I remember things clear as day. There I stood on the Fourth of July, beneath the scoreboard in right-field, amongst the bleacher bums in Wrigley Field.
The Tampa Bay Rays had taken a sizable five-run lead against the reigning World Series champions, thanks to a two-run homer by Tim Beckham, a two-run double by Steven Souza Junior, and an RBI single by Chris Archer.
In response to what could be taken as gloating, yet in reality was actually me cheering on my home team, a couple of Chicago’s finest — clearly with a drunken chip upon their shoulders — got into a friendly conversation me toward the top of the fourth inning. The conversation lasted about an inning or so.
At some point in the top of the following frame, when the aforementioned bums were all but down and out, I turned to them and told them to bucker up … after all the batting order was a about to turn over for the third time, and Archer’s peripherals are pretty obscene the third and fourth times through the order — to the tune of an opposing .299 BA/.366 OBP/.486 SLG/.852 OPS/.364 wOBA the third time and .389 BA/.450 SLG/.778 SLG/1.228 OPS/.506 wOBA the fourth time.
As if on cue, the Cubs mounted a two-out rally in the bottom of the fifth inning after Evan Longoria allowed Jon Jay to reach third on a bunt single and an error. Kris Bryant followed by plating a run on a single up the middle, and Anthony Rizzo walked to put a pair of runners on the bags for Ben Zobrist, who promptly sent a laser to right field for the second run of the inning. Archer came back and got Ian Happ swinging to put an end to the threat, but not before Chicago closed the gap to three-runs. Alex Colome later made the game a bit too interesting, yet Tampa Bay eked out a one-run victory over the Cubs.
This type of outing was not the exception for Archer or the Rays, rather it was the rule. More often than not, however, Tampa Bay did not have the benefit of a lead padded by multiple runs, rather most of the team’s leads were hairline advantages at best.
Fast forward to the 2017 Winter Meetings, when Kevin Cash defended his imminent plan to pull starters, at times, prior to the third time through the order, saying:
There is going to have to be constant selling. … At the of the day it’s about winning games and if we feel we can get a better matchup earlier in the ballgame why wouldn’t we use it? It’s going to be constant communication.
Cash, months earlier, lavished Joe Girardi for his decision to pull CC Sabathia from a game against Tampa Bay:
When you have the relievers and you have a certain style of pitcher, why not do it? Cash said of the quick hook. It’s an advantage. It’s proven over baseball that different looks challenge opposing lineups. (David) Robertson, (Dellin) Betances and (Aroldis) Chapman are gonna challenge (you) whenever they’re pitching, but the buy-in to get that done has been pretty impressive.
With this pair of game scenarios in mind a question begs: Does Kevin Cash’s plan, to give his starters an early hook, have legs to stand on? Let’s take a look.
The first thing to note is that this proposal, while relatively new to Rays’ fans, is one that is based on reason. In 2013 Mitchel Lichtman wrote an article on this very subject for Baseball Prospectus. Lichtman found that the more times a batter faces a pitcher during a game, the better he does at the plate — which is especially true of pitchers who rely on just two pitches.
Theoretically, a starter’s wOBA should be about the same for batters 1-9, and then 10-18, etc., since the pitcher is obviously the same, and in most cases the batters are more or less the same (I don’t include pitchers batting or pinch hitters), writes Lichtman. You might even think that a pitcher improves as the game goes on, as he gets thoroughly warmed up — especially on a cold night — and gets a feel for all of his pitches, at least until he perhaps enters a decline phase due to fatigue, assuming he is allowed to stay in the game that long.
But that’s not what we see, as the last letter of the acronym TTOP implies. Here are some actual numbers from The Book based on data from 1999-2002. The total sample is 469,721 PA between starting pitchers and starting lineups, not including IBB and bunts.
Contrary to what may seem like conventional wisdom, pitch count has nothing to with the sharp decline in a hurler’s numbers from the second time through the order — when a pitcher’s wOBA tends to stabilize — to the third. On the contrary, a batter has a significant advantage based on the average number of pitches seen per PA.
In short, if a batter has seen more than four pitches in his first PA, he hits 25 points better the second time around.
Lichtman listed a handy bullet point summary which tends to back up Cash:
- The first time through the order, pitchers pitch better than they do overall. This “first time” effect is magnified in the first inning, especially for the home pitcher.
- Starters get progressively worse as they face the lineup for the second, third, and fourth times. The fourth-time penalty gets masked in outdoor games, especially at night, and in the ninth and later innings.
- A pitcher’s career “times through the order” patterns have almost no predictive value. We can assume that all starting pitchers have roughly the same “true talent” TTOP, regardless of what they have shown in the past.
- Good and bad pitchers show around the same magnitude of TTOP. The third time through the order, all starters are expected to pitch around .35 runs per nine innings worse than they do overall.
- Pitch count does not seem to have much of an effect on the TTOP. For example, going into the third time through the order, whether a pitcher has thrown 60 or 75 pitches doesn’t seem to matter much.
- For an individual batter, the number of pitches seen makes a huge difference. The largest difference is from the first to the second time through the order. If a batter sees fewer than three pitches in his first PA, he hits 10 points better his second time at the plate. If he sees more than four pitches his first time up, he hits 25 points better on his second go-around!
From there, the number of starting pitchers facing at least 19 batters in an outing is in a five-year decline, extending back to 2013, thanks to the findings of Lichtman and sabermetricians.
(From 2010 to 2017, as a starter and sorted by the greatest performances matching selected criteria in a season.)
At the same time, this isn’t an entirely new idea for Cash or the Rays. The first two years of Cash have not been much different from the final two years of Joe Maddon.
(From 2014 to 2017, Playing for Tampa Bay as a starter, and sorted by greatest performances matching selected criteria in a season.)
In 2017, Tampa Bay’s starters went an average 5.5 innings per start and faced an average of 23.4 batters per outing, or somewhere between two and three times through the batting order. And of the starters, Jacob Faria (.228 BA/.307 OBP/.325 SLG/.632 OPS/.279 wOBA) and Alex Cobb (.243 BA/.301 OBP/.414 SLG/.308 wOBA) were the most dependable after the second time through the order. That is to say without Cobb the impetus will be on the Rays skipper to give the majority of next season’s starters the early hook at any indication the game might slip away.
What’s that? You’d prefer Cash to not depend on this strategy? I would imagine it will unless the Rays can either find a way to put up an early sizable lead which they can hold, or if they are buried without the hope of mounting a comeback. Easy right?
Utilizing this strategy means that Cash will have to lean more frequently on his relievers. Yet Tampa Bay has not had the benefit a lock down ‘pen for the bulk of the last two seasons; the second half of last season precluded. In an ideal world, the Rays front office would target strike throwers to compensate for the loss of Tommy Hunter, Steve Cishek, and Sergio Romo … although Romo is still available on the free-agent market.
As Jason Collette (The Process Report) noted, only so many relievers can handle the 70+ appearance and the 90+ IP workload that using a bullpen in this way would demand. Expect the Rays to build their ‘pen with strike throwers with options that they can shuffle to and from Triple-A Durham.
Additionally Cash would no doubt have to lean on A and B bullpens in order to steer the ‘pen away from burnout, meaning the A-late relievers will not get extended as much as the A-middle relievers, or the B-relievers that could be optioned back to Triple-A in lieu of a fresher arm.
In the end though, none of this will be worth a damn though unless the Rays can put up runs or have a quality stash of relievers.