Andrew Stetka: Could O’s learn from Rays’ new pitching strategy?

The long-running baseball standard of seeing starting pitchers go deep into games is falling by the wayside. This is not news, as it’s been happening for years. Starting pitchers are throwing fewer innings. It used to be that starters would pitch complete games regularly. In fact, the last three full seasons have seen the lowest number of complete games in major league history. There were 104 thrown in 2015, 83 in 2016 and just 59 times did a pitcher go the distance last season. Long gone are the days of the 1970s, when that number would regularly eclipse 1,000. That trend is being twisted even further to the extreme by one of the Orioles’ division rivals - the Rays.

If you haven’t been paying attention to the team from St. Petersburg, Fla., they’ve been going about things differently with their pitching staff this season. They’ve used just three regular starters - Chris Archer, Blake Snell and Jacob Faria - and not because of injury issues or lack of execution. They’ve done it purely by choice, electing to piece the rest of their games together by “bullpening.” It’s a term that’s become popular in the analytical world. The Rays are using a number of pitchers to piece together games in shorter outings.

They took it a step further this weekend against the Angels, using reliever Sergio Romo as their starting pitcher in back-to-back games. Romo started Saturday and Sunday, going one inning in his first start and recording four outs before being removed yesterday. He struck out six between the two starts and didn’t allow a run. Tampa Bay pieced together Saturday’s game with 6 1/3 innings from Ryan Yarbrough followed by three other relievers and got a win. Yesterday, they followed Romo with three different pitchers and ended up suffering a 5-2 loss after allowing two unearned runs. Regardless of the results in such a small sample size, what’s important to focus on is the process of doing something like this.

Part of the motivation for the Rays in doing this is allowing someone who would normally be a high-leverage reliever to face the top of the order. The idea is that he gets you through the first, maybe second inning, then gives way to a traditional starter or long reliver who can hopefully get you into the fifth or sixth inning. In doing so, the second pitcher would ideally only have to face the top of the order twice, rather than facing them a third time. It’s simply a different way of going about getting your 27 outs.

You’re probably asking why I’ve spent so much time talking about the Rays on a blog devoted to Orioles coverage. I’m glad you asked. The Orioles have been abysmal pitching in the first inning this season. They have a major league-worst 10.96 ERA in the first inning and have allowed 18 home runs in the opening frame. It’s not good for anyone, including your offense, when you look up entering the second inning and you’re already behind. Opponents are simply battering O’s starters early on.

Many have suggested the approach the Rays are taking would be best suited for the Orioles. Using Mychal Givens or Darren O’Day in the first inning could allow O’s starters to see fewer heavy hitters and get into the middle innings. Givens and O’Day have also had relative success this year and would be fits against a top of the order that leans right-handed. Richard Bleier could be utilized if the top of the order is heavy on left-handed hitters, and could even stretch into a second inning when the situation calls for it. There are arguments against this idea, the loudest coming from those who believe that giving players more defined roles allows them to be more relaxed in whichever situation they enter a game.

This isn’t an idea or concept that I’m arguing for or against. I’m more curious as to seeing where it goes and how it develops for the Rays. I wonder if it’s something that could be applied to the Orioles. It’s also an idea that’s obviously not something meant to save the season for the Orioles. It’s a more broad thought that can be discussed over a big picture. The game of baseball continually evolves and changes, as we’ve seen happen with starting pitchers having their innings shrink over the years. What the Rays are doing could be too extreme, but it could also be the start of an extreme change.

Andrew Stetka blogs about the Orioles for Eutaw Street Report. Follow him on Twitter: @AStetka. His thoughts on the O’s appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s continuing commitment to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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