April 1, 2013
One step into the Rays' spring training clubhouse is enough to confirm that you have entered the Silicon Valley of pitching, a state-of-the-art convergence of New Age thinking; youthful, entrepreneurial conviction; and proprietary data that are the envy of the industry. On the wall inside the entrance, next to the day's lineup card and practice schedule and bulletins regarding car washes, haircuts and designer wardrobe consultations, the "thought of the day" is posted. "Pitchers," the sign read one day early in camp, "during a side session, how many pitches did you 'will' to the spot versus how many did you 'hope' would get there?"
Inside the clubhouse proper, in front of the row of blond-wood lockers farthest from the door, a dozen pitchers, all of them in their 20s and almost to a man homegrown prospects who are more lithe than thick, are kicking and heading a blue-and-silver soccer ball in a circle about 15 feet in diameter. The point of the exercise is to keep the ball in the air as long as possible without using your hands, with one added degree of difficulty: the pitchers are seated in swivel chairs. Their athleticism is impressive—at one point rookie Jake Odorizzi "catches" the ball between his shoulder blades and lets it sit there. Mostly, though, there is hilarity, especially when one well-struck ball smacks Odorizzi in the chops.
Opposite the clubhouse is a low-slung, flat-roofed building, one side of which is covered in a montage of buzzwords such as STRENGTH and TEAMWORK. This is the Rays' meeting room, their equivalent of a lecture hall. While the major league pitchers are playing office-chair soccer, the minor league pitchers and catchers are getting their daily 9 a.m. tutorial. Yesterday the topic was the importance of holding runners and delivering pitches to the plate in a timely manner. The goal for every pitcher is to let no more than 1.3 seconds elapse between the start of his delivery to the ball's hitting the catcher's mitt.
Today's lecture might well be titled, The Importance of the Changeup. The minor leaguers are told that last year Tampa Bay had the lowest ERA (3.19) in the American League in 22 years. No staff in baseball was close to being as good. The Rays also held batters to the lowest batting average (.228) in the AL since it adopted the designated hitter 40 years ago, and struck out more batters (1,383) than any team in the league's 112-year history.
The changeup, the students are told, is the key to such success. Last year, according to Fangraphs.com, the Rays threw a greater percentage of changeups (18.4) than any team in baseball. (San Diego was next, at 15.5%.) And they did it with the second-best average fastball velocity (92.9 mph, two ticks below the 93.1 average of the Nationals).
The lecture lasts about 30 minutes. When it ends, the pitchers walk onto a practice field in brilliant golden sunshine under a morning sky of robin's-egg blue—hues that have been prominent in the Rays' color scheme since 2008, when they ditched the Devil Rays nickname and began one of the most astounding and efficient runs of success in the free-agent era. Tampa Bay has won an average of 91.6 games during the last five seasons, lower than only the Yankees and the Phillies. Of course the Rays, who will have the AL's third-lowest payroll this season ($65 million), did so while spending a total of $286 million, a fraction of the five-year expenditures of New York ($1.04 billion) and Philadelphia ($688 million).
After stretching, the pitchers break into three groups in the outfield. In leftfield, 20 of them walk alongside high hurdles and swing their legs over the obstacles. In rightfield, another 20 or so jog in a zigzag pattern around small orange cones. And in center, the rest gather in a large circle and stand on one leg in a series of poses: knee up and bent, as in the early stage of a windup; one foot behind them; one foot to the side, etc. It's as if a gaggle of 6'3", 190-pound flamingos—the Rays lean toward athletic pitchers with the body type of centerfielders—had alighted in centerfield. This yogalike drill—which accentuates balance, which promotes a repeatable delivery, which in turn promotes the command of pitches—goes on for 20 minutes, whereupon the groups switch stations.
Two weeks earlier the major league pitchers gathered in the bullpen on this field. They sat on the ground to listen to pitching coach Jim Hickey teach. It would be the first of three lectures Hickey gives annually to promulgate "our core philosophies" on pitching. The subject of the first one, Hickey would say later, is "the most important" of all.
Hickey spoke about getting ahead of hitters. It may sound pro forma, but boilerplate has no place in baseball's Silicon Valley. Let the rest of baseball regard the first pitch as the most crucial in getting ahead of hitters. The Rays use the first three pitches to define getting ahead, with the third often the most important. There are 11 possible counts in an at bat. The Rays believe no pitch changes the course of that at bat more than the 1-and-1 delivery. "It's almost a 200-point swing in on-base percentage with one ball and two strikes as opposed to two balls and one strike," Hickey told the pitchers. "Get ahead, and everybody becomes David Price," the team's 2012 Cy Young Award winner. Last year Rays pitchers allowed a .204 OBP after 1-and-2 counts, as opposed to a .363 OBP after 2-and-1 counts.
The Rays' staff ranked seventh in baseball last year in first-pitch-strike percentage (60.9). But they ranked first in getting to 1-and-2 counts (30.9% of all plate appearances). The trick to getting ahead, Hickey told his charges, is to command the ball around the inside and outside edges of the strike zone so that balls look like strikes to both batters and umpires. "We led the major leagues in pitches out of the zone getting called strikes," he explained. "It's tough to expand the zone up and down. But you can do it side to side."
The Rays work the head as much as the body. The holistic approach is guided by manager Joe Maddon, author of the "thought of the day." "The first thing most coaches want to do is change something physical," Maddon says. "Why? Because it's easier than working the mental side. The mental mechanics take more work but provide better results."
Pitching has been the heart of winning baseball since batters were forbidden from asking for the ball to be thrown to an area of their choosing, a courtesy that ended in 1887. But it has become increasingly important and dominant in today's game. Pitchers strike out batters more than ever and have allowed fewer hits per game for six consecutive seasons. Runs have dropped to levels not seen in a generation.
Of course the most valuable currency in today's game isn't just pitching—it's healthy pitching, especially starting pitching. The most significant determinant for championship baseball is getting four starting pitchers to the mound 30 times each. Over the past five seasons, only 15 teams, including the 2012 Rays, achieved the 4 √ó 30 trick. Of the 15 teams who did it, 12 made the playoffs, and all five world champions are on the list. (The 2012 Rays were the rare team to miss the playoffs with such healthy pitching, but they won 90 games.)
No franchise better understands how to identify, develop and maintain quality pitchers than the Rays. They are to pitching what Google is to algorithms, and—under owner Stuart Sternberg, president Matt Silverman and general manager Andrew Friedman, all of whom came to baseball from the investment banking world—nearly as protective of their proprietary knowledge.
This year, for the third straight season, Maddon can choose an all-homegrown rotation: Price, 27 (selected with the first pick of the 2007 draft); Jeremy Hellickson, 25 (fourth round, '05); Matt Moore, 23 (eighth round, '07); Alex Cobb, 25 (fourth round, '06); and Jeff Niemann, 30 (first round, '04). Over the past five years the Rays haven't once used a thirtysomething starter developed by another organization.
How have they solved the most perplexing puzzle in baseball?
The 2011 draft dragged on, and Taylor Guerrieri waited for the phone to ring. A high school righthander from South Carolina, Guerrieri had been clocked as fast as 100 mph. An AL scout told Baseball America before the draft, "It's the best high school arm I've ever seen."
Five picks went by, 10, 20 ... still Guerrieri's phone sat silent. His free fall through the first round was due, in the parlance of talent evaluators, to "makeup issues" stemming from an incident at the 2010 homecoming football game at his high school in North Augusta. According to Guerrieri, before the game a police resource officer smelled alcohol on him; after Guerrieri admitted that he'd had a beer, she asked him to take a Breathalyzer test. The pitcher refused. Guerrieri was not arrested or disciplined, but upset over being confronted, he transferred to a school in nearby Columbia.
Guerrieri believes that the incident persuaded many teams to pass him up on draft day. Finally the phone rang: It was the Rays, who had the 24th pick. Guerrieri was surprised. They hadn't spoken to him much, and it was only the previous day that they bothered to ask him to fill out a standard questionnaire. "We obviously had scouted him," Friedman says. "We just didn't stalk him because we thought he probably would be gone."
On Aug. 15, 2011, Guerrieri signed for a $1.6 million bonus, becoming the next great homegrown arm in the Tampa Bay system. He told reporters he had plans to get to the major leagues quickly. "I wouldn't mind being up there in two years," he said.
Taylor Guerrieri was 18 years old. He had a lot to learn about how the Rays develop pitchers.
The Rays' key decision makers resemble a tight rock band; they've been playing together for so long that there are no surprises. Friedman has been with the club since 2004, one year before Maddon. Hickey has been pitching coach since 2006. Director of minor league operations Mitch Lukevics (1995), scouting director R.J. Harrison ('95), head trainer Ron Porterfield ('96) and assistant trainer Paul Harker ('96) were with the franchise before it played its first major league game, in '98. "We have really good people who work really well together," Friedman says, "and that continuity allows you to continually improve your process—as opposed to scrambling and trying to indoctrinate a lot of people into it."
Dick Bosman had served as a pitching coach for the Orioles and the Rangers and in the Rays' minor league system before becoming Tampa Bay's pitching coordinator in 2007. That meant a tour through such outposts as Wappingers Falls, N.Y., home to the Hudson Valley Renegades of the short-season rookie New York--Penn League. One pitcher in particular caught his attention that summer. James Shields had been a 16th-round pick the previous year out of high school in Newhall, Calif. Hudson Valley was his first pro stop. He had the gift of a wicked changeup.
Shields made five starts for Hudson Valley before he was moved to Class A. But his fast track took a detour when arm problems sidelined him in 2002. He pitched in '03 at High A in Bakersfield and began '04 at Double A Montgomery. Four rough starts into the season, Shields was demoted back to Bakersfield. He was 23 and had such poor arm strength that the Rays put him through tests to see if he was hurt. (He wasn't.) He was going backward.
What happened next would become a watershed moment in the evolution of the Rays' pitching culture. Shields is the cousin of former major league outfielder Aaron Rowand, who invited Shields to train with him after the '04 season.
"I'll see you tomorrow at 6 a.m.," Rowand said.
"Six a.m.?" Shields spat back.
Says Bosman, "When [Shields] showed up in spring training the next year, he was on a mission. He was in better shape. His arm responded."
Shields began 2005 in Double A, ended it in Triple A and was in the majors by the end of the following May. Since then he has started more major league games than all but five pitchers and is one of only five with an active streak of six straight 200-inning seasons.
Shields did more than gobble up innings. He devoted himself to the Rays' shoulder-strengthening program, a 30-minute workout using bands, dumbbells and weighted balls—the details of which the team prefers not to divulge. All teams have programs to promote shoulder health, but what the Rays have may be the secret sauce that keeps their pitchers remarkably healthy. "No matter where I pitch," Price says, "I'm taking the 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."
Last September, when Price whiffed a batter to reach the 200-inning mark for the third time, he wheeled to look into the dugout at Shields. They made eye contact and smiled. "The 200-inning mark is such a big deal," Price says. "It's consistency. It's durability. Shields is the guy who started it with this program. The way he went about his work was the biggest thing.
"Everything he's done has trickled down. We understand the importance of the exercises and prepare for every start like it's Game 7 of the World Series."
In December the Rays, who have not been nearly as productive developing hitters as they have pitchers, traded Shields and pitcher Wade Davis to the Royals for Wil Myers, a top outfield prospect; Odorizzi; and minor league lefthander Mike Montgomery. The next month Odorizzi moved to Tampa Bay to get started on the shoulder program. "Nothing like anything I ever did before," he says. "And as soon as I started throwing bullpens, I noticed the difference."
Before Guerrieri pitched in a professional game, the Rays gave him two directives. He no longer would be allowed to throw the cutter, a pitch Tampa Bay regards as an unnecessary health risk to young pitchers. (They are often allowed to use it in Double A.) And he would immediately begin the grueling shoulder regimen. Last spring he was assigned to Hudson Valley, where he soon complained of a sore shoulder.
Kyle Snyder was the Hudson Valley pitching coach. Snyder noticed that Guerrieri was overrotating his shoulders as he raised the ball into throwing position, which put additional strain on his shoulder. "When the hitter can see your numbers," Snyder told Guerrieri, "that's a bad thing for you."
Guerrieri rested for two weeks. Then the Rays put him on their typical regimen for first-year pitchers: He pitched in a six-man rotation and was limited to three innings per outing for his first month, four innings his second month and five innings but no more than 75 pitches in the third month.
Guerrieri began with one goal: not to walk a batter all year. He walked one in his first start—and just one in his next 10. He walked three in his last start to finish with five walks and 45 strikeouts in 52 innings. His ERA was 1.04. He threw two-seamers with wicked movement between 92 and 94 mph, occasionally hitting 98. He threw sharp curveballs for strikes whenever he wanted and a good changeup that improved as the season progressed. He attacked hitters relentlessly with quality strikes. He dominated the New York--Penn League.
And he had absolutely no chance of being promoted.
Minor league operations director Lukevics, 59, played high school football against Maddon in eastern Pennsylvania, pitched for Penn State in the 1973 College World Series and is beginning his 39th season in professional baseball. As the man most empowered to see that the best pitchers in the system reach the majors, he is decidedly modern, with methods such as six-man rotations, pitch counts and innings limits. "It's 2013," he says. "It's not 1950. Everybody will say, 'You're babying them.' Well, it's not how you start, it's how you end. We're a big believer in taking our time and letting the mind and the body graduate in time."
Tampa Bay likes every pitcher to touch every minor league level and has a strong preference for leaving pitchers with one team throughout a season. Moore, Cobb, Hellickson, Shields, Davis and Jake McGee (now a Rays reliever) all made between 90 and 138 starts in the minors and threw at least 490 innings.
"Part of that [approach] is that we are competitive now," Friedman says. "We rely on young players more than most teams, so we try to get them to the point where the learning curve when they get to the big leagues is short. They can help us win games sooner rather than later."
The most rudimentary necessity for Tampa Bay prospects is to command the fastball. "That comes with a good delivery," Bosman says. "We work delivery hard early on. Sometimes they show up with a decent delivery, and sometimes you have to show them the whole damn thing."
The Rays' anticutter policy stems in part from the health risk (those inexperienced with the pitch sometimes turn their wrists to create movement and tweak their elbows) and in part from the fact that the pitch is easy to pick up later (it's essentially a fastball thrown with slight pressure on the middle finger). The Rays prefer a young pitcher to throw a curveball. "If they come in with a good feel for a breaking ball, we stay with it," Lukevics says. "It's harder to throw a strike with it, but we feel it's a better pitch if they can master it."
Says Bosman, "We get to a point where we make a decision: Should they be a curveball pitcher or a cutter pitcher? I can teach you the cutter. And I can teach you the changeup."
The Rays stress the changeup from the moment a pitcher joins their organization. Pitchers call their own games, but they are told to use the changeup on about 15% of their deliveries. "Throwing five a game won't get you there," says Bosman. "Because when you get to the fourth or fifth inning and the four-hole hitter is up and the count is 2 and 0 and the catcher throws down the wiggle for the changeup, you're going to think, Uh, I don't think so. But if you've established it, you say, I understand."
Guerrieri was one of 10 picks for Tampa Bay among the first 60 in the 2011 draft, a windfall made possible by compensation picks for losing so many free agents. The Rays used four of those picks on pitchers, including Guerrieri, Jeff Ames (42nd overall, out of junior college) and Blake Snell (52nd, out of high school). Combined, Guerrieri, Ames and Snell were 12--4 with a 1.70 ERA, 168 strikeouts and 43 walks in 163 2/3 innings in the low minors last year. None of them threw 65 innings.
Guerrieri knows he will be pitching this season at Class A Bowling Green. He should expect to spend the entire season there, he will be limited to five innings or 75 pitches in his starts, and he will be shut down when he gets in the neighborhood of 100 to 110 innings. He has come to realize that his goal of getting to the big leagues in two years is not likely in this organization.
Before every series Hickey receives a report on the opposing team that includes one or two pages on each hitter. The report is prepared by Erik Neander and Chaim Bloom, the Rays' directors of baseball operations, and their staff, which is the equivalent of the franchise's research and development department. Neander graduated from Virginia Tech in 2005, went to work for Baseball Info Solutions, interned with the Rays in '07 and was hired full time the same year. Bloom is an '04 Yale graduate who wrote for Baseball Prospectus and interned for the Padres before the Rays hired him in '05.
Hickey and bullpen coach Stan Boroski pay particular attention to extremes in the reports: approaches that work especially well or poorly against a hitter. Their job is to distill the reams of numbers into a few key points for the pitcher and catcher to remember. Says one rival executive, "They find and attack weaknesses as well as anybody."
The Rays are particularly vigilant about finishing off hitters. The major league average last season in all two-strike counts was .178. Tampa Bay held batters to a .156 average, the lowest in baseball. "If our guy has a put-away pitch or two, you can usually identify five or six guys where you can end this at bat right now," says Hickey. "It gets to 0 and 2, 1 and 2, you can elevate a fastball, front-door a two-seamer, bounce your hook—whatever it is—and he'll swing at it every time. Whatever it is, we'll know it."
Analytics also influence how the Rays play defense, which they understand is an inseparable part of pitching. Tampa Bay uses more extreme shifts than any club in baseball, reflecting the data mining of their operations department. Athletic pitchers who can repeat their deliveries are more likely to put pitches where scouting reports say they should go. When those balls are put in play, they're more likely to go where they are expected to go. And when the defense is expecting them, they become outs. The Rays annually are among the best teams in baseball at defensive efficiency: the rate at which batted balls are turned into outs. Beginning in 2008, the turnaround season when Tampa Bay won the AL pennant, the Rays have ranked first, fourth, tied for second, first and fourth in the AL in defensive efficiency.
If analytics play a key role in finding bullpen bargains, another Tampa Bay strength, Friedman isn't saying. The Rays have had enormous success unearthing cheap, journeymen relievers and turning them into key contributors. Their finds include Joel Peralta, who was signed in 2010 at 34 after bouncing among five organizations; Rafael Soriano, who was swiped from the Braves in a December '09 trade; and Fernando Rodney, who was signed before the '12 season and immediately gave the Rays the best ERA by a reliever in history (0.60). "The fact that we have hit on as many guys as we have is luck," Friedman says. "If it continues the next three to five years, I may have to come up with a new answer."
The truth is that the Rays do as much as any club to remove luck from developing pitchers. The campuslike environment of their training camp, the pitchers "willing" pitches to their spots, the analytics and the swivel-chair soccer games—it all defines the culture of the Rays' way.
As pitchers age and get expensive, they are traded off: Shields this off-season, Matt Garza in 2011, Edwin Jackson in '08 ... the list goes on. Price will test that pattern—he is eligible for free agency after the 2015 season, when he will be 30. In the meantime the Rays keep lining up young pitchers: Chris Archer, 24; Odorizzi, 23; Alex Colome, 24; and Montgomery, 23, are next in line, with Guerrieri, 20; Ames, 22; Snell, 20; Felipe Rivero, 21; Enny Romero, 22; and Jesse Hahn, 23, in the next wave of the Program.
"I don't know what other teams do," Lukevics said, standing in a parking lot adjacent to one of the Port Charlotte training fields, "but I feel good about our program. I'm happy to say we're one of three teams that won 90 games four of the past five years—with our type of payroll. But nobody stops working."
With that, Lukevics left to go watch pitchers work off bullpen mounds, where the staccato pop of catchers' mitts equates to the clicks of keyboards. It's the sound of more data being crunched, more feedback in the process of getting pitchers to the big leagues and keeping them healthy. But Lukevics suddenly stopped, turned on his heels and walked back across the parking lot. He had something else to say. "Do you know what this organization really is about?" Lukevics asked. "I'll tell you. Last year I lost my wife."
Karen and Mitch had been married for 32 years. On Nov. 18, Karen lost a five-year battle with a rare form of ovarian cancer.
"They told me, 'Mitch, don't worry about anything. Take as much time as you need. And whatever we can do for you, just let us know.' That's all you need to know about the Rays. It's a great bunch of people who like being around each other. That's why it all works."
No franchise better understands how to identify, develop and maintain quality pitchers. The Rays are to pitching what Google is to algorithms.
"No matter where I pitch," says Price of the Rays' shoulder regimen, "I'm taking the program with me. It's the best."
Get Tom Verducci's take on your team: Watch his video scouting reports on all 30 teams at SI.com/mlb
The Tampa Bay K's
The Rays' overpowering 2012 performance—they set an American League record for strikeouts and had the highest K rate (23.1% of batters faced) in major league history—was an extension of a dominant five-year stretch. Since 2008, here's how Tampa Bay pitchers have stacked up against other AL staffs.
|STARTERS' K RATE||19.0%||1ST|