Kevin Cash Changed Bullpen PlansBen Clemenson October 21, 2020 at 7:00 pm

The Rays made it to the World Series for a lot of reasons, but one of them is indisputably their bullpen, which has given Kevin Cash the flexibility to pull starters whenever he wants and follow them with an unending stream of hard-to-hit relievers. Cash, in turn, has used it masterfully; he’s pushed the right button at seemingly every turn. Last night, I think that might have changed.

In the top of the fifth inning, Tyler Glasnow couldn’t find the zone. He walked the first two batters he faced, allowed two runs (on a fielder’s choice that didn’t get anyone and a single), and generally looked gassed. Cash went to his reserves and brought in Ryan Yarbrough.

That sounds like a reasonable usage choice, but it’s simply not how Yarbrough is deployed most of the time. Here are the particulars of his previous playoff appearances this year:

Ryan Yarbrough, 2020 Playoffs
Game Inning In Outs In Pitches Batters Faced
ALDS G4 2 2 65 21
ALCS G3 1 0 82 21
WS G1 5 1 19 4

Okay, there have only been two of them, but he’s been used as either a starter or a bulk guy in both. He throws a near-starter number of pitches and faces a small sliver of the lineup a third time through. That’s similar to his usage this regular season:

Ryan Yarbrough, 2020 Reg Season
Date Inning In Outs In Pitches Batters Faced
7/25 1 0 69 21
7/30 1 0 87 25
8/5 1 0 82 26
8/10 1 0 77 20
8/15 1 0 51 13
8/21 1 0 97 27
8/28 1 0 79 23
9/8 1 0 70 17
9/15 2 1 86 22
9/20 1 0 100 28
9/26 1 2 35 12

Mostly starts, with a few relief appearances thrown in. It’s not unreasonable that the Rays might want to turn him into more of a reliever in the World Series, the only round of the playoffs with off days, but 19 pitches? Four batters faced? The last time he faced four or fewer batters in the regular season was July 13, 2018. He had two short appearances to only one extended stint in last year’s ALDS, but that was part of a gambit to use a true bullpen game (Diego Castillo drew a start) with Yarbrough handling two innings, then use him as a LOOGY in two other games.

Yarbrough is essentially a starter. We had him penciled in for Game 4 of the World Series, something which would be tricky now; that would be on three days’ rest, and while he only threw 19 pitches, it’s still a disruption to his routine. The Rays still could use him there, but I think that game is now more likely to be a bullpen game with perhaps two innings out of Yarbrough. Glasnow, Snell, and Morton would then each draw two starts to fill out the full complement of seven games.

That plan is reasonable, if different from the Rays’ prior usage of Yarbrough. It could be that the team had already decided they only wanted 30-40 pitches out of him in Game 4, which frees up his usage in earlier games. Though he’s effective as a starter, he’s particularly good against lefties. That’s not a skillset the Rays lack — they also have Josh Fleming, Aaron Loup, Shane McClanahan, and Ryan Sherriff on the roster — but extra lefty relievers against the Dodgers always have their uses.

If that were the only weird part of Cash’s decision to go to Yarbrough, I’d understand it. There’s something much weirder, though: the Rays were already more or less dead in the water when Yarbrough entered. They trailed 4-1 with a runner on third base and less than two out, and they had only four innings to come back from it. Per our win probability model, they had an 8.2% chance of winning the game when he took the mound.

Three runs might not sound like a lot, but teams mostly don’t make up three-run deficits. One of Tampa’s quiet idiosyncrasies is their willingness to concede games like this. Take a look at the relievers the Rays have used when they’re quite unlikely (20% or less) to win this postseason:

Down-and-out Reliever Choices
Game Pitcher Inning W%
ALDS G1 John Curtiss 9 16.50%
ALDS G1 Shane McClanahan 9 0.30%
ALDS G4 Aaron Slegers 7 7.70%
ALCS G4 José Alvarado 7 11.30%
ALCS G4 Aaron Slegers 8 6.10%
ALCS G6 Shane McClanahan 6 13.70%
ALCS G6 José Alvarado 7 1.70%
ALCS G6 Aaron Loup 8 1.10%
ALCS G6 John Curtiss 9 3.40%

There’s really no way around it: these are the relievers the Rays trust least. Alvarado and Slegers didn’t make the World Series roster, McClanahan has barely pitched, and Curtiss is pretty low in the bullpen hierarchy. Have you ever wondered how the Rays run out an endless string of bullpen monsters in every close game? It’s because they never use their best guys when the game is already mostly lost.

This is a change that more teams should make. For all the bellyaching about managing for today and figuring tomorrow out tomorrow, putting good pitchers in when you’re unlikely to win even if they excel is throwing good money after bad. Nick Anderson only has so many bullets per series in his arm; Cash is great at using those bullets when they count.

Maybe Yarbrough somehow counts as one of those bad relievers, but I don’t think so. The Rays have used him to get large swaths of tough opposing lineups out this postseason. They’ve used him for multiple innings in close games with other relievers available. He’s their fourth starter, essentially, which is pretty high up the bullpen pecking order after the starter/reliever translation.

For whatever reason, Cash changed tacks last night. Maybe he considered last night a use-it-or-lose-it situation — if Yarbrough is going to throw, say, 40 pitches in Game 4, he might be unavailable in Games 2 and 3. Maybe the extra off days have widened his ranges for using his best relievers; after all, there’s a day off after tonight’s game, and Anderson, Castillo, and Pete Fairbanks are all available to back Blake Snell. Maybe he isn’t willing to concede any World Series games, even if he was okay with it in earlier rounds.

Whatever the reason, though, the Rays are trying something new. I don’t think it was a great decision — nothing Yarbrough could have done in that situation was likely to matter, and I’d rather toss Aaron Loup in there and keep Yarbrough fresh in case he needs to throw more innings in Game 4. Keep an eye on Cash’s bullpen usage tonight; it’s been incredibly valuable for the Rays this postseason, but it looks like the specifics might be changing.
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