Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Tampa Bay experiments

An intriguing statistical tidbit from the weekend (no longer up to the minute):

Since the Rays shut out the Nationals on Tuesday, the larger point still stands. This is a team running with two traditional starters, and almost five weeks into it, with a bunch of games against good lineups, it's working.

I caught the end of the Rays' 1-0 win Tuesday, which featured some really out-of-the-box managerial strategy from Kevin Cash.

Top of the ninth, the Nats have up Bryce Harper (lefty), followed by Anthony Rendon (righty), Juan Soto (lefty) and Daniel Murphy (lefty). Four high quality hitters. Cash brings in Jose Alvarado, his top lefty reliever. Alvarado promptly walks Harper, who showed bunt on practically every pitch.

Now ... Cash doesn't want Alvarado pitching to Rendon with the tying run on, but he wants him to face Soto and Murphy. What to do?

His answer: He pulled right fielder Johnny Fields; moved Mallex Smith from left to right, shifted first baseman Jake Bauers to left field and had Alvarado play first base (with Bauers' glove), with Chaz Roe coming in to pitch. (As a sidelight to all this, the Rays lose the DH). Alvarado was laughing as he took his new position.

This kind of thing -- moving the pitcher to a defensive position for a batter -- isn't unprecedented. Paul Richards did it a few times in the 1950s, and Whitey Herzog did it in the 1980s. But they generally were putting the transplant someplace where they didn't expect the ball to go. First base may carry the lightest physical demands, but the first baseman is quite likely to touch the ball.

So the Nats announcers are speculating on whether Roe dares try a pickoff throw and if Rendon should bunt toward first and force Alvarado to make a play. There are a lot of ways for the Nationals to try to take advantage of this novice playing first base.

And they did none of them. Harper doesn't take a monster lead and steal second; Rendon doesn't bunt toward first. Rendon strikes out.

And Cash undoes all his earlier moves. Bauers reclaims his glove and returns to first, Smith goes back to left, Carlos Gomez comes in to play right, and Alvarado returns to the mound (and gets his warmup pitches). The Rays have lost their DH for the remainder of the game, but they have their favored lefty to face Soto and Murphy, so they're where they want to be.

Soto singles to center, Harper stops at second. Murphy singles to left; Harper stops at third. All this maneuvering to get Alvarado to face the lefties, and he retires none of 'em.

Now the Nats have right-handed hitters up, Trea Turner and Michael A. Taylor. Cash brings in Sergio Romo, who throws a few sliders and pops up Turner and fans Taylor, end of game.

And all the postgame attention went not to Cash's brainstorm but to the postgame yelling by Romo at Taylor, who apparently drew Romo's ire in a previous game by stealing a base. Eyeroll.

That, in my mind, is just stupid jock stuff. It's nowhere near as interesting as a pitcher playing first for a batter.

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