Sunday Notes: Calling Games For The Rays is Rarely Boring

It’s safe to say that the Tampa Bay Rays aren’t following a paint-by-numbers script. Casting convention to the wind, they employ “an opener,” they station their relievers on corners, they… do just about anything to gain a potential edge. As a small-market team in the A.L. East, they need to be creative in order to compete. It makes sense.

But not to everybody, and that includes a fair share of their fanbase. And even if it does make sense to the fanbase — sorta, kinda, at least — that wasn’t always the case. They had to be brought up to speed on the methods behind the madness, and that job fell squarely on the shoulders of the people who report on, and broadcast, the games.

Andy Freed and Dave Wills — the radio voices of Rays baseball — were front and center. According to the latter, they at least had a head start.

“We were trained a little bit by Joe Maddon,” said Wills, who along with Freed has called games in Tampa since 2005. “Joe was kind of the leader with doing different things, such as shifts and putting four men in the outfield. He’d set lineups differently than other people. So when it comes to what they’re doing now, we’re already in grad school. We’ve seen it, we’ve been there, we’ve done that.”

Which doesn’t mean advance warning from Kevin Cash wasn’t appreciated when the team introduced the “opener” concept. Wills may have an advanced degree in understanding-out-of-the-box, but what the Rays manager told him and his broadcast partner was straight out of left field.

“He gave us a two-or-three-day heads up on that,” explained Wills. “He told us they might be starting Sergio Romo against the Angels, not once, but twice. That gave us time to kind of chew on it, to look at the numbers and talk to Kevin and (pitching coach) Kyle Snyder, to find out why they were doing it. That way we weren’t surprised. It allowed us to do our jobs better as opposed to them just throwing it at us an hour or two before the game and saying ‘Good luck explaining this.’”

Wills appreciates the opportunity to have to explain the unorthodox to the listening audience.

“It’s rarely boring,” he said of calling games for what is arguably baseball’s most-innovative club. “Earlier this year Kevin came out and moved Jose Alvarado to first base for a batter, and then brought him back in to pitch. Kevin is out there talking to the home plate umpire and your mind is moving a mile a minute because it’s the ninth inning of a high-stress game and you’re trying to figure out what he’s doing. And then we had the game against the Yankees where Sergio started an inning at third base, then came back to pitch. It keeps you on your toes.

“One of the oldest sayings in baseball is that you’ll see something different every time, and that’s certainly true here. I think Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times once called us ‘the most interesting team in baseball.’ We have to do things differently. When other teams ying, we yang. That became part of the process when Joe Maddon got here in 2006, and it’s part of the process now with Kevin.”

There’s something to be said for yanging. The overachieving Rays have won seven straight, 12 of 16, and now sit eight games over .500 in a division that includes a pair of behemoths. Up in the booth, Wills and Freed are helping their listeners wrap their heads around just how that’s happening.

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Jeff Levering is working alongside a legend. The 30-something’s partner in the Milwaukee Brewers radio booth is Bob Uecker, who was behind a big-league microphone long before Levering was as much a twinkle in his father’s eye. And at age 84, Uecker is not only Mr. Baseball, he’s Mr. Old-School Baseball.

“Bob and I don’t talk about analytics very often,” Levering told me. “We talk nuts and bolts baseball. A lot of times Bob will say, ‘Back in the day,’ so stories from when he played, in the 1960s and the 1970s, are a big part of what we discuss.”

He doesn’t mind, and not only because he’s being deferential to an elder statesman.

“For a radio broadcast, I don’t know if those types of conversations really fit for what we’re trying to do,” opined Levering, with whom I’d been discussing bull-penning and third-time-through-the-order numbers. “Say you’re driving in a car and start to hear all of these analytics you might not be familiar with. You can get bogged down and kind of lose focus on what’s going on. I find that certain stats are more relevant for a television broadcast, where you can have a graphic to back things up. You can have X, Y, Z; here is the proof in the pudding of what we’re talking about. It’s much more difficult to articulate that in a radio broadcast and have it make sense while also describing what’s going on down on the field.”

Uecker’s career is nearing an end, so it’s only a matter of time until Levering is no longer playing second fiddle to a legend. How receptive would he be to one day sharing the booth with, say, Brian Kenny?

“If the person I was with really wanted to push analytics, we’d have to find a way to do that well and still tell the story of what’s going on,” Levering told me. “As long as we could keep a good rhythm with the broadcast, it would work. I’d be OK with it.”

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On Thursday, we heard from Cleveland closer Cody Allen on how he learned and developed his spiked curveball. Not noted in the piece was a tasty tidbit he shared regarding his ability to keep the pitch in the yard.

Mike Zunino hit a breaking ball out against me (on April 27), and more recently (August 8) Miguel Sano did as well,” informed Allen. “Those were the first two righties who have taken me deep on that pitch in my big-league career.”

All told, Allen has allowed 46 home runs in 427-and-two-thirds MLB innings.

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Carney Lansford went 15 for 34 against Oil Can Boyd.

Dick Allen went 16 for 44 against Nolan Ryan.

George Hendrick went 17 for 33 against Mark Langston.

Magglio Ordonez went 18 for 46 against Johan Santana.

Kirby Puckett went 21 for 51 against Frank Tanana.

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Sergio Romo is often demonstrative after recording a save. Following the 100th of his career, on August 19 in Boston, he was a combination of appreciative and reminiscent.

“It means a lot to me,” the Tampa Bay Rays reliever told a small gathering of reporters after the game. “I was that kid in the back yard telling my dad, ‘Hey, I’m going to make it to the big leagues, I’m going to pitch Game 7 of the World Series.’ Here I am, that little kid getting to live those things out, trying to make my daddy proud, and all that good stuff. I told you so Dad.”

Romo hasn’t pitched in a Game 7, but he has closed out a World Series. The veteran hurler’s four post-season saves include the 2012 clincher when his old team, the San Francisco Giants, swept the Detroit Tigers in four games. It was a signature moment in a career that has spanned 11 seasons.

“I’ve been around for awhile, and I’m thankful every day to call myself a major league baseball player,” said a clearly-humbled Romo. “I have a locker with my name on it, and they let in through the doors. I can’t be any happier.”

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Rajai Davis has 410 career stolen bases, which ranks as the 67th-highest total of all time. He’s leapfrogged 13 players this season alone, including the likes of Johnny Damon, Tommy Harper, Juan Samuel, and Omar Vizquel. The 37-year-old outfielder was initially reticent to discuss his accomplishments when I brought that up, but he did open up a bit when I listed a few of the players who now rank behind him on the list.

“Johnny Damon is a big name,” declared Davis, who has 16 steals with the Indians this season. “He played a lot of years, and he played a lot of years every day. It’s remarkable to be mentioned with him, knowing that I haven’t been an everyday player like he was. And Omar… oh, man. Omar played 24 years. I mean, being mentioned alongside him is something, because he was special. I’m hoping he becomes a first-ballot guy into the Hall of Fame.”

As for tooting his own horn, that wasn’t about to happen. The humble Norwich, Connecticut native simply chose to count his blessings.

“I’m thankful for God having blessed me with the ability to stay healthy,” said Davis. “He’s blessed me with the desire to keep working, with a mindset of ‘Just go.’ That fearless kind of mindset you need to run.”

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NEWSY STUFF

Since being traded to the Chicago Cubs, Cole Hamels has made five starts and allowed three earned runs in 34 innings. In his last five starts with the Texas Rangers, Hamels allowed 25 earned runs in 22 innings.

The Rakuten Golden Eagles have announced that former Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets pitcher Kazuhisa Ishii will be their new general manager. Ishii went 39-34 in four big-league seasons, bookended by a record of 143-103 with NPB’s Yakult Swallows and Seibu Lions.

Doc Edwards, who spent nearly six decades as a player, coach, manager, and scout, died this past Monday at the age of 81. The native of Red Jacket, West Virginia skippered the Rochester Red Wings when they played the longest game in professional baseball history, 33 innings, versus the Pawtucket Red Sox in 1981. Edwards managed the Cleveland Indians from 1987-1989.

Former Red Sox and Blue Jays manager John Farrell recently obtained a commercial fishing license from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Greater Atlantic Region office.

———

Talking baseball with Jeff Banister is always entertaining and informative. The Texas manager knows the game inside and out, in part because he’s worn a variety of hats. The bench coach in Pittsburgh before coming to the Rangers, Banister has also been a minor-league manager, a field coordinator in both the minors and majors, and an interim pitching coach in A-ball.

A while back, I asked the 1.000 career hitter —the former catcher singled in his only big-league at bat — about a position he’s never actually held. ‘Minor League Pitching Coordinator’ isn’t on his resume, but Banister is nonetheless knowledgeable about the role.

“You have an organizational philosophy for developing pitchers, and the coordinator is part of that,” explained Banister. “He has to make sure the coaches implement it. As a minor league pitching coordinator, you’re more or less coaching the coaches, as opposed to coaching the players. The role is important — it’s essential — but I don’t think anybody has cornered the market. No one has a crystal ball that will tell you which pitchers are going to stay healthy and which pitchers are going to continue to evolve. The game will give you those answers.

“Developing starting pitching is the most-challenging aspect of anything a farm system does, and mapping out a philosophy is done in concert with multiple voices within an organization. You throw things on the table, talk them out, and from there comes clarity on what your pitching philosophy is going to be. How are you going to ramp a pitcher up, from pitch counts to innings? Season to season, how are you evaluating his stuff? When is the right time for an adjustment, such as introducing a new pitch? All of that is mapped out and then left to the evaluation talents of the coaches at each level, as well as the pitching coordinator.”

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NON-MLB NOTABLES

This week’s Seuly Matias update is disappointing news for those us hoping the 19-year-old Kansas City Royals prospect will finish the season with more home runs than singles. Matias currently has 31 dingers and 33 one-base hits with low-A Lexington.

Cal Stevenson, a 21-year-old outfielder with the Bluefield Blue Jays in the rookie-level Appalachian League, leads the minor leagues with a .520 on-base percentage. Toronto’s 10th-round pick has a 1.040 OPS in 256 plate appearances.

Malcom Nunez, a 17-year-old infielder out of Cuba, leads the minors in both batting average (.415) and slugging percentage (.786). The St. Louis Cardinals prospects has 194 plate appearances in the Dominican Summer League.

Simon Rosenblum-Larson, Tampa Bay’s 19th-round pick this year, has been charged with one earned run in 35-and-two-thirds innings between short-season Hudson Valley and low-A Bowling Green. The 22-year-old Harvard-educated right-hander has allowed eight walks and 16 hits, and he has 58 strikeouts.

Thirty-two-year-old southpaw James Russell has a 2.33 ERA in 84 innings with the Sugar Land Skeeters of the independent Atlantic League. The former Texas Longhorn made 394 appearances for the Cubs, Braves, and Phillies from 2010-2016.

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When I talked to Jesus Luzardo at last month’s Futures Game, he opined that his curveball is his most-improved pitch since a year ago. The 20-year-old southpaw “put a lot of work into it” during spring training, and as a result he’s now throwing it harder and with more spin. His repertoire, which includes a changeup that he holds on the bottom of the horseshoe, has remained the same.

As the saying goes, ‘If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.’ On the season, Oakland’s top pitching prospect is 10-5 with a 2.88 ERA, and 129 strikeouts in 109-and-one-third innings. The bulk of those numbers were put up in Double-A, although Luzardo’s rapid rise through the A’s system now has him pitching for the Triple-A Nashville Sounds.

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This Sunday’s appreciative nod to professional athletes who give back to the community goes to Josh Harrison. Along with his wife, Brittany, the personable Pittsburgh Pirates infielder runs the Harrisons For Hope Foundation.

“It’s geared toward helping needy families,” explained Harrison, whom the Bucs drafted out of the University of Cincinnati in 2008. “From the cradle to the time they graduate high school, and hopefully go off to college, we’re providing kids with things like winter clothes and school supplies. Our inaugural event, two years ago, was hosted at the Hotel Monaco. A lot of my teammates came and we were able to raise a lot of money. Last year, on Clemente Day, a group of kids were able to pick out coats, hats, and gloves, as well as shoes and some toys.”

The couple’s charitable efforts have mostly benefitted the Pittsburgh community to this point, but being natives of Ohio, they intend to help out kids in Cincinnati and Dayton as well. Their generosity is heartfelt.

“A lot of kids out there don’t have the basic necessities that most of us take for granted,” said Harrison. “Seeing that put things in perspective. My wife and I are blessed. We have two daughters who don’t have to worry about anything, because we can provide for them. Other kids aren’t as lucky, so we’ve taken it upon ourselves to help as many of them as we can. It’s the right thing to do.”

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

Scouts are baseball’s poets, and R.J Anderson gave some entertaining examples at CBS Sports.

At The Athletic, Lars E. Anderson weighed in on why J.D. Martinez could rebuild himself into a feared slugger, and others can’t.

The Myrtle Beach Pelicans recently held a Deaf Awareness Night, and Josh Jackson wrote about it at MiLB.com.

Over at SB Nation, Natalie Weiner wrote about how Team USA’s women’s baseball players had to deal with ignorance and sexism in order to play their sport on its biggest stage.

At FiveThirtyEight, Travis Sawchik explained how the Oakland A’s, a decade and a half after Moneyball, are once again finding value where other clubs are not.

RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

The Oakland A’s are 26-10 in one-run games and 11-5 in extra-inning games.

Going into Friday, the Red Sox had a plus-225 run differential and the Royals had a minus-225 run differential. The Red Sox had 90 wins and the Royals had 90 losses.

Going into last night, Max Scherzer had a record of 52-19 and a 2.95 FIP since the start of the 2016 season. Corey Kluber had a record of 52-19 and a 2.99 FIP.

In 29 career games against the Cardinals, Jim Thome went 43 for 100 with 18 home runs. He slashed .430/.565/ 1.101 against St. Louis pitching.

John Kruk batted .300 and hit 100 home runs in 1,200 big-league games. He had a .400 OBP in 3.001 plate appearances with the Phillies, and a .397 OBP overall.

Bill Freehan had 6,900 plate appearances and 200 home runs — 100 in home games, and 100 in road games.

Russell Martin has 100 stolen bases and has been hit by a pitch 99 times.

On this date in 1946, with the Indians employing “The Williams Shift” on Teddy Ballgame, a three-foot-tall man — reportedly a local vaudeville performer — ran onto the field, grabbed a glove, and pretended to play third base. He was summarily removed from the premises.

On this date in 1947, Dan Bankhead became the first African-American pitcher in modern MLB history when he threw three-and-a-third innings in relief for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Bankhead allowed eight runs, but he did homer in his first at bat.

On this date in 1962, Jack Kralick threw the first no hitter in Minnesota Twins history in a 1-0 win over the Kansas City A’s. Dean Chance, Scott Erickson, Eric Milton, and Francisco Liriano are the other pitchers to throw a no-hit game for the Twins. Five pitchers have thrown a no hitter against Minnesota.

Mark Fidrych led the American League with 24 complete games in his 1976 rookie-of-the-year season. “The Bird” went 10-or-more innings in five of his 29 starts.

Bill “Bird Dog” Hopper, who pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Senators, was born on this date in 1891.

We hoped you liked reading Sunday Notes: Calling Games For The Rays is Rarely Boring by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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