Rays' focus after Opening Week? Throw more strikes

April 2nd, 2024

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.

ST. PETERSBURG -- It can be difficult to boil down the Rays’ pitching philosophy, given the number of distinctive arms they employ and how many different paths they take to find success. There’s a lot of data, a ton of coaching and a bunch of work on each individual pitcher’s part.

But the simplest message the Rays preach is, essentially, “Trust your stuff and throw it over the plate.”

Pitching coach Kyle Snyder often talks about wanting pitchers to “understand the cost of a ball,” especially ball one. Consider: Last season, Major League hitters batted .260/.380/.446 after starting a plate appearance with a first-pitch ball. By comparison, the league hit just .219/.266/.352 after a first-pitch strike.

So, if there’s one part of the Rays’ 2-3 start to the season that inspires legitimate frustration, more than a couple quiet nights for the lineup or a few misplaced pitches getting launched over the fence, it’s the number of walks.

The Rays have walked 26 batters through their first five games, a franchise record to start the season, surpassing the 1999 club by one. In fact, it’s the first time they’ve issued that many walks in a five-game span at any point in the season since they walked 27 batters over five games from Aug. 11-15, 2021, and just the third time since the start of the 2019 season.

“Overall, we’ve just got to start throwing strikes. We’re just not doing that,” manager Kevin Cash told reporters after Monday night’s 9-3 loss to the Rangers. "I think our entire group is capable of throwing more strikes.”

To be fair, some have. Consider the Rays’ walk totals, by game: seven, one, three, eight, seven. (Care to hazard a guess which two of those games they won?) They’ve dropped the last two, the first time they have walked at least seven batters in consecutive games since a doubleheader in Boston on May 1, 2014.

Last season, the Rays had the third-best walk rate (7.3%) in the Majors. They led the league in that metric in 2022 (6.5%) and ranked third in ’21 (7.3%), ’20 (7.6%) and ‘19 (7.4%). So far this season, only the Marlins are walking more batters per nine innings than the Rays.

Typically, the Rays acquire and fill out their staff with pitchers who have the kind of stuff that will play in the zone. Then they do what they can to instill confidence in their pitchers while stressing the importance of throwing strikes. Get ahead first, then make hitters chase out of the zone with two strikes.

But lefty demonstrated the difficulty of falling behind in the count during his bulk-inning outing Sunday afternoon, even if he only walked two batters in his five innings of work.

“It's the big leagues. Balls are balls,” he said. “If you don't establish strikes early, they don't swing and then you find yourself behind in counts. These are big league hitters, so they hit balls hard.”

Cash said after Sunday’s game he would “like to think” this wildness is just an early season, small-sample-size issue. Alexander, for instance, only walked five batters in 44 innings last year. had 11 walks in 52 innings last season but had three in his first two appearances this past week. walked five batters over eight outings last year then issued four in his 5 2/3-inning Rays debut.

“They've done such a good job for so long of controlling the zone and getting ahead, and we'll get back to that,” Cash said Sunday. “The walks have been a little uncharacteristic.”

It was clear after Monday’s defeat the Rays would like to make sure they remain that way.

“We’ll get it right, real quick,” Cash said.