The 'math' behind Rays' rotation strategy

August 23rd, 2022

This story was excerpted from Adam Berry’s Rays Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

When Luis Patiño came up last Thursday and delivered a great start to beat the Royals, his performance showed he still has the dominant stuff to make an impact down the stretch. And plugging him in for a night helped the rest of Tampa Bay’s rotation by providing an extra day of rest during this stretch of 17 consecutive games without an off-day.

The latter really matters to the Rays. They have been creative, as ever, to build in extra rest days for their starters throughout the year. They’ve kept the rotation in order around scheduled off-days. They’ve sprinkled in bullpen games. They’ve called up spot starters like Patiño.

Overall, they have gone out of their way whenever possible to make sure their pitchers don’t make multiple starts in a row on “normal,” four days’ rest.

Before we get further into what they’ve done, let’s consider why they’re doing it.

It’s about the short term, sure, keeping starters strong between outings to maintain a high level of performance. The results aren’t always this obvious, but look at what Drew Rasmussen did in his last two starts.

Before his perfect-game bid, Rasmussen had thrown only three innings (a deliberately shortened start in Detroit) over the previous 11 days. And when he got back on the mound after a career-high 8 1/3 innings, he did so on five days’ rest.

“I think they've done a really good job of managing me,” Rasmussen said. “They could see that I needed a little bit of a breather.”

Beyond that, it’s about the long haul, keeping in mind their top starters’ health as they pile up innings totals they haven’t hit in four or five years (Corey Kluber and Jeffrey Springs) or, for Shane McClanahan and Rasmussen, ever.

“It’s kind of twofold,” pitching coach Kyle Snyder said. “You hope that it lets them gain a little bit of strength, and the time off contributes to the recovery process, and they come back a little bit stronger. But the math obviously works as well.”

That “math” is not about strict innings limits, because teams have enough biometric information and technology now to not just set arbitrary restrictions. But the Rays are still mindful of their pitchers’ workloads and what they can realistically ask of them. And Ryan Yarbrough is the only healthy starter who entered the season with no real concerns on that front.

“Being hard-headed, I’m probably not going to ever want to come out of the game or limit innings or pitches or whatever,” Springs said. “I know it’s going to pay off in the long run. … I have a lot of trust in them looking at the bigger picture for me.”

Not counting the season debuts of McClanahan, Kluber and Rasmussen, and beginning Springs’ count with his first official start as part of the rotation on May 9, those four will have combined to make 81 starts this season as of Tuesday night.

Four have come on eight or more days’ rest, all under unique circumstances -- stints on the injured list/emergency leave or after McClanahan’s All-Star inning. Two have come on seven days’ rest and eight on six days’ rest. There’s such a thing as too much time off between outings, Snyder noted, so those extended breaks are relatively few and far between.

Only 27 of their starts, exactly one-third, have been on a “regular” rotation with four days between outings. But 40 of them, just under half, have come on five days’ rest, or what the Rays call a “plus-one.” So collectively, two-thirds of their top starters’ outings have come with at least one extra day of rest.

Generally, the starters use that extra day for what it is: rest. They give their bodies a break. They spread out their four-day, between-starts routine over five days. They give their minds an extra day off, too. Rasmussen said the mental break is often just as important as the physical one.

“It can add up throughout the course of the year,” Kluber said. “Maybe when I was younger, I would've been like, 'Oh, I’ve got another day to work’ kind of thing. It's working in a different way, I guess, trying to work toward recovery as opposed to maybe beating yourself up.”