PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Rays starter Chris Archer is one of the better pitchers in the game. He’s one of the more thoughtful and intelligent players in the game, too. Besides those distinctions, Archer might also be prescient. He has a sense of what the future will look like for a major-league pitcher. He’s going to be part of an experiment this season in Tampa Bay that could impact what the future looks like for many arms.
“If you don’t have that high-end stuff as a starter, it’s going to get a little blurry,” Archer said to FanGraphs with regard to the future of pitching roles.
The Rays are committed to a four-man rotation this season, although it’s more of a hybrid plan. While it will include only four traditional starting pitchers, the Rays will use bullpen games and a high volume of off-days early in the season to keep their four starters on regular intervals of rest.
MLB.com Bill Chastain reported on the plan a couple weeks ago:
“We’re going to try to stay at four,” [Rays manager Kevin] Cash said. “We’re going to have some bullpen days in there. We’re going to try and do that for a long period of time. We’re going to learn a lot in the first six weeks.
“We’re going to schedule in a bullpen day as our fifth starter. That’s kind of our hope — going past six weeks.”
An evolution from the traditional five-man rotation might be inevitable. Saber-minded voices have screamed for years that starting pitchers are less effective each time they work through a batting order. Pitching labels are blurring. Relievers accounted for an MLB-record 38.1% of total innings thrown last season, up three percentage points (35.2%) and 1,200 innings from just 10 years earlier. The game warps even more toward the bullpen in the postseason. Last October, relievers accounted for 46.4% of innings.
“The playoffs make it appear to be sexy, but over the course of 162, it’s hard to sustain,” Archer said of radical pitching-staff construction.
It wouldn’t be fair to say Archer is an unwilling participant in the Rays’ plan. “The concept makes sense,” says Archer of the four-man rotation as a theory. But he has his doubts about it as a full-season practice. The questions include whether the plan can extend to and succeed over the course of a full season, what it means for player development, and how the club will adapt to inevitable challenges, whether they be in-game or longer-term in nature.
Archer has shared his questions with the front office, which he says extends to him an open line of communication.
“Our front office is open. They talk to me about a lot of different scenarios: ‘How do you feel about this, what do you think about this?… Do you think you could bounce back if you pitch like this?’” Archer said. “I do like that they are asking someone actually doing it as opposed to drawing their own conclusions.”
But this four-man rotation is really more like a group of three or four tiers, or classifications, of pitchers. It’s a rotation led by what the club hopes are two top-of-the-rotation arms in Archer and Blake Snell, two pitchers who can work deeper into games, followed by two starters — Jake Faria and Nathan Eovaldi at the moment — who just need to get through the opposing lineup twice. They are backed by a number of multi-inning relievers.
“My role is to pitch as many times through the order as I possibly can,” Archer said. “We’re not going to be a successful team if I’m only facing lineups two times through. We’re going to be taxing the bullpen too much… Run-prevention is No. 1, but length is also equally important… We’re going to have some starters that two times through the order and you’re out.”
Archer snaps his fingers to make the point.
Will the plan allow, say, Eovaldi to pitch differently, perhaps more efficiently with more swing-and-miss through more max effort?
“For me, I’m more of a max-effort guy, anyways,” Eovaldi said. “I think it’s more you’re worried about pitch count. I‘m trying to keep pitch count down and have a chance to stay in the game.”
That the Rays are attempting this experiment isn’t shocking. Tampa Bay is among the clubs that have been most aggressive in removing starters after two times through the order. Rays’ starters faced a batter a second time on 1,385 occasions last season, a third time on 901 occasions, a fourth plate appearance 64 times. This approach is backed by hard data.
While more and more teams are pulling starters earlier, rosters are not expanding in size. As a result, more multi-inning relievers are expected to be employed to absorb the extra innings. It might be worth noting that relievers fared far worse in their second time facing an opponent last season.
While that’s a small-sample of second plate appearances, they are growing in number. The numbers of batters faced a second time by relievers has increased three straight seasons from 2,181 in 2016 and 1,917 in 2015.
Roster size is one problem.
“There’s going to be a shuttle from Durham like every time the bullpen day happens,” Archer notes. “If a dude throws three-and-a-third innings, then he can’t pitch for three or four days. I don’t know if they will abuse the [10-day DL]. Hopefully, they won’t. They haven’t in the past. Other teams have been accused of it.”
Another concern is the attrition rate of pitchers. Archer thought pitching depth was a strength of the club, but that view has already been tested. This spring, top prospect Brent Honeywell, whom the club was likely to call up by mid-June, has undergone Tommy John surgery, as has Jose De Leon.
Can it work with injuries already mounting?
“I think it really depends on who are our Triple-A starters that have length?” Archer said of the plan’s ability to succeed. “It was obviously going to be Honeywell when May 16 rolled around or whenever we didn’t have as many off-days and had more consecutive five-day stretches. Honeywell was going to be in our rotation.”
Then there are the day-to-day, in-game challenges that test roster depth and optimization.
“Let’s say a right-hander starts and a lefty comes in, and in the fifth inning… there’s a matchup where the game could be won or lost. Do we make another pitching change?” Archer said. “Do we go to another short starter? Do we go to Sergio Romo for a batter? I’m sure they’ve run a ton of simulations [asking] Cash, ‘What would you do in this situation?’”
Archer said there is some flexibility in the plan. If he feels he needs extra rest, the Rays will adjust and move a start back.
“If there comes a time where I say I need 24 more hours to relax, we have the ability to switch things up,” Archer said. “The [first] bullpen day is going to be the third day of the season, but it’s not always going to be the third day and follow [Blake] Snell.”
Archer has thought about this idea deeply. He notes there are off-the-field considerations, of course. By shedding a fifth starter, a team can essentially eliminate a cost, and Tampa Bay annually runs one the lowest payrolls in the sport.
While relievers have been the only positional free-agent group immune from this winter’s spending recession, starting pitchers still account for the highest total combined salary amongst position groups, $1.085 billion according to Spotrac. The average starter will make $5.15 million in 2018.
“I think smaller-market teams do it if they can, because they don’t have as much [payroll] flexibility,” Archer said. “They are just trying to find ways to maximize whatever their budget is for that year. Four guys on the shuttle making $500,000 each — that’s better than one guy making $2 million… or one guy making $10 million.”
And then there are longer-term concerns, like what becomes of Archer’s spring-training clubhouse neighbor Anthony Banda, who could be thrust into a multi-inning relief or tandem starter/bullpen-ing role. Archer also has concerns about what such a plan, such a future, could mean for player development.
“[Banda] has a high-end arm and high-end stuff. If his role early in the season is to only throw two-and-two-thirds innings, when does he get to develop into the lengthened starter?” Archer said. “If he throws 100 innings this year and is an effective reliever, that’s great, but did we just eliminate him from actually being a real starter, to maximize his potential? Will we expect him to throw 180 innings next year after throwing only 100 this year?
“That’s where I think we have to identify, ‘Honeywell is not going to be a short starter. This person is not going to be a short starter.”
As a pitcher who has recorded three straight 200-inning seasons, he knows he’s an endangered species. A record-low 15 pitchers reached the 200-innings threshold in 2016 and 2017. He understands the experiment the Rays are conducting this season. But he also knows plenty of challenges — unforeseen and anticipated — are ahead.