From the days that current Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon helmed the Tampa Bay Rays, they have been at the head of innovation. Madden brought “the shift” into the mainstream during his tenure with the Rays. Current Rays manager Kevin Cash has continued the forward thinking of the Rays on Saturday and Sunday against the LA Angels by starting reliever Sergio Romo.
Yes, you read that correctly. Reliever Sergio Romo started two games of the four-game set in Anaheim. In his two starts, Romo pitched a total of two and a third innings, faced nine batters, walked two, and struck out six.
That’s a solid outing for a reliever, no matter if it’s the first inning or the eighth inning. But don’t let this distract you from the bigger picture. Cash could be onto something here.
We rarely see pitchers throw complete games anymore, partially because of pitch counts, but also because metrics show that OPS increases by nearly .100 points a pitcher’s third time through the batting order. This strategy allows starting pitchers the opportunity to go deeper into the game and shut down hitters when it matters most.
Yes, it feels gimmicky. It is a gimmick. However, a lot of things that are currently mainstream started out as gimmicks. Maddon’s shift was a gimmick, but is now widely used across Major League Baseball, even to some extremes. Some view the knuckle ball as a gimmick, but it extends careers and has stuck around for decades. Even the designated hitter was initially viewed as a gimmick. Cash’s unique use of a setup man could very well catch on.
As fun as all that sounds, this isn’t something that fits every pitching staff. Take the Houston Astros for instance. With a starting rotation that includes Justin Verlander, Lance McCullers, Gerrit Cole, and Charlie Morton, there’s no need to extend an outing. Hitters can’t hit any of those guys anyway, there’s no reason to hand the ball off to a likely inferior–although fresh–pitcher.
The Rays are perfect candidates to experiment with such a technique. With a four-man starting rotation, the Rays are down a piece and need a way to extend their starters. By starting Romo, it gives the starters a chance to cut down batters later in the game than they would by starting in the first inning. It also gives Romo a definitive role.
Another team that’s down a pitcher in the starting rotation took this idea to the next level Thursday afternoon. The Oakland Athletics used the NCAA midweek approach by platooning their bullpen for the entire game against the Seattle Mariners. It ended up working as each batter faced each pitcher only once and the A’s avoided a sweep with a 4-3 win.
Keep in mind, it’s not for everybody, but Cash could be a trendsetter. With heightened awareness of pitch counts and inning limitations, flipping the paradigm of pitcher use could be part of a new age in baseball.
Photo by Brigham Berthold