The Tampa Bay Rays went unconventional this weekend, starting Sergio Romo on Saturday. He pitched one inning where he struck out the side before exiting, and then he returned as the starter again on Sunday, facing the first 6 batters and recorded two more strikeouts. He faced the top of the Angels’ lineup twice to start games, and struck Mike Trout out both times.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and we’ll see if the Rays’ needs open up thought when it comes to approaching these situations around the league. My guess is that it will have an impact, even if it is realized slowly.
Nathan Eovaldi has yet to pitch this year, and Yonny Chirinos went on the DL in early May, so the Rays really only have two established starters who have started more than 20 games in a MLB season: Chris Archer and Blake Snell. Jake Faria and Ryan Yarbrough are starters, and then after that, the team is really trying to piece it together. It was Yarbrough who delayed his start on Saturday before coming on and pitching 6.1 innings to get the win.
After the success of Saturday, Romo came back on Sunday, leading off a committee effort. Matt Andriese was the next in, and had started two other games but not gone deeper than 3.1 innings in either.
Here’s how manager Kevin Cash explained it to the Tampa Bay Times:
“The way that their lineup stacks generally speaking is very heavy right-handed at the top,” manager Kevin Cash said when asked about the plan after Thursday’s game.
“It allows us in theory to let Sergio to come in there and play the matchup game in the first, which is somewhat unheard of – up until Saturday anyway.
“Then Yarbs can, in theory, have the availability to get deeper in the game. There’s no more secret about the third time through the order, everybody knows that. And that’s kind of what this is about.”
Romo striking out the side with that approach did nothing to dissuade this matchup-based start of a game from future use.
It also makes sense. Pitchers rarely throw complete games anymore, so it’s a matter of when–not if–other pitchers will be necessary. The one matchup that you can predict is that the starter will face the 1-2-3 hitters in the first inning. That means the starter is going to face the top guys at a higher ratio than the bottom.
The value of these starters is they throw more pitches and can go deeper–eat innings as the saying goes. But if you can eat those innings after avoiding the best hitters one time, it means they get to face the weaker hitters the most. I went through Sunday’s batters faced by every starter (except Tampa). The starter faced the leadoff batter 3.1 times, and the #2 and #3 hitters 3.0 times on average. Meanwhile, it was about 50/50 they would get to the #7 hitter a 3rd time, and only about a 30% chance they would face the 9th hitter.
This strategy would flip that on its head. The 3-4-5 hitters would be the least likely to face the real starter three times at the exact same usage/pitch count rates for starting pitchers. A short-term guy out of the bullpen could get some regular work and set the matchup to start the game.
It wouldn’t be a strategy for everyone. But consider that for many teams, the 3rd or 4th relieving option, after we take out the closer and 8th inning guy, is often better as measured by rate stats than a 4th or 5th starter. I went through the 4th best reliever on each AL team in 2017 compared to the 4th best starter (out of the Top 5 in games started). The relievers had a 3.90 to 4.85 FIP advantage, and a 1.34 to 1.52 WHIP advantage. And these aren’t the closers and top relievers.
Now, the opposition to this view would be tradition, and worrying about “stats.” Back in 2011, I wrote about the pitcher win debate and suggest that if we called the same stat something different–like a Snoodle–people wouldn’t get so upset. You can care about getting the win (the result) without caring about getting the win (the contrived stat category). It actually shouldn’t affect the real “starter,” the guy who is going to throw the most pitches. The nominal starter who pitches an inning, though, isn’t going to get the “win” but could get the loss with a bad inning.
If it’s used properly, though, it wouldn’t or shouldn’t mean less pitches for the former starter. It just means a different distribution about who is faced. If this works for the Rays, expect it to slowly creep in as a strategy that becomes palatable for teams when they are on a day without a dominant starter.