The Tampa Bay Rays are a little like the Whos down in Whoville in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” They lose all their possessions on Christmas morning, and yet — what’s that sound, way down in the valley? They’re actually singing!
By the looks of their roster, the Rays sure seem to have given up hope. Since last December, they have traded a dozen prominent veterans, including five former All-Stars. They look like just another team tanking the present for a better future.
So how did the Rays arrive at Yankee Stadium with a winning record in the middle of August? For the answer, consider their starting pitcher on Tuesday: Hunter Wood, a rookie who has never pitched more than three innings. It was the 32nd time in the last three months that the Rays had used an opener to start.
An opener, for the Rays, refers to a pitcher who starts the game but will generally face only three to nine batters, depending on matchups. Often, the pitcher who follows the opener will throw five or more innings, putting him in a de facto — though delayed — starter’s role. No team has ever done this.
“It hasn’t really been that big of a deal,” said Ryan Yarbrough, another rookie, who has worked more than 110 innings, yet made just five starts. “Everyone’s like, ‘Are you liking it?’ But I’m still getting my innings, I’m still helping the team win. We’re having a good time, we have a good team. For the future, everything’s pretty bright.”
Maybe, maybe not; the Rays exist in a perpetual state of uncertainty, with a small payroll and an outdated ballpark. But there is something endearing, almost quaint, about their creativity in trying to win as many games as possible. The easier route would be to use well-worn strategies and earn higher draft picks by letting their record deteriorate.
Yet no matter their roster makeup, the Rays actively try to devise different ways to win. Blow up the traditional idea of starting pitching? Sure, why not? It seems to be working. Before May 19, their first game using an opener, the Rays had a 4.43 ERA, ranking 22nd in the majors. Since then, through Monday, their ERA ranked fourth, at 3.47.
For the Rays, it makes sense to try to win as many games as possible, even as they keep shedding veterans.
“If you’re pulling back into the 50-, the 60-, the 70-win territory, young players hit your big league team and they may take you to the low 80s, and then free-agency gets you to low 90s and beyond,” said Erik Neander, the Rays’ general manager. “That free-agency step, we don’t have. So we have to stay in a territory where we are competitive — and if we hit with some of our more talented young players who will be with us for a long time, hopefully that can elevate us to the 90-win territory.”
Some Rays pitchers do act as regular starters, like the All-Star Blake Snell and veterans Chris Archer and Nathan Eovaldi, before they were traded last month. For pitchers like Yarbrough or Jalen Beeks, though, the idea is to delay their appearance until another pitcher has handled the first inning, when teams tend to score the most runs.
The implication, of course, is that the pitcher who follows the opener — “I don’t have a name for it either,” said manager Kevin Cash — is not ready to begin his outing against the opponent’s best hitters. But Yarbrough said the young pitchers understood the plan in spring training. It beats life with the Durham Bulls.
“We were like, ‘Look, we haven’t had any service time, we’re really excited to pitch in the big leagues,’ ” said Yarbrough, who is 10-5 with a 4.16 ERA. “The more and more we do things, it becomes a little more comfortable.”
Some are more used to it than others. Jake Faria made 10 starts early this season, before missing 61 games with an oblique strain. The opener strategy unfolded in his absence, and Faria has relieved twice since returning. He will start on Wednesday — for a few innings, anyway — and hopes to earn steady starts again.
“Yeah, you’re happy you’re in the big leagues,” said Faria, a second-year right-hander. “But I’ve been a starter my whole career. I love being the guy who gets the ball at the beginning of the game, being charged with the duty of going as deep in the game as I can. I enjoy it.”
The Rays are on pace for 787 relief innings this season, which would shatter the record of 657 set by the 2012 Colorado Rockies, who also experimented with shorter starts. Rays pitchers have made 21 relief appearances this season of at least five innings, including by Beeks in Tuesday’s 4-1 loss to the New York Yankees. The other major league teams had 16 such appearances combined through Monday.
A few other teams have deployed the opener strategy for a handful of games, and at least one team, the Minnesota Twins, is using it in the minors. But the Rays hardly believe they have reinvented pitching as we know it.
“I still don’t think there’s evidence that this will be sustainable and beneficial over a long period of time,” Neander said. “There’s still a lot left that I think we have to learn about what we’re doing and how to manage it and what can hold up over 160-plus games, how much depth do you have, how many true starters do you need and so on.”
Durable, 200-inning starters are too valuable to disappear from baseball, Neander said, and maybe the Rays can cultivate them by easing would-be starters into the majors.
“We’re trying to learn,” Neander said. “It’s a learning mentality, and we’re OK and comfortable with some parts of it not turning out to be beneficial.”
For a team like the Rays, the unconventional is always worth a try — and they may even win a few more games in the effort.