It’s been a strange few months for the Tampa Bay Rays. The front office spent the spring denying accusations they were trying to tank, and even at a half-decent 39-40, the club is nowhere particularly close to the playoff hunt. And yet, if you prefer the BaseRuns standings to the actual ones, the Rays have been a top-ten baseball team, even while playing a difficult schedule. And while injuries and being shorthanded led the Rays toward their “opener” experiment in the middle of May, as a team they’ve allowed the lowest ERA in baseball ever since. They’ve also allowed the lowest wOBA. This is where the Rays have gotten without Brent Honeywell. This is where they’ve gotten without Jose De Leon. Injuries have sidelined Nathan Eovaldi, Chris Archer, Anthony Banda, Jake Faria, and Kevin Kiermaier, among others. A month ago, Denard Span and Alex Colome were traded.
Through one lens, the Rays have been mediocre. They are how they were designed. Through another lens, the Rays have been an inspiring success. One could argue only luck separates them from a wild-card spot. No matter the lens, though, the Rays haven’t been boring. It’s a young club, stocked with talent. The strategy around the starting rotation and the subsequent relievers has been inventive. And on Tuesday, in the ninth inning of a one-run game, manager Kevin Cash played a pitcher at first base. The circumstances weren’t extraordinary. It was done very much on purpose.
Going into the top of the ninth, this was the scene:
Jose Alvarado was out there, trying to protect a 1-0 lead against the Nationals. Nothing about that was weird, and it wasn’t weird when Alvarado issued a leadoff walk to Bryce Harper. Alvarado throws balls, and Harper frequently takes them. That’s when Cash called upon the right-handed Chaz Roe to deal with the right-handed Anthony Rendon. But Roe didn’t knock Alvarado out of the game. Rather, he effectively knocked out Johnny Field. Mallex Smith moved from left to right, where Field had been. Jake Bauers moved from first to left. And Alvarado moved from pitcher to first. Cash didn’t want to lose the lefty Alvarado, with the left-handed Juan Soto and Daniel Murphy coming up after Rendon. And so the southpaw went to hide in a corner.
Everybody seemed amused by the situation.
It’s rare for a pitcher to swap to another position, only to return to the mound when the right matchup is there. It’s rare, but not unheard of. Only two weeks ago, Joe Maddon played both Steve Cishek and Brian Duensing in the outfield, so as to make use of their platoon splits. Alvarado didn’t go to the outfield. He trotted over to first base, which is a more uncommon technique. In an extra-inning game two Aprils ago, Bryan Mitchell spent an inning at first base for the Yankees, because they were short on available relievers. Before Mitchell, a pitcher hadn’t also played first since Chuck Crim in 1989. That situation was more like Alvarado’s:
“I was just trying to get the matchups at the right time,” [Tom] Trebelhorn said. “If it hadn’t worked, there would be a big mob in the Southside of Milwaukee saying what a jerk I am.”
Cash and Trebelhorn had the same idea. With Mitchell, it was a little more of an emergency scenario, although his appearance at first also illustrated the risk:
It feels bold to put a pitcher at first. Alvarado, of course, came in with zero professional experience at the position. It seems like it would be easier to hide a pitcher in the corner outfield, because a first baseman could end up in the middle of everything in the infield. First basemen have different plays. They have a great number of responsibilities. When you’re in the outfield, you just run and you throw. Cash was rolling the dice, but then, Rendon is a fly-ball hitter. More than that: He’s a fly-ball hitter who just about never hits the ball in the direction of first.
The way Cash presumably figured, Alvarado could turn into a real liability in an outfield corner. The margin was only one run, after all. At first, Alvarado probably wouldn’t see a batted ball. Rendon was unlikely to put down a bunt in his direction. If Rendon were to hit a grounder, Alvarado would mostly just have to wait for a throw. Nothing he wouldn’t be able to do. Moving Alvarado over kept him close to the batter, but further from the action. In theory. These moves are always made based on theory. Reality can have a funny way of messing with even the most brilliant of plans.
Kevin Cash gambled that Jose Alvarado could survive one plate appearance. He gambled that Alvarado wouldn’t end up in position to make a mistake. In the end, this is the closest the ball ever came:
Alvarado tracked it. If you didn’t know better, you’d think that was just an entirely unremarkable video clip. Alvarado, at least, looked the part, as the ball drifted back by several rows. But even though no batted ball ended up in Alvarado’s vicinity, the Nationals did think they could take advantage of the experiment. They just — well, in theory, there was an opening, but in reality, there was nothing to do.
Martinez said the Nats wanted Harper to try to steal second when pitcher Alvarado was at first base (he probably would have scored on those hits), but he couldn’t time the pitcher.
— Chelsea Janes (@chelsea_janes) June 26, 2018
Bryce Harper couldn’t get a proper jump. He couldn’t get himself into scoring position. Part of the reason was because Alvarado was almost obsessively holding him on:
But also, to Roe’s credit, he helped protect Alvarado by mixing up his timing and looks. For example, here’s Roe before one delivery:
Roe holds the ball for a while after coming set, and you can see him nod his head. Here he is before the next delivery:
No head nod. He doesn’t hold the ball as long. And look at Roe’s left leg — it scoots along the rubber a couple times as Roe is coming set, which is something a few pitchers do, like Chris Tillman. For a would-be runner at first, that makes it hard to go on first move, because you don’t know when the first move will be.
After six pitches, Roe had Rendon struck out. And that was all for the alignment — Carlos Gomez entered, and Smith moved back from right to left, and Bauers moved back from left to first, and Alvarado moved back from first to the mound. As designed, he was given the chance to face another two lefties.
Soto singled on the second pitch. Murphy singled on the third. For all of that trouble, Jose Alvarado faced three left-handed batters, and he didn’t retire a single one of them. Sergio Romo inherited a jam, and, this time, Alvarado watched from the dugout. A pop and a strikeout later, the game was complete. The benches cleared, for good measure, but the game had already been strange.
In the ninth inning of a one-run game on Tuesday, the Rays played a pitcher at first base. I’m not convinced it was a stroke of genius, and I’m also not convinced it worked. In the end, Romo had to come and slam the door. But, this wasn’t just the regular old pitcher swap to the outfield corner. This was something that had seldom ever been tried. You might say the 2018 Rays have a theme. Given how rare it still is for a baseball team to do anything out of the ordinary, I appreciate that the Rays are testing things out. What are you doing, if you’re not learning?
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.