The Tampa Bay Rays are back in the playoffs for the first time in six years. They got here thanks to excellent run prevention from a bunch of folks, some of whom weren’t even on the radar when the season started.
The Rays are used to the underdog role, which is to be expected when sharing a division with the behemoth Yankees and Red Sox. Tampa Bay was largely an also ran for a spell, with losing records every season from 2014-17. When they were actually good, winning 90 games in 2018, they were swallowed up with two 100-win teams in their own division.
So when 28-year-old rookie reliever Nick Anderson skyrocketed in the standings when acquired from the Marlins on July 31, we can forgive him for not realizing his good fortune.
“Honestly, I didn’t even know that until some of the other guys on the Marlins were like, ‘Hey dude, you’re going to a playoff team’,” Anderson says. “I didn’t even know that.”
What Anderson brought to the Rays was a weapon that completely neutralizes right-handed batters — .183/.234/.305 against him all year — and whose 110 strikeouts ranked third among major league relievers.
He’s completely dominated in whatever role we’ve asked of him,” Rays manager Kevin Cash says. “A guy who can command the fastball at the top of the zone. He’s got a wipeout breaking ball when he needs to go to it. For a guy with very little major league experience, it’s been pretty impressive to watch how he goes about it with the game on the line.”
Since joining the Rays, Anderson has been even stingier, with 41 strikeouts against only two walks. Anderson came from the Marlins along with Trevor Richards, and the two righties have combined for a 2.01 ERA in 44⅔ innings with Tampa Bay.
A group effort
The Rays ranked third in the majors in runs allowed at 4.04 per game, behind only the 106-win Dodgers and the 107-win Astros. Tampa Bay’s 122 ERA+ — roughly 22 percent above average after adjusting for park and league — is their best in franchise history, fueling their 96 wins that one shy of another team record.
Tampa Bay had 14 different pitchers post at least a 100 ERA+ in at least 40 innings in 2019. The old record was 13 such pitchers, set by four teams that all made the postseason, including two championship squads.
Roster churning has been a staple for the Rays, a corollary to their aggressive bullpen use. Tampa Bay made 603 pitching changes in 2019, second only to Boston in the majors, and fifth-most in major league history.
Austin Pruitt is one of those average or above contributors this year for the Rays, and he’s been back and forth between the minors and majors nine times.
Oliver Drake set a record in 2018 by pitching in the majors for five different teams, one of the best performances ever in navigating the waiver wire. Amazingly, not one of those teams were the Rays, who made up for this transgression by acquiring the pitcher two different times last offseason.
Drake didn’t even join the Rays until late May, and still pitched 50 games in relief with 70 strikeouts. He was one of four different Tampa Bay pitchers not on their opening day roster to post a sub-3.00 ERA after the All-Star break. Marlins imports Anderson and Richards were two others, as was Emilio Pagan.
Pagan started the season in Triple-A Durham after he was the last roster cut in spring training, and didn’t join the Rays until the third week of the season. All he’s done since is post a 2.31 ERA in 70 innings, with 96 strikeouts.
“It was probably our toughest decision of spring. Since he’s been back he’s made that decision not look like the smartest,” Cash says. “I don’t know where we’d be without him.”
Pagan has been the Rays’ primary closer with 20 saves, though trying to box a Rays pitcher into a traditional role is a fool’s errand. He’s one of 11 different pitchers to save a game for Tampa Bay in 2019.
“Whether he’s pitching the ninth or the seventh, he doesn’t care. That’s what’s been so special about our bullpen, their buy-in, and the versatility to pitch in any inning when the game’s on the line,” Cash says. “Emilio wants the ball when the game’s on the line. We want him to have it.”
The buy-in extended to Anderson, and other Rays relievers.
“That’s the way the whole staff is. Everybody will take the ball whenever,” Anderson says. “If you can treat every inning the same and just be ready whenever it is, I think that’s definitely beneficial.”
“Our style of pitching, our game-planning approach is not that deep, Cash said. “We really ask our pitchers to simplify things.”