The MLB team that's blowing up starting pitching as we know it

Tim Brown
MLB columnist
The Tampa Bay Rays used reliever Sergio Romo as their starting pitcher twice over the weekend against the Los Angeles Angels. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Maybe there’s a perfect way to do this, to amass 27 outs a night across six months in a game intended to expose one’s frailties, to measure pitchers’ abilities and endurance and hearts and souls against the strands remaining on their UCLs, to get it right without exhuming the 300-inning monsters of another generation.

Maybe, and here’s the problem, today’s perfection is tomorrow’s train wreck, tomorrow’s bullpen demolition day, unless you’re stacking stud after stud after stud in the starting rotation, and chances are you’re not, as there isn’t near enough to go around.

There’s always another nine innings to cover. Always. So change – philosophically speaking, innings-maintenance speaking – is like trying to jump a street sweeper mid-block, which is to say not impossible but will require reasonable timing and, probably, a fresh set of clothing.

Meantime, as far as pitching plans go, you’ve got your five-man rotations, your six-man rotations, your scheduled bullpen games, your unscheduled bullpen games, your who’s-this-guy games, your occasional he-pitches-when-he’s-not-hitting-in-the-middle-of-the-lineup games. And then there’s what the Tampa Bay Rays are up to.

Go to a ballgame here on a Sunday afternoon, and one of the starting pitchers (Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Sergio Romo) had started just the night before, so he was pitching on 18 hours rest, the other (Los Angeles Angels right-hander/DH Shohei Ohtani) hadn’t pitched in a week, and had pitched only that once in 333 hours.

Both are by design, the objectives being 27 outs today, the methods foul pole to foul pole. There’d be no telling which was closer to perfect, not until those 27 outs were gone.

The Rays, of course, had surprised everyone Saturday night by starting Romo, the 35-year-old who had made 588 big-league appearances, all in relief. The plan was to have Romo knock out a few of the Angels’ right-handed batters – Zack Cozart, Mike Trout, Justin Upton — over an inning or so, then get the ball to lefty Ryan Yarbrough.

Tampa Bay Rays catcher Jesus Sucre and relief pitcher Alex Colome congratulate each other after the Rays defeated the Los Angeles Angels 5-3 on Saturday. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

The general idea is to limit the number of times a particular pitcher – in this case a 26-year-old rookie — must face the opposing team’s best hitters. The trend is to go gingerly into the third time through a lineup, all eyes on the starter, the bullpen rustling, the manager’s patience on a hair trigger. Well, the Rays decided to eliminate that middle- to late-inning issue early. When Cozart, Trout and Upton batted a third time, it was only their second shot at Yarbrough. Cozart and Trout popped to the infield in the sixth and Upton struck out in the seventh. Yarbrough got 19 outs in relief of Romo.

They liked it so much, they started Romo again Sunday afternoon. He will not start Monday. (The Rays are off.)

“I don’t know if it’s innovative or not,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “I’m glad it worked yesterday.

“The whole goal is trying to get outs. History has shown the less you see a guy the better chance of getting a guy out. That’s going to go sideways sometimes, no doubt.”

Given a third look at a starting pitcher, American League hitters have posted a .795 OPS in those at-bats. That’s 79 points higher than in their second at-bats against the same pitcher. In the National League, the jump from second to third at-bats is nearly 100 points.

Romo struck out Cozart, Trout and Upton in the first inning Saturday night, over 18 pitches. He went back to the hotel, slept, woke up Sunday, went to Angel Stadium and, in the first inning, walked Ian Kinsler, struck out Trout and Upton, then had Andrelton Simmons ground to third base. He returned for the second inning and walked Cozart and struck out Jefry Marte, over 28 pitches. Cash summoned reliever Matt Andriese, who’d started for the Rays a week ago in a scheduled bullpen game. There would be no third time through against the same pitcher.

“I think it’s a very interesting concept,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said.

“I don’t know if it’s innovative or not,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said about his new pitching strategy. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

A manager sets a lineup and there is a single inning – one – in which he is guaranteed to have go precisely as he designs it. That would be the first inning. The rest is a crapshoot. More of a crapshoot than the first inning. In a game where anything can happen, a lot of it bad, that’s what a manager gets – three guys at the start. So, that’s part of it, too, if the Rays can match up a more effective pitcher – right vs. right, in the case of Romo ahead of Yarbrough.

The Rays presumably would not mess with a Chris Archer or Blake Snell start. Otherwise, they improvise. They blow up the traditional methods. Also, starting pitching is expensive and tends to break. Competitively, financially, would the Rays be better off paying $10 million or more a year for an average starting pitcher? They clearly don’t think so. Or don’t want to. Or can’t.

Either way, here they are, chasing perfection that probably doesn’t exist, watching their own hitters go two for nine against Ohtani the third time through, both harmless singles, and on their end doing the best they can with what they’ve got.

Whether this – using Romo, perhaps lefty Jonny Venters, any reliever, as an “opener” (as opposed to a closer) — will be a model going forward or is simply a product of time and place and personnel, Cash shrugged.

“That’s a long conversation,” he said. “There’s a lot of thoughts about it. I’m confident we’re going to continue to do it.”

In the short term, five Rays pitchers beat the Angels, 5-3, on Saturday night. Four of them lost, 5-2, to the Angels and Ohtani on Sunday afternoon. Eight walks did them in.

But, hey, it could work. If not, there’ll be another 27 outs to get tomorrow. You can always start over.

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