There are certain rules about changeup usage. The Rays, unsurprisingly, aren't beholden to those rules.
“The game evolves constantly,” Tampa Bay Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey tells me on a Saturday afternoon at Yankee Stadium, after wrapping up a bullpen session an hour before first pitch. Evolution in baseball works a lot like it does in real life: traits that confer a competitive advantage tend to be passed on. But before a new approach is adopted around the league, Hickey says, “someone’s going to have to be successful doing it.”
The Rays are often that someone. If the Rays have an identity—aside from their status as a team that doesn’t draw, locked into a lease that never expires—it’s that they do things differently. Driven by their need to make the most of their limited resources and the creativity of their front office and field staff, the Rays under General Manager Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon have authored a long list of innovations. Shifting more aggressively than almost any other team. Giving defensive specialist Jose Molina a starting job for the first time at age 37. Opening an academy in Brazil. Refusing to sign free agent starters (before Roberto Hernandez). And so on.
One of baseball's best-hitting teams adds one of baseball's best-hitting prospects.
The Situation:Wil Myers, ranked by Baseball Prospectus as Tampa Bay’s no. 1 prospect (and no. 7 in baseball) entering this season, has received his much-anticipated MLB call-up. Although Myers appeared to be near big-league ready after mashing in Triple-A last season, the Rays sent him back to the minor leagues in mid-March, citing adjustments needed both offensively and in right field while likely keeping a watchful eye on this year’s “super two” arbitration window. That window has since passed, and Myers has recently caught fire at the plate, leading to Tuesday’s call-up. The top prospect will look to bolster Tampa Bay’s already strong offense in the midst of a tight American League East race.
Background: Drafted by Kansas City as a catcher in 2009, Myers spent two summers behind the dish before his advanced bat enabled him to fly through the lower minors. After the former third-round pick hit .315/.429/.506 between the Low- and High-A levels in 2010, the Royals chose to accelerate his developmental timetable by scrapping his still-raw catching and moving him into the outfield. Myers has since spent time at all three outfield spots but this year has settled in as a right fielder, where he profiles long term. He continued to mash upper-level pitching in 2012, hitting .314/.378/.600 with 37 home runs between Double- and Triple-A. Although Myers got out to a slow start (by his standards) this season, he’s batting .286 through 64 games and has a .339/.377/.696 slash line this month.
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The Rays have flipped the script this year. Can they win like this, or is an adjustment coming?
On Saturday afternoon the Rays entered the ninth inning with a 3-1 lead over the Yankees. Fernando Rodney—months removed from an historically great season, but scuffling early this year—recorded two quick outs, and appeared on his way to righting a capsizing ship. Instead Rodney jumped overboard. He allowed three hits and sprinkled in a balk on his way to blowing the save and forcing extra innings. The Yankees won the game after 11 innings and sent the Rays to their 16th loss of the season in which they held a lead, tied for the second most in the league, according to research by Baseball Prospectus' Ryan Lind.
The longer a team succeeds, the more their key characteristics define them. For the Rays that means synonymity with good pitching and defense. Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon have overseen five consecutive winning seasons—including three playoff berths—behind units capable of pitching and catching as well as any in the league. Yet this Rays team has followed Rodney's lead, wasting away strong offensive performances with shaky work on the mound and good-but-not-great defensive work. Now in the middle of an identity crisis, the Rays need to figure out if they can return to form, or survive by winning slugfests in the spirit of their AL East rivals.
The second installment of a five-part series on the pressing questions confronting each team in 2013.
In the week leading up to Opening Day, we're asking and answering three questions about each team in a five-part series ordered by descending Playoff Pct from the Playoff Odds Report. Today, we continue with a look at the group of six teams with the highest odds of winning at least a Wild Card. As a reminder, you can find links to our preview podcasts for each team here.
Comparing the rotations of the Rays and Brewers reveals two organizations with drastically different philosophies about pitching mechanics.
I wrote an article last September in which I detailed the surprising pitching of the Oakland Athletics. The piece included a breakdown of four different A's pitchers, and I noted that many of the players shared specific similarities which reflected an organizational trend toward mechanical efficiency. The A's have a long history of successful pitching development, and the team's mechanical points of emphasis were apparent by looking at the tendencies of the players whom they had developed and/or acquired over the years.
I spent much of the offseason poring over pitcher mechanics and preparing over 100 mechanical report cards for the pitchers in the 2013 Starting Pitcher Guide in my first year working with Paul Sporer on his annual project. I had already watched the majority of these pitchers in the past, spread out over months or sometimes years, but the examination of so many pitchers over such a short timeframe revealed a number of other patterns that cropped up with pitchers from certain organizations.
The 2013 Rays must overcome the loss of their top home-run hitter and innings-pitched leader from the 2012 season.
After trading James Shields and losing B.J. Upton to free agency, the Rays find themselves in a nearly unique situation. Only 30 other teams, since the league's 1961 expansion, have lost both their home-run and innings-pitched leaders from the previous season. Of those 30, 17 saw their win total decrease the following year, but a few actually benefited from the purge. That list includes teams like the 2007 Marlins, who traded Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera from a 71-win team and then won 84 games in 2008, as well as the 2010 Diamondbacks and 2011 Athletics, who unloaded key contributors to poor rosters before righting their ships and capturing division titles.
What determines whether borderline big leaguers languish in Triple-A obscurity or play a part on a major-league team's 25-man?
As I send the mic out the park like Reggie Jackson You be the minor leaguer who sees no action —A Tribe Called Quest, “Get A Hold”
My next two columns are going to identify minor-league free agent signees, one from each major-league organization, who stand a good chance of helping their big-league clubs this season. (See today’s Lineup Card for others’ NRI picks.) Most of these players have been in the majors before, and you’ll probably recognize many if not all of the names.
If you think about it, the Royals and Rays, the two teams that completed a massive prospects-for-pitchers trade on Sunday, are a lot alike. Both teams are among the have-nots of the American League, competing with payrolls in the mid-60-millions (last season). Neither one draws well—in the Royals’ case, because of all the losing and because Kansas City is small, and in the Rays’ case, because of all the past losing, the newness of the franchise, and the ugliness and location of the ballpark, where it’s almost impossible to catch a foul ball without some painfuland/orembarrassing consequence. To compensate for the lack of revenue, both teams try to draft, develop, and extend homegrown players as an alternative to paying for wins from free agents, and both have had among the finest farm systems in baseball for the past few seasons.