Blue Jays fail to combat Rays’ unconventional pitching strategy

Wilson Ramos hit a two-run shot and six Rays relievers stalled the Blue Jays offence in a 4-1 loss.

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. — Tuesday, the Toronto Blue Jays lost to the Tampa Bay Rays, 4-1. Jaime Garcia was tagged with all four runs, although Joe Biagini was on the mound when two of them scored. Garcia could have been better, but you could say that for all Blue Jays — and the club’s wayward season, too.

Other than that, there isn’t a lot to say about this loss. It was Toronto’s 37th in 67 games, and there will be many more like it as the Blue Jays continue coasting towards a grim inevitability. But what happened right at the beginning of the game was pretty interesting. So, we’re going to talk about that.

“I don’t particularly like it,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons was saying, leaning back in his team’s dugout before the game. “I like the way the game’s been run for 100-plus years.”

Gibbons was talking about the chess match he encountered Tuesday night, when he was confronted with Rays manager Kevin Cash’s novel approach to starting pitching: the opener.

With a rotation in shambles due to injury, and the freedom from a forward-thinking front office to experiment with innovative approaches, Cash has been starting some of his team’s games with relievers. The relief pitcher will face the first five or six batters before giving way to a more conventional starter, who will throw anywhere from two to seven innings.

One reason for the strategy is that starting pitchers tend to lose effectiveness during their third trip through the lineup (MLB starters had a 5.55 ERA their third time through in 2017), while opposition lineups tend to feature a team’s weakest hitters in the bottom third of the order. If a pitcher begins his outing with that bottom third, he’ll be facing those same weak hitters when he begins his third trip through. That should, in theory, give him a better chance of success.

Meanwhile, the relief pitcher who opens the game can throw with maximum effort against the potent top of the opposition lineup and not worry about having to face those same hitters again later on. This can be particularly effective against teams that don’t feature much platoon variety at the top of their order.

When he first tried this in May, Cash called on reliever Sergio Romo — who dominates right-handed hitting — to start back-to-back games against the Angels, who feature a run of right-handed batters at the top of their lineup. Romo didn’t allow a run while opening both games, striking out six of the nine batters he faced.

And there’s more method to the madness. Coming into Tuesday’s play, 1,091 runs had been scored in the first inning across MLB this season, the most of any frame. Plus, hitters had a 109 wRC+ in the first, higher than in any other inning. While common logic says the highest leverage situations arrive late in games, there’s actually reason to believe they occur at the beginning.

Runs scored

And so, for those reasons and more, Cash sent word Monday night that he’d be starting hard-throwing right-handed reliever Ryne Stanek against the Blue Jays Tuesday. It’s not the first time this has happened. Stanek had already made three starts as an opener this season, most recently last week against the Seattle Mariners, who he held off the board in a scoreless first inning before giving way to starter Austin Pruitt, who threw seven innings of relief.

Always happy to be underestimated, Gibbons said “I’m not going to overthink it” when asked before the game about how he constructed his lineup in response to the tactic. But he was clearly playing along. Gibbons placed three left-handed hitters — Curtis Granderson, plus switch-hitters Yangervis Solarte and Justin Smoak — within the first four spots of his batting order, while leaving a run of right-handers in the bottom five.

That was to combat Stanek, whose can use an imposing fastball-slider mix to neutralize right-handed hitting. It was a decent idea in theory, but one that didn’t work in practice — three of Toronto’s first four batters struck out against Stanek as he cruised through two perfect innings. Stanek used his change-up to keep the left-handers he faced off balance, while running his fastball up to 99-mph.

Pruitt took over from there, and suddenly the Blue Jays were facing a finesse pitcher who threw more breaking balls than fastballs. Pruitt worked two scoreless innings before facing a jam in the fifth when he put runners on second and third with none out.

Pruitt struck out Luke Maile, allowed a run to score on a Devon Travis groundout, and then was lifted for left-handed reliever Jonny Venters with the left-handed hitting Granderson and the top of the Blue Jays order due up.

To his credit, Gibbons had anticipated exactly this scenario, predicting it during his session with the media before the game. It’s why he used Granderson as his designated hitter Tuesday and left switch-hitter Kendrys Morales on his bench. Once Venters entered the game, Gibbons called on Morales — who fares well against left-handers — to pinch hit in the fifth inning, much earlier than he likely would have under normal circumstances.

But it was a high leverage situation. The Blue Jays trailed by only one, and they had a runner in scoring position with a favourable platoon match-up. It made sense for Gibbons to make his move.

And yet, the Rays remained a step ahead. Four consecutive pitches sailed well wide of the zone — effectively an intentional walk — and Morales took his free base. Solarte was next, a much better match-up for Venters, and he bounced the first pitch he saw into an inning-ending groundout. That also brought an end to the chess match, as Gibbons had only two players remaining on his bench, one a weak-hitting utility infielder, the other a catcher.

“It worked out the way we don’t mind,” Gibbons said of getting Morales up against Venters in the fifth. “They just shut us down. They did a nice job.”

In an interesting way, this series of events demonstrated Cash’s thinking. Toronto’s best opportunity to break through in the game, and the highest leverage a Tampa Bay pitcher faced, didn’t come late. It came early, when Stanek was dominating the top of Toronto’s order. And it came again in the fifth, when Gibbons played his lone card with Morales.

Gibbons is clearly not a fan of the strategy, but on Tuesday the opener helped hand his team a loss. And who’s starting Wednesday for the Rays in the series finale? Career reliever Wilmer Font.

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