Sports

The Rays Are Redefining Their Approach, One Rookie at a Time

The Yankees are no longer alone with the majors’ best record since the All-Star break. Despite New York’s 13-game winning streak and ascent to the top of the AL’s wild-card standings, the Yankees have company over that span, in the form of the defending AL champions and current league leader. Since the break, New York is 31-13; so too are the Rays.

While New York has surged thanks to its surprising pitching, rather than its offense, Tampa has executed the reverse: Run prevention is typically the Rays’ calling card, but it’s Tampa’s lineup that has catalyzed the team’s push to the top of the American League standings. Tampa has by far the best lineup since the All-Star break, and over the full season now, the Rays—the Rays!—lead the majors in runs, with 5.35 per game.

That’s an unprecedented offensive output for a franchise that, even at its best, was better known for defense and pitching than any special slugging skills. The only other times that the Rays have finished anywhere in the top 10 in the majors in runs were 2009 and 2010, when they ranked seventh and third in consecutive seasons.

A number of players are responsible for Tampa’s offensive outburst. Mike Zunino is enjoying a career year: He ranks second among all catchers with 27 home runs and has a batting line 32 percent better than average; in two previous seasons with the Rays, he was 50 percent below average instead. Randy Arozarena is the favorite to win AL Rookie of the Year; only Bryce Harper, Juan Soto, and Will Smith have been hotter since the All-Star break. Brandon Lowe has bashed 31 homers, mostly from the leadoff spot.

But the shiniest star of all is the youngest: 20-year-old Wander Franco, called up from Triple-A in June, who hasn’t taken long to demonstrate why he was the sport’s consensus top prospect before the season. As noted in my awards race primer earlier this week, Franco adjusted quickly after scuffling for a few weeks following his call-up, and he’s now reached base in 33 consecutive games while also playing shortstop most days:

Wander Franco’s Tale of Two Halves

Statistic First 27 Games Next 28 Games
Statistic First 27 Games Next 28 Games
BA .220 .333
OBP .283 .393
SLG .349 .568
OPS .632 .961
K% 20.8% 7.4%

Already, Franco fits neatly into the no. 3 spot in the order for the majors’ highest scoring team. His production would be impressive at any age, let alone 20—Franco is less than half the age of 41-year-old Nelson Cruz, the Rays’ big trade-deadline addition. Cruz hasn’t even hit much since coming to Tampa, yet the other Rays have all been so electric that the team still boasts the majors’ most productive offense over that span.

The schedule is one factor in the Rays’ recent form: Playing the Orioles 10 times in August helped, as Tampa won all 10 to move to 18-1 against Baltimore this year. But this lineup can score in bunches against any opponent, as Tampa now has real star power at the top of the lineup to pair with its typical brand of depth and platoons.

The Rays’ pitching, however, tells a different story. Tampa still has very good pitchers, to be clear—but the overall staff hasn’t been overwhelming, ranking in a tie for seventh in the majors in park-adjusted ERA and sixth in park-adjusted FIP. The bullpen has been baseball’s best, with league-leading figures in ERA, FIP, and WAR, but the rotation is, well, odd for an ostensible pennant favorite.

This is a season of flux for Tampa Bay’s starters. Since Kevin Cash took over as manager, the Rays have played 26 playoff games, all in the last two seasons, and the trio of Tyler Glasnow, Blake Snell, and Charlie Morton started 21 of those games; no other pitcher started more than two.

But the Rays traded Snell last offseason and declined Charlie Morton’s $15 million option, making him a free agent. (The Snell trade looks mostly fine now, given his inconsistency this season. Morton, now in Atlanta, has been one of the best pitchers in the National League, worth $27.3 million per FanGraphs’ WAR-to-dollars valuation—nearly double the amount Tampa declined to pay him.) Then Glasnow, the one stalwart starter still in Tampa, underwent Tommy John surgery this summer. All of a sudden, the Rays’ group of aces was depleted.

The broader state of the rotation isn’t much better. The Michael Wacha addition hasn’t worked. Chris Archer’s spent most of the season hurt. Rich Hill left via trade in July. At the same time, southpaws Ryan Yarbrough and Josh Fleming have regressed, while the likes of Yonny Chirinos and Brendan McKay have missed the entire season due to injury. (In the bullpen, Nick Anderson, Oliver Drake, and Colin Poche have done the same, though Anderson has been pitching rehab games in Triple-A.)

By default, the rotation’s new leader is Shane McClanahan, the majors’ hardest-throwing lefty starter, who debuted in the 2020 playoffs and is now experiencing his first regular season in the bigs. With solid figures in all “three true outcomes,” McClanahan (3.59 ERA, 3.37 FIP) has excellent numbers, rookie or not—though the Rays have been typically cautious, letting him throw into the seventh inning just once in 20 starts.

Yet McClanahan stands alone in Tampa’s rotation, as he is the only active Rays pitcher with double-digit starts and an above-average ERA. (A 100 ERA+ is average; higher numbers are better.)

Rays With 10-Plus Starts

Pitcher Starts ERA+
Pitcher Starts ERA+
Shane McClanahan 20 110
Ryan Yarbrough 19 87
Rich Hill 19 traded to Mets
Michael Wacha 18 69
Tyler Glasnow 14 out for season
Luis Patino 11 93
Josh Fleming 11 79

This paucity particularly stands out against the Rays’ potential competition in the AL playoffs: The Astros and Athletics have five starters each with at least 10 starts and an above-average ERA, the White Sox have four, and the Yankees have three.

So, who will make starts for the likely no. 1 seed in the AL playoff bracket? McClanahan deserves the Game 1 bump at this point. With Yarbrough scuffling, the second-best choice is probably fellow rookie Luis Patiño, the prize of the Snell trade return, who has thrown his three best games of the season since the All-Star break, all against potential playoff teams; over 17 2/3 innings against the Yankees, White Sox, and Red Sox, he allowed only three runs (1.53 ERA).

Drew Rasmussen, who came to Tampa in the Willy Adames trade and has pitched well since moving to the rotation (2.45 ERA in six starts), is another option. So is Collin McHugh, who’s thrown 8 2/3 scoreless innings across five short starts this season, as either an “opener” or the lead leg in a bullpen game. McHugh was terrific with the Astros after transitioning to the bullpen in 2018, but a lackluster 2019, elbow injury, and COVID-19–induced opt-out in 2020 sapped his momentum. Now he’s back and even better than he was at his relieving peak in Houston, with a 1.52 ERA that ranks fifth out of 266 pitchers with at least 50 innings. (Fellow Ray Andrew Kittredge ranks second at 1.31.)

The greatest wild card, though, is Shane Baz, currently ranked as the no. 2 pitching prospect by Baseball Prospectus and no. 3 by MLB.com. Baz—the third player sent to Tampa (along with Glasnow and Austin Meadows) in Pittsburgh’s disastrous Archer trade three seasons ago—has dominated the upper levels of the minors this season. Across 15 starts at Double-A and Triple-A, sandwiched around a detour to Tokyo to play for the U.S. Olympic team, he boasts a 2.13 ERA and 0.80 WHIP, plus a 38 percent strikeout rate versus 4 percent walk rate. In his last start at Double-A, he threw five perfect innings. He’s allowed more than two runs in just one total game, all the way back in May.

It’s unclear whether Baz will pitch in the majors at all this season, let alone the MLB postseason. But he’d also fit into a considerable lineage of unproven Rays pitchers to receive the ball in big playoff moments. McClanahan debuted last postseason. Matt Moore started Game 1 of the 2011 ALDS, throwing seven shutout innings, despite throwing just 9 1/3 MLB innings beforehand. David Price not only made the 2008 playoff roster with 14 career MLB innings, but closed out Game 7 of the ALCS to send Tampa to its first World Series.

Take all these variables together—Tampa’s lack of veteran rotation options, the presence of several talented young arms, and the franchise’s history of playoff aggression—and it seems eminently possible that the Rays could call on two or even three rookies to start a playoff game this fall. It is rather less likely, but still possible, that Fleming or Brent Honeywell Jr. starts a game as well, or that relievers Louis Head (who started a game in August) or J.P. Feyereisen pitch as an “opener,” pushing the rookie count even higher.

There is very little precedent for such a youthward move from a contender. Out of 514 MLB teams to reach the playoffs since the first World Series in 1903, only two have used three rookie starters in the postseason: the 2012 Athletics, with Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, and A.J. Griffin; and the 1937 Kansas City Monarchs, with Frank Bradley, Floyd Kranson, and Hilton Smith. That comes out to less than one half of 1 percent of playoff teams—a proportion replicated when examining the wild-card era alone.

Proportion of MLB Playoff Teams by Number of Rookie Starters

Number of Rookie Starters All Playoffs Since 1995
Number of Rookie Starters All Playoffs Since 1995
0 72.2% 73.3%
1 24.3% 21.6%
2 3.1% 4.7%
3 0.4% 0.4%

Less than 5 percent of teams have used even two rookie starters in the postseason—including the Rays last season, as Ryan Thompson and John Curtiss both started games as openers, in part because the altered postseason schedule necessitated many more starters than ever before. (The Dodgers and Atlanta also used two rookie starters in the 2020 playoffs; never before had more than one team done so in a single postseason.)

Some of these rookie-laden clubs have experienced tremendous success. The 2020 Dodgers won the World Series with Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin making starts, as did the 1997 Marlins with Liván Hernández and Tony Saunders; the 2015 Mets reached the World Series with Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz, as did the 2007 Rockies with Ubaldo Jiménez and Franklin Morales.

But the 2020 Dodgers, in addition to their rookies, could turn to Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler. The 1997 Marlins had Al Leiter and Kevin Brown. The Rays don’t have any such proven veterans; instead, they’re so young that one of their non-rookie options is Rasmussen, who entered the 2021 season with all of 15 1/3 career innings and zero career starts, and still would be a rookie if only MLB hadn’t changed its eligibility rules due to the pandemic.

The Rays, of course, eschew traditional pitching roles more than any other team. Heck, Diego Castillo held the team lead in saves, with 14, before the team traded him at the deadline. Nobody left on the roster has more than five saves. If any team can advance in the postseason with a rotation stuffed with rookies, it’s Tampa—especially if the offense continues to outslug everyone else, making the pitchers’ jobs easier.

Yet this is still a strange setting for the team with the best record in the AL for the second year in a row. Tampa is on pace for the best record in franchise history, and it shouldn’t be particularly close; the Rays need to go just 14-14 the rest of the way to set the club’s wins record, and 16-12 to reach 100 wins for the first time. They’re aiming to win the World Series for the first time, too. And with two rookies leading the offense and potentially two or three more leading the rotation, they’ll have to do so while fielding a far younger core than any other contender.

Stats through Wednesday’s games. Thanks to Kenny Jackelen of Baseball-Reference for research assistance.

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