The Rays have unquestionably been the best team this year in MLB. The only club above .700, they boast the largest run differential in baseball and lead in a slew of other statistics, from home runs to stolen bases to OPS+. After starting the season 13–0, they’ve continued in about as similar a fashion as any team possibly could.
Yet there’s one clear weak spot here: their bullpen.
This obviously has not been weak enough to prove damning. (Just look at Tampa Bay’s record.) But it’s still notable. That’s partially because it’s curious in the context of the franchise: Past Rays teams have been successful in large part because of the bullpen, demonstrating an ability to make reclamation projects into great relievers, mixing and matching looks from inning to inning with considerable success. But this year? Not quite. As much as the Rays have won this season, they’ve done it largely without counting on their bullpen, which has been lackluster by both league and franchise standards.
Tampa Bay’s 4.56 relief ERA is sixth worst in baseball. Its bullpen generates fewer strikeouts than any other in the league, posting a 17.5% strikeout rate compared to an MLB relief average of 23.9%. On a team where losing has been somewhat of a rarity, the bullpen has been a drag, with a negative win probability added. (Their relief WPA is minus-1.62—on par with the bullpens of the hapless White Sox or Nationals.) It’s an unusually dark spot on an otherwise remarkably good team. So: What gives?
There’s no single obvious culprit here. But there are a few worth unpacking. One is that Tampa Bay asks a lot from its relievers. The Rays were the innovating force behind the rise of the opener a few years back and have continued to make frequent use of bullpen games in one form or another. This can make it somewhat tricky to judge their relief usage stats in a vacuum—there’s no distinguishing innings thrown by a planned bulk guy from those pitched behind a traditional starter. But even just used as a blunt tool, the numbers show they use their relievers much, much more than other teams. Tampa Bay has led MLB in bullpen innings pitched in five of the last six years. (The exception was the pandemic season of 2020.) This year is no different.
The Rays entered Friday leading the majors in relief innings pitched (221 IP), outs recorded per reliever per game (4.0) and pitches per reliever per game (22). This arrangement has served them well in the past when their bullpen has been one of their greatest strengths. But it’s a little more complicated this year. (That the Rays have been able to win so much despite this dynamic is a credit to their incredible offense.) It’s not that leaning on the bullpen so heavily is necessarily a detriment—far from it. It’s just that it can amplify existing problems more quickly than might otherwise be the case. It’s hard to miss, for instance, that Tampa Bay’s relief pitching has been notably shakier in May (6.61 ERA) than it was in March and April (2.97 ERA). Their strategy requires more relievers, which, again, isn’t necessarily a bad thing when a club has the kind of organizational depth this one does, but it can still cause strain. The Rays have joined the A’s as the only clubs to use more than 20 relievers already this year.
Some of that is simple bad luck. While most of the Rays’ high-profile pitching injuries have been to their starters, this bullpen has been a bit snakebitten, too. Andrew Kittredge is still recovering from the Tommy John surgery he underwent last summer. Garrett Cleavinger is likely out for the year with a knee injury. Offseason acquisition Shawn Armstrong has yet to pitch for the Rays due to a neck injury; he was reportedly close to beginning a rehab assignment earlier this month but has no public timetable yet for his return. There have been some bright spots here, to be sure: Pete Fairbanks is back from the forearm injury that cost him the better part of a month and is continuing to show the same dominance he did last year. Colin Poche has been sharp, and Josh Fleming has been generally reliable, despite some command issues. But the overall picture still has been oddly bleak for a team this strong.
Now, the Rays’ bullpen hasn’t needed to be particularly good. (A 137 team OPS+ goes a long way in covering up organizational blemishes.) But it’s hard to imagine that could be the case all year. And something will have to change for them to make the deep postseason run for which they seem otherwise poised.