Why the Rays unique approach to starting pitching makes sense

A few weeks ago, the Tampa Bay Rays began to question the traditional usage a multi-inning pitcher to start MLB games in a very public way. Rather than beginning the proceedings with a hurler capable of facing an opposing lineup multiple times, Rays manager Kevin Cash opted to start Sergio Romo, normally a reliever used for matchups in the late innings. The revelation has turned a few heads in the league, and hasn’t always worked as intended, but it’s a strategy that actually makes a whole lot of sense.

We first need to understand the way that lineups, in the modern game, are built. Many teams have gotten away from the rigidity of putting a fast guy at lead-off, their best hitter in the third spot in the order and their power hitter in the cleanup role. Analytics have taught teams it makes much more sense to have a high-on-base player at the top of the order with the team’s best overall hitter right behind him and a power threat in the three hole. That would be an “optimized” lineup, and it gives the club their best chance to score.

It’s also important to note that pitchers perform worse, in general, during their second and third trips through a batting order than they did on their first go-around. Data from FanGraphs a few years ago saw opponents OPS jump from .705 to .731 to .771 each subsequent time their 1-9 hitters saw a pitcher in a given game. Why, exactly, this happens is unclear. It is likely a combination of factors; pitcher fatigue, lower velocity and batter familiarity. Whatever the case, the numbers show a clear issue with facing an order three times.

You will notice if you look at any box score that the guys at the top of the order tend to get more plate appearances in a game than the 7-8-9 hitters, which makes sense. Not all nine players can be guaranteed equal chances. However, that also plays into the third time through the order problem. Many times, a pitcher will not make it all the way through the order a third time simply because they have to deal with the opposing team’s best hitters a third time before anyone else.

This is where the Rays strategy makes the most sense. Romo is a pitcher with advantageous splits against right-handed batters (.191/.234/.326 against RHB lifetime). If the top of an opposing lineup is predominantly right-handed, then why not allow a specialist like Romo to handle it and make things a little easier on the “starting pitcher” that follows?

Romo has the advantage of only seeing these hitters once. It also means that when the pitcher that follows him starts his third trip around the order, he will be facing the middle of the order rather than the top, which should ease the pain of seeing hitters a third time. If fact, this tactic could allow that second pitcher to completely avoid the top of the order a third time if the game situation dictates a third pitcher trotting to the mound at that point.

Cash’s plan is quite clever, and it even worked in practice the first two times against the Angels as Romo threw 2.1 scoreless innings with two walks and six strikeouts. But it backfired in two games against the Orioles in which Romo failed to get out of the first inning in both games (1.0 IP total, four runs on four hits, a walk and a strikeout).

Failure should not stunt the growth of this ambitious effort on the part of the Rays. The “opener” could become a new, valuable role on a major league pitching staff. Perhaps a 35-year-old who passed his prime a few years ago is not the ideal fit as it seems on paper, but someone out there will be. This will not be the last we see of this type of forward thinking.

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