The Tampa Bay Rays are off to their best start in franchise history with an impressive 36-15 record. Their success can be attributed to a combination of analytics, youthful talent, efficient spending, and perhaps some mysterious baseball sorcery that defies explanation.
Although they may have cooled down slightly from an initial 13-0 start, the Rays remain the team to beat in the highly competitive AL East division. However, their reign could be challenged soon enough by a looming, familiar foe in a New York Yankees team ready to retake their title due to an edge they have over the Rays.
As good as the Rays have been, they’re not void of weakness. And right now, they have a glaring one: the bullpen.
Going back to Tuesday’s game against the Blue Jays, the Rays gave up a staggering 20 runs, with 16 of them coming from three relievers and two position players in five innings. Thus far, it was the most lopsided loss of the year for the Rays, potentially telling of how this could be an issue as the season moves forward.
The Rays have also let too many leads slip away, too many games get closer than they should be and have had to rely on their offense to bail them out too many times. They have a total of nine blown saves for the season, the ninth worst in the league.
Between injuries – including losing Garrett Cleavinger for the season with a knee issue – and inconsistent performances, this isn’t the bullpen the Rays expected to have.
Any baseball enthusiast knows that when it comes to surviving a 162-game season, your team is going to need a strong bullpen. It’s what makes a good team a great team and a bad team worse. There’s only so long that a good offense like the Rays have can keep a team out of trouble.
To endure a long grueling season, a team has to make outs late in games. Moreover, a good bullpen is what separates the teams the most when it comes to producing in October.
The Yankees live on two things: the bat of Aaron Judge and their stellar bullpen. But hey, it works. It’s the formula they lived on last year and they’re doing much the same this year.
Last year, the Yankees ended their regular season with one of the top bullpens in the majors. They finished seventh in saves and third in ERA at 2.97. Much is the same this year as they’re fifth in the majors in saves with 15 and hold the league’s best in ERA at 2.94.
Besides having a bigger checkbook, this is the edge the Yankees have over the Rays. It’s how they’re likely to take back the AL East at some point this season if the Rays can’t fix their staggering bullpen issues.
Here’s a comparison of the two bullpens currently:
4.52 ERA (6th worst)
219 IP (1st)
5.64 FIP (second behind only the Oakland Athletics)
6.82 K/9 (last) -1.64 Winning Percentage Average (25th)
1.31 WHIP (12th)
2.94 ERA (1st)
199 IP (4th) 3.84 FIP
9.18 K/9 (22nd)
2.39 Winning Percentage Average (4th)
1.23 WHIP (23rd)
What the Rays have been doing in a division brimming with talent has been impressive, especially with the injury bug that’s bit them over the month of May and before. A majority of those are some of their best starting pitchers, with others in their relief.
Here’s a list of all the Rays pitching injuries currently:
Tyler Glasnow – SP
Zack Littell – RP
Drew Rasmussen – SP
Garrett Cleavinger – RP
Shawn Armstrong – RP
Shane Baz – SP
Andrew Kittredge – RP
With that amount of talent being lost, it becomes taxing on a ball club, in particular a bullpen. The Rays are known for their analytical prowess, putting their players in the best positions to succeed, but eventually exhaustion is bound to happen. There are only so many bullpen games this team can go through before either more injuries happen and guys’ arms are worn out.
The good news is that Glasnow is expected back any day now, which should severely help the starting rotation and minimize the number of bullpen games. However, that still doesn’t fully solve the lingering issue. If the Rays want to stay ahead in the division, win it outright, and hold off the Yankees—or anyone else in the division for that matter—finding some fresh arms will be a necessity.
The bad news is that the Yankees, even with injuries to their bullpen, have been thriving. Five of their best arms on are the IL (Scott Effross, Lou Trevino, Tommy Kahnle, Jonathan Loaisiga, Ian Hamilton). That leaves the club with no set closer or regular reliever.
Yet, they continue to excel and have the league’s best ERA. Couple their strong performances with the contributions of key players like Aaron Judge, Anthony Rizzo, and Gerrit Cole, and the Yankees will be nipping on the Rays heels in no time for the AL East crown.
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