If there were a race for analytical departments in MLB to make themselves intriguing amidst a “rebuild,” the Tampa Bay Rays are, subjectively, in the lead for their willingness to redefine the traditions of baseball construction. At times, such as José Alvarado playing first base, the Rays have discovered that tradition is tradition for a reason. Yet, at other times, like their concept of a bullpen start to the game, has proven tradition is apt to be questioned.
Their analytical fun goes beyond just playing musical chairs with positions, but toward the progression and re-defining of players themselves; the development of Daniel Robertson’s targeting as an example on the offensive side of the diamond. The Rays have built something of a reliable bullpen man in Alvarado, have re-defined Wilmer Font in the last month (Tampa Bay being his third team this season), are working to rejuvenate Nathan Eovaldi, have found a willing bullpen/starter/guinea pig in Sergio Romo, and most notably, have constructed a cornerstone piece in their starting rotation with Blake Snell.
The Rays’ drabness is surface level quasi-rebuilding; underneath the .500 record and experiments, the Rays’ analytics are telling of a team willing to let players be themselves, only slightly reconstructing them to the Rays way. In a word, optimizing. Tampa Bay’s dedication to searching, and functionally implementing, statistical craftiness may be pushing a motif as the “new Billy Beane” of MLB, constructing players to their optimal platitude so they might complement one another as is. A stark juxtaposition to the typical method of signing players who might be crafted toward a certain organizational meta.
Theoretically, this will make the Rays an apt team for veterans such as Font. Baseball teams can break players, forcing them to play away from their optimal development points. Even if that optimization might come in the form of simple singles or awkward pitch utilization instead of the shock and awe of slugging or 95 MPH fastballs, the Rays are dedicated to the data, not necessarily fireworks. Then again, drabness is only drab on the surface until the development builds a roster that is competing for the playoffs. And the Rays might just be the next competitive team built around functional oddities.
Again, Wilmer Font is the extremely small sample-size of this theoretical. Font has never been productive, struggling throughout his MLB tenure for a career negative WAR despite an incredibly virtuous AAA strikeout-to-walk percentage. The fact he has been with three teams is telling enough of his duplicity — bad enough to irritate everyone, developmentally intriguing enough for the Rays to risk work with.
Font has been a Rays pitcher since May 30, when he threw two innings of one-hit baseball against the Oakland Athletics. He has since gone on to be slightly above average – as a starter, he struggled against the Seattle Mariners when he allowed two runs on two hits and a walk on June 8, but later went 5 2/3 innings against the New York Yankees with five strikeouts on June 17.
The oddity on Font with the Rays is that the underlying analytics such as plate discipline have not drastically improved. He was built as a strikeout pitcher in AAA but has since been unable to succeed by dominating on the fastball. Font’s success came on interchanging his curveball or split-finger fastball to get ahead of the batter, stay ahead, and then derive strikeouts with his 94 MPH four-seam fastball. Before coming to the Rays, he barely utilized his split-finger fastball, and in the one game he did, he dropped his curveball entirely (May 20 against the Toronto Blue Jays).
Font had built an either/or proposition with his pitch selection, never throwing a true three-pitch variance. The first game with the Rays was the first time since September 28, 2012 where he utilized a balanced proposition of fastball, curveball, split-finger fastball. The results were effective to give the Rays the best of Font – 71.4 percent first-pitch strikes, the analytic which defined the best of Font in AAA. The graphic below summarizes what the Rays have allowed him to do that no other team has – true versatility (starting game 11) which pushes him toward more first-pitch strikes. Other teams have been hesitant to allow a full arsenal due to small sample size; when the Rays let him pitch with more freedom, he is pointedly successful. (Unfortunately, he now looks to be out two months with a lat strain.)
If Font exemplifies optimizing out-of-house, “broken” players, Blake Snell is the example of the Rays’ in-house developmental success. Saturday night was another advancement on his 2018 season, finishing 7.1 innings on six hits, no runs, and nine strikeouts in a win over the New York Mets. The Rays are an organization who are more likely to utilize their bullpen, making Snell’s endurance in games even more outstanding. He has improved his K/9 rating to 10.24, leaving 88.2 percent of runners on the basepaths. His season-by-season improvement has come under the tone of an uncomfortable curveball: increasing swinging percentage and swinging-strike percentage, and naturally declining contact percentage (45, 14, and 70 respectively).
Snell has been allowed to learn how to navigate counts with deceptive speed between a 95 MPH fastball and an 80 MPH curveball – the more contrasting the velocity, the better the output.
José Alvarado has been developed under a similar theme of interchanging velocity. Last season, he utilized a curveball and fastball as his primary pitch interlay. However, the two pitches may have been an analytical limit on his capacity – the pitches were so dissimilar, batters over time would pick up on his curveball early in the count. Hence, in 2018, Alvarado has decreased average slider speed, but at the same time, increased the variance in speed by 10 MPH. His slider and fastball movement can now disguise one another so that his fastball, which can top 100 MPH, is optimized.
However, Alvarado must still learn how to control his slider with a walk percentage that is slowly increasing. Mechanically, he’s using his curveball in a more horizontal array now, while painting the corner of the zone with his slider. While strikeouts have been optimized, they come at the risk of walking more batters, implying he still has room to improve.
The Rays’ entire pitching staff, whatever composition they choose to utilize in the traditional starter debate, has room to improve. The point on the Rays is not that they’re there, rather that they’re willing to try a unique way to improve and arrive at the point of competition. Non-reflective of their record, just watching whatever the Rays are trying to do on a micro-level makes them a simple joy to observeNext post: Aaron Nola and the Magic of a Changeup
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