The Tampa Bay Rays pitchers may not be well known outside baseball circles, but they have the nastiest stuff out there.
You better score on them early.
Actually, you’ll be lucky to score on them at all.
The Tampa Bay Rays are armed with a bevy of mid-to-high 90s flamethrowers. And it doesn’t matter if it’s the first inning or the ninth, the Rays blow smoke all game long.
And that’s not all.
The Rays also have budding star Brendan McKay – who chucks fastballs off the mound and smacks homers at the plate.
Then there’s the bullpen. Oh, there’s the pen.
There’s lefty Jose Alvarado, who slings 98-mph sinkers and wipeout sliders. There’s Diego Castillo who throws blistering 100-mph fastballs. There’s Nick Anderson who throws 97 mph like it’s nothing. There’s Chaz Roe, who throws a slider that moves more like a frisbee than a baseball.
No question, the Rays built baseball’s nastiest pitching staff up and down the roster – starters and relievers. The staff ranked second in the MLB last year with a 3.65 ERA, and led them to baseball’s seventh best record, at 96-66.
The Rays built a dominant pitching staff through judicious draft picks, frugal free agent signings, and one pivotal, lopsided trade. And they did it all without much money. The Rays are one of Major League Baseball’s poorest franchises. Tampa’s lack of revenue means they have to build their roster differently than wealthy franchises like the Yankees, Cubs, or Red Sox. Tampa has to be frugal. They have to hit on their draft picks. They don’t have the latitude to hand out bottomless millions to free agents.
The Tampa Bay Rays duplicated the Oakland A’s strategy of operation, otherwise known as the Moneyball approach. The A’s are notorious for finding ways to win with an exceptionally low payroll, using sabermetrics to evaluate players and determine the best players they can afford.
Tampa did the exact same thing. The Rays finished near the top of the standings last year, but they were at the bottom of the league in payroll. What makes their 96-66 record even more impressive is the fact they only spent $53.5 million – 30th in the MLB.
The Rays haven’t let their financial limitations stop them from contending. Their witty draft picks, wise free-agent spending, and shrewd trades solidified their pitching staff.
It began with drafting Snell 52nd overall in 2011. Snell combines a smoldering 96-to-98 mph fastball with a curveball that moves more than a truck driver. Those two pitches helped Snell dominate batters en route to winning the 2018 Cy Young, when he struck out 221 batters in 180.2 innings, while posting a pint-sized 1.89 ERA.
Then, Tampa signed two electric international free agents – Alvarado out of Venezuela in 2012, and Castillo out of the Dominican Republic in 2014. Both hurlers light up the radar gun like Ferraris on the interstate, averaging 98 mph on their respective fastballs. Alvarado throws a heavy two-seam fastball that plummets as it reaches the plate. Castillo dares batters to hit his fastball that routinely touches 100 mph.
Third, the Rays drafted do-it-all lefty Mckay fourth overall in 2017. As mentioned, Mckay not only pitches, but swings the bat as well. He features a four-pitch mix, including a mid-90s fastball, a looping curveball, a straight change up, and a cutter. Mckay made his big-league debut last season, and experienced mixed results. He posted a 5.14 ERA, but struck out 56 batters in 49 innings. As far as hitting goes, Mckay only got 10 at-bats, but he whacked his first career homer. The numbers don’t look great, but Mckay has only scratched the surface of his potential, and once he gets more big-league experience, he should become a rock-solid member of the Rays rotation.
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Next, Tampa swindled the Pittsburgh Pirates at the 2018 trade deadline. The Rays sent aging ace Chris Archer to the Pirates in exchange for three prospects: pitchers Glasnow and Shane Baz, along with outfielder Austin Meadows. The old adage that hindsight is 20/20 could not be more true in this case.
The Pirates tried to make a splash by acquiring Archer – who, at the time, was considered one of baseball’s top-tier starters. But Archer has been battered around like a pinata since arriving in Pittsburgh, going 6-12 with a 4.75 ERA. Archer turns 32 in September, and his fastball velocity dipped from 95.5 mph in 2017 to a career low 94.1 last season.
On the flip side, the Rays made out like bandits. Meadows made his first All-Star appearance last season, while crushing 33 homers with a .291 batting average. Glasnow – who’s just 26 – looks like an ace in the making. He’s long and lanky at 6-foot-8, winds up like a rubber band, and whips an upper-90s fastball towards the plate. He also throws a devastating 12-6 curveball that complements his heater, and those two pitches should help Glasnow become a key cog in the Rays rotation for a long time. Lastly, the Rays received Baz, who’s dominated the minor leagues so far, striking out 165 batters in 157.1 innings, with a 3.60 ERA.
Tampa put the finishing touches on their rotation by signing Morton following the 2018 season. Morton brings veteran leadership and playoff experience to a very young team. He broke into the league in 2008, and became known as a sinkerball pitcher – a guy who manipulates hitters into making weak contact, in contrast to a pitcher who blows batters away with sheer velocity. For much of his career, Morton threw a two-seam fastball in the low-90s, attempting to get hitters out with pitches at the bottom of the strike zone.
But that changed in 2017 when Morton signed with the Astros. Houston convinced Morton to change his philosophy from a sinkerball pitcher to a power pitcher. Instead of throwing heavy two-seamers at the knees, Houston advised Morton to throw four-seam fastballs at the top of the strike zone, hoping to strike batters out instead of inducing weak contact.
It worked, brilliantly.
In 2015 Morton’s average fastball was clocked at 92.5 mph, and his ERA ugly: 4.81. But in 2018, Morton slung his fastball through the strike zone at 96.1 mph, and his results were vastly different: 15-3 record, 3.13 ERA, and 201 strikeouts in 167 innings. Houston turned Morton from a fringe major-leaguer to one of the game’s most imposing pitchers with a mid-to-high 90s fastball.
Morton’s contract in Houston was up after the 2018 season, and the Rays recognized his incredible turnaround, so they nabbed him with a two-year, $30 million deal. Morton headlined Tampa’s rotation last year, and continued his success, going 16-6 with a career low 3.05 ERA, while striking out 240 batters in 194.2 innings.
There’s no question the Rays pieced together one of the best pitching staffs in the game, and I believe their dominant pitchers will give them a chance to dethrone the Yankees as the AL East’s top team.
The Rays and Yanks were only separated by seven games in the standings last year, yet they were separated by nearly $152 million in payroll.
More food for thought: the Rays spent $30 million to make Morton their ace. The Yankees spent $324 million to make Gerrit Cole their ace. Cole was supposed to make $36 million this season – more than the Rays spent on Morton’s entire contract.
When you consider Tampa’s lack of resources, it’s laudable and incredible they’ve built one of the game’s best pitching staffs with relative pennies.
This is truly a David vs. Goliath-esque battle.
The Rays are the definitive underdogs, and they’re bound to be forgotten by the national media.
But don’t overlook the Tampa Bay Rays. Don’t disregard baseball’s nastiest – and most astutely built – pitching staff.