Tampa Bay Rays: Bullpen Experiment Yields Mixed Results


The Tampa Bay Rays’ starting rotation looked to be one of the best in baseball prior to the start of the 2015 season. They had an ace in Alex Cobb, good young pitchers like Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, and Drew Smyly who were ready to take steps forward, and several promising rookies competing for the fifth spot. Nate Karns won the competition to keep a spot warm until Matt Moore returned from Tommy John Surgery.

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Things didn’t work out like the Rays had planned. Cobb went down with Tommy John while Drew Smyly disappeared for several months with a torn labrum. Nate Karns, slated as the fifth starter, became the third starter. Jake Odorizzi missed a little time with an injury, and when Matt Moore returned from his surgery, he was ineffective. The good news is that Chris Archer has emerged as an All-Star and Karns has been excellent as a rookie. And to compensate for any weaknesses in the starting staff, manager Kevin Cash and President of Baseball Operations Matt Silverman have gone to the bullpen earlier in games than anyone else in baseball.

The Rays’ injury woes and inconsistency from their fill-in starters essentially led them to try a strategy that may help everyone answer the following question: “How many innings can you get from a bullpen before arms start wearing out?” The Rays have pushed the envelope with their use of their bullpen arms. They lead the AL in relief innings, as well as number of roster moves–that’s not a coincidence as many of them have been designed to deal with the Rays’ injuries and ineffective starters.

Steve Geltz leads the AL in appearances with 60. Geltz is 2-5 with a 3.99 ERA. The Rays traded Kevin Jepsen to the Twins in July, but thanks to his time with the team, Jepsen is second in appearances with 58. It’s interesting to note that Dellin Betances of the Yankees, who is tied for second with Jepsen in games, is 6-3 with a 1.36 ERA. That’s the Rays’ problem in a nutshell–does Steve Geltz deserve to be in so many games, or have the the Rays just been desperate?

This is an argument that has resonated throughout baseball history. In the 19th century, pitchers were expected to finish their games. In fact, in the earliest days of professional baseball, you needed the other team’s approval to make a pitching change. Gradually, great managers like John McGraw in the early 20th century and Joe McCarthy in the thirties realized that leaving the starter in the game in crucial moments, when you had fresh pitchers available, could lose you games. In 1936, McCarthy became the first successful manager to divide his staff into starters and relievers, making Johnny Murphy a full-time relief ace. The Yankees won seven pennants in eight years from 1936 to 1943.

Over the decades, the number of pitchers teams have carried on their roster has increased from nine when I was growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s to ten, eleven, and finally twelve. Unless some pitchers start playing the field on off-days, it’s hard to see how teams can carry more than 12, although the Rays are attempting to answer that question as well with their flurry of demotions and promotions of relievers. They are trying to be the next advancement in the way pitchers are used in baseball.

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In any event, there were times early in the season when the Rays went to their bullpen after five dominant innings from their starter, and the strategy appeared to work. Pitchers got lots of work in and didn’t give up many runs. Lately, though, you have to wonder whether the Rays’ pitchers are running out of glass. Brad Boxberger‘s struggles have been well chronicled and Geltz got hit hard in his last outing. Jake McGee is also back on the DL and struggled in his last few appearances before that. The Rays are finally hitting decently–or at least providing enough offense given the strong results of their starting staff–but their bullpen isn’t preserving those wins.

Kevin Cash and the Tampa Bay Rays’ brain trust certainly have to wonder if they worked the bullpen too hard earlier in the year, or whether their relievers weren’t good enough in the first place. At the very least, though, the Rays will be able to make conclusions about what transpired and determine how to proceed in coming seasons. It will be fascinating to see whether the Rays add a few more bullpen arms and stick with this strategy next year or whether they give starting pitchers more chances to go deep into games.

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