Have the Rays changed the pitching landscape in major league baseball? Is the “opener” going to be the new norm going forward?
As you’ve read, our own Ryan Adams mentioned that we’re dissecting the Rays in our “Five Keys” series. Of course, I get to break down the most unpredictable aspect of the Rays team – pitching!
Kevin Cash may have done something last season that changes the way pitching staffs are managed. The “opener” is going to revolutionize they way that that bottom half of rotations are constructed. It may take a little time before other teams really start to catch on with this, but if you just sit back and think about it, it’s not exactly easy to find five truly trustworthy starting pitchers nowadays. Finding three reliably ones and two “long relief” guys that don’t have to face the meat of a line three times seems a lot more feasible.
As the anchor of this staff, and the team for that matter, the Rays will be riding the arm of Blake Snell as far as he can take them. While everyone expected Snell to progress coming into last season, I’m sure I can safely say that no one expected a 1.89 ERA, a 0.97 WHIP and an American League Cy Young award. Snell finally fixed what was his biggest flaw, his issues walking batters.
Ok, I’m going to lump this all together so bear with me – and make sure you follow along. In 2017, Snell allowed 4.1 walks per nine innings pitched (BB/9) in 129.1 innings of work. That number is not good. For reference, Arizona Diamondbacks LHP Robbie Ray, led the majors with a 3.94 BB/9 among qualified pitchers. Now hear me out, when you walk batters at a rate like that, it’s really difficult to keep them from scoring. Walks inflates your WHIP and – usually – it inflates your ERA. Simple, right? One way to prevent those runners from advancing and scoring – strike out the next batter(s).
Wow! I’m glad that was brought up. This is still simple. Trust me. In 2017, Snell struck out 8.3 batters per nine innings pitched (K/9) in those same 129.1 innings. That would have ranked him 32nd in the majors if he qualified. Not awful, but a pretty big drop from his 9.9 K/9 in 2016. Pair an extreme high walk rate with a fairly average strikeout rate and you get a 4.04 ERA and a 1.33 WHIP. That will usually lead to some struggles, especially in the American League East.
But alas, Snellzilla conquered his kryptonite in 2018 upping his K/9 to 11.0, lowering his BB/9 to 3.2 and by not allowing as many base runners to reach base – that is how you get those Cy Young numbers.
And all of that was to bring you to my next point.
Pitcher to keep an eye on
Tyler Glasnow. From a pure stuff standpoint, Glasnow truly possesses some of the best stuff in the league. He has the tools to become one of the best pitchers in the American League. The start to his young career is a little similar to that start of Snell’s career. You can tell by watching him pitch he’s going to be really good. But sometimes the control is off and the walks become a problem. That problem seemed to be contained in his time with the Rays as Glasnow only surrendered 19 walks in his 55.2 innings (3.1 BB/9) compared to 34 walks in 56 innings (5.5 BB/9) with the Pirates. See, coming full circle right back to BB/9.
Glasnow dropped his WHIP from 1.44 in Pittsburgh to 1.09 in Tampa Bay. While his ERA didn’t drop significantly in the change of scenery, you should trust the WHIP. Always trust the WHIP. Glasnow did surrender ten home runs while with the Rays, which seems a little fluky in Tropicana Field. So you should expect the ERA to normalize this season.
Tyler Glasnow is one of my favorite breakouts for the 2019 campaign.
Projected 2019 stats: 12-7, 165 INN, 190 K, 60 BB, 3.75 ERA, 1.20 WHIP
With Sergio Romo being a free agent, this becomes a very inexperienced bullpen. Jose Alvarado, 23, becomes the leading candidate for saves, if that’s something we can even predict with Kevin Cash. Most of the rest of the arms in the bullpen are just a hair over a full year of MLB service time. It is possible that the Rays are not done this off-season, so maybe they add some experience where it’s needed.
Will this be the year we see Honeywell and De Leon?
One current and one former top prospect, Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon could bring some significant depth to an already deep pitching staff. With both youngsters coming off of Tommy John surgery, they’re likely to be eased into any significant role this season.
Honeywell, a consensus top-15 prospect coming into last season, was dominate in 2017 in AAA and was expected to be fighting for a rotation spot last spring. However, the aforementioned surgery put a damper on those hopes. He’s already throwing off of a mound and – while likely starting on the DL – Honeywell is definitely going to get the call as soon as he’s ready. What will is role be? That’s a question for Cash as I’m mentally exhausted trying to figure out what he’s going to do with these pitchers.
De Leon, like Honeywell, missed all of 2018 recovering from surgery. In 2017, De Leon got a literal cup of tea in the majors as he threw 2.2 innings allowing three runs in his lone appearance. Technically, activated from the DL in November, De Leon is player to keep an eye on this spring as he may end up being a sneaky key piece to the inexperienced bullpen.
Whatever Cash decides to do with these pitchers, he’s earned himself some leeway and we just have to trust his decisions. In the same way that Ryan ended his piece, if Cash can manipulate the rotation and bullpen like he did last year, 90 wins might not be too far-fetched. In the end – it won ballgames.
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