In the last 10 years, no pitching staff in the American League has recorded as many strikeouts as the Tampa Bay Rays. Their pitching coach, for all that time, has been Jim Hickey, who spent two decades as a pitcher and a coach in the minors. When he joined the Houston Astros, in 2004, he saw up close how a rising fastball really looks to a hitter.
Hickey stood in the batter’s box against Roger Clemens. This was at Clemens’ request, a technique he sometimes used in the bullpen. From the box, Hickey could see Clemens hurtling his body straight to the plate, like a race car zooming through the finish line. It seemed as if Clemens simply ran out of arm, the ball exploding from his hand at the last possible instant. The ball, Hickey noticed, somehow stayed true.
“He would turn and burn and boom!” Hickey said the other morning at Rays camp. “He wasn’t sitting out there living at 95, 96 — he could get it up there if he needed to, but he was pitching around 91, and I never saw so many major leaguers take it and walk back to the dugout. Because he had that finish to it — absolutely, positively.
“It was the first time I really was like, ‘Yeah, there’s no question there’s something to that, because 95 times out of 100, that same pitch on that same trajectory is going to be a ball low.’ But his just finished and rode through the strike zone.”
Fastballs don’t really rise, of course. But some fastballs defy gravity a little longer than others, so they seem to rise to the hitter. Those fastballs are not the ones thrown hardest, but the ones that spin the most.
“Hitters refer to it as kind of the invisiball,” Rays right-hander Jake Odorizzi said. “You see it, but you can’t hit it — and it’s just a straight fastball. It’s a good weapon, if you can do it.”
Odorizzi can do it, as can a lot of his teammates. None of the 50 hardest throwers in the majors last season (minimum 50 innings) pitched for Tampa Bay. Yet a Fangraphs study this month showed that the Rays threw more than 60 percent of their four-seam fastballs up in the zone, easily the most in baseball. This continued a trend for a low-payroll franchise well known for seeking every possible edge.
For a while, those edges helped make the Rays one of the best teams in the American League. But after four postseason appearances from 2008 to 2013, the Rays have missed the playoffs three seasons in a row. Their record last season was 68-94; only one team in baseball, the Minnesota Twins, was worse.
“Last year was humbling,” said Chaim Bloom, the Rays’ senior vice president for baseball operations. “We went into the season feeling very good about our group. I think our players did, too. It just didn’t unfold that way. So you take a look at the end of the season, and there are some lessons we learned and some things we thought we needed to address. But at the same time, we thought our talent level was strong and this was a core that had the ability to compete for the postseason.”
Pitching continues to be the Rays’ best hope. Since their last playoff appearance, they have traded a full rotation’s worth of starters, in James Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore and Drew Smyly, who went to Seattle in January for outfielder Mallex Smith. Another deal, though, brought them a top pitching prospect, Jose De Leon, from the Los Angeles Dodgers for second baseman Logan Forsythe, adding depth to a strong group.
“Basically, we just have to pitch to our capability,” starter Chris Archer said. “We have to be Jake Odorizzi, Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Blake Snell — we don’t have to be anything more. We don’t feel like we have to carry this huge burden. Just be ourselves and we’re going to contend.”
Cobb, who had a 2.82 ERA in 2013 and 2014 combined, is back after Tommy John surgery cost him most of the last two years. As a sinkerballer, he still lives down in the zone, an exception on a staff whose fastballs had the fifth-best average spin rate in the majors last season.
But Cobb, now in his 12th season with the organization, has noticed how others are encouraged to pitch up, emboldened by data that shows why. It is part of an evolution in pitching, he said; fastballs once thought to simply be “sneaky” are now classified, objectively, as valuable weapons. In theory, pitchers know how to better tailor their game plans to fit their stuff.
“There’s probably been a lot of guys in our system in the past that might have failed because they just had their own mindset of what their tools are, and using it their own way, like a ‘riseball’ guy trying to live down in the zone when, in reality, he should be throwing it up in the zone and having that change-up down,” Cobb said. “The way you’re taught in baseball is to throw the ball down in the zone, and maybe that was hurting some guys.”
Part of the Rays’ philosophy comes from recognizing hitting trends. More and more home runs are being hit off low pitches while home run rates for high pitches have stayed the same. Homers remain a natural hazard for pitchers who throw high fastballs, but for the Rays, everything else has a good chance to land in the glove of center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, a premier defender who just signed a six-year, $53.5 million contract.
“He changes the game,” Hickey said. “Every day he’s not in center field, it shows up.”
The Rays had a 4.20 ERA last season, slightly above the league average, but improvement seems plausible with a healthy Cobb, better luck for Archer and a full season from Snell, a promising 24-year-old left-hander.
Yet as well as the Rays’ pitchers understand their strengths, and how best to baffle hitters, their success depends on the same factors Hickey has known for decades.
“Nothing’s changed,” he said. “It’s just your ability to measure it, to put a number on it. But nothing’s changed in terms of: You’ve got to work quick; you’ve got to throw strikes; you’ve got to change speeds; you’ve got to beat the hitter to his spot.”
The fun part about the Rays is watching them do that with the trusty invisiball.