Heading into the 2018 season, one of the hottest topics in baseball was how the Angels would use Shohei Ohtani. Would he pitch on a normal five day schedule? How often would they use him at DH? Could he see any time in the outfield? Most importantly, could he possibly be good at both hitting and pitching simultaneously while staying healthy?
The Angels provided what appears to be a successful blueprint for two-way player usage by starting Ohtani on the mound about once per week (similar to how pitchers are used in Japan), using him at DH about three times in between starts, but not at all in the outfield. Ohtani answered the final question himself: yes, he’s awesome at both, but no, he couldn’t stay healthy.
Once the season got going and the Ohtani questions were mostly answered, the Rays started a new hot discussion topic with their unorthodox pitching strategy. They’ve got openers who pitch one inning at the start of a game, multi-inning relievers (I prefer the Doug Thorburn/Russell Carleton term “OTTO” which stands for “one time through the order”), and a few traditional starters.
Ohtani’s usage and the Rays pitching philosophy don’t appear to be related—yet. However, the prospect junkies of the internet would like to introduce you to Tampa Bay farmhand Brendan McKay, the fourth overall pick in the 2017 draft. McKay starred as a left-handed pitcher and first baseman at the University of Louisville, and the Rays are developing him as a two-way player. Currently, he’s the 29th overall prospect in baseball according to MLB Pipeline.
McKay has produced mixed results so far. His pitching line is outstanding: through 94 1⁄3 innings, he’s allowed just 2.39 runs per nine innings with a 6.72 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His bating line is .225/.365/.373, which is obviously less than stellar in the low minors, but he does walk a lot and there’s some inert power as well.
Before analyzing how the Rays could use McKay with their new pitching strategy, we’ll need to make a few reasonable assumptions.
- McKay will reach the major leagues as a two-way player. He’s certainly doing much better as a pitcher than as a hitter so far, and he’s yet to reach Double-A. If his offense doesn’t come around, they could just ask him to focus on pitching. It’s likely that such a highly drafted, well-regarded prospect gets to the majors in some capacity, but obviously there’s not much precedent for two-way players.
- The Rays will continue using a combination of openers, OTTOs, and other unconventional pitching roles. Results are promising; they’re seventh in baseball with a 3.86 FIP despite having no big names other than Blake Snell (and half a season of Chris Archer). Their pitching is the major reason why they’re over .500 despite the second lowest payroll in baseball.
If we can fast forward a year or two and both of these assumptions hold true, the Rays will have a fun question to answer: if all the traditional rules about pitching have been thrown out of the window, what kind of role will McKay have? Here are a few possibilities.
Traditional Late Inning Reliever
The most boring option might actually make the most sense. The Rays do have a cadre of relievers who just pitch in the late innings, such as Jose Alvarado and Chaz Roe. This would be appealing for McKay for a few reasons. First of all, it limits his innings to 50-60 per season. A lighter pitching workload is important if he’s also going to hit and possibly play first base. Secondly, it works pretty well for game strategy. If he starts a game at DH, he could warm up in the bullpen after his third or fourth plate appearance, then come in to pitch for an inning. This would require the team to burn the DH, but if it’s late in the game that won’t matter often. Finally, it would be a lot of fun to see a player start as a batter and come in as a reliever in the same game. Fun might not matter for the Rays, but it does for the baseball consuming public.
On a day-to-day basis, he could pitch regularly, throwing an inning every third game or so. In between, he could take a day off and have a game at just first base or DH. This should allow him to accumulate maybe 400 plate appearances. There could also be plenty of games in which he pitches as a reliever but doesn’t start at all as a batter, depending on fatigue.
This works similarly to the late inning relief role, but in reverse. If he starts the game and comes out after one inning, he wouldn’t be able to bat. However, if he pitches the first inning and then moves to first base for the rest of the game, you could get his bat in the lineup, but this takes away the DH. It also eliminates a possible pinch hitter when Jake Bauers or some other first basemen is removed after just one inning (unless they want to get really weird and use a different pitcher at first base).
Using McKay as an opener would appropriately limit his innings. He could open for the Rays no more than once every three days, while resting and playing first base/DH in between. Strategically, it just doesn’t make the most sense though. With modern roster construction requiring either 12 or 13 pitchers, it’s dangerous to burn a position player in the second inning.
This strategy would get McKay the most innings. Given that he’s currently more advanced as a pitcher than a hitter, perhaps this is the way to go. Every four or five days, he’d throw three innings, give or take. He could do this either at the start of the game or in the middle innings, possibly following a single-inning opener. Most likely, he wouldn’t be able to hit at all on days that he pitches multiple innings. He would also rest at least once in between pitching days, while also mixing in time at first base/DH. This is the most similar to the Ohtani template, but without as many innings per start and fewer days between pitching appearances.
By the time McKay reaches the majors, the Rays could have developed some even crazier pitching strategy. Maybe they’ll use one pitcher at the beginning of at bats, then bring in someone else with two strikes or behind in the count. The two pitchers could switch off between pitching and left field several times throughout the game. (Wouldn’t that be fun on your scorecard?) Perhaps there’s some other bizarre idea being tossed around the Tampa Bay think tank that throws everything into chaos.
For all we know, roster rules could even change by then. Perhaps MLB will allow for a 26th player, ban shifts, or write rules preventing an opener from starting games too often. Any of these things might impact McKay’s usage. No matter what happens, as the Rays pioneer new ways to manage a pitching staff, they’ll have to consider what to do with their most fascinating prospect.