The Rays Are Making History With Strange New Pitching Strategies

Illustration for article titled The Rays Are Making History With Strange New Pitching Strategies
Photo: Mark J. Terrill (AP)

The Rays announced last week an extremely unusual, cosmic-brain plan for the immediate future of their pitching rotation: rather than the traditional approach of deploying a starting pitcher to work through the opposing lineup a few times before yielding to the bullpen, manager Kevin Cash decided to play matchup baseball right from the first inning, against an Angels team that apparently presented an ideal opportunity:

“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 [Romo] to come in there and play the matchup game in the first, which is somewhat unheard of—up until Saturday anyway.”

“Then [Ryan Yarbrough] 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.”


The thinking, there, is truly far out. By having a tough righty take on the top of the lineup the first time through, Tampa’s starter, working in relief, would face an Angels lineup that had its 1-2-3 hitters now batting at the bottom of the order, where he would only face them a third time after he’d gone through 24 batters, or as many as eight full innings. My head is already spinning.

At any rate, Cash was dead serious: Saturday, just as Cash outlined, veteran reliever Sergio Romo took the mound for the first time as a starter. Per ESPN, this made for a quirky bit of history:

Romo, 35, had 588 career appearances before Saturday. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the only players in MLB history with more career appearances at the time of their first career start were Troy Percival (638), Todd Jones (632) and Chuck McElroy (603).

Relievers-turned-starters Jones and McElroy each pitched their way through the opposing lineup at least once, whereas Percival pitched just one inning in his lone career start, in 2007. Romo’s start was also a one-inning job, and Cash’s plan worked to absolute perfection: 

Romo retired the side without allowing a baserunner, giving Yarbrough the maximum room to chew up outs and innings before those three batters would come back around a third time. For the start of the second inning, the reliever who started yielded to Yarbrough, the starter who relieved, and Yarbrough pitched an excellent 6.1 innings of one-run ball in what eventually became a 5-3 Rays win. Afterward, Cash mentioned that Romo might’ve gone out for another few outs if the Rays hadn’t put four quick runs on the board in the top half of the inning:


But the zany thinking in Tampa isn’t over, and this is where Cash’s experiment will truly differentiate itself from previous reliever-as-starter experiments: Romo is scheduled to start again on Sunday, a very rare instance of a pitcher starting consecutive games by design. Per ESPN, this is the first time in 38 years that a pitcher has started in back-to-back games after pitching at least one inning in the first game, and is the first time since 2012 that a pitcher has started consecutive games under any conditions at all.

The Rays entered this season as one of the teams under the spotlight for glaringly tanking-like behavior, but they sit today at 22-22, in third place in the AL East. Of course, third place in the AL East in 2018 is as far from true relevance as, say, last place in the NL West, but Cash has clearly pushed at least some of the right buttons, and his wacky new pitching experiment wound up producing another win. Carry on, baseball brain geniuses.

Staff Writer, Deadspin