While they lack the big names of other bullpens, the Tampa Bay Rays’ relievers had the best ERA in baseball and their 773 combined innings was the most in baseball by a wide margin. The buzz around the opener and their non-traditional bullpen management was the top story most of the season, overshadowing the incredible production this team squeezed out of a group of relievers that many fans outside of Tampa Bay might not have ever heard of (and honestly, they’re probably pretty unknown in Tampa, too).
This article will focus on the “traditional” bullpen pieces, for the sake of convenience, but keep in mind that the Rays aren’t afraid of getting weird at any point in the game. This bullpen is very deep in terms of strikeout upside, and while the closer’s role might be in a bit of flux early on due to the number of options available and lack of an incumbent, there are as many as four relievers with relevance in leagues that count holds (not including whoever wins the closer role).
|Nick Anderson||Diego Castillo||Jose Alvarado||Colin Poche||Chaz Roe||Oliver Drake, Peter Fairbanks, Trevor Richards|
Closer – Nick Anderson
The Rays truly have an eye for bullpen arms, plucking Anderson from the Marlins in a deal in 2019. While his overall numbers are impressive in their own right, the 21.2 innings he pitched for the Rays were downright spectacular. In that small sample, he struck out 52.6% of the batters he faced while walking just 2.6% of them for a 2.11 ERA and a 1.62 FIP. That’s Josh Hader-esque, and any time you can draw that kind of comparison, it’s worth noting.
He relies primarily on a fastball and a 12-to-6 curveball combination, and it might be one of the better arsenals of the bunch (which is saying a lot). Both pitches had a swinging strike rate above 15%, with the curve generating a swing-and-miss rate close to 25%. The hits he gives up are primarily off the fastball, so I wouldn’t at all be opposed if he threw as many or more curves than fastballs in 2020. It’s an electric pitch and hitters weren’t able to do anything with it last season. It’s probably not as awe-inspiring as the slide piece Chaz Roe throws (more on him later), but it’s a pitch worth remembering. The way it falls off the table and the fact he keeps it down in the zone pairs brilliantly with his fastball, which Anderson keeps up in the zone and has really nice rise.
A lot of people will be wondering if Diego Castillo or Jose Alvarado will steal this job from Anderson. The Rays have an embarrassment of riches in the bullpen and have no real need to be patient as they try to make the playoffs again. That said, Nick Anderson was as good as any reliever in the league, finishing second in strikeout rate, third in strikeout to walk ratio, sixth in FIP, and third in SIERA in the full 65 inning sample from 2019. It’s just one season, but we could be looking at an elite closer in Anderson and I strongly recommend taking a leap on him in your drafts.
Setup – Diego Castillo
Castillo is essentially a two-pitch reliever, featuring a sinker that he can throw in the high-90s (touching 100 on occasion) and an electric slider that sits in the high-80s. He throws each pitch roughly half of the time (you’ll see the sinker as a four-seamer when he takes off some of the spin and adds some velocity, but it’s essentially the same pitch) and while both are effective, the slider is the real money maker in his arsenal.
He’s thrown that slider 984 times in the big leagues and it’s been swung on and missed 20.1% of the time. It’s good enough that he can throw it in the zone with regularity (44.9% Zone Rate), and because hitters know he’s willing to throw it in the zone, he can generate plenty of swings at it when it’s outside of the zone (39.3% O-Swing rate). Part of the reason it stands out is its incredible amount of horizontal movement. While its above-average vertical movement makes it drop a bit in the zone, the sweeping horizontal movement makes it somewhat unique.
It has five-and-a-half inches of break away from righties and in towards lefties, which is 49% more than the average slider. Combine that with the fact that it’s one of the hardest sliders in the game (88.7 mph average velocity was 26th among the 472 pitchers with 250 or more pitches) and with the way his sinker moves, it’s a devastating pitch. He did get away from it a bit last season, but I think that had to do with a shoulder injury he had to fight off near mid-season as opposed to a philosophical shift in approach.
Speaking of that sinker, the first thing you’ll notice about it is that it comes in hot. He averaged 98.2 miles per hour on his fastball/sinker, making it a top-10 pitch in terms of velocity across all pitch types. While the horizontal and vertical movements on the pitch don’t stand out (compared to the freakish pitches found in the Rays bullpen), it has really nice arm-side action. These two pitches give Castillo a way to attack hitters on both sides of the plate, as he can throw one of the two pitches in while the other goes out. It makes him fairly impervious to platoon issues and should make him a staple in the back of the bullpen.
One quick note, though—while he did gather eight saves in 2019, he has a career 5.40 ERA in the ninth inning (18.1 innings) and has struggled a bit with the command of that sinker. I’m not sure the Rays would go back to him as a locked-in closer at this point even if the opportunity came up, though stranger things have happened and the loss of Pagan makes the back of the bullpen a little more difficult to read. He operated a bit as an opener for the Rays in 2019 as well, though I don’t think that’s a long-term landing spot for a guy with his skill set.
Setup – Jose Alvarado
Jose Alvarado began 2019 as the closer and had ten consecutive scoreless outings to start the year. Unfortunately, things went immediately south after that as he posted a 6.97 ERA and 23 strikeouts to 23 walks over the next 20.2 innings. He was eventually placed on the IL late in the season for elbow issues, which might be an underlying cause of the degradation of skills we saw.
He’s primarily a sinker-slider guy and prior to 2019 had seen very positive results with both pitches. His sinker actually has a 10.1 swinging strike rate, which is unusually high for a sinker, and his slider has an attention-grabbing 28.7% swinging-strike rate. He throws everything extremely hard, with the sinker touching 101 at times and the slider often sitting in the low-to-mid 90s. When he’s working the way he wants to, he throws that slider down and in at righties and the sinker down and away to righties. The movement and velocity on these pitches make it very difficult for hitters to square him up.
If healthy, Alvarado could find himself locked into this setup role all season and his excellent swing-and-miss stuff could even get him in the closer’s conversation if Anderson were to falter. That said, he’s probably the third option when it comes to saves unless he can show that he’s over the injury that ended his 2019 season.
Middle – Colin Poche
Two words: fastball up. That’s what the lefty Poche does. Almost 90% of the pitches he threw in 2019 were fastballs, and virtually all of them were in the top half of the zone. The pitch has a ton of rise thanks to the insane backspin he puts on it (97.2% active spin was third in baseball behind Justin Verlander and Jordan Hicks) and sits in the mid-to-low 90s. That crazy backspin and rise resulted in a 62.4% fly-ball rate in 2019 and only a 26.1% pull rate. It makes sense—a high fastball that never seems to come down is really hard for hitters to pull and really easy for them to pop into the air.
Poche’s overwhelming reliance on his fastball could be problematic int he future, though, as he currently lacks any type of secondary pitch. Very few pitchers can rely on a single pitch the way Poche does, and Poche’s velocity and command aren’t quite good enough to make me think that he can break the mold. Former Pitcher List writer Michael Augustine wrote a great piece over at FanGraphs on Poche and his need for a second pitch (he suggests a slider), and that type of adjustment could make Poche a lot more interesting. It’s a big thing to look for in the spring.
Poche is extremely reliant on his command and control as a one-pitch and when he loses that, he becomes extremely hittable. In a 10-game stretch starting in July of 2019, he gave up 13 earned runs (and six home runs) in part because he let that fastball sit too low in the zone. Because the pitch has very little drop compared to other fastballs, most fastballs that are low need to be basically out of the zone to be effective. Here’s an illustration of exactly how Poche can be effective with the location of the fastball:
Swings and Misses
As you can see, Poche’s success is hinged upon keeping the fastball up. Despite being one of the few lefties at the back of this bullpen, he’s not a lefty specialist. He’ll mostly be used against hitters vulnerable to the high fastball and/or fly balls, and in that context, Poche can be incredibly effective. The addition of a second pitch, a pitch that could be effectively located in the bottom of the zone, would make him a formidable pitcher. His fantasy relevance is too limited for most leagues, but he’s worth keeping an eye on.
Middle – Chaz Roe
The quintessential slider. The filthy, disgusting, jaw-dropping slider by which all other filthy, disgusting, jaw-dropping sliders are measured. I’ll give you a clip in a moment, but before I do, I want to give some interesting stats about this slider that have nothing to do with real stats. First, in Nick Pollack’s excellent Top 150 Pitches of 2019 video, Chaz Roe’s slider is featured not once, not twice, but ELEVEN times. For reference, Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Jacob DeGrom combined for 12 spots on the list, and no other pitch was mentioned more than six times (Jose Berrios’s curveball).
In fact, Roe’s slider made up nearly 25% of all sliders on that video! One example of his slider is below, and you can see how it starts a bit inside out of his hand and then just seems to run away from right-handed batters down and away.
Despite the absolute mayhem he can create with that slider, Roe’s fantasy value is going to depend entirely on the stats your league counts. If you’re in a league that counts holds, you’re in luck! He is tied for the third-most holds in baseball over the last two seasons (54) and plays for a team that will win plenty of fairly close games and will use plenty of different pitchers in a game.
Also, the strength of the bullpen makes it so that few holds are lost when they’re picked up in the sixth or seventh inning. The Rays picked up 116 holds in 2019, which was more than any other team, meaning there are plenty of holds to go around.
That said, the emergence of more arms to clutter up the bullpen and the new three batter minimum means that there are potential limits to the situations where Roe will be used. For one thing, lefties have hit Roe to the tune of a .281/.392/.479 line over his career, as that slider is less scary when it’s coming from the outside and coming inside.
Also, Roe has been prone to giving up walks in bunches. Managers of contending teams tend to be less than forgiving of such things, which could cause him to be used in fewer high-leverage situations. His 13.5% walk rate in 2019 was a huge spike compared to the 7.9% mark he posted in 2018 and was a full 2.3 points above his career mark of 11.2%.
He did seem to make corrections as the season went on, though, as 15 of his 31 walks were in 16.1 innings from the start of the season through May, and he logged just 16 walks in the next 34.2 innings. That’s far from a spectacular walk rate, but his high strikeout rate can help balance out his above-average walks.
I’m a little concerned overall about how much fantasy utility Roe can carve out with the new rules and continually improving supporting cast, but in leagues that count holds Roe should be a safe bet for more than 15 of them, with the upside to grab over 20 of them if he can keep the walks under control.
Oliver Drake is yet another high strikeout righty in this bullpen, though he does it in a different way than his colleagues. Instead of a slider, Drake relies heavily on a splitter. In fact, only one pitcher with more than 50 innings pitched relied on a splitter more than Drake (Hector Neris). As Nick has mentioned many times, splitters can be a very difficult pitch to utilize consistently, which might partially explain why the Rays are Drake’s seventh team since the start of 2017.
He’s coming off what was by far his best full season, and much of his success was due to his ability to keep his four-seamer up and his splitter down. That combination can lead to a solid ground ball rate as well as an elevated strikeout rate. Of course, because he relies on an inherently inconsistent pitch, he’s probably not going to find his way into a more fantasy-friendly role in this incredibly deep bullpen and is really nothing more than a speculative add for a few strikeouts and maybe a win in an AL-only league where you can’t find anything better to fill a roster spot for a week or two.
Peter Fairbanks is just another fastball-slider guy in this pen. His slider has nice drop and he tunnels well with his fastball, and his upper-90s velocity theoretically makes him an OK reliever. 2019 was a lost season for Fairbanks as he couldn’t find any real results as part of the Rangers or the Rays, even when he was in the minors. You can safely ignore him for fantasy purposes.
Trevor Richards spent most of his season as a middling starter for the Marlins last season but saw much better results in his 23.1 innings in the Tampa Bay bullpen. Usually, you’d expect to see these kinds of bumps in improvement due to velocity increases, but that’s not really what happened. His success was largely just from limiting the walks, though with such a small bullpen sample it’s difficult to determine if it will be something that sticks. From a fantasy perspective, though, there’s not enough upside in Richards to invest in. He’s unlikely to see a lot of holds and he lacks the elite strikeouts or ratios that his teammates have shown to have any real chance at relevance.
There are already a lot of arms in this bullpen, so I can’t really imagine them utilizing a whole lot more than they have. If there is one guy who could carve out a role over someone else, Andrew Kittredge could be that guy. He took a big step forward in strikeout and walk rate in 2019, but he profiles like a lot of the other Rays arms (right-handed with a sinker-slider combination) so it’s hard to envision him standing out over the other more experienced arms, but a 27.6% strikeout rate and a 5.7% walk rate in 49.2 innings is worth mentioning. He also gets a ton of movement on his pitches, and if he can keep the movement without losing control, he should be able to post a sub-4 ERA with solid ratios.
Brent Honeywell Jr. could also be moved to the bullpen (at least temporarily) after two straight years of arm issues. He was a highly-touted prospect a few years ago, so if he’s still sitting on your dynasty roster and you’re not hurting for the space, he could still show something this season.
Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)