Next year, the Rays will acquire a pitcher with quality stuff and control issues. Shortly thereafter, he will start throwing more strikes.
I’m not clairvoyant, but you don’t have to be to make this prediction. The Rays have fixed pitchers’ control issues so often that it’s a safe bet they’ll do it again. Different teams have different strengths and weaknesses.
The Guardians know how to turn college strike-throwers into fire-breathing dragons without sacrificing any command or control. The Dodgers and Astros expertly help hitters blend power and contact.
The Rays find ways to help improve the volume and quality of pitchers’ strikes. The examples are simply too numerous to ignore.
When the Rays acquired righthander Drew Rasmussen from the Brewers in 2021, he was a hard-throwing reliever with scattershot control. In 32.1 innings for Milwaukee in 2020 and 2021 he had walked 21 batters.
After the trade, the 25-year-old Rasmussen walked 13 batters in 59 innings with the Rays. This year, he moved into Tampa Bay’s rotation, made 28 starts and cut his walk rate to 1.9 per nine innings.
Reliever Jason Adam had walked 4.5 batters per nine during his first four seasons in the majors. In his first year with the Rays in 2022, the 31-year-old’s walk rate dropped to 2.4 per nine, and he blossomed into a relief ace.
Lefthander Jeffrey Springs walked 4.7 per nine innings in three major league seasons before the Rays acquired him. Since then, he’s cut that mark in half.
When he was an amateur, lefthander Shane McClanahan’s control issues led the industry to believe he was likely a reliever. He walked 5.7 per nine innings during his draft year at South Florida. In 2022 he walked 2.1 per nine.
Tyler Glasnow walked 5.8 per nine innings as a Pirate. That rate is 2.8 with the Rays. It didn’t take the Rays long to fix him, either. When the Rays acquired Glasnow in 2018, he had walked 14% of batters. With the Rays that season, he walked 8%.
Righthander Shane Baz seemed like Nuke LaLoosh as a Pirates prospect. With Tampa Bay, he showed above-average control prior to having Tommy John surgery this summer.
There’s a clear organizational philosophy in play. In the minor leagues this year, Rays full-season pitchers walked 3.57 batters per nine innings. That was the second-best rate in the minors, but it was actually a pretty big step back for the Rays.
In 2021, Rays pitchers walked 3.0 per nine, while the No. 2 organization, the Red Sox, was far behind at 3.485.
In the major leagues in 2022, the Rays led MLB with 2.4 walks per nine innings. In 2021, they were second in the majors and first in the American League with 2.7.
It’s impossible to pinpoint one thing that makes the Rays the magicians of fixing pitchers’ control. Pitching is too complicated to have any one simple answer.
There is an overriding theme, however. The Rays try to simplify what they ask pitchers to do. Often, they ask their catchers to simply set their target within the strike zone. They ask pitchers to throw to the big part of the plate and trust the movement on their pitches to ensure they don’t actually end up throwing a meatball over the heart of the plate.
“The Rays have a philosophy to throw to the big part of the plate, and nine times out of 10 it’s never going to be middle-middle,” Rays prospect righthander Taj Bradley said.
“So just think to throw to the big part of the plate. Your strike percentages can go up, and a lot of the time it won’t be middle-middle. I mean, I took that and ran with it.”
Glasnow’s trade in 2018 is a perfect example of the Rays making an immediate transformation. When the Pirates traded Glasnow, he was viewed as a pitcher who couldn’t make the transition from minor league success to major league stardom.
He made an appearance for the Pirates on July 26 and one for the Rays on Aug. 1. There was no time to rework his delivery or make any major changes to how Glasnow pitched. All the Rays had time to do was to give him a bigger target. When Glasnow was a Pirate, in early counts he was often asked to try to hit a target at the bottom corner of the strike zone.
Check out the catcher’s target on Glasnow’s first 0-0 pitch in his July 26 appearance.
And here’s the target from the second 0-0 fastball he threw.
And the third.
And the fourth.
You get the point. Glasnow struggled to find the plate, but the Pirates were asking him to dot a corner or at the least stay down at the very bottom of the strike zone. It was beyond his ability, and it often left him behind in counts, while also dealing with the fact that he had failed to execute a pitch as desired.
Here’s Glasnow’s pitch plot from his third to last outing as a Pirate. Notice how often he misses low.
And here’s his brief second-to-last-outing.
And here’s his pitch plot from his final appearance as a Pirates pitcher.
From the first pitch of his first outing as a Ray, Tampa Bay kept it simple. In early counts, the catcher would set his target dead center, or the catcher would set up at the top of the zone dead center.
This isn’t cherry picking one example. Here’s the second batter’s 0-0 count.
And the third.
And the fifth batter (the fourth batter didn’t get an 0-0 fastball).
But the sixth one did get an 0-0 fastball as well.
While Glasnow may not have been able to hit a corner, he could find a way to keep it over the plate. His stuff was good enough that when he did throw strikes, hitters found themselves struggling to square him up.
In his eight July outings as a Pirate, Glasnow threw strikes on 54% of his pitches. He never topped a 62% strike rate. In his first outing as a Ray, seven out of every 10 pitches Glasnow threw were strikes.
In his six August outings with the Rays, Glasnow averaged a 63% strike percentage. He topped 60% in five of six outings and had a 70% strike percentage or better in two others.
Here’s his pitch plot from his first outing as a Ray. Notice how the misses have diminished, and where he missed has also changed. He’s missing high at times, but almost never low. And he missed very rarely inside or outside.
His second outing was similar.
As was his third, although this time, he did miss low a little more often.
In his three seasons as a Pirates major leaguer, Glasnow never had a strike percentage above 59%. In his five seasons with the Rays, he’s never had a strike percentage lower than 63%. Glasnow’s walk rate as a Pirate was roughly double what it’s been as a Ray.
You can find similar examples with Rasmussen and other once-wild, now-tamed Rays pitchers.
Here’s where the Brewers’ catchers set up for Rasmussen on 0-0 fastballs in his final outings as a Brewer. The Brewers were trying to get Rasmussen to dot the glove-side corner of the strike zone.
And here’s where the Rays catcher set up on 0-0 fastballs in his first Rays outing.
Rasmussen went from throwing strikes on 58.9% of his pitches with the Brewers in 2021 to a 67.5% strike percentage with the Rays after his midseason trade. In 2022, Rasmussen settled in full-time in the Rays’ rotation. He kept that strike percentage at 67%. His walk rate in two stints with the Brewers was 5.3 BB/9 in 2020 and 6.4 BB/9 in 2021. As a Ray, it’s been 2.0 in 2021 and 1.9 in 2022.
It’s hard to find many Rays acquisitions who don’t throw more strikes once they become a Ray. There’s certainly more to it than just where the catcher sets up, but asking pitchers to try to hit the plate rather than a small section of the plate can do wonders for helping a pitcher to relax and let their stuff play. And the Rays have consistently reaped the rewards of turning pitchers viewed as control risks into strike-throwers.