Rays' first wave of relievers is nasty, too

October 20th, 2020

ARLINGTON -- When you look at the Rays’ bullpen, it’s easy to fall in love with “the stable” of guys who throw at a high velocity. It’s also impressive to see just how many different arm angles they feature.

The easiest thing to do when talking about Tampa Bay’s relief corps is to look at the dominant trio at the end: , and . That’s for good reason. That’s as good a trio as any in baseball and a big reason why the Rays are getting ready to play in the 2020 World Series against the Dodgers.

But what’s often overlooked is just how deep and efficient the rest of the bullpen is. Including the postseason, the Rays have had 13 pitchers record a save. Some of that is due to a plethora of injuries, but it is also because of how much the Rays ask out of their entire bullpen. That won’t be any different against the Dodgers.

If the Rays are going to emerge as World Series champions, they are going to need quality innings from , , and . The unit has proven to be capable over the last three months, but everything will be magnified in the Fall Classic.

Let’s break them down.

Ryan Thompson
Thompson’s rise to high-leverage situations has been one of the biggest developments this season. The sidearming right-hander wasn’t projected to be on the Opening Day roster, but an impressive performance during Summer Camp forced the Rays’ hand.

Since then, Thompson has proven to be a reliable and versatile reliever. He has been used as an opener, he has pitched on three consecutive days a couple of times and he has pitched in key situations late in the game. How does he do it?

Well, his funky delivery definitely helps. Thompson has a unique arm angle, but he also has elite velocity out of that slot. His sinker averaged 91 mph this season, though most opposing hitters will tell you it feels much faster. His go-to pitch is a Frisbee-like slider that held opposing hitters to a .196 average in the regular season and recorded a whiff (swing and miss) percentage of 34.2.

Dodgers right-handed hitters such as Mookie Betts, Justin Turner and Will Smith might see a heavy dose of Thompson in this Series. And none of them have seen the right-hander in their career. Also don’t be surprised if Thompson starts a bullpen game in Game 4.

Aaron Loup
Loup is essentially the left-handed version of Thompson, and that alone makes him an important piece to the Rays’ bullpen. Like Thompson, Loup’s 92 mph sinker is elite for a sidearm pitcher. He also has a cutter that has helped neutralize right-handed bats this season. While Loup has held right-handers to a .192 average this season, his real strength is against left-handers.

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The 32-year-old held lefties to a .581 OPS and zero homers. He also produced a lot of weak contact, ranking in the 74th percentile in exit velocity against. Loup didn’t get many opportunities in the first three rounds of the postseason, but he will play a big role against lefty sluggers Cody Bellinger and Joc Pederson.

John Curtiss
If Curtiss was part of a bullpen with less talent, you could make an argument that he would be a late-inning reliever. That’s a sign of just how talented this Rays bullpen is. Curtiss posted a 1.80 ERA in 17 games during the regular season, and he has followed that with an impressive postseason.

Curtiss had a rough start to the playoffs, allowing four runs in two-thirds of an inning against the Yankees in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, but since then, the right-hander has posted a 1.50 ERA in five appearances.

Despite being a right-hander, Curtiss held lefty bats to a .436 OPS during the regular season, so Bellinger and Pederson could also see a healthy dose of Curtiss.

Aaron Slegers
Last, but certainly not least, Slegers is a 6-foot-10 pitcher who is starting to hit his stride with the Rays. Slegers won’t get many high-leverage situations, but he’s certainly capable of tossing multiple innings and keeping the Rays in the game.

After all, he’s been one of the most efficient pitchers in the Tampa Bay bullpen. During the regular season, Slegers ranked in the 96th percentile in barrel percentage against, meaning opposing hitters struggle to hit the ball hard in the air against the tall right-hander. His hard-hit rate against also ranked among the league’s best, finishing in the 92nd percentile.

How did he do that? Well, increased velocity on his slider has played a big role. Slegers’ slider increased from 83.8 mph last season to 84.8 mph in 2020. That pitch has paired perfectly with a sinker that held hitters to a .135 average this season.

“All of these guys are really tipping the scale and maximizing their potential,” said pitching coach Kyle Snyder. “They’ve certainly arrived differently, but they’re all tremendously successful pitchers.”