Rotation, rotation, rotation

The Tampa Bay Rays have clinched a winning record for the first time in their history. Since they’ve been winning all year, the story line should evolve. The “can you believe these guys are in first?” tack has to change to “how do they survive in October?”

We all know any team can win in a short series. It’s a crapshoot, as the cliche goes. Heck, just last week the Washington Nationals took three in a row from the L.A. Dodgers—the same Dodgers who are trying to pass the Diamondbacks and move into first place in the NL West. If the Nationals can string together three solid games against a contender, anything can happen, right?

We also know that one key to winning a short series is the starting pitching. That’s where the pressure usually falls in October. Just ask the 2006 Cardinals how important quality starting pitching is in a short series.

With that in mind, how do the Rays’ top three starters look as they position themselves for the stretch run and the strong possibility of postseason play? Here’s how they’re getting it done.

Scott Kazmir

      Year        IP         H       K/9      BB/9       ERA      xFIP       DER       LD%
      2006     144.2       132     10.14      3.24      3.24      3.68     0.690      18.9
      2007     206.2       196     10.41      3.88      3.48      3.91     0.667      15.6
      2008     126.1       100      9.97      3.92      3.13      3.99     0.729      21.0

Hearts up and down the Gulf Coast skipped a collective beat last March when it was announced Kazmir would miss the beginning of the season with a strained elbow. Ever since the Rays basically stole him from the Mets, expectations have been sky high in Tampa and his performance the previous three seasons only served to elevate his status. He was the staff’s undisputed ace and was due to be the Rays’ Opening Day starter.

Those fears of lingering elbow issues were quickly allayed. In his first eight starts, he pitched 51.2 innings with a 1.74 ERA while limiting opposing batters to a .187 average and a walk rate of 2.78 BB/9. It was a great stretch that saw the Rays win six of those eight starts.

As Kazmir has accumulated innings, his strikeout rate of 9.97 K/9 is a touch below his career high 10.41 of last year, but not enough to raise any eyebrows. The same can be said about his walk rate. Last year he was surrendering 3.88 free passes per nine innings. This season, his walk rate is 3.92 BB/9.

But as R.J. Anderson at Beyond the Boxscore notes, despite the fairly static strikeout and walk rates, Kazmir is throwing more pitches this year. As a result, the length of his average start has fallen below six innings per start (it’s about 5.2, which is down from last year’s 6.1 innings per start). On most teams, turning the ballgame over to the bullpen in the sixth inning is a recipe for disaster. But the Rays’ bullpen owns a 3.40 ERA, second best in the AL. While Kazmir’s sometimes inefficient ways are a cause for concern, the front office has constructed a reliable relief corps that can provide plenty of coverage. As we all know, though, the most successful pitchers are usually the most efficient.

Unfortunately, the trend has worsened. In his last 14 starts, he’s averaged 5.1 innings and 103 pitches. The strain shows in his statistics: a 4.10 ERA, 4.7 BB/9 and 1.41 WHIP in those starts. All numbers are well above his seasonal averages. The control issues are troubling. Perhaps the discomfort he was feeling in the spring in his elbow has returned.

Also interesting to note about Kazmir is that for much of his career, he has thrown roughly the same number of ground balls and fly balls. Here are his GB/FB ratios since his first full season in the majors:

2005: 1.11
2006: 1.07
2007: 1.04
2008: 0.65

Wow. He’s certainly getting different results this season.

Obviously, a byproduct of an increase of fly balls is an increase in home runs. With a career rate of 0.8 HR/9, Kazmir has been largely adept at avoiding the long ball. But this year, with more fly balls, his rate has crept to 1.00 HR/9, which would be a career high. More home runs are never a good thing, but given the extreme number of fly balls opponents are hitting against Kazmir, the small increase isn’t too alarming.

More fly balls also put more pressure on the outfield defense, and Kazmir is fortunate that Tampa’s outfield is among the best. Before he dislocated his knuckle, left fielder Carl Crawford was the league leader in Revised Zone Rating at .910 and was also the leader with 47 plays made out of his zone (OOZ). In center, B.J. Upton is in the middle of the pack with a .924 RZR and is third among regulars OOZ with 78 plays made out of his zone. Because the Rays jettisoned Elijah Dukes and Delmon Young, who both logged time in center field, the position has become Upton’s and Upton’s alone—he’s played 93 percent of Tampa Bay’s innings in center. And that’s a good thing considering neither Dukes (.830 RZR in ’07) nor Young (.841 RZR in ’07) fielded his position particularly well last year.

Gabe Gross, who after arriving from Milwaukee in an early season deal, has logged the most time in right is having a fine year defensively as well. His RZR of .935 would rank him second at his position if he had the innings to qualify. With a OOZ of 24, he doesn’t have the exceptional range that Crawford and Upton possess, but with a solid Revised Zone Rating, he gets to most of the balls he’s supposed to.

However, the Crawford injury looks to hurt Tampa (and specifically Kazmir) more on the defensive side of the coin. With Crawford sidelined, most of the left field time has gone to Eric Hinske, whose RZR of .828 is more than 80 points lower. That’s a significant downgrade.

James Shields

      Year        IP         H       K/9      BB/9       ERA      xFIP       DER       LD%
      2006     124.2       141      7.51      2.74      4.84      4.13     0.672      23.3
      2007       215       202       7.7      1.51      3.85      3.91     0.718      16.3
      2008     184.2       181      6.82      1.71      3.66      4.02     0.707      16.5

If Kazmir is the Rays’ No. 1 starter, Shields has emerged as 1-A. Now in his third year and with 80 starts under his belt, Shields has improved each year in the majors.

Shields doesn’t bring the same kind of power, but his strikeout rate is a respectable 6.8 K/9. Like Kazmir this season, his rate has tumbled off his career high 7.7 K/9 he set last year. But while Kazmir has struggled with the walks and elevated pitch counts this season, with a 1.7 BB/9 Shields’ calling card is pinpoint control. He’s walked more than three batters in a start only three times all year, a number Kazmir has surpassed in 12 of his 22 starts.

Shields features a fastball in the low 90s and a change-up that clocks in the lower 80s with some nice sinking action. It’s proven to be an effective combination. While batters are able to make contact against him, Shields’ 16 percent line drive rate is testament that it’s difficult to make solid contact. Opponents are batting just .256 against him this year.

He’s on target to set career highs in starts (he’s made 28 this year after going 31 times in 2007) and at 184.2 innings pitched, he will come close to last year’s total of 215 innings. Despite the workload, Shields has remained strong down the stretch. In 62.1 innings over nine starts since the All-Star break he has a 3.32 ERA with a strikeout rate of 5.8 K/9 and a walk rate of 1.9 BB/9.

On closer examination of Shields’ peripherals, we can see he’s performing almost exactly to expectations: At 3.82 his FIP is just a shade higher than his actual ERA. With his great control, he’s a great bet to maintain his rates.

Matt Garza

      Year        IP         H       K/9      BB/9       ERA      xFIP       DER       LD%
      2006        50        62      6.84      4.14      5.76      5.26     0.661      24.6
      2007        83        96      7.27      3.47      3.69      4.52     0.656      14.6
      2008       163       149      6.18      2.82      3.64       4.5     0.728      17.8

The third member of the pitching triumverate, Garza was the final piece to fall into place, acquired as part of a six-player trade with the Minnesota Twins last November. (Young was the key player going the other direction.) Slotted into the rotation as the No. 3 starter, he took awhile to get moving. Through his first seven starts, he had a 4.86 ERA, 16 walks and 15 strikeouts in 37 innings.

It turns out Garza was relying too much on his fastball and neglecting his off-speed pitches. And with an early walk rate of 3.9 BB/9, his location was betraying him. As DRaysBay pointed out, he was throwing strikes roughly 59 percent of the time, which isn’t enough to survive.

In his 19 starts since then, he’s found his rhythm. He still leans heavily on his fastball, throwing it 65 percent of the time. (Why not? It averages 94 mph.) But he’s throwing more curves at this point, especially to left-handed batters with devastating results.

Even better, he’s throwing strikes roughly 65 percent of the time, a rate much more conducive to success. The improvements have been noticeable, including a one-hitter in late June against the Marlins.

The proof is in the pudding as they say, and Garza’s performance during that time frame speaks volumes. Over his last 126 innings, he has a 3.29 ERA and 97 strikeouts against 35 walks while holding opponents to a .231 batting average. Just like Kazmir and Shields, he has the ability to carry his team through some lean offensive times.

Although his strikeouts are down and his line drive percentage is up, with Tampa’s exceptional defense behind him, Garza has managed to keep his ERA at 3.64. But note that the gap between his ERA and his xFIP is the largest of the three starters profiled here. And with just 296 major league innings spread over three seasons, he has the least experience of Tampa’s top three. Of this rotation, Garza is the most likely to struggle down the stretch.

Concluding thoughts

Quality starting pitching has gotten Tampa to this point. The Rays’ starters have a 3.85 ERA, the best in the league. As a rotation, they strike out 6.5 batters per nine innings (fourth in the AL) and have a K/BB ratio of 2.35 (fifth best).

If Kazmir can recapture some of the dominance he flashed in his first eight starts of the season, his early-season injury could be a blessing in disguise. He’s had a history of shoulder issues (he missed most of the final two months of 2006 with shoulder inflammation) and last year he set a career high with 206.2 innings pitched. This year, by not making a start until May 3, he’ll finish September with around 165 innings. Better to still have gas in the tank in October than burning it all up before the All-Star break.

Shields is rock-solid with both the stamina and control to lead this staff. No worries there.

The Tampa front office came up huge with the Garza deal, not only improving the rotation but, by subtraction, the outfield defense as well. Of the three starters, Garza has been the most inconsistent. He’s capable of dominating starts where he shuts out the opposition into the seventh or eighth inning, and is just as likely to surrender four runs over five innings.

However, with Kazmir’s recent struggles, he becomes the key to the depth of the rotation. If he can’t get out of the fifth inning, Tampa’s stay in the postseason could be short. On the other hand, if he can rediscover his early season form over his last several starts of the regular season and begins to pitch efficiently, the front three of this rotation will have Tampa in position to be a force in October.

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