The Rays Have Innovated Again

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 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.”

On Sunday?

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:

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.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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6 years ago

I like Zack Cozart a lot less than I did 3 minutes ago

Concerned Reader John
6 years ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

I would love to see him elaborate on how, exactly, it is bad for baseball.

6 years ago

Translation: “It’s bad for me.”

The Kudzu Kidmember
6 years ago

I thought Joe Posnanski had a thoughtful take on how it might be bad for baseball. Or how it might not be bad for baseball. He makes some good points.

6 years ago
Reply to  The Kudzu Kid

What were his good points? I couldn’t identify any in that piece, besides “It’ll be weird when you ask who’s starting and you’re not sure who’s considered the starter”. I mean, ok, so what? And I usually like his pieces.

6 years ago
Reply to  The Kudzu Kid

Not really seeing any points in there. He basically poses a question, ‘If the first pitcher of the game stops being the main pitcher of the game, will that be good for fans watching & following games?’ And he doesn’t answer the question he poses.

Why should it be bad? Especially the way it was done for Saturday when Ryan Yarbrough was the main pitcher. What the article talks about, of fans being excited about ‘who’s the starter?’ ‘I’m going to the game tonight, I’ll get to see Scherzer/Kershaw/Kluber/whoever pitch’ still applies just as well if that main pitcher enters in the 2nd inning instead of the first. It’s not going to make the on field product less watchable, like the NBA example he uses. Fans turning up excited to see a particular big name still turn up excited to see a particular big name. If ‘Romoing’ becomes more widely used, literally all that would need to change would be a label, the game’s ‘primary pitcher’ instead of ‘starting pitcher’.

With the resistance from Hurdle & Girardi in big games, I’m not surprised that players & managers are somewhat risk-averse when it comes to something that makes sense but isn’t traditional. Because if it doesn’t result in a win, the criticism will be much louder. Because even if it increases the odds of winning the world series, the intermediate steps (e.g. winning division, winning WC game) are still seen as important targets themselves. Trying something out in a ‘meaningless’ game in May probably gets much less resistance.

6 years ago

He said that he was watching video for a different announced starter and that the Rays basically pulled a bait-and-switch by having Romo start instead of Matt Andriese on Sunday.

snoop god
6 years ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

I don’t agree with Cozart, but this comment section is being way too smug about this. He made one solitary comment in a moment of frustration about something that could potentially throw a wrench in the competitive balance of the sport that he has been playing his entire life and from which he makes his livelihood.

The comment section looks more like reddit than I hoped I’d ever see here. All discussion of the article and/or baseball is buried beneath some worthless chirp.

6 years ago
Reply to  snoop god

I wonder how articles like this circulate. They probably some get into a toxic social media feed, or maybe it is bots – I don’t know. That guy has an opinion, what a scum bag!!!

snoop god
6 years ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

The article itself is fine! I’m fascinated by the Rays’ experiment and was eagerly waiting to see what Fangraphs wrote about it.

I’m just disappointed that the comments are overflowing with keyboard warriors acting like they’ve never reacted poorly to a big change at work that might make life a little harder. The top *three* comments are basically identical low-effort “burns”.

Eventually Fangraphs will probably realize they get more clicks and votes that way, and curate future article topics accordingly. Can’t wait… “The physics Ohtani’s fastball! And here’s what Harper had to say…”

6 years ago
Reply to  snoop god

I was just saying that someone probably drops a link to this in a toxic social media feed and it goes crazy like this. To think of the volume of comments here as opposed to most articles is weird. Is what he said really making people that angry? There is no way that it is… Maybe the comments section is worth more clicks that the article – in which case, bots…

6 years ago
Reply to  snoop god

Equally interesting to see the tide roll back in, which seems bot-ish. The huge waves of up/downvotes generally follow that pattern. What are the chances that such an opinionated and passionate group just rolls by? Perhaps that is the nature of the enraged Internet activist? I imagine something like Butter’s company of trolls on the Facebook episode of South Park lol