Necessity is said to be the primary motivator behind innovation. And no franchise is faced with a more difficult environment in which to compete, is confronted by a greater need for innovation, than the Tampa Bay Rays.
In possession of either the worst or second-worst stadium situation in the majors, with small-market revenues, the Rays also share a division with coastal elites like the Yankees (+76) and Red Sox (+75), who rank second and third in the majors in run differential, respectively, behind only the Astros (+98).
Because of this, the Rays have been more willing to experiment than just about every other club over the last 15 years. They brought defensive shifts to the American League, signed Evan Longoria to a club-friendly deal six days after he debuted in the majors, and have limited starting pitchers to two trips through the order more aggressively than any other club. This spring, they planned to employ a four-man rotation.
So it should not be a surprise that, of all clubs, it was the Rays who decided to start a reliever on Saturday and then again on Sunday. Sergio Romo is now a trailblazer. Romo became the first pitcher to start back-to-back games since Zack Greinke started three straight in 2012. (Greinke was ejected in the first inning of his start on July 7, 2012, then started the next game. The All-Star break followed, and he started the opening second-half game for the Brewers.)
Why did the Rays do this?
For starters, they were hunting platoon advantage, favorable matchups for Romo. The Angels lineup typically opens with right-handed hitters Ian Kinsler or Zack Cozart leading off followed by Mike Trout and Justin Upton in the second and third positions. Despite knowing of the Rays’ plan in advance, Angels manager Mike Scioscia elected to keep his lineup unchanged. The Angels are one of the more right-handed-heavy teams in baseball and Scioscia is one of the game’s most traditional managers.
Romo has some significant splits this season. He’s held righties to a .192/.288/.413 slash line but conceded a line of .346/.452/.520 to lefties. Due to his arm slot and slider, he’s been much more effective against righties (.186/.232/.323) than lefties (.241/.313/.375) over the course of his career. By starting him, the Rays could ensure he faces right-handed batters and the Angels’ best right-handed batters. Then the plan was for lefty Ryan Yarbrough to enter.
The Rays would limit Yarbough to two times through the order but the lefty could avoid some exposure to the Angels’ best right-handed bats, as Rays manager Kevin Cash explained to Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times.
“It allows us in theory to let Sergio to come in there and play the matchup game in the first, which is somewhat unheard of – up until Saturday anyway,” Cash said. ”Then Yarbs can, in theory, have the availability to get deeper in the game. There’s no more secret about the third time through the order, everybody knows that. And that’s kind of what this is about.”
Romo would also start Sunday’s game.
Unheard of? Not quite, but close. In the 1990 NLCS, Pirates manager Jim Leyland started Ted Power to try and disrupt the platoon-heavy strategy of the Reds. We’ve seen the frequency of “bullpen games” pick up in recent years, but this was different. It further blurs pitching labels.
This author was particularly interested in the idea. It makes sense on paper, but in practice, managers and players have often resisted changes to conventional roles.
As a newspaperman covering the Pirates for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 2014, I asked Pirates manager Clint Hurdle if he had considered starting reliever Mark Melancon in Game No. 162 (a Sunday) to save staff ace Gerrit Cole for their likely appearance in the NL Wild Card game that following Wednesday. I recounted that series and decision making last fall.
To recap, the Pirates entered play on Sunday, Sept. 28, one game behind the Cardinals in the NL Central. To beat the Cardinals, the Pirates had to defeat the Reds in game No. 162, and the Cardinals — starting Adam Wainwright — had to then lose later in the day. Then the Pirates would have to travel to St. Louis and beat the Cardinals in a tiebreaker game Monday. In short, the odds off winning the division were not favorable. This author thought it made more sense to save Cole for the Wild Card game against the Giants and Madison Bumgarner.
Hurdle was exasperated by the idea and question.
“This is not about theory. This is not about analytics. The only analytics that played into this decision was human analytics… You play this long and you get [the opportunity to win the division] and to go theoretical is not in a lot of your players DNA… That’s the other beauty of the sport. When your business is other people’s pleasure, other people get pleasure telling you how to do your business …
“At the end of the day, with every conversation I’ve had with a player, I’ve had with Neal [Huntington], that I’ve had with Bob [Nutting], that I’ve had with Frank [Coonelly] and that I’ve had with my coaching staff, there is no way we’re going to walk away from the opportunity to win the division… After 161 games of grit and fight and battle, we’re trying to make history here… There is no guaranteed way to cut this thing up and do what you want to do. So, we’re going to do what we believe in.”
Last October, Yankees manager Joe Girardi was asked about bullpen-ing the Wild Card game, and he was similarly uncomfortable with the idea.
“I think that’s pretty risky,” Girardi said before Tuesday night’s [Wild Card] game, “because you’re in the one-game playoff and the season’s over if you don’t win that game, that’s the bottom line.
“To me, that’s awful risky.”
So would Romo and the Rays melt in going away from contention? Could they handle it?
Here’s what Romo did in the first inning Saturday:
Against this fellow Mike Trout…
And to close the inning with a perfect first…
A couple items of interest: Romo did not melt when placed in an unusual inning to work, an inning in which he had never pitched… and he had enthusiasm for the work. When he completed his task, he punched his right hand into his glove demonstratively while departing the mound. Romo enjoyed the role.
Yarbough followed Romo by allowing four hits and a run over six innings, and the Rays won. Said Cash to MLB.com of Romo’s start Saturday.
“It did go really, really well,” Cash said “He opened the game with a slider just like he was pitching the eighth or ninth inning. So, we’re going back to Sergio, because it worked so well.”
“Sergio is pumped. He’s treated himself as a starter. He’s left to get his rest and throw his one or two innings.”
Romo pitched another scoreless first, and a bullpen-ing effort followed, one that allowed three earned runs, but Shohei Ohtani and the Angels were too much in a 5-2 loss. Still, the plan, again, largely worked.
“It’s a completely different animal,” Romo said. “Kudos to all the starters that can do that every fifth day. Plus, they get asked to throw 100 pitches. I barely got a quarter of that done today. It’s impressive what they do, and I can’t sit here and say I can do it as well as they can. But I got two zeros in the first inning, so I think I’m OK at this point.”
Not everyone was for it. Said Cozart:
— Fabian Ardaya (@FabianArdaya) May 20, 2018
New ideas usually meet resistance. But the plan worked. And when plans and ideas continue to work, they become accepted.
Perhaps the Rays have innovated yet again.