The Rays’ Unique Ability To Mitigate Risk by Kevin Goldstein September 9, 2021 I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t understand the Tampa Bay Rays. I don’t understand how they win as many games as they do. They’re definitely good, but it never feels like they should be as good as they are, or recently have been. But at a certain point, if they are consistently better than expected, I’m the one in the wrong and it’s on me to try to understand. The offense I get. The current American League leader in runs scored is a little over their skis, as they hold that lead despite ranking sixth in on-base percentage and fourth in slugging (they’re fourth in team wRC+ and fifth in OPS). That’s mostly due to the fact that as a team they have greatly improved results with runners on base compared to when they’re empty. That’s more likely luck-related than some kind of mysterious clutch skill they possess, but what the Rays do have is monstrous depth. Nobody in the lineup is going to garner MVP consideration, but their ability to almost never throw out a lineup with dead innings is unmatched in baseball thanks to a roster filled with average or better players. Just look at the Rays compared to the rest of their AL East competition: Players with 200+ PA and a 100+ wRC+ Team Players Tampa Bay Rays 11 Boston Red Sox 8 Toronto Blue Jays 7 New York Yankees 6 Baltimore Orioles 6 More often than not, the Rays lineup is nine deep, while also being filled with guys who can leave the yard; the Jays are the only American League team with more home runs this season. Easy enough. What confuses me is the pitching. The team ranks first in the league in FIP and second in ERA, but they’re basically doing it without a rotation at this point. Only four Rays pitchers have exceeded 100 innings on the year and that number is unlikely to grow by the time the regular season comes to a close. What’s more, of those four “bulk” guys, only one has really been good: 2021 Rays With 100+ Innings Pitched Pitchers Innings ERA Ryan Yarbrough 136.0 4.90 Shane McClanahan 110.1 3.59 Josh Fleming 100.2 5.01 Michael Wacha 100.2 5.54 The success, as everyone knows, comes from a small town’s worth of bullpen arms who deserve some kind of group MVP award. “Eleven to 12 relievers on the IL plus another 10 in their current ‘pen kind of tells you what you need to know,” an American League staff member who has advanced the Rays in the past told me. “And then they are getting anywhere from useful to exceptional overall contribution from them.” That brings me not to the games the Rays are playing this month, but next. Potential playoff teams spend the season planning their postseason rotation. The Dodgers will roll out Walker Buehler, Max Scherzer, Julio Urías and hopefully a healthy Clayton Kershaw. The Brewers will have a terrifying first three of Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta. White Sox opponents will have to face Lance Lynn, Carlos Rodón and Lucas Giolito. And the Rays? Well, opponents will have to prepare for about six or seven pitchers a night. That approach creates a risk for Tampa Bay that has always concerned me, but as we’ll discuss in a moment, that concern was greatly assuaged after taking a closer look at their roster. Shane McClanahan is an obvious choice to start a playoff Game One, as he’s the Rays’ most likely starter to get deep into a game and avoid contact. From there, it’s going to a mish-mash of arms. The strategy of needing more than twice the number of pitchers to perform on a given night than a more traditional club would carries an inherent risk that has always made me uncomfortable. Pitchers — and more precisely for this conversation, ‘pen arms — can be quite volatile, with the words “reliever” and “consistency” often feeling like oxymorons. Nearly every reliever is prone to a bad outing here and there. Sometimes it’s bad luck, sometimes they just don’t have it. But it clearly happens. There’s always a chance that the next arm your team puts on the mound is just going to crap the bed. The theory then goes that the more pitchers one uses, the greater the chances that such a crap-the-bed inning will occur, which can be disastrous in the playoff game. Let’s start with a team like the Yankees, who despite some recent struggles, have one of the better bullpens in baseball. Here are their five most-used relievers during the 2021 season, as well as a CTB% (Crap The Bed Percentage), with a CTB outing defined as one featuring more baserunners allowed than outs recorded and/or an in-game ERA of 18.00 or higher: 2021 Yankees CTB% Reliever G CTB CTB% Aroldis Chapman 50 6 12.0% Chad Green 56 6 10.7% Jonathan Loaisiga 54 3 5.6% Lucas Luetge 51 6 11.8% Wandy Peralta 36 6 16.7% This metric is far from perfect; Aroldis Chapman, for example, had mid-year hiccups that are contributing to a larger than anticipated CTB%. But I still think it’s useful, so let’s assume for a moment that these percentages are mostly accurate. If the Yankees behaved like the Rays in terms of bullpen management and used all five of these relievers in a single game, the odds of them getting non-CTBs from the entire quintet would be roughly 54%, meaning it’s only a little more than a coin flip that none of the five arms, all of them quality, would screw up a close game. The math here shows the risk that any team takes when it uses more than handful of arms in a game by design. But we’re not just talking about a good playoff-caliber bullpen, we’re talking about the Rays. And they don’t merely have a deep ‘pen, but an excellent one, making the math change considerably. Here are their five most used relievers, based on those most likely to be available to them come the postseason: 2021 Rays CTB% Reliever G CTB CTB% Pete Fairbanks 38 3 7.9% J.P. Feyereisen 25 2 8.0% Andrew Kittredge 49 0 0.0% Collin McHugh 31 2 6.5% Matt Wisler 24 2 8.3% While it’s worth digging into the historical data (perhaps for a future piece), the Kittredge number feels remarkable, as he’s avoided disaster the entire season. Indeed, the Rays as a whole avoid disastrous reliever outings better than anyone in the league thanks to great scouting, impressive analytical work, talent-enhancing coaching and development, and a manager who knows exactly when to use each player based on matchups and game situations. These lower percentages lead to much smaller overall risk. While the Yankees would be nearly even odds to get a disastrous relief outing out of their five most-used ‘pen arms, the odds of this Rays group getting through a game en masse without a CTB outing are nearly three-fourths. By developing this pitching staff, along with strategies to maximize performance, the team has positioned themselves to survive postseason games with a ‘pen game strategy at an efficacy rate of nearly 50% greater than most clubs. And while much of that is because of pure-minded baseball thinking, there is also an underrated cultural aspect to it. “The fact that they have either gotten buy-in or forced it on relievers who they need to be ready anytime and who don’t have more traditional roles is probably a long-run contributor to increased pitching success,” explained the American League staffer. “I think defined bullpen roles in general are a good thing and I’m not sure you could do what Tampa is doing universally across personnel, but maybe the lack of a traditional role can be a role in and of itself.” There’s certainly still a risk to what the Rays do without traditional starting pitchers, but they’ve done everything in their power to mitigate that risk, and to great effectiveness. I went into this piece intending to show why the Rays can’t get through the playoffs doing what they do in terms of managing their pitching. After looking at the data, I’m not as convinced as I once was. That’s becoming the norm when I try to find something wrong with the Rays and their unconventional ways.