With 26 players who were on or expected to be on their big league roster having hit the disabled list at some point this season, the Tampa Bay Rays have had to get creative this season. We got to see some of their ingenuity employed first-hand in Wednesday's 5-0 loss as the Rays used four pitchers to combine on a two hit shutout in Nats Park. What made the pitcher usage unique wasn't that Tampa went with the "Johnny Wholestaff" approach, though. It was that they piggybacked a minor league starter who has made four big league starts this season behind a reliever and had Steve Geltz make the start.
Going with the occasional bullpen start makes an awful lot of sense for Tampa Bay so far this season. Among the 26 players I noted in the lead are Matt Moore (recovering from Tommy John surgery last year), Alex Cobb (had Tommy John surgery in May), Drew Smyly (rehabbing a shoulder injury and on the 60 day DL), and Jake Odorizzi (oblique). If the Rays were healthy, those four pitchers would form their rotation behind Thursday's starter, Chris Archer (7-4, 2.00 ERA, 2.08 FIP, 113 K in 90 IP).
Former National Nate Karns wouldn't be in the rotation if everyone was healthy, but he's their number two starter right now. Monday's starter, Erasmo Ramirez, would likely be in AAA. Tuesday's starter, Alex Colome, would either be in AAA or the bullpen. The pitcher originally slated to start Wednesday's game, Matt Andriese, would actually be ninth or tenth on their organizational depth chart. Andriese is the type of guy that managers often need to get a little more creative with in order to try and maximize their effectiveness. They certainly did so last night.
There are two obvious advantages that Tampa Bay got by starting Geltz over Andriese last night.
- Being an AL team playing in an NL park, they were able to avoid having their pitcher come to the plate in a big early situation
- They were able to avoid having a fringy starter turn the lineup over multiple times, instead getting six outs from a strong late-inning reliever like Geltz to begin the game
We're not going to pay a lot of attention to the first one, since it's really just nonsense. The Rays have built their roster around having a DH, but this is a move that could easily have backfired on them. It left Rays manager Kevin Cash in a spot where he could have ended up burning his best pinch hitter early in the game if the pitcher's spot came up in a high leverage spot the first time through the order. It's not like the Rays actually gained the DH spot by pinch hitting for their pitcher early in the game. In fact, they actually let Andriese bat with one out and the bases empty in the fifth inning and had Ronald Belisario bat in the top of the ninth when the game was a bit out of hand.
I suppose it could be some interesting food for thought to consider how much of a comfort zone Cash had in batting for his pitcher early in the game. Sometimes the highest leverage spot that the pitcher's spot is going to come up in will be earlier in the game. For example, the Nats struggled offensively all night, but the only batter that wasn't intentionally walked with a runner in scoring position that came up for the Nats was....... Jordan Zimmermann with two on and two outs in the fifth inning. It ended up being the Nats best scoring chance of the night. No Nats hitter besides Ian Desmond in that inning advanced past first base.
More importantly, the Rays were throwing their ninth or tenth best starter in the organization. Andriese has decent stuff, but he doesn't have a lot of experience turning a big league lineup over more than once or twice at this point in his career. To be honest, he hasn't had a ton of success turning a AAA lineup over more than a couple of times either. Chances are that if the Rays depended upon him throwing 80+ pitches and facing the Nats lineup three times through the order, Andriese was going to get exposed.
By starting Geltz and getting a couple of stellar innings out of him, the Rays set Andriese up to succeed. He'd end up facing fifteen batters, but his outing began with him facing the 7-8-9 hitters for the Nats.... a backup catcher, a rookie with a massive strikeout rate, and a pitcher. Of course, that means that when he begins his second trip through the order, he's going to be facing those same three (weaker) hitters, so he figured to have a better shot at being able to cancel out their adjustments after they'd seen him. Andriese would actually end up facing the top of the Nats order a second time as well, as he threw a 1-2-3 sixth inning before handing it over to the bullpen.
That leads us to the other positive about having Geltz start the game. If Andriese could give the Rays three or four solid innings, there was a chance that he'd be able to hand it right off to some of the Rays' higher leverage relievers. Tampa went straight to Kevin Jepsen (2.54 ERA, third in the AL with 15 Holds) when they took Andriese out. They had Brandon Gomes ready for the eighth (they went to Ronald Belisario with a five run lead after the rain delay instead) and could have gone to Jake McGee or Brad Boxberger as well.
Among the four pitchers that actually threw a pitch for Tampa Bay in Wednesday's game, the lone "starter" was used more as a bridge to the late inning leverage relievers than anything else. It's easy to say that it was a brilliant strategy in hindsight because it worked, but I love the process behind the decision. Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman are gone, but the Tampa Bay Rays still operate outside the box. It's fun to watch.