Open season: Rays’ unorthodox bullpen use critical part of overcoming slow start
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Out by out, the Tampa Bay Rays are revamping the roles of major league pitchers.
A decade after embracing Joe Maddon’s entertaining managerial style and buying into baseball’s analytical movement to transform themselves from perennial losers to playoff contenders, the budget-minded franchise is trying to reinvent itself through unconventional means.
Welcome to the dawn of the “opener” and “bullpen days,” which the Rays have used to overcome a dearth of starting pitching to rebound from the worst 17-game stretch to begin a season in team history.
It’s a world where long-time relievers Sergio Romo and Jonny Venters made the first starts of their major league careers, and the Rays used 30 different pitchers — seven of them rookies who combined for 39 starts — through their first 106 games.
“It’s still early, but I think we found out that it does benefit some pitchers,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said.
Depending on matchup, the Rays may use an “opener” to face three to six batters to begin a game.
A “bullpen day” starter, by comparison, generally pitches deeper into games though usually no more than twice through an opposing team’s lineup.
“I think some of our young starters have been benefited by not having to face that first four or five hitters in the lineup,” Cash said. “I give a lot of credit to those guys for buying into a unique approach that’s been talked about a lot,” Cash said. “It’s nice that they have come together, embraced it, and I think enjoyed it to some extent. When it goes well, it’s a lot of fun.”
The “opener” debuted May 19, when Romo made the first start of an 11-year big league career after 588 relief appearances. Since then, the Rays have the major leagues’ second-best ERA.
In all, they’ve used an “opener” 24 times, going 11-13 in those games. Additionally, there have been 19 “bullpen days” in which the team has gone 9-10.
Tampa Bay is averaging 4.3 innings per starter, by far the fewest in the major leagues, according to Baseball Info Solutions. Toronto is 29th at 5.27 innings.
“It definitely is different. It definitely is outside the box. But the way it’s all been pieced together, it’s almost turning into our normal,” said Romo, who more recently has re-settled into a more customary role as a closer,
Rookie Ryne Stanek, for the most part, has flourished as an opener, holding opponents scoreless in 12 of 15 starts, including four in which he didn’t allow a hit. Venters, who made 244 appearances as a reliever before making his first major league start in early June, did not fare as well in his only outing as an opener. The 33-year-old was traded last week to Atlanta.
“Ryne Stanek definitely has benefited from that role,” Cash said. “It’s amazing every day how much buy-in we get. We know we’re doing some unique things. and some questionable things that people scratch their head at, but these pitchers do a tremendous job of buying in.”
Good, young starting pitching was among the keys to a stretch of four postseason appearances over six years under Maddon, including two AL East titles and an improbable run to the 2008 World Series.
This season’s unorthodox approach to dividing the workload was born of necessity.
The “opener” was added to the mix help the manager cope with injuries that at times left the Rays with three — and sometimes just two — healthy starters.
“I get it. It makes some sense, especially when they have some starters down. … A little unconventional, and I don’t think necessarily ideal, but I certainly get it,” New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone said.
“You do what gives you the best chance to win, regardless,” Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter echoed. “They’re doing it because they don’t have any starting pitchers.”
While Cash concedes it’s still too early to draw any conclusions about the potential effectiveness long-term — or whether other clubs will be intrigued enough to follow Tampa Bay’s lead — the strategy nevertheless has helped the Rays stay afloat following a 4-13 start.
The team is 49-40 in 89 games since April 18 and 53-53 overall entering a nine-game homestand that begins Tuesday.
That’s despite using 30 pitchers season, tying a franchise single-season record.
And, with 14 different starting pitchers — six more than all of last year — the Rays have matched the number the club had the previous three seasons combined.
“I can be completely candid and honest. When it works, it feels pretty good when it’s happening. But when it doesn’t, it’s pretty gut-wrenching,” Cash said after one game in which the results were not pretty.
The Rays have had enough success that they’ve begun experimenting with openers in the minor leagues.
Could others in the majors be open to trying it, too?
“Baseball is kind of a copycat game. It depends on how it all plays out,” Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. “I don’t like (using relievers that way). But everybody’s got to do what they got to do with what they have, and what they want to do.”
The Rays, meanwhile, are focusing on themselves.
“We’re not necessarily looking to get credit. We probably don’t want to get bashed, either, for it,” Cash said.
“But every decision we make, there’s a lot of thought that goes into it. We’re not throwing something up against the wall,” the manager added. “This is an opportunity that presented itself with so many young pitchers, and it is nice to see it play out when we have success.”