March 17, 2015
Every Team's Moneyball
Tampa Bay Rays: Never Trust Any Win Over 30
Every day until Opening Day, Baseball Prospectus authors will preview two teams—one from the AL, one from the NL—identifying strategies those teams employ to gain an advantage. Today: the cash-strapped Rays and cash-rich Dodgers.
May 24, 2007 was Jae Weong Seo's 30th birthday. He started that night for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Seo threw five innings and allowed six earned runs. The Devil Rays beat Seattle, and Seo was birthday-gifted with the win, although his poor performance inflated his already high ERA to 8.10.
After that outing, Seo was dropped from the rotation. Five days later, on May 29, he pitched in mop-up relief in a blowout loss. One June 1, he was designated for assignment. He never pitched in the major leagues again. He's been a Kia Tiger in the KBO ever since. He's still only 37.
April 6, 2012 was opening day for the Tampa Bay Rays. Their starter was James Shields. He, like Seo, allowed six earned runs in five innings. Like Seo, he was credited with an undeserved win. And like Seo, he was making his first start since turning 30.
In between these two starts, separated by 810 games and nearly five years, no Tampa Bay game was started by a pitcher over age 29. The next longest streak is nearly half the length of games:
It's not close, and if you want to crunch years of data, have fun seeing whether it's an all-time record for consecutive under-30 starts.
Of the 1,297 regular-season games Tampa Bay has played since 2007, 1,224 of them were started by pitchers under 30. That's over 100 more under-30 starts than the next closest team besides the Marlins (1,129), who don't count because they're the Marlins and they weren't quite trying to win games. The (Devil) Rays have had the youngest average starter age, too:
(The oldest three since 2007: Red Sox, Phillies, and Yankees. I know—I was surprised, too.)
Until this past off-season, when the post-Friedman, post-Maddon Rays did a major roster renovation, they have generally preferred to hang onto their prize position players as long as possible. Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton were allowed to reach free agency before leaving Tampa Bay, and in 2012 Evan Longoria was extended until his virtual retirement. They kept Ben Zobrist around until his age-33 season, despite settling for less in return for him than they could have gotten had they dealt him earlier in his team-friendly contract.
Starters have not enjoyed the same treatment. James Shields was dealt—for his replacement, more or less, in Jake Odorizzi—after his age-30 year. Neither Matt Garza (who netted his eventual replacement, Chris Archer) nor David Price (ditto, Drew Smyly) nor Jeremy Hellickson was allowed to reach his fourth decade before exiting the Trop. Even Cesar Ramos, who made seven emergency starts last year—all while he was still 29—was shipped out during his age-30 offseason. The Rays understand that pitching is volatile, and stay on the safe side with affordable younger arms.
Though their multi-year under-30 streak ended, the Rays' roaring twenties have not. In 2013, Roberto Hernandez was 32 when he made 24 starts for Tampa Bay, but he was a necessary anomaly, a temporary and cheap ($3.2 million) bridge to younger pitchers like Odorizzi, who needed a year to develop. Early in 2014, the Rays were struck by early injuries to three of their five starters. Where most other teams might have gone out and signed or traded for an established starter on a big-league deal, the Rays moved sorta-swingman Ramos out of the bullpen and into the rotation, and allowed Odorizzi to get smacked around for a couple of months before he got the hang of the bigs. Erik Bedard, who'd been signed to a minor-league deal as veteran insurance, was called up and filled in for half the season. He was promptly released when younger pitchers got healthy: Thanks for your help, uncle, but the kids are alright.
This season, Matt Moore is out until midsummer as he recovers from Tommy John surgery, and Drew Smyly is shelved with tendinitis. The Rays do not have a veteran starter on a minor-league deal, like Bedard was last year. Nate Karns is likely to start the season in the big-league rotation. Despite being a “prospect,” he'd be the second-oldest member of the rotation, less than two months younger than opening day starter Alex Cobb. Recently, the Rays did sign two veteran arms, but they were both relievers: Jim Miller and Jonny Venters—the latter an example of the Rays' recent purchases on relievers rehabbing from injury. They even recently bullpenned Triple-A lefty starter Mike Montgomery, who would have otherwise been one of their potential in-house candidates to cover for Moore or Smyly. (Montgomery was acquired in the Shields trade in 2012). If they're in the market for more Bedards, it doesn't show. This is no country for old arms.
Thanks to Rob McQuown for research assistance.