Despite Their Starting Situation, The Tampa Bay Rays Have A Great Bullpen

With the recent move to the 60-day disabled list of club ace, Shane McClanahan, the Tampa Bay Rays are now short of a shocking amount of quality arms. Their disabled list for starting pitching alone now contains all of McClanahan, the forever underappreciated Jeffrey Springs, Drew Rasmussen and prized prospect Shane Baz – essentially, their number one, four, five and seven starters.

Numbers two, three and six are nonetheless very good. Tyler Glasnow is fragile but exceptional, Zach Eflin is exhibiting Greg Maddux-esque control in his first season in Tampa, and Aaron Civale has a 25:2 strikeout to walk ratio since his trade from the Cleveland Guardians. Yet to lose McClanahan, their All-Star ace, on top of the early season losses of Springs and Rasmussen, should prove terminal to any World Series aspirations of a team that was at one point a dead cert for a 100-win season.

If there is to be any chance of competitiveness salvaged from the ashes, it will have to come from a combination of a three-man rotation ascending to greatness, the line-up continuing to rake, and the bullpen being extremely reassuring. The removal from the roster of Wander Franco very much hinders the second of these. But at least the bullpen is in place.

The Rays have filled innings all season with a view to lessening the workload on the back end guys, something given added importance by the team’s largely non-negotiable strategy of not allowing starters to run three times through a line-up. If it was not for this finagling, the bullpen might be as decimated by injury as the starters. As it is, only Garrett Cleavinger is missing long-term from the high-leverage pen, and his injury came from a collision rather than wear and tear.

Because of that, and because of some in-season pick-ups that have paid dividends, the Rays have a clear front eight in the pen for the stretch run of the season. Between the incumbents, the trade acquisitions and the cheap pick-ups, the Rays have put together a quality bullpen

  • Acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates earlier in the season in an exchange for light-hitting middle infielder Alika Williams, veteran hard thrower Robert Stephenson has reshaped his pitch as a Ray, and seen his ERA+ go from 90 to 148 as a result.
  • Although he is currently on the 15-day disabled list, Rule 5 draft pick-up Kevin Kelly has been having an excellent rookie season. The sidearmer mostly locates his hard-breaking offerings, and in a variable role that has included long relief, last-guy duties and (increasingly often) high-leverage situations, he has only gotten better as the season has gone on. In 54.1 innings over 48 appearances, he has recorded a 119 ERA+ and a 1.10 WHIP, highlighted by a two-month stretch between 12th May and 19th July in which he did not give up a single run.
  • Andrew Kittredge is returning from injury, and has only pitched 2.1 innings on the season to date. Across the previous three seasons, though, he gave up only 24 earned runs in 99.2 innings of work, with only 19 walks compared to 91 strikeouts.
  • From the left side, although his career-long high walk rate makes him too unreliable to be a high-leverage arm except when it is necessitated, mid-season free agency pick-up Jake Diekman has been having his best season since 2020. With the Chicago White Sox to open the season, Diekman had a 7.94 ERA; with the Rays, it has tumbled all the way down to 2.91.
  • While maligned by the fanbase for some pivotal blown saves in previous seasons, it is surely indisputable that as a total body of work, fellow lefty Colin Poche’s season has been very effective. Tempering the home run problem of his career to date, Poche has a 1.16 WHIP and a 2.47 ERA, being able to pitch to hitters from both sides of the plate.
  • Despite being one of the best pitchers in all of baseball this season, the wonderfully-named Shawn Armstrong still only has one hold and no saves on the season, in large part as much of his usage has come as an opener or second opener. Nevertheless, variable as his role may have been, the results have been indisputable; 40.2 IP, a .170 batting average against, 44 strikeouts, only eight walks, a 0.89 ERA and a 0.79 WHIP. He has appeared in 27 games and given up runs in precisely three of them.
  • The eighth inning guy is once again Jason Adam, last year’s breakout star. Putting in as nearly as good of a 2023 as he had in 2022, Adam has ridden his three-pitch mix to a 2.67 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and .168 batting average against on the season. If those represent a slight backwards step, that is a testament to quite how dominant he was previously.
  • Similarly, closer Pete Fairbanks’s 0.95 WHIP is only a downgrade because of the astronomical 0.68 he posted last season. He has 18 saves in 37 appearances, and has given up runs in only six of them.

Season-long bullpen metrics do not flatter the Rays as much as the above does. As of today, they rank only 15th in the majors in relief ERA, as middle of the pack as it is possible to be. That said, that number includes the work of far less reliable arms such as Javy Guerra, Calvin Faucher, Luis Patino and Jalen Beeks, all now off the active roster (and in the case of Patino, out of the franchise altogether). It also includes the performances of position player Luke Raley, who has given up nine earned runs in comedic blowout performances, the same amount as Fairbanks.

Once these now-irrelevant contributions that anchor the overall statistics are removed, and the remaining arms evaluated on their own merits, the Rays have positioned themselves to have one of the best relief staffs of any postseason team. It is just a shame that, given the shortages in the rotation, it is not likely to be enough.

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