The Tampa Bay Rays have been without three starting pitchers in a bullpen-centric pitching staff, and management traded away four relievers before the Major League Baseball trade deadline. Yet, they’re 86-59 and own the first American League Wild Card seeding; this is grinding at its finest.
In May the Rays placed 26-year-old right-hander Tyler Glasnow on the injured list with a forearm injury. Beforehand, Glasnow sported a 1.86 ERA, was pitching deep into games, keeping runners off the basepaths, and commanding the strike zone.
In July they placed 2018 AL Cy Young Award recipient Blake Snell on the injured list with an elbow injury. While he was struggling to have his way with hitters and consistently pitch like the elite pitcher the Rays are accustomed to, they kept waiting for the southpaw to turn a corner prior to injury.
In August they placed right-hander Yonny Chirinos on the injured list with a finger injury. Originally plotted into the starting rotation due to injuries, Chirinos became a reliable force on the hill every fifth day.
Before the trade deadline the Rays dealt relievers Ryne Stanek, Adam Kolarek, Hunter Wood, and Jake Faria in separate deals. Injuries and midseason turnover seems insurmountable. Well, the Rays look no different. Different faces, same product.
The Rays pitching staff went into Monday second in MLB in ERA (3.60) and strikeouts (1,438), third in opponent batting average (.231), and 26th in walks surrendered (405). Since the All-Star break, and essentially mid-June, injuries and turnover began to pile on Tampa Bay, but their production has marginally decreased; the Rays went into Monday second in MLB in strikeouts (560), seventh in opponent batting average (.242), eighth in ERA (4.08), and 29th in walks surrendered (138) since the All-Star break.
This team doesn’t make excuses. Sure, sometimes their relievers showcase inconsistency, but they work through it and do so as a bullpen that has thrown the most innings in baseball this season (679.1) — mostly due to their recurring bullpen days. For example, Colin Poche walked five consecutive batters against the Houston Astros on August 29, Jalen Beeks has been shaky since the summer solstice, and Chaz Roe and Diego Castillo have been a bit inconsistent. But they get back on the hill days later and bounce back.
Their miraculous reliability has brought about some astonishing developments. Look at Ryan Yarbrough. He has been a reliever for the bulk of the regular season, but the left-hander recently became a rotation fixture, and he put together two dazzling outings in August. Tossing 8.2 shutout innings on the road against the Seattle Mariners and 6.1 shutout innings against the Detroit Tigers whole totaling a combined 18 strikeouts and just six baserunners, Yarbrough looked no different than Snell or Chirinos on a good day.
Meanwhile, Emilio Pagan has been one of the best backend relievers in the game this season, sporting a 2.19 ERA and 0.83 WHIP while totaling 85 strikeouts; since being acquired at the trade deadline, Trevor Richards has been a reliable force; Charlie Morton is putting together a Cy Young Award caliber season, serving as Tampa Bay’s ace.
Yes, Austin Meadows was an AL All-Star, Tommy Pham was arguably an All-Star Game snub, Eric Sogard has been superb since coming over in a trade with the Toronto Blue Jays, and Avisail Garcia and Ji-Man Choi have held steady bats this season. But this isn’t a lineup collectively tearing the cover off the ball, so to speak. Manager Kevin Cash stacks the top of his order in hopes of getting out to an early lead and putting the pressure on the opposing team’s manager.
While hitting your two best hitters at the top of the order, or stacking the top half of your order has become more prevalent across MLB, the Rays doing as such has its detriments. For example, if they don’t get out to an early lead, the opposing team’s starting pitcher can cruise through the next two innings, keep his pitch count low, and get into a groove. All in all, this is a top-heavy lineup that’s happy when it gets contributions from players besides their heavy swingers every here and there.
Their offense is a respectable unit, but they don’t produce big results on a nightly basis; they need their pitching staff to bear down. That means their pitching staff has to be unpredictable, when it concerns their pitch selection, and keep games within reach. Incredibly, they do so using a plethora of pitchers on a consistent basis with an opener starting two every five games, despite the absences of Glasnow, Snell, and Chirinos.
The Rays entered the regular season with a deep pitching staff, and that artillery is on full display in their late-season success. Try finding another team in the big leagues that can lose three starting pitchers and endure midseason turnover in its bullpen and still be a pennant threat.
The Rays are one of the most unique teams in MLB, and their resiliency in the face of injuries epitomizes that notion.