The Rays’ Unique Ability To Mitigate Risk

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.

Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

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2 years ago

I will start by admitting ignorance of the intricacies of pitcher preparation or the significance of knowing one’s role in aiding success.

But it has always seemed to me-as an outsider-that the essential role of a pitcher is to avoid letting the other team score runs-to get batters to make out. And it also seems to me that the fundamental factors there are the batters faced (their tendencies and weaknesses), the situations (that is, men on base or not) and the skills of the pitcher. I can understand that getting the last outs might add some stress for some pitchers, but given the fact that so many pitchers have gotten final outs over the years, I think that factor has been exaggerated.

If all that is so-or to a large extent so-I don’t know why it matters if the pitcher comes in at 9:00 one day and 10:00 the next or in other words, in the 6th inning and then the 8th inning. His job should be to get ready to pitch when called upon, and then to do his job of getting outs. What is the 8th inning pitcher doing during the 6th and 7th innings that he could not be doing in the 4th and 5th innings? If a manager signals to the bullpen in the 5th that he wants pitcher A to start warming up, how is that different than if he signals it in the 7th inning?

I am sure there is a psychological factor, but am guessing that it has become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Having been told for decades now that pitchers do better with given roles rather than being able to get outs when called upon, they now think it is so. Apparently the Rays have told their pitchers to be ready when called upon and it is working. It is unlikely these are somehow unique people. More likely that the expectations are unique.

There may also be a financial reason in that the “Closer” will lose money in negotiations and arbitration if he gets fewer saves. But surely that can’t be what drives the manager’s thinking.

If I am right, then the best way to use relievers is by evaluating matchups. This batter can’t catch up to high fast balls and pitcher A has a plus plus high fast ball. And in the 5th inning today, with men in scoring position, i want a strikeout which is more likely with pitcher A, who is supposedly my closer, than any other pitcher on my staff. Of course, other factors come in such as how many innings can he go and who will hold our lead over the next 3 or 4 innings, but none of it depends on who is my 5th inning man.

2 years ago
Reply to  bobr

By using a variety of relievers in high leverage spots across game situations and inning, the Rays are building a form of depth designed to mitigate risk.

Businesses (especially IT departments) do this same kind of thing, they cross-train individuals so that one product owner (for example) can step in and take over for a different product owner in the event that person leaves or is otherwise unavailable.

The Rays are essentially training all of their relievers to do each others job, so if one guy goes down, the rest can confidently pick up the slack without having to worry about being thrust into unfamiliar territory.

At its core, the idea of assigned ‘roles’ is less about the role / title and more about being comfortable in the situation you are entering into. Most people like feeling comfortable, it’s partly why we have routines, we know what to expect.

Assigned closers know exactly when they are entering a game and there’s a level of comfort in that. The Rays are simply trying to get as many pitchers ‘comfortable’ in as many situations as possible.

Bullpens with set roles also create more room for interpersonal issues. Roles are tied to status and ego can take precedence over what is best for the team – think the guy who “has to close” based on the pitcher he used to be not who he is now.

The ‘flat’ bullpen structure (one without defined roles) may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it helps to mitigate potential interpersonal issues tied to role while increasing the sense of responsibility for the bullpen as a whole versus feeling like the success of the group is tied to the 2 or 3 guys at the top of the hierarchy.

2 years ago
Reply to  averagejoe15

Excellent points.

2 years ago
Reply to  averagejoe15

I wonder to what degree teams select personality type for this. “Closer mentality” is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot as a determination point on whether a guy can pitch the 9th inning. But as often as not those guys are very prickly pears who if they don’t have a predefined, (big money) roll, make trouble. Thinking of the Jonathan Papelbon type. As good-great of a reliever he was, you do not want him on the 2021 Rays.

2 years ago
Reply to  bobr

I realize there’s a human factor in baseball and that there’s more to the game than just numbers, but the ridiculousness of ultra-rigid bullpen roles never made any sense to me. The idea that your “8th inning” guy would be incapable of getting outs 20 minutes earlier in the 7th inning, or the deliberate holding back of your best reliever for a fairly low leverage clean 9th inning was absurd and I can’t believe it lasted as long as it did.

It’s mostly out of the game now of course, it I can’t believe it took so long for teams to realize the inning a pitcher is used to pitching isn’t relevant