AL's best (and anonymous) pitching staff is ...

Tampa Bay leads American League with 3.65 ERA

September 12th, 2019

Despite a disappointing loss to Texas on Wednesday, the Rays still hold a half-game advantage in the Wild Card race over the A's, and the playoff projections gave them 71.7% odds of making it to October. It's been a successful season.

That's impressive, but it also somewhat undersells their success. At 87-60 (.592), they could finish with the best winning percentage in team history, a .599 mark (97-65) set by the club that made it to the World Series in 2008. They're 8 1/2 games behind the Yankees in the American League East, but they have six more wins than the National League Central-leading Cardinals.

But what's most interesting here is how. The Rays have a decent offense, not a great one. (They're eighth in park-adjusted offense, yet just 17th in runs scored.) They have a good defense, not a great one. (They're 11th in FanGraphs "defense" metric.) The answer here is on the mound, where the Rays have the lowest ERA in the American League (3.65) and the most Wins Above Replacement in the Majors (23.2).

When you think of the various ways in which a pitching staff might be good, you'd probably think of strikeouts, walks and preventing loud contact, and the Rays are indeed good at those things. Tampa Bay's pitchers are:

- First in limiting home runs per nine innings (1.11)
- Second in strikeout rate (26.5%)
- Second in hard-hit rate (33.4%)
- Fourth in walk rate (7.5%)
- Seventh in ground-ball rate (44.2%)

But what stands out here isn't how they're doing it. It's who is doing it, because it's not who you might have expected.

While veteran Charlie Morton has put himself into the AL Cy Young conversation with 30 outstanding starts (3.11 ERA), defending Cy winner Blake Snell has thrown only 101 just-OK innings (4.28 ERA) around injured list trips for a broken toe and elbow surgery. Tyler Glasnow missed months with a forearm problem. José Alvarado missed time for a personal issue, then an oblique strain, and finally an elbow injury. Diego Castillo missed time with a shoulder injury. Yonny Chirinos, who has thrown the second-most innings for the Rays this year, has missed a month with a finger injury.

Instead, this Rays pitching run -- outside of Morton, anyway -- has been fueled by what may look to most people like a relatively anonymous group of relievers, almost none of whom were drafted by the Rays or even in the organization more than two years ago. (Nearly 70% of the Tampa Bay 40-man roster was acquired via trade, the most in baseball.) There's no Aroldis Chapman or Josh Hader here, but these are the guys who will be in the bullpen on Oct. 2 in the AL Wild Card Game, should the Rays get there, and these are the guys who have gotten them there.

Nearly all of them are interesting, in at least some way. Some of them are outstanding, just not in ways you might have traditionally noticed. As we did with the Giants during Spring Training, attempting to introduce you to a bullpen full of fascinating stories that would likely lead to a productive bullpen, we need to do the same here. You don't know these guys, mostly. You ought to.

Emilio Pagán

How was he acquired: December 2018, from A's in three-team trade with the Rangers
Why he's interesting: He's maybe been baseball's best reliever

OK, OK -- no one actually thinks Pagán is the best reliever in baseball, not with Hader and Felipe Vázquez and Kirby Yates out there. And yet, when we look at Expected wOBA, a Statcast metric which looks at amount of contact (strikeouts and walks) as well as quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle), and we look at the 145 relievers who have faced at least 200 batters, look who we find at the top.

.213 -- Pagán, TB
.216 -- Liam Hendriks, OAK
.222 -- Yates, SD
.235 -- Hader, MIL
.236 -- Seth Lugo, NYM

MLB average -- .316

That's an impressive list, regardless of how you evaluate relievers. Pagán has been outstanding, posting a 2.15 ERA with 87 strikeouts -- and just 13 walks -- in 62 2/3 innings, thanks in part to elite rise on his four-seamer (tied for fifth-best in the Majors). As you'd expect, that rise has helped him miss bats, as his 36.6% strikeout rate is a Top 15 mark. But it's more than just that, too. Even when batters don't miss, Pagán has allowed the sixth-weakest quality of contact, thanks to preventing hard contact and inducing popups,

Pagán, remember, didn't even make the Opening Day roster. Ironically, after a good rookie year with Seattle in 2017 (3.22 ERA), Pagán struggled with Oakland in 2018 (4.35), and now the A's might have to deal with him directly in the Wild Card Game.

Nick Anderson

How was he acquired: July 2019, from Marlins in trade including Ryne Stanek
Why he's interesting: How do 31 strikeouts and 0 walks strike you?

We dug into Anderson in depth a few weeks ago, calling him "the best reliever traded at the Deadline," despite his rookie status and near-total lack of name recognition. At the time, we noted that Anderson had struck out 18 of his first 26 hitters as a Ray. Since then, he's faced 26 more. A baker's dozen of them have gone down via strikeout. None have walked.

Put all that together, and Anderson, with the Rays, has struck out 31 of the 52 batters he's faced and walked none. He's allowed one run. Over the full season, only Hader and Yates have higher strikeout rates than his 42%, and remember -- that was 37.1% with Miami and is 60% with Tampa Bay. This is a guy who couldn't make the Twins 40-man roster just last fall.

Like Pagan, Anderson has elite rise on his fastball, and as we detailed in August, Anderson's fastball/curveball combination -- and how similar they seem until it's too late to know they aren't -- are deadly. To say he's been "dominant" hardly seems like enough praise. No one outside of Florida knows who Anderson is. That's about to change.

Colin Poche

How was he acquired: February 2018, from D-backs in Steven Souza Jr. trade
Why he's interesting: The endless rising fastballs

We don't mean to belabor the point about fastball rise, but on the same list that Pagán is fifth on and Anderson is third on, Poche is first. No one gets more rise as compared to the average at his velocity as Poche does. That's good, because no one in the AL throws their fastball as often as Poche does -- 88.7% of the time, second in the Majors to Sean Doolittle's 89.1%. It only averages 93.1 mph. It better do something interesting.

It does, of course. In the Minors, Poche racked up 275 strikeouts in just 174 2/3 innings. In the Majors, so far, he's whiffed 65 more in 45 frames, which is a 36.1% rate. Because of the rising effect, he induces popups at the fifth-highest rate in baseball, and popups are basically one-pitch strikeouts.

Poche's 4.80 ERA doesn't stand out as anything special, in part because of an early home run problem, though he hasn't allowed one in his last 15 outings. Over that stretch, dating back nearly a month: 15 1/3 innings, 20 strikeouts and five hits -- though a concerning 13 walks.

Chaz Roe

How was he acquired: July 2017, acquired from Braves for "cash considerations"
Why he's interesting: Just watch the slider on an endless loop

Please enjoy a Roe slider. It's been a long day. You've earned it.

Why stop there?

Roe's slider has been an Internet favorite dating back at least to his days as an Oriole in 2015, and probably before that, too. You will be unsurprised when you look at the slider break leaderboards and find that he's at the top, with movement more than a foot above the average for his velocity and release.

+15.2 inches above average -- Roe, TB
+10.6 inches above average -- Sonny Gray, CIN
+10.5 inches above average -- Kyle Crick, PIT
+9.8 inches above average -- Adam Ottavino, NYY

Now, having one fun-looking pitch isn't the same thing as being a star pitcher, because Roe's 3.94 ERA this year is more good than great, mostly because he's walking more than five batters per nine innings. But as you'd expect, he's got a pretty large platoon split, with righties posting a mere .295 on-base against him in his career. You probably don't want him closing out a big game. You definitely want to watch that slider.

Diego Castillo

How was he acquired: March 2014, international free agent
Why he's interesting: Almost no one throws harder

For a few weeks early in the season, Castillo and Alvarado looked like they might form baseball's nastiest two-headed relief combo; through May 15, they'd combined for a 1.34 ERA in 40 1/3 innings. Unfortunately, injuries came for both, though Castillo has been back in the second half and he's been striking out 30.3% of the batters he's faced while doing it.

In the meantime, do note that Castillo throws extremely hard, averaging 98.2 mph on his fastballs. That's essentially as hard as Aroldis Chapman; it's in the 99th percentile of pitchers. He's touched triple digits 21 times this year, one of just seven pitchers to do so.

But because Castillo's main fastball is his sinking two-seamer, he does something else impressive, too: He avoids line drives. So far in 2019, there have been 403 pitchers with at least 100 batted balls, and Castillo's 15.2% line drive rate is the second-lowest, behind only the Yankees' Zack Britton. That's a good recipe.

Lightning round!

Oliver Drake has finally found a home, a year after setting a Major League record by appearing for five different teams (the Brewers, Indians, Angels, Blue Jays and Twins) in a single season. (Although even the Rays have designated him for assignment twice, last November and this January.) Thanks to a career-high 62% usage of his splitter, Drake also has a career-high 29.4% strikeout rate.

Austin Pruitt may or may not make the postseason roster, but if he does, it won't be difficult to see what the Rays like about him -- he's got 99th percentile spin on his curveball, though that hasn't yet translated to results. He did, however, throw 3 1/3 scoreless innings on Wednesday in Texas, a lone bright spot in a game that was otherwise a debacle.

Trevor Richards came from Miami in the Anderson trade. While he'd mostly been a starter there, he won't be in October. Interestingly, the Rays have managed to help him increase his strikeouts (from 21.3% to 26.6%) while at the same time cutting his walk rate in half (10.5% to 5.1%). He's cut his ERA from 4.50 with Miami to 2.33 with the Rays. That's not what you're here for, though. You're here for the changeup.

There it is. That's the good stuff.

Brendan McKay: The fourth overall pick in the 2017 Draft -- and to date the highest pick to reach the Majors -- was trumpeted as a two-way player, though he's primarily been a pitcher for the Rays. The results haven't quite been there yet, though he has whiffed 48 in 39 1/3 innings, and in his last outing, he dominated the Blue Jays, striking out seven of the 12 batters he faced.

There's others -- Jalen Beeks, Anthony Banda, Cole Sulser and Peter Fairbanks among them -- but you get the idea. These Rays relievers aren't household names. They won't win awards or make All-Star teams. They probably won't even be Rays in 24 months or so. But they're here now, and they'll be prominently featured in a potential Wild Card Game, too. Know them. You'll need to.