In a time where pitching has taken on more importance than ever before, the Rays have found success utilizing a pitching perspective that is both “youthful” and “entrepreneurial”. In this week’s issue of SI, senior writer Tom Verducci examines the Rays stern belief in growing their pitching from the ground level up and how it enabled them to create one of the best pitching programs in baseball—one that has led to them winning an average of 91.6 games during the last five seasons, good for third best in baseball. Tampa has become the Silicon Valley of pitching. Verducci writes:
“No franchise better understands how to identify, develop and maintain quality pitchers. The Rays are to pitching what Google is to algorithms.” (PAGE 53)
In 2012, the Rays had the lowest ERA in the American League (3.19) and held batters to the lowest average in 40 years of baseball all while operating with the third lowest payroll in the American League. The Rays find value by developing both the mental and physical strength of young pitching prospects and have them do so in a slow progression through their farm system. Unlike other low budget baseball teams, the Rays expect their major league pitchers to have entered every level of the minors and expect to have each player spend at least a year per level.
This pitching philosophy was adopted under the pretense that “the most valuable currency in today’s game isn’t just pitching – it’s healthy pitching, especially starting pitching, which accounts for 66% of major league innings and 71% of the wins,” explains Verducci. (PAGE 55)
Pitchers like Taylor Guerrieri, a hotshot high school prospect drafted by the Rays in 2011, have learned this philosophy the hard away. Upon being drafted Guerrieri was quoted saying: “I wouldn’t mind being up there in two years,” in regards to a major league debut. As we enter the 2013 season, Guerrieri will start at Class A Bowling Green and his starts will be strictly limited to 5 innings or 75 pitches. This isn’t because of lack of talent or confidence; it is purely part of the Rays development plan. They focus on developing arm strength that will lessen the risk of early injury in its up and coming pitchers.
James Shields, now a starting pitcher for the Kansas City Royals, knows this plan better than anybody else. Drafted by the Rays out of high school in 2000, he began at Hudson Valley and quickly moved through the levels of the Rays farm system. But after starting the season shakily with a weak arm in 2004 as part of the Double A in Montgomery, Shields was demoted. When Shields returned to spring training the following season after working out in the offseason with his cousin, former major league outfielder Aaron Rowand, his arm had sprung back to life and he devoted himself fully to the Rays shoulder strengthening program, a program that utilizes workout bands, dumbbells and weighted balls twice a week for thirty-minutes.
“No matter where I pitch,” explains David Price, the Rays current pitching ace, “I’m taking this program with me. It’s the best. I tell everybody that comes here, ‘You probably won’t be very good at these [exercises] for a year. It’s tough on your arm at first. It makes you pretty sore. But once you get acclimated to it, it’s great.’ If I didn’t do it now? I would feel it big time.” (PAGE 54)
Between the promotion of slow development, arm strengthening and the implementation of baseball analytics that expose every opponent’s weakness, the Tampa Rays have taken their cost-effective home grown pitching staff from small-time threat to elite status in only a matter of years. With David price leading the way, the Rays are a force to be reckoned with in the unusually vulnerable American League East in 2013.
The Rays’ newest prize is much, much more than the 2012 minor league home run king, says Lars Anderson. Scouts liken him to Dale Murphy, and Myers put up impressive numbers in Triple A this past season. He is expected to be a mid-season call-up to his new team, the Rays, in 2013, but Wil Myers did not expect to be where he is today.
On Easter Sunday, 2011, Myers suffered a freak knee injury while sprinting back to his apartment building, rather than waiting out a deluge in his car. While he had only average numbers in 2011 while recovering, he sees the incident—and the trade to Tampa—as a blessing in disguise. “The year I got hurt and struggled was probably the best thing that ever happened to me, because before then I was thinking, You know, this game is pretty easy. Well, it’s not. But I do think about what would have happened—and where I’d be right now—if I had stayed in the car that Easter. Would I have gotten called up [to Kansas City]? Would I have gotten traded? I’ll never know (page 55).”