What Separates the Rays' Bullpen From the Rest
In baseball, a team must have a good bullpen. Relief pitchers’ effectiveness always determines the end of the game because they are in charge of getting those last few outs. If you look at 2022, 8 of the top 10 teams in bullpen ERA were playoff teams. 11 of the playoff teams had a closer in the top 20 in saves. There is, however, one team that did not have a reliever in the top 30 in saves but still placed in the top 10 in team saves and top 5 in bullpen ERA, which is unheard of. The Tampa Bay Rays handle their bullpen a little differently than the rest of the MLB, and it has led to some unorthodox success.
In baseball, it makes sense that the more times a batter faces a pitcher, the better the batter’s chance of figuring out the pitcher and getting a hit. In recent years, some managers have tried to work around this by refusing to let a pitcher face a batting order for the third time. One way to do this is to utilize what is called an “opener”. An opener is where instead of having a starting pitcher, like Zack Wheeler or Sandy Alcantara, that typically goes 7+ innings start the game, teams start a long relief pitcher in hopes of him going 3 innings or one time through the order, whichever comes first. Following that pitcher, the manager handles the contest like a standard game, putting in relievers to go 1-2 innings while also looking at matchups. This means hitters can not get comfortable against one pitcher because they are facing a new one each at-bat. This strategy has been sparingly employed throughout the league, except in Tampa, where openers are consistently on the bump to start games. Just like every other team, the Rays have starters who can pitch deep into games, like Shane McClanahan and Tyler Glasnow. But instead of having a 5th starter in the rotation, they consistently use an opener to fill that spot. Here is the leaderboard for the top 10 teams in terms of bullpen innings pitched:
Look at the ERA of all of these teams. The majority of them are in the high 3s/low 4s. Why do the Rays have a much better ERA while also having significantly more innings pitched? This is because the Rays do not have specific roles in their bullpen. The typical roles you see in a classic MLB bullpen are the closer, the setup guy, specialists, and long relievers. If you look at the Atlanta Braves bullpen in 2022, you had the closer, Kenley Jansen; the setup guy, A.J. Minter; specialists like Tyler Matzek; and long-relievers like Collin McHugh. Every 9th inning, after having watched A.J. Minter pitch the 8th, if the Braves’ lead was somewhere between 0-3 runs, Braves fans were most likely to see Kenley Jansen on the mound, no matter which hitters were due up. The Tampa Bay Rays hold a different approach. They do not have specific roles. To them, every single bullpen move is always a game-time decision. That is why they had 11 different relievers that had at least one save. No other team was even close. Kevin Cash, the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, does not have a designated guy for the 9th inning because he knows that each situation is unique, which means each situation calls for a different answer. The Tampa Bay Rays had 16 different relievers who pitched in 15 games or more, a figure easily near the top of the MLB.
The one thing the Rays are more known for than their bullpen is their salaries. They rank 27th in total payroll going into the 2023 season. They have made the postseason every year since 2019, yet have not ranked higher than 23rd in total salary since that year. No Rays reliever made more than $4.3 million in 2022, which makes their success more impressive. But the payroll does start to show itself in the fact that the Rays have one of the top 5 worst save-opportunities-to-blown-saves ratios of 2022. Here are the top 10 teams in save opportunities with their blown saves:
Tampa blew one save for every 2.22 save opportunities in 2022. If you look at the top 10 teams in save opportunities, the Rays easily have the most blown saves. Now, this is not to say the Rays' bullpen strategy doesn’t work. They’re clearly doing something right, as evidenced by every other stat previously mentioned. Their bullpen is top 5 in WHIP, ERA, Strikeouts, Saves, and just about every other stat concerning bullpens. So, what is the issue?
The beauty of baseball is that the best team does not always win, and playing the matchup does not always work out in your favor, especially when the hitter's talent exceeds that of the pitcher. This is the case for the Tampa Bay Rays. While their scheme works overall, when it comes down to the clutch, the hitters' skill outweighs the pitchers’. That holds true for most pitchers, but better relievers are less prone to melting down or getting bested by opponents.
The Rays have got to spend a little more money if they want to improve that blown save percentage in the coming years. They have already begun this by handing out their biggest free agent contract ever to Zach Eflin for $40 million over 3 years. Zach Eflin showed great success out of the bullpen with the Phillies on their World Series run, posting a 2.45 ERA with 21 strikeouts and two walks over 18 1/3 innings, including the postseason. I am not saying he is the answer, but I am saying that this is a step in the right direction.
The Rays do not need to start breaking the bank all of a sudden. They play great Moneyball, and the team works best like that. What they need is fine-tuning to make something that is already great even better. The structure is there, they just need to solidify the parts to guarantee they see success for years to come.
"Peter Fairbanks" via Bryan Green licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0