by his moves and his demeanor and this is just something that he has to fix. Hopefully we will see pitchers like Karns and Colome getting up to 90 or 100 pitches in their next outing, whether that comes through five innings or six and two-thirds.