Ahead in pitch count
To be a pitching team or a hitting team? That was the question for the Rays. The answer: start with strong pitching.
By MARC TOPKIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 5, 1999
ST. PETERSBURG -- Someday, the Devil Rays would like to be like the New York Yankees are now.
Until then, they have to be something.
After considerable forethought, they decided that what they didnt want to be was a stereotypical American League bully, a team like some recent Cleveland and Seattle squads, ones whose best chance to win came from flexing their offensive muscle and pulverizing their opponents.
Given a choice and being an expansion club with a limited budget, the Rays believed they had to make one they decided to make strong pitching their foundation, supplement it with sturdy defense and add offense when they could.
Your quickest way to the top is going to be through pitching, said manager Larry Rothschild, who, naturally, used to be a pitching coach. Its going to have to be outstanding pitching, but it can be done. Thats not to say were not going to have the ability to score runs at some point in the future; well do it this year. But you still have to have the pitching. Look at teams who win. Theyre pretty solid with pitching.
The way the economics are today, its hard to put both together. Youre sometimes stuck, especially early on, deciding to go one way or the other.
General manager Chuck LaMar said he knew from the outset the Rays would have to go one way or the other.
Philosophically, we had to make certain decisions at the start of building this organization, and building with pitching and defense was one of those philosophies, he said.
The Rays posted a disappointing 63-99 record in their inaugural season, but they recorded other numbers LaMar was pleased with. Their team earned-run average was 4.35, fourth-best in the AL. Their bullpen was the leagues second-best. So was their ERA in games away from Tropicana Field. Defensively, they ranked second-best in the league, allowing the third-fewest number of runs (751) and making the second-fewest errors (94). And they did it all for the relatively reasonable sum of $26-million.
I challenge anyone for $26-million to try to put as competitive a team on the field as you could, to buy enough bats or draft enough bats in the expansion draft to have the offenses that the powerhouses in the American League have, LaMar said.
But with good pitching and good defense, you can beat those teams and take the field every night with the opportunity to beat them. As our payroll increases, you will see our offense hopefully increase, yet well still continue to emphasize pitching and defense.
Eventually, Rothschild said, more American League teams will acknowledge the value of such an approach, which is more indigenous to National League clubs. It just so happens that approach is best for the Rays.
The thing thats portrayed in the press is that with pitching and defense were trying to be a National League club in the American League. Were not, LaMar said.
You just cant go out and buy the bats with the money we now have and compete with the Yankees and the Clevelands and whoever. But throw a well-pitched game and you can beat anybody.
Paul Sorrento knows what LaMar is talking about. He has lived it. Twice.
We all know that pitching and defense is what wins it, Sorrento said. So if you can kind of get that part of it down, where you have pitching and defense that youre happy with, you can always add good hitters.
Good pitching always beats good hitting. It always comes down to it in the playoffs. You see it every year. I saw it firsthand in Seattle and Cleveland. I think thats the way to do it.
During 17 seasons in the American League, Wade Boggs has seen it work both ways. Eventually, he says, the Rays will need a combination of the approaches. But for now, theirs seems to be okay.
Were only a year old; were not 10 years down the road trying to figure out what combination works, Boggs said. If youre going to build a pitching staff, build it. And then go out and get a couple hitters.
The Rays philosophy can accomplish that, too, Rothschild said: Even if you get in the middle of this and see the American League is different, you can trade a pitcher for a power hitter.
The Rays think they are off to a good start.
Our focus needs to improve, Williams said. Our intensity in our warmups and in our preparation for our innings needs to improve. I read somewhere that 130-something of our starts were made by guys with two years experience or less. Theres no way we could have reached our peak already.
The Rays would like to think young pitchers such as Saunders, Esteban Yan, Albie Lopez and Jim Mecir will get better. Theyd like to think Arrojo will improve. Theyd like to assume veterans such as Alvarez and Hernandez cant struggle as much as they did in 1998. Theyd like to figure that prospects such as White and Seay, plus Ryan Rupe and Travis Harper, will be ready to help soon.
Weve got a long way to go to reach our potential, Williams said. But were certainly on the right track.